Well-paid assholes with opinions versus poorly-paid assholes with opinions

by Amanda Marcotte, Pandagon

I usually try to avoid the navel-gazing posts about grand unifying theories of blogging, but I have to make an exception this time out because I read this interesting post by Mike the Mad Biologist over the weekend. Mike observes, correctly in my opinion, that one of the most interesting things about blogging is that it offers a direct challenge to the punditocracy.

One of the interesting things about blogging is that it has undermined the importance of the punditocracy. In the pre-internet, and certainly pre-blog era, you had a very different relationship to politics, even if you were aware and relatively active: you were a consumer.

By consumer, I mean that you used to have to wait around and hope that some columnist or editorial board would speak for you. There were some alternatives, such as writing letters to the editor, or in the early days of the internet, posting at electronic bulletin boards (remember those?). But now with blogging, it is possible to speak for yourself. That completely undermines the role of the punditocracy. There are a lot of smart people out there who never had a voice before, and now they do. Why listen to a pundit about the Middle East, when there are serious scholars who are quite familiar with the region who can offer commentary? Why listen to Gregg Easterbrook about science when you have these here ScienceBlogs with real, live, professional scientists?

But what’s really healthy about all of the online commentary is that it makes being a pundit far less profitable. If you don’t need people to speak for you, then professional pundits become irrelevant. This is a good thing, as pundits often seem to drive the political and cultural debate, even though no one elected them.

One of the most grating beliefs I come across that people have about political blogging is the notion that when we offer ourselves as alternatives to the mainstream media, we are declaring ourselves “citizen journalists”. I blame the right wing of the blogosphere for this nonsense. They bought the hoary old lie that actual reality-based journalism is the “liberal” media and not to be trusted. “Citizen journalism”, then, was just a continuation of the right wing assault on reality, which stretches from global warming denial to Bush’s lies about Iraqi WMDs to creationism to abstinence-only “education”. Right wing “citizen journalists” get most frantic when attacking genuinely decent journalism, and they are motivated to replace the remnants of good journalism with a right wing propaganda mill. Needless to say, the right hardly needs their volunteer army of truth deniers and propagandists, since the right wing noise machine is rather well-funded, which makes “citizen journalism” somewhat redundant and certainly no threat to the media establishment, though they console themselves by harassing one target after another. But no, it has no relationship to actual journalism.

Nor does the left blogosphere. There are some bloggers who do journalist work, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Truth told, good journalism is so utterly time-consuming and thankless that you need to farm it out to paying publications for compensation, so most bloggers who do that work will publish it outside of their blogs. But what left wing bloggers do offer is an opinion and analysis alternative, and as Mike says, a good deal of the time they simply are legions better than the paid pundits. For some reason, though, this obvious point about blogs is somehow avoided in most conversations about them.

My main theory as to why people avoid discussion the blogs’ major role in shaping opinion and offering analysis is that people are reluctant to admit outright that they look to others for opinion and analysis. The great myth of American politics is that we’re all just soberly analyzing the facts and opinions and “deciding for ourselves”, which would mean that we don’t lose out a whole lot if the field of available opinion is limited by Beltway wisdom. Unfortunately, human nature just isn’t like that. In reality, people tend to use the opinions they’re hearing as a gauge of what is possible and then reject the “extremes” of the available range of opinion and put themselves in the middle. There’s simply not a lot of thought that goes into it. Conservatives grasp this fact very well, which is why Fox News puts a bunch of conservatives on and characterizes them as left wing Democrats. Slowly but surely, they create the impression that very middle-of-the-road, boring liberal ideas are raving socialism—thus how I managed to hear this weekend from my dad how attempts to reduce carbon emissions through conservation and carbon offsets is actually a socialist plot to destroy life as we know it.

You can read more about this theory, which is called the Overton window theory, at Wikipedia. When Joe Klein went apeshit on Atrios, what was making him angry was the very idea that anyone with an opinion left of Pat Buchanan could have access to a public forum, which could inadvertantly reveal that hawkish, socially conservative advocates of unfettered capitalism were hardly liberals. Atrios and other bloggers are getting in the way of characterizing anyone who would tentatively agree with FDR’s politics as a Stalinist.

