Online Uprising  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2002

Online Uprising   

Many in the mainstream media dismiss the screeds of bloggers--people who post their views on their own Web logs--as so much blather. But to this Los Angeles writer, these maverick sites are well worth exploring.

By Catherine Seipp
Catherine Seipp is a Los Angeles-based writer and a longtime observer of the local media scene.     


Full disclosure: I like bloggers. This is partly because my life as a freelance writer makes me naturally sympathetic to their independence of media institutions, partly because I find the bloggers' (short for Web loggers) endless links and commentary about stories in papers I wouldn't ordinarily see quite useful, and partly because my own political bent (hawkish, impatient with P.C. hand-wringing) jibes with that of Bloggerville. Plus, bloggers sometimes link to my articles, which is how I first discovered the whole phenomenon. I reveal all this not out of the usual writerly egomania but in the spirit of bloggerly frankness.

Traditional media, so often card-carrying members of the can-dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it club, can be hostile to bloggers. This is particularly true when the liberal-minded writers react to the mostly right-of-center bloggers. There are those who prefer to keep the door shut and the blinds drawn, which can make the room so dim they can't even see their own biases. "It is not as if responsible blogging is impossible," The Nation's Eric Alterman complained in an April column criticizing conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan while praising the blogs of liberals Josh Marshall and Mickey Kaus. (Although, as Kaus noted at a UCLA bloggers' panel in March, "If I'm a left-wing blogger, the left is in real trouble.")

Notice how Alterman neatly redefined the word "responsible" to mean "people who are closer to my side of the political spectrum." He unwittingly embroidered the point later by protesting to InstaPundit, the Grand Central Station of Bloggerville: "I think Andrew Sullivan's blogging is a bad idea, just as I think most things Andrew does are a bad idea."

In March, The American Prospect's Natasha Berger worried about "the serious problem of quality control in the increasingly powerful blogging world," which she also complained is "editor-free." Big-government fans like The American Prospect and The Nation seem to imagine that blogs, which are by definition creatures of the free market, ought to be pre-approved by some sort of official bureaucracy. The tongue-clucking reminds me of the teacher's pet who was always raising her hand to protest, "Miss Jones! Miss Jones! Johnnie's reading ahead again! Unsupervised!"

In general, "blog" used to mean a personal online diary, typically concerned with boyfriend problems or techie news. But after September 11, a slew of new or refocused media junkie/political sites reshaped the entire Internet media landscape. Blog now refers to a Web journal that comments on the news--often by criticizing the media and usually in rudely clever tones--with links to stories that back up the commentary with evidence. "Bloggers became Internet sherpas--experienced guides to all the information and wackiness out there," Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, wrote in a February Sunday Times of London piece called "A Blogger Manifesto."

And as Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason, said on her site, "After the attacks, people wanted very much to know what other Americans--and people around the world--were thinking and feeling, and blogs provided a vehicle for hearing from people you felt some connection to."

Within a few months, the blogging revolution rendered obsolete Mark Twain's famous crack about never arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel--and that goes for the man who buys bandwidth by the barrel, too. Who needs Slate or Salon when bloggers offer equally fine writing and more diverse viewpoints? Blogging, as Sullivan put it, "means the universe of permissible opinions will expand, unconstrained by the prejudices, tastes or interests of the old-media elite."

But just who reads blogs? It's not in the nature of the medium to commission demographic surveys, but I've noticed that lawyers, scientists and (naturally) media types seem particularly common visitors. Los Angeles blogger Matt Welch describes as his most avid readers "a gay conservative bed & breakfast owner; a retired Republican cop in Pomona; a Naderite expatriate in New Zealand; a liberal literature professor fed up with campus radicalism; a music freak from Minnesota; a thoughtful and pessimistic lefty housewife in Nebraska; a pissed-off quadrilingual Czech-born grad student in Berkeley; a top editor at a major science-fiction publishing house...these people are supposed to have nothing in common, according to the old politics."

The craze is so huge that now there are even parody blogs. "Praise Allah that my blog got a big-time link from InstaPundit," gloated the Osama's Bin Bloggin blog in March.

