Saturday, February 12, 2005
Reviewing Hugh Hewitt's "Blog" in the aftermath of Eason Jordan's destruction
Upon returning from a vacation from blogging last month, I promised a nontrivial (which is my codeword warning for "long-winded") review of Hugh Hewitt's latest book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World. The announcement on the front page of today's WaPo — that CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan has resigned — prompted me to make good on that promise.
Indeed, someone should send U.S. News & World Report editor at large David Gergen a copy of Hugh's book immediately, because poor Mr. Gergen — a old-school journalist and pundit whom I generally respect even when I don't agree with him — may be suffering from fossilization of the cranial arteries when it comes to blogs and bloggers, as this quote in Howard Kurtz' fascinating WaPo article demonstrates:
Gergen said Jordan's resignation was "really sad" since he had quickly backed off his initial comments. "This is too high a price to pay for someone who has given so much of himself over 20 years. And he's brought down over a single mistake because people beat up on him in the blogosphere? They went after him because he is a symbol of a network seen as too liberal by some. They saw blood in the water."
I can't resist the impulse to digress from my review of Hugh's book to fisk that particular paragraph, so here it is again with my bracketed interlineations in green:
Gergen said Jordan's resignation was "really sad" since he had quickly backed off his initial comments. [I don't doubt that Gergen is genuinely sad, nor do I begrudge him professional or personal sympathy for a sadly self-destructive colleague. Gergen certainly tried to help Jordan "back off his initial comments" in Gergen's own account of the Davos session, and maybe Gergen's interpretation — Gergen as mind-reader, wishfully guessing that Jordan instantly realized he had blundered — is correct. And if, within hours or at most a day or two after the comments, Jordan had gone further than merely diluting or "backing off" his comments — if he had squarely disavowed them, and then apologized for them, instead of having tried to defend, re-spin, and divert attention from them — then Gergen might have a point. But Jordan didn't, so Gergen doesn't.] "This is too high a price to pay for someone who has given so much of himself over 20 years. [No, it's exactly the right price to pay for a senior MSM journalist and network chief who's slandered our men and women in uniform with false accusations and who then systematically refused to make a full retraction or to show genuine contrition. Because Jordan apparently believed he could lie about such matters in such a forum and before such an audience, and yet remain exempt from just consequences of that lie, he destroyed his own credibility. And despite the MSM's conspiracy of near-silence about the controversy, his masters at CNN (some of whom probably have read Hugh's book, or at least have independently come to some of the same conclusions expressed in it) realized that Jordan had become an intolerable liability. As for the 20 years, that rather blinks reality — it implies, incorrectly, that those 20 years have been blemish-free, and they were anything but that.] And he's brought down over a single mistake [see above] because people beat up on him in the blogosphere? [By "beat[ing] up," Gergen apparently means "digging out and drawing attention to the factual truth, and then expressing opinions — some of which were outraged, some of which were sympathetic — based on that truth." Gergen makes his own living "beating up" public figures in this very same sense. Also: the blogosphere hung the lantern from the broken mast and then beat the drum, but the actual keelhauling was performed by CNN execs.] They went after him because he is a symbol of a network [this much is true; Ted Rall says equally stupid and offensive things all the time but is now mostly ignored because he doesn't have the responsibilities or the bully pulpit power of a cable news network executive position to say them through] seen as too liberal by some. [Also true, but not causally connected to the first statement; see Jordan's critics from the center-left like Mickey Kaus et al.; cf. right-leaning bloggers' same dogged treatment of Trent Lott.] They saw blood in the water." [Definitely true, but it misses the point, which is that Jordan was trying to deny, and the MSM was trying to ignore, the bloody water. See generally Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Scene 4, "The Black Knight" ("Just a flesh wound ... I'm invincible!").]
The reason Jordan's resignation is such a good cue for a review on Hugh Hewitt's book is the book's excellent definition in chapter one of the phenomenon Hugh calls a "blog swarm." If Hugh writes a second edition, the Jordan debacle will certainly join Hugh's list of examples — Trent Lott, Howell Raines, John Kerry and the SwiftVets, and Rathergate. The definition from page one:
When many blogs pick up a theme or begin to pursue a story, a blog swarm forms. A blog swarm is an early indicator of an opinion storm brewing, which, when it breaks, will fundamentally alter the general public's understanding of a person, place, product, or phenomenon.
And then an explication of his examples, as mentioned above, with this common observation about them:
There was no shared plan of attack among the blogs. There was no coordination between them and their allies in talk radio and a few corners of MSM such as FOX News. There was, however, a network and there was an understanding of what mattered — facts — and a desire for speed and, crucially, a target. The destructive energy of the blogosphere is fierce indeed when focused.
Mr. Gergen clearly thinks this is a bad thing. But he seems to have quite a bit in common with a fellow member of his profession whom Hugh quoted (at page 6):
A senior journalist for the Los Angeles Times told me in the middle of "Rathergate" that he writes with the fear that he will be "blogged," meaning exposed as careless or agenda-driven, thus mocked and shamed and perhaps fired.