Why the Overton window works the way it does is that humans are stubbornly human creatures, and therefore pack animals. Humanizing a political stance is absolutely critical to helping warm people up to it. The abortion rights debate shows this very well. Anti-choicers realize the best way to dehumanize women who have abortions and therefore drain sympathy is to distract people with sentimental hooey about fetuses. Most people get confused between the two, which is why you see people say things like they support choice but don’t support abortion as “birth control”. It’s roughly a way of supporting abortions for women you understand, while not doing so for those you see as somehow less human than you.

Putting a human face to an opinion is what blogging does in spades. For instance, the media is stuffed full of people who can get away with demonizing, say, environmentalists by claiming that we act from a subhuman desire to hurt people for no discernible reason. That lie is easy to perpetuate in the corporate media; all you have to do is refuse to let actual environmentalists show their faces on TV to refute the lies. I saw this work with my own eyes when my media appearances post-Edwards dust-up were cancelled after I demonstrated in my solitary shot on MSNBC that I was going to directly challenge the lies about me. But the blogs don’t have that level of hierarchical control. You can claim that environmental activists act strictly out of subhuman hate against life itself, but you’re one click away from seeing that they are genuine human beings who love their dogs. You can claim that feminists are irrational man-hating monsters, but unfortunately on the blogs, you can’t stop said feminists from showing that they’re man-loving human beings who, say, can’t pose for a picture without making goofy faces.

It seems to me that the other reason that people are a little unwilling to state that bloggers offer direct competition to the punditocracy is that we haven’t “paid our dues”. The career path of a traditional pundit is to be a journalist, learn the ropes, get into the system, and then start opinionating. It seems unfair to have people just start a blog and start having influence without paying those dues. I can see how this makes people flinch some and therefore look to “citizen journalism” to legitimize blogging, but they shouldn’t. Dues-paying is precisely the reason that a lot of mainstream pundits are so conservative and insular and scared to proffer opinions that could damage their social standing in political circles. In a democracy, the everyday person aspect of blogging is critical.

Since I’m writing a “state of blogging” post anyway, I might as well toss in the other link that made me think. Spencer at Black Prof has a post about the case against black leadership, based on the premise that non-hierarchical, decentralized movements can actually be more powerful than those with leaders.

The problems with a centralized organization include: a) rigidity; b) it dies if you cut off its head; c) the whole organization is harmed if you take out a specialized unit; d) units are funded by the organization; and e) working groups communicate through intermediaries.

The advantages of a decentralized group include: a) flexibility; b) the organization survives if you take out a unit (in fact, when attacked the decentralized organization becomes even more open and decentralized); c) knowledge and power are distributed; d) units are self funding; and e) units close to the action have immediate information and communicate with each other directly.

This strikes me as the other reason that the corporate media finds bloggers so threatening—our diversity and leaderlessness is a strength. Whenever I talk to journalists who don’t really get blogging, I find that they tend to think (or hope, really) that we are a rigid mini-army, and that if they could just take out Daily Kos or something, we’d perish. I have no doubt that was why there was so much eagerness to hurt Melissa and me, for the same reason the FBI wanted to remove MLK from the equation. The thought is that we’re “leaders” somehow and that damaging us would do damage to the blogs. They couldn’t be more wrong. Daily Kos, for instance, could be folded up tomorrow and blogging would go on. The most damage would be to the Democratic party when they were deprived of the funding source, but as Spencer pointed out, the funding issue is much more fundamental to a hierarchical institution. If I folded up this blog tomorrow, the feminist blogosphere would be fine; that we’re high traffic doesn’t make us “leaders” and we’re not necessary to the lifeblood of feminist blogging.

article originally published at http://pandagon.net/2007/04/03/well-paid-assholes-with-opinions-versus-poorly-pa....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey