Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Yes, the Time Award Makes Sense

Ok, this is that post that I'd been talking about. And, yes, I meant what I said in the title.

Before I begin, though, I'll ask you to take a look at a few sites.

First, this page. Notice the basic characteristics- title at the top, text shot through the middle, links on the side.

Now, look at this page, from a more prominent blogger,Atrios. Pretty much the same thing. It's got more ads, more links, and stuff on both sides, but it's still pretty much the same thing.

No matter how complicated and crazy they get, all blogs pretty much consistently follow this template- links and other folderol surrounding a central column of linked commentary, usually with comments following if you view single stories. (Case in point: this piece on Obama running. Even simple blogs often follow this pattern, though- go look at individual entries on Jason Cherniak's blog; they're functionally identical to Kos, in that comments follow individual articles.)

Now, look at this one: it belongs to writer James Wolcott. It follows the same pattern as all the sites above. Thing is, whereas I'm just an anonymous blogger--albeit a long-lived one by the standards of the form--James is a well respected commentator, reviewer, and author. Lots of them have blogs now.

Now, look at this Globe and Mail piece. It's an Associated Press article on Obama. Notice something? It looks pretty much the same as all the others. Title at top, column of text, links to the side, trailing comments.

Finally, look at this. It's an opinion piece on Canadian PM Stephen Harper by noted columnist Jeffrey Simpson. It's also hidden behind a subscriber wall, but if you use the dodge that most people use to get past that wall, it's identical to all the other entries, too.

So, to paraphrase an old line, are "we all bloggers now"? No. Bloggers aren't reporters. Most don't even pay attention to politics, but just write about what interests them. That obscures the truth:

We are all columnists now.

Remove the paper version and the useless subscription wall, and there is no real, functional difference between, say, Digby and Jeffrey Simpson. None. Both write 500-600 word articles about the issues of the day, as a column down the middle of the screen, with links and whatnot on the sides, and comments following. The only difference is the title, and an editor, neither of which matters to readers. That doesn't mean bloggers are reporters, as most don't go out there and seek out stories, and when they do there is no pretension of objectivity whatsoever. They state their minds, and opine on what they've discovered. They're columnists, just like Jeffrey.

(They're also not "fact checkers", as the denizens of the right seem to fantasize. That's just an artifact of their inability to demonstrate any worth as commentators, so they obsess over things like typeface.)

That's why people like George Will were so vehement in opposng the Time award. The greatest problem facing the United States is "acceptable opinion". It is that "acceptable opinion" that got the United States into Iraq, that leads to bad law and worse policy, that gave the President carte blanche to do what he pleased. While people don't vote based on opinion journalism, they DO vote based on the prevailing perceptions of issues, and those filter down from the elite discourse, in which opinion journalists are key participants and loud voices. People listen to them.

Thing is, they listen because of the relative scarcity and worth of their position. Not anybody can get into the pages of the New York Times, or the Washington Post. You open up that paper, and see those names there, and there's respect involved in that. They got there, in turn, by playing the game, saying the right things, knowing the right people. It didn't matter whether you were right or not on the facts, or in your predictions. You just had to be a player of the game.

Now, though, people are getting their news and opinions online. To someone online, everything looks the same, reads the same, and is worth the same consideration. Thomas Friedman et al aren't such fantastic writers that they can win this on merit, either; the Iraq war was proof positive of that. They know it, too; George Will is no great shakes as a writer when compared to any number of other Internet-specific writers, which might explain his vehement opposition. None of these internet "blogger" types paid their dues, and went to the right parties, and said the right things, and met the right people. They just write, and write, and write some more. How DARE they presume so? How DARE people pretend that they're in any way equivalent?

Of course, the columnist had one refuge where the lowly blogger couldn't go: Television, the great de-equalizer. Unfortunately, as we've seen with the gaming thing, even that's out the window. In a world where anybody can have a roundtable discussion using cheap recording equipment, why only pay attention to the ones that end up on Sunday mornings talk shows? What's the difference between one talking head and another on Youtube? Why pay attention to George Will instead of, say, Markos Moulitsas?

Sure, reporters are still necessary, especially the investigative variety. Bloggers, Vloggers, whatever; they probably aren't going to do that. That's not where the threat is. The threat is to the opinion writers. They're just not valuable any more.

(The same thing is happening outside the political arena, by the way- a good Myspace profile is worth a dozen Rolling Stone writeups.)

That's why I think the Time award makes sense. It isn't about those cute little videos on Youtube, or about journalism, but about this levelling and homogenizing effect. It's about people, especially young people, not even really noticing a difference between a random blogger and an "opinion-maker", because it looks pretty much the same at the end of the day. It's about how it's totally inconsequential whether or not you play the game, and what Washington thinks of you. It's about how even TV is no longer a refuge for the "Right Thinkers", thanks to the democratization of video. To a certain extent, it's even about Marshall McLuhan, because he would have predicted that the carefully built up status of opinion writers would start eroding when brought to a new and very different medium.

Most importantly, though, it's about how people like George Will aren't worth as much as they used to: less and less each day. And a world, perhaps not too far away, where people like him don't get to pick and choose what's an "acceptable" opinion.

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