As has been the case with many Internet endeavors, there is tension between those who have signed on to the blogging life and those old-media types who have not. Bloggers see the traditional media as The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz manipulated by a snake-oil salesman behind a curtain. Blogs pull aside that curtain, pointing out logical flaws, incorrect facts and occasionally the self-important approach of the reporter who wrote the "obligatory old-media putdown piece," as InstaPundit's Glenn Reynolds says.

Reynolds, a University of Tennessee constitutional law professor, was an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer before he started his blog, InstaPundit.com, last August. He sees blogs as the letter genre's huge, mutated offspring. "The format is: This article says this. Here is the fatal flaw in that approach. Here is why the author of that article is wrong, and I am right," he told the UCLA audience at the panel on blogs in March.

Bloggers have their own set of biases, of course. They make mistakes, and God knows you need a pretty optimistic sense of your own importance to set up a Web site that's basically a never-ending letter to the editor. But blogging's great advantage is that mistakes are immediately and prominently corrected. When old media take on bloggers, bloggers tend to score more points.

Case in point: Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam's attempted takedown of bloggers in April. Following a link on libertarian blogger Virginia Postrel's site (Dynamist.com), Beam found what he thought was a good example of "bizarre" blogging in Norwegian blogger Bjørn Staerk's (www.bearstrong.net) "left-wing raving." Unfortunately, free-marketeer Staerk's left-wing raving that day was a pretty obvious (at least to bloggers) April Fools' joke, complete with a link to a North Korean press agency. As Postrel explained somewhat wearily on her own blog later, "Hint to Alex: When a well-known libertarian links to a site, noting rather strongly that the date is April 1, and when that site appears to be Stalinist, something just might be up."

But Beam's biggest offense was his rude treatment of James Lileks, a columnist for Minneapolis' Star Tribune whose surreally sarcastic commentary on his own Web site, Lileks.com, has made him a giant in the blog world. ("We are not worthy. We are not worthy," announced an InstaPundit link to a Lileks piece.) Lileks is indeed a brilliant writer--sort of an aggressive Dave Barry with a razor-sharp political edge--and he now has an audience far wider than Minnesota. But you'd never know all that from Beam's dismissive attitude, which began with this e-mail request to Lileks for a quote: "James, weren't you once a talented humor writer? Why are you churning out this web dreck?"

In Lileks, many see genius, while Beam recognizes nothing higher than himself. No matter, because a blogger always gets the last word: "Conspicuous flaming idiocy is often treated by bloggers like a shank of meat thrown into Blofeld's piranha pool," Lileks wrote of Beam's column on Lileks.com, "but this one just refuted itself; it was like one of those biodegradable camping crapbags that collects the offal AND returns it to nature." Then, in a textbook example of how to shine the light back into the face of the interrogator, he posted the entire e-mail exchange.

"Many of the blog idiots assume that because I write for a 'liberal' newspaper...that I too am a 'liberal' who disapproves of what they write," Beam responded when I asked him about this a month after his piece appeared. He explained that he dislikes bloggers not because of their politics but because they are "generally tedious, self-indulgent and self-referential" and also because all blogger facts and opinions are "overtly pirated from that mainstream press that they so deride."

In any case, Beam's misadventure in Blogland strikes me as something of a Rorschach test for journalists. Asking Lileks if he were "once a talented humor writer" may be like some punk asking Ali in his prime if he used to be a talented fighter, but I wonder if I was the only one to read Beam's snotty e-mail query with a small pang of guilt? It is certainly true, as Lileks told Beam, that "you really can get more flies with honey than a thumb in the eye," but at least Beam was honest about his intentions. How many people have I interviewed who only felt that thumb in the eye after the story was in print?

But just because they pull aside the curtain doesn't mean that bloggers are immune to the Wizard's wonderfulness. "Why do you become a critic of media?" asks InstaPundit's Reynolds. "At least in some sense, it's because you like it. If you don't read the paper, you don't get mad at the paper." Or the 11 o'clock news. One of Reynolds' favorite bloggers (and one of more than 200 inspired by InstaPundit.com to create their own blogs after September 11) is Sgt. Stryker, a pseudonymous U.S. Air Force mechanic who began Sgtstryker. com after his wife got sick of hearing him yell at the TV.

