Tuesday, June 17, 2008

All the News/Punditry/Musings That's Fit to Post

"Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought in a thousand minds at the same moment. A newspaper is an advisor who does not require to be sought but who comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every day without distracting you from your private affairs." -- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Long before the "I bet your mom doesn't know what a blog is" phase of the expansion of the blogosphere (maybe my least favorite word invented in the last ten years) we heard many waxing on about how blogs would democratize the production of information. Suddenly we could hear what anybody, our best friend, our favorite author or baseball player, or even this guy thinks about the events of the day. One no longer had to be an elite to have one's voice heard on whatever topics one wanted, even if one's audience might be rather small. And in the meritocratic, the "world is flat" world of blogs, the more interesting you were, the greater your following. Thus average Joes (or Marcoses and Ariannas) became household names, at least in a good number of households. For more on this, check out Yglesias' recent post.

But since I came across this on how the internet, and blogs in particular, is changing our reading habits, I've been trying to conceive of the possible effects of such a change. I find Douthat's musings on the genre discrimination that the internet age may bring to be plausible, but his latter prediction about long works of philosophy and literature is irrelevant here, and anyway I wonder if that's not just an example of his Burkean fretting. What I do find intriguing on this topic is that his first assertion, that political punditry is getting better, is clearly the case. Look, cable news still sucks, and will probably always suck. But, fortunately we have a vast array of online sources from which to get our political news and thought, from the partisan Ra Ra blogs like Daily Kos, MyDD, Open Left, etc. to the professional political blogs like those on the Politico or the Hotline, to the magazine-style publications transferred to the internet, like Slate, the Atlantic, and the American Prospect. And because there is a lot more talent, often with the freedom to pursue non-Page 1 stories and angles, and with all the space necessary to ponder to their hearts content, we get a whole lot of interesting shit.

For me, one of the more encouraging aspects of this development is the interconnectedness of this great new ideas network. In the old days, our great debates on big ideas took place either in academic journals, dusty old New England monthlies, or between the editorial pages of the major newspapers. Today, one person can make an argument on their elite blog and a cadre of elite bloggers will debate it. The above link to Douthat's post on conservatism is just one of the examples of this that I've seen recently. Whereas debates of this kind used to take place over weeks and might lose their gusto before all of the relevant players have been able to weigh in publicly, today these debates take place in days, or hours even. There are no "relevant players" anymore, because unlike the days when each of the 3 papers had to take a position on something, any one online debate might only attract 5 of the 100 or more writers who make up the sphere of elite political blogging, which means that there could be untold numbers of these debates ongoing at all times.

Most importantly, the debates I'm talking about are really f-ing interesting. All of the best stuff that I find on theAtlantic.com is the product of a debate between a couple of those guys, plus somebody from another magazine style site, plus an expert, or some other similar combination. After all, two heads are better than one, and when you put two (or three, or four, or...) really friggin' smart heads together, you get some real interesting interplay that makes for edifying reading. That seems to have been the Atlantic's idea in hiring eight bloggers who all right on topics at least tangentially related to politics. And the debates, plus the ease of access to each blogger's entire archive of posts, help one to locate other interesting writers and to quickly come to locate each blogger in an intellectual space. I read Ambinder for really good insight into what's going on within the campaigns. I read the Fix for good inside information. I read Yglesias for his posts on transportation and urban planning. I read Douthat for his contributions to the ongoing debates over what the Republicans ought to do with themselves. And when I just want to find something interesting to read, I check out Andrew Sullivan or Ezra Klein.

And so as time goes on, it appears as though, at least in the narrow field of elite DC-based political blogging, there is developing a community of however many people that is; a community in which each individual has his/her own niche, relationships with others, and followers. It's something that I'd love some group psychologists or sociologists to follow closely. But it also looks like a great improvement in American punditry. What's happened is the equivalent of taking say 20 opinion leaders (who hold their positions through tradition) communicating over telegrams, and increased that group tenfold (and now include hundreds who earned their membership to the club by merit), and put them all in the same room together. And the best part is that we get to watch what happens. We get to respond and go off on our own tangents and carry on these arguments and spread these ideas among our own intellectual circles.

Not only has the internet democratized the creation of news and editorials, it has democratized access to opinion and journalism, especially the really good stuff. I do worry that the echo chamber of that elite class may not yet be big enough, but it doesn't look to be about to stop growing. I worry that the speed of our current debates may make it more difficult to get down a who Social Contract before responding to it. At the same time, I have to wonder if maybe isolating oneself for the time it takes to write a Social Contract doesn't just waste time that could have been spend honing certain elements of one's opus.

What do you think? What role does/should this elite blogosphere play in our civil society? In the blogosphere itself? In political journalism? In academia? How do popular political books (like the stuff by Lakoff, Frank, Woodward, etc.) and works of popular political history (Theodore Rex, Nixonland) relate to this question? What about more rigorous academic work?

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