That fear — a good thing for journalists to carry with them — should also be on the minds of every public figure and corporate leader....
"Careless" (or simply exaggerating to the point that it's indistinguishable from lying); "agenda-driven"; "mocked and shamed and perhaps fired." Oh yes! Sing it with me, brothers and sisters, for this is the hymn of accountability in the Twenty-First Century! The light is bright, sometimes harsh, sometimes even distorting (bright lights can make harsh shadows) — but the light is ever shifting and from countless sources, so the distortions are generally self-corrected by the invisible hand of the marketplace of competing ideas. And what we have left in the end, brothers and sisters, is "the truth." (See generally A Few Good Men, the closing scene in the military courtroom, Col. Jessup: "You can't handle the truth!")
It's fair to say, I think, that this is the central teaching of Hugh's book, and his main purpose for writing it. Hugh's main target audience is everyone who "doesn't yet get blogging" — those who (as the book jacket notes) still need to "catch up with and get ahead of this phenomenon." If, when you read this book, you have an almost irrepressible urge to click on the hyperlinks that aren't there (because dead-trees-text can't display them), then you've already been assimilated, and you are probably not at the core of Hugh's target audience.
However, almost anyone who reads blogs will enjoy this book too. Indeed, the most eager readers of this book are doubtless other bloggers — the most dorkish of whom will bemoan the book's lack of an index, because that means
they we had to dog-ear pages and use yellow fluorescent highlighters to mark Hugh's references to our own blogs. (BeldarBlog was graciously mentioned on pp. xxiii, 30, 41, 44, 78, 110, 148, 200, and 207 — not that I was counting or anything. Heck, I still haven't made Hugh's own blogroll; a Google search of his site turns up only nine references to my blog; I've only been on his radio show twice; we root for different football teams, went to different law schools, clerked for different U.S. Circuit Judges, and I've never been in a snowmobile accident. But there's your full disclosure. Oh wait — someone at his publisher, I think, sent me a free review copy of the book, too. I intend to pass it along, immodest dog-ears and all, to some liberal friends now that I've reviewed it.)
Like most ambitious but hyper-timely books (and much blogging), this one is sometimes a bit disjointed; not all the transitions are seamless, and not all of the ideas have fully ripened. I found myself generally receptive to Hugh's comparison of the outbreak of the blogosphere to the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press. I found myself likewise fascinated by the comparison between "blog swarms" and modern "netcentric" and asymmetrical military warfare. Hugh's treatment of these comparisons isn't shallow, but neither is it (nor does it attempt to be) as exhaustive and reflective as, say, a PhD thesis would be.
The one comparison I found offputting — not necessarily invalid, but uncomfortable and more strained than the others — was between what the blogosphere is doing and what internet-using terrorists are doing. For the most part, Hugh's book is about the American and international "blogosphere proper" — not about the internet and websites in general, or communications even more generally. I think the role that indigenous bloggers will play, and are already playing, in the transformation of despotic regimes into open and free democracies is an important topic; and I think the adaptations of jihadist terrorists to use internet websites to manipulate the mainstream media and thereby public opinion is also an important topic. But other than the fact that both of them are accomplished via the internet, I'm not convinced yet that I see a connection or even a meaningful comparison.
Business executives are also among Hugh's target audience, and appropriately so. As one who has represented public corporations in court fights that have sometimes spilled over into the media and the general public consciousness, I concur in Hugh's recommendations that large companies and organizations need to understand the new role of the blogosphere in helping shape public opinion. I'm troubled, though, by his suggestion that such companies and organizations raid the blogosphere for talent. Certainly there are very good bloggers who also happen to be looking for day jobs of any sort, or who would like to make their blogging self-sustaining or even profitable. But I think this suggestion presumes a sort of fungibility and transferability of talent that probably doesn't exist. Whatever odd quality in my writing brings people to read BeldarBlog, for example, probably wouldn't work so well if General Motors (or for that matter, the Republican National Committee) phoned me up and said, "Hey! We want you to write our organizational blog!" And without intending to demean anyone who does write a blog for such an organization, I associate the quality of "blogness" with someone (or sometimes a group of like-minded someones) writing independently and without obligation.
Indeed, like Hugh's own and most other blogs, "Blog" is written in a highly personal voice and from a distinct first-person viewpoint. Hugh's personal interests include politics, evangelical Christianity and religious history, law, talk radio, and football — so you'll find all of those subjects interwoven into his book about blogging and blogs. And therefore, if you're looking for something dry and impersonal and academic, you'll be disappointed. (Of course, since you're reading BeldarBlog, which if anything is far more idiosyncratic, you probably aren't put off by that writing style anyway.)
Although he's far more often compared to a cheerleader than to a rabid dog, Hugh is also politically conservative on his own blog and radio show — hawkish on the Global War on Terror, supportive of Dubya, etc. And that viewpoint also affects, and probably to some degree necessarily undercuts, the book's discussion of the left hemisphere of the blogosphere. I believe that Hugh recognized, and made an effort to overcome, those limitations; for example, "Blog" discusses dKos, Atrios, Talking Points Memo, and some other prominent blogs of the center- and far-left that I know Hugh at least skims from time to time. This book is far less aligned with, and addressed to those receptive to, conservative political philosophy than was his most recent previous book, If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It. But Hugh has watched and participated in the events related in "Blog" from the right (as have I), and it might be interesting to read a book-length collaboration on these same topics between Hugh and, say, Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, or Mickey Kaus.
There's plenty of substance covered in "Blog" — as I mentioned earlier, it's a very ambitious book — but it's broken up into bite-sized chunks with clear signposting and organizational structure. Long-time, bemused readers of Hugh's blog (since the days before he figured out how to spell-check his text using other software) will be pleased to know that Hugh (and/or his editors) have polished up his text (that is, cleared away distracting typos and such) in this book. Any day now, Radio Blogger (a/k/a Generalissimo Duane) or someone will hogtie the man for a badly needed weekend of hypnotherapy on blog fonts and html formatting. But while the book is slick (or as much so as any medium without hyperlinks can be), the basic prose is the same that you read on Hugh's website or that you hear him deliver on the radio: vivid, clear, conversational, sometimes wry, but never, ever mean or bitterly sarcastic. In the introduction (at page xiv), Hugh writes:
"Life is a habit, Hughie. Life is a habit." Jerry Tardie has said this to me about a thousand times. Jerry was once a basketball coach, and a very successful one, at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. He speaks in coach talk, the repetitive, specific, motivational, and tutorial style that all good coaches use.
Well, "Blog" is an entire book that's written in "coach talk." If you want to join the team or become a serious fan — or especially if you want to position your political party/news organization/major corporation to prepare for, participate in, and respond to the changes the blogosphere has wrought — this book is certainly worth your while to read.
Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Reviewing Hugh Hewitt's "Blog" in the aftermath of Eason Jordan's destruction and sent a trackback ping are listed here:
» Catching my eye: morning A through Z (UPDATED) from The Glittering Eye
Tracked on Feb 12, 2005 1:15:01 PM
» Reviewing Michael Standaert's LAT review of Hugh Hewitt's "Blog" from BeldarBlog
Tracked on Feb 13, 2005 11:50:56 PM
Its good to have you back, I missed your take on events and news. I was afraid you might have moved on left blogging behind.
I agree that 'Easongate' potentially marks a watershed moment in the blogosphere/MSM dynamic. I believe it is important that the blogs maintain their perspective and not listen too closely to their own press.
At the same time, the question remains open as to whether MSM will realize how exposed they are. I, for one, am not yet convinced they realize that the "emperor has no clothes". They may have an inkling, but I believe that most MSM still views events like Rathergate and Easongate as isolated occurances.
There will have to be more, and possibly more egregious, examples similar to these preceeding events that hit at each of the MSM organizations. I don't believe they even realize how agenda driven they appear.
(2) Obelix made the following comment | Feb 12, 2005 11:19:41 AM | Permalink
It would be interesting to see a dispassionate, scholarly study of the dynamics -- economic, demographic -- of the current plight of the mainstream media. The weeds they are in are obviously deeper than they admit -- and perhaps even deeper than they know. Or so it looks to me. The real questions are whether and how much they will adapt, whether the adaptations result in more balance and objectivity, and whether they will decline, flourish, or just hang on.
(3) LazyMF made the following comment | Feb 12, 2005 11:21:20 AM | Permalink
Don't forget to add Gannon/Guckert to the list of blog swarms in his next edition.
(4) recon made the following comment | Feb 12, 2005 12:03:51 PM | Permalink
Welcome back, Beldar, and on a most timely and relevant topic.
FWIW, Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters Blog puts the lie to any Gergen comment about 'single instance.' Jordan has had a long and execrable history of making broad, unverifiable and nearly obscene claims about the actions of US AND Israeli troops relative to the media (including allegations of extended imprisonment and TORTURE!!), which Ed documents with great care.
Please check that out, and be sure that it will only raise your temperature and blood pressure.
(5) Boger made the following comment | Feb 12, 2005 5:01:12 PM | Permalink
Good piece, Beldar. Minimally I think we can say that blogging by the great unwashed is going to take some skew (right or left) out of the MSM news, both hard news (purported facts) and soft news (biased interpretation of purported facts). Cannot be a bad thing for the Republic. For me, the most joyful thing you mentioned was the senior LAT journalist who lives in fear of getting "blogged." Of course, he really means, 'getting flogged publicly' for misconduct. (Can we adopt the word root 'gog', akin to agog, for praiseworthy blogging? As in Boger gogged Beldar for his Hewitt blog? Ok, I'll stop.) I am also enamored of the new phrase, blog swarm (a mass public spanking when negative). It is a real and great phenomena. I don't know if Hewitt's book gives a tip of the hat to Drudge, but I think at a fundamental level he should be viewed as one of the pioneer webloggers.
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