Just as many bloggers view the mainstream media as elitists, mainstreamers generally look upon bloggers as a bunch of mutts crashing the dog show--an attitude that was first formed about proto-blogger Matt Drudge and continues still.

"People at newspapers are not very Web-savvy," says Lucianne Goldberg, who runs a popular quasi-blog at Lucianne.com and was the New York literary agent who famously suggested to Linda Tripp that she'd better start taping those heart-to-hearts with Monica Lewinsky. "I got an e-mail from someone at the Washington Post [after she'd linked to washingtonpost.com] saying, 'Who are you? We're getting all these hits.' "

Another example of old-media-new-media tiffs: A couple of years ago I saw Goldberg get into an argument with the New York Observer's national correspondent Joe Conason at a media panel about Internet journalism. "To those of us who have lived against the grain our whole lives, this place [the Internet] is hog heaven," Goldberg says. "You're mixing your metaphors there," drawled Conason. "If it's hog heaven, it's sort of a sty."

Media condescension toward online journalism sometimes seems...well, Lileks, as usual, put it best: "For a print columnist who writes, oh, say, twice a week to sniff at those who pump out ten tons of spirited commentary for free reminds me of some baggy-pants third-rate vaudevillian rolling his eyes at the people streaming into a nickelodeon. Oh, sure, they have moving pictures of a train robbery, but nothing beats a pie in the face."

Still, eye-rolling continues to be a pretty common attitude. John Montorio, the Los Angeles Times' deputy managing editor for features, seems comparatively blog-savvy. He sometimes reads LAExaminer.com, a site that links and comments on L.A. media, and occasionally checks the blogs of LAExaminer's founders, Ken Layne (kenlayne.com) and Matt Welch (mattwelch.com/warblog.html). But Montorio dismisses most blogging as "cranky star turns."

"I know the bloggers appear to be a new phenomenon," Montorio adds, "but I really think they go back to a very old phenomenon, early 20th-century pamphleteers. The old practitioners were more interested in spreading ideas. The new crowd...it's a form of exhibitionism. Sometimes it's interesting, sometimes it's an irritation."

"These gadfly individual contributors," sighs Washington Post Associate Editor and senior correspondent Robert G. Kaiser, coauthor (with the Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr.) of "The News About the News," published this spring. "I expected there to be more stars, 10 years in, than Matt Drudge." Their book has a whole chapter about the Internet, but Kaiser remains only vaguely aware of the blogger phenomenon, an attitude I found typical among newspaper staffers. He explains this is because his and Downie's area is hard news, not opinion: "I read things I think I should know, not other people's opinions about what I should know."

But despite the attractive package of omniscient objectivity, every single thing we read in the paper, even hard news, is the product of many other people's opinions about what we should know. Bloggers simply tear the wrapping off.

As it happens, some of the most popular blogs come from big-name journalists and former editors who are brand names to even the most harrumphing old-schoolers. Mickey Kaus, who used to write regularly for The New Republic about welfare reform, needles gassy media series with his witty, condensed SeriesSkipper on Kausfiles.com (see Free Press, April 2001). Andrew Sullivan's political commentary on Andrewsullivan.com was recently called Orwellian by the New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum. Virginia Postrel comments via her Dynamist.com blog on everything from steel tariffs to the kittenish musings of Maureen Dowd.

That so many still don't know about InstaPundit--or didn't when I was researching this article this spring – is indeed an object lesson in media cluelessness and rather puzzling when you consider how eager papers are to attract that elusive young, Internet-savvy readership. "It's just like watching Grandpa dance; it's sad," says Lileks, who was raised in Fargo, North Dakota, and spent a few years in Newhouse News Service's Washington, D.C., office in the '90s before returning to the Midwest. "They've stuck to their old ways, and I'll tell you why. When media gets that large, meetings and the process start to run things."

