Andrew Sullivan has probably done more than anyone else in contemporary America to lend credence to the old so-con charge that even gay men who seem sober and worldly on the surface are emotional wrecks underneath. Ever since President Bush didn’t snap to on same-sex marriage, Sullivan’s made a habit of inflating his every petulant little emotional reaction into a matter of earth-shaking significance, as exemplified by his utterly bizarre public obsession with whether Sarah Palin is actually Trig’s mother. At this point, Sullivan’s blog is where you go to see just how classless, graceless, and common a DC status-seeker can actually be.
It is, therefore, pretty comical to see Jonathan Rauch, ensconced for the time being as a guest poster at the Daily Dish, contrast Sullivan’s online oeuvre favorably with the ephemera emitted by most other bloggers (via the admirably restrained Megan McArdle):
I submit that the whining of traditional journalists (you know, the kind of people who punched their tickets on newspaper police beats where they learned quaint notions of fairness and accuracy and keeping one’s opinions out of it and all that) is nothing compared to the self-congratulatory smugness of internet culture, which tells us at least five times before breakfast that it is the Great New Thing.
It isn’t. For people who want to read and think, which is still a lot of people, the worldwide web is an incorrigibly hostile environment. Thank goodness, it is already in the process of being displaced by the far more reader-friendly world of apps, which is hospitable to quality writing and focused reading, as opposed to knee-jerk opinionating and attention-deficit-disordered skimming. The blogging format, I believe, was an outgrowth of a particular technological moment, specifically the gap between the decline of paper and the rise of HTML5. Its heyday is over.
There are a few great bloggers out there. Andrew Sullivan is one of them. But they’re depressingly rare.
Interesting. Sullivan can’t even get the title of the classic Dead or Alive song right—that’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” sweetie—so I assume it’s not finicking accuracy from which his Great Blogger-ness is presumed to spring. (It’s probably not his lack of self-congratulatory smugness, either, given that Sullivan seems to think that God came to him in a gay bar—yes way!—and designated him Prophet of the Benign Hidden World therein.)
Also interesting is the locution “reader-friendly,” because what surrounds it indicates that Rauch is thinking like a writer rather than like a reader. Most of us general readers understand that books, journals, popular magazines, and blogs provide different depths of coverage for any given topic, and we weight what we read accordingly. It really isn’t all that hard to distinguish between a monograph with fifty pages of endnotes and a quickie blog item with two links. Or even a longer blog item with a boatload of links. I suspect that’s the reason that bloggers who want to present long, worked-out arguments tend to write actual books for the purpose.
McArdle’s commenters focus mostly on how wrong Rauch is to equate blog posts with reporting, or to say that something that won’t be read decades from now hasn’t served a useful purpose, or to hold up conventional journalists as models of accuracy and impartiality. All good points, but I think there’s another to be made.
Here’s the thing: a lot of journalists seem to assume that a grounding in j-school ethics curricula and vaguely defined “critical-thinking” skills can make up for not actually being deeply informed about what the hell they’re writing about. It drives us readers bananas. Over my eleven years in Tokyo, I participated in more conversations than I can count with other foreigners about what idiocies our home-country media routinely peddled about East Asia. Ditto the test-prep field, in which I worked for a decade. Keen observation skills, which most professional journalists undoubtedly have, just aren’t always a substitute for living in a region or working in an industry as a long-term, fully invested participant. In such situations, the blogosphere has been a very good corrective. Readers can go to blogs to see articles scrutinized and pulled apart (“focused reading,” we might call it) by actual specialists in the topic in question, and the result is an increase in both real knowledge and healthy skepticism. Most of us started bookmarking blogs precisely because we wanted to “read and think” beyond what we were already getting from standard-issue news and academic outlets.
I’m using the term standard-issue mindedly. I swear I would be retired to Antibes by now if I had just one red cent for every article by a Real Journalist that started like this:
Molly sits at the teak table, its top polished to a mirror shine, in her family’s kitchen. Each week Jeff comes to their gated community in a leafy, exclusive Long Island town to tutor her in SAT math. Mom and Dad met as undergrads at Tufts, but their dream for Molly is a significant step up: she’s aiming for Yale, and they’re betting $350 an hour that Jeff can get her there. Jeff himself went to Williams, and he’s one of a growing number of graduates of hyper-competitive colleges who have discovered that they can make as much money as their former classmates in corporate America by entering the burgeoning college-coaching sector blah blah blah.
And compared to Japan, the test-prep industry gets off easy. Give me the vitality of incorrigible hostility any day of the week over that insufferable, ostentatiously contemplative, I-am-alive-to-the-Zen-like-vibrations-of-all-things-Yamato tone that no Western reporter can apparently avoid when writing about Japan. And the paradoxes—every damned thing reported about Japan has to come down to some kind of paradox. Journalists reporting on Japan will apparently accept anything done by four people in Tokyo as a trend. They make the staff of the NYT Style Section look cautious.
This is starting to sound like the usual screed against the big, bad MSM, but that’s not where I’m going, exactly. Most reporters work hard and generate good prose, and it’s only fair to acknowledge that the grunt work they do is the basis for a great deal of blog commentary. Fine. But plenty of reporters, commentators, and editors give every indication of not knowing what they don’t know. Maybe it’s not their fault, but it means that what they produce often doesn’t stand alone as useful information about the topic at hand. Good blogs supplement it, which Rauch might know if he spent less time reading his man Andrew Sullivan.