Lileks adds of the Strib: "God bless this paper. It's a great paper, with great resources. But no way is it ever going to be like Charles Johnson (Littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog), digging out all the latest blood libel from the Arab press. What amazes me more than anything is the number of rank amateurs who have sprung up like mushrooms from the rotting tree of old media. Sgt. Stryker--is he a tutored writer? Obviously not. But he sits down and hammers out these manly things that are just a delight to read. Unfortunately, it took a war."

I am not a blogger, but the blog world is friendly to kibbitzers. I get invited to blogger parties here in Los Angeles because blogging has its roots in media criticism and bloggers remember I used to write a monthly column, which could be considered sort of a primitive '90s proto-blog, about the L.A. Times for the old Buzz magazine. Then for a couple of years I wrote a media column on Mediaweek's old online site that was often linked on Jim Romenesko's MediaNews site.

Through all this I met L.A. bloggers Ken Layne and Matt Welch. They're planning to start a new, 100,000-circulation Monday-through-Friday Los Angeles paper as an alternative to the L.A. Times this fall. The project began attracting media buzz in April, when former Los Angeles mayor Richard J. Riordan got involved after losing the Republican gubernatorial primary in March (see The Newspaper Business, page 68). Riordan, who sees himself as a hands-off editor in chief, flew out Australian journalist (and blogger) Tim Blair to talk about the managing editor's job.

Layne and Welch, close friends, are both college dropouts (as is Lileks, who began his writing career while working as a Minneapolis convenience store clerk), which can be a hindrance in the world of traditional media but not in Bloggerville. Until recently, Layne and Welch wrote regularly for the University of Southern California's Online Journalism Review, where they got in the habit of lacing online media commentary with links and opinions.

"But people started complaining, 'They need supervision!' 'This is causing a ruckus!' " recalls Layne. "And that ultimately led to Matt and me leaving OJR."

Bloggers, who are temperamental free agents, often chafe when restrained by big institutions. Blogging can lead to bigger things--Welch and Layne's plan for a new L.A. paper has its model in the New York Sun, which partly grew out of managing editor Ira Stoll's Smartertimes.com blog, devoted entirely to raking the New York Times over the coals each day--but it doesn't usually bring in much money. Bloggers do get a bit via the PayPal or Amazon Honor System "tip jars," which allow readers to throw in a few bucks via credit card. A blogger with a click-through Amazon link also gets up to 15 percent of each Amazon item a reader buys.

Layne, who published a detective novel in Australia a few years ago, recently began selling remainder copies directly on his site and just finished another novel. He's also featured weekly on Foxnews.com's new slate of revolving blogger columnists. Welch contributes regularly to Reason and is working on a book about the Ralph Nader presidential campaign, which he covered for the leftist news site Workingforchange.com.

Los Angeles seems to be the capital of blogging. Mickey Kaus moved here a couple of years ago from New York to be near the Pacific Ocean air. "I do think that the Internet is much more important to people out here in L.A. because it's your lifeline to the East Coast," Kaus says. "It's a way to cast your ideas into the arena of the chattering classes."

Another prominent L.A. blogger is Charles F. Johnson, who coined the term "anti-idiotarian" to describe eclectic blogger politics and is a jazz guitarist who used to tour with Al Jarreau. He now works as a Web designer. Johnson's hobby is scouring the Arab press (via the translations at MEMRI.org) for the latest anti-Semitic blood libels and strange news stories. The Saudi Arabian newspaper that claimed Jews use the blood of Christians and Muslims to make Purim pastries and the wire reports about Saudi religious police forcing schoolgirls back into a burning building because they weren't wearing correct Islamic dress are two stories that only hit mainstream media last spring after they were flogged by Johnson and other bloggers.

"[T]he New York Times loves...every little prince and every little blurting of bullshit from Abdullah," Ken Layne wrote in March about a Times story on remarks made by the Saudi crown prince. "The Paper of Record didn't even print a word about the Saudi police blamed for burning 14 little girls to death. You can't fit everything! The front section only had 36 pages today, after all."

September 11 and its aftermath were indeed a call to arms for bloggers. The impatience many people felt at the Neville Chamberlain-like tone of appeasement that permeated so much traditional media commentary is the gasoline that fueled the bloggers' lit matches.

Lileks was driving home from one of his many Target excursions when he heard some Arab guests on a radio show complaining about stereotyping. "When it was known where terrorists came from, and on whose behest they committed this appalling act, that was the moment that the clock reset to 12:00:00 for many people," he wrote on his blog. "Which is why this interview--and many like it I've heard--left me cold. They sound less concerned with the reality of Islamic terrorism than the fact it is being depicted. I'm tempted to say if the shoe fits, don't light it, but that would be wrong."

InstaPundit's Reynolds was hoping to get perhaps 200 high-level academic readers a day when he started his blog in August. By September 10, daily traffic was up to 1,600 page views. On September 11, he had a little scoop--the Aryan Nations Web site had a message of congratulations to the World Trade Center attackers – and he got 4,200 page views. By April, InstaPundit was getting almost 50,000 a day. "The most striking media development of the last year has been the instant rise of InstaPundit," says Kaus, who estimates he gets between 6,000 and 9,000 hits a day, which is quite good for someone who often takes a day off. Part of what drives InstaPundit's huge traffic is Reynolds' constant updating.

Still, as Kaus says, "a large part of traditional media don't know what's going on [with blogging]. I would say one-third are hip to it and two-thirds are not."

Kaus has long joked that the upside of his me-zine (to use the old-fashioned term) is no deadline, no editors; the downside is no money, no readers. But the joke may be getting dated. For one thing, Kausfiles made $318.60 in the first half of 2001. (As he told the New York Times, "That's $318.60 The New Yorker didn't make this year.") For another, his blog was annexed in May by Microsoft; Kaus, who's long had a close relationship with Slate, signed a deal to move Kausfiles over there.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, blogs have brought serendipity--the great advantage of actual newspapers--to online publishing. Even when I was writing a column for Salon, I never read the site much, both because the writing, although often very fine, seemed designed for leisurely perusal at a coffee shop rather than on a computer screen, and because the site didn't lend itself to quickly scanning many pieces at a time. I'd go to read something in particular and then get out fast. I always find more than I was planning to read on blogs.

But why should mainstream journalists care about blogs anyway? Obviously, it's easy to waste an appalling amount of time in Blogland. But I find it's rarely time completely wasted. I write regularly about TV and find more useful information on the tvtattle.com blog, which assembles links to television coverage from around the country, than in the Hollywood trades. Any reporter covering education would be foolish not to regularly check the news links and commentary on readjacobs.com, a blog by former San Jose Mercury News reporter Joanne Jacobs, who left to write a book about a charter school. My clip files for three long stories (besides this one) I was working on this spring are filled with items and ideas found on blogs. Glenn Reynolds' day job may be law professor, but I like to think of him in his off hours as my unpaid personal research assistant.

"The long-term question is, will big media become fragmented and collapse so that blogging becomes a real alternative?" Kaus asks. "Clearly, there's no reason it has to be done by professionals. Will newspapers go out of business except for a few big ones and the rest of the business be left to amateurs?"

Reynolds thinks this is at least possible. "There are a lot of people who don't have the designated credentials who are in fact better than some of the fossils you see on the op-ed pages of major papers," he says. "I was on a talk show with Fred Barnes, [executive] editor of The Weekly Standard, and he said to me, 'You've laid bare our dirty little secret. It's not that hard.' "

Bloggers have affected traditional media coverage, although perhaps not as much as they'd like. "Every time the New York Times writes 'doubts have been raised,' the bloggers are there to say, 'The New York Times does it again with that passive voice,' " observes Reynolds, referring to traditional media in general. "It's making it harder for a groundswell of antiwar sentiment to form."

No one enjoys being constantly stared at and poked, and to the bloggers' targets it may sometimes seem like Big Brother is watching. In fact it is the opposite, because bloggers are not authoritarian but deeply and seditiously anti-authoritarian. They are like dozens of pesky little brothers, neighbor kids with slingshots. But Dennis the Menace, remember, loved Good Old Mr. Wilson almost as much as he loved tormenting him. He just couldn't resist that tempting, hard-to-miss target of Mr. Wilson's Good Old Behind.

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