Bloggers of the world, unite

My following essay appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

The internet is revolutionising the way we get news and views.

During the 2006 Lebanon war, Israelis connected with Lebanese through blogs, despite the Lebanese Government forbidding its citizens from contact with the Jewish state. An Israeli blogger told The Washington Post that thanks to the blogosphere, “we came to realise how alike we were culturally, as secularised, Westernised residents of Beirut and Tel Aviv”. I recall reading blog missives from Hezbollah supporters decrying the brutality of Israeli air strikes on Lebanese civilians. Equally moving were posts about scared Israeli citizens in northern Israel fearing random missiles in their living rooms. The immediacy and personality of many blog posts left much Western journalism for dead: new technology had given voice to individuals who were not just dropping into a war zone for their 15 minutes of fame.

In non-democratic nations, blogs are often the only form of independent opinion and regularly incur the wrath of government censors. For example, Farsi has become the 10th most popular language for blogs and there are now more than 700,000 active blogs in Iran, many discussing sensitive issues such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (an irregular blogger), the country’s nuclear program, Holocaust denial and US interference in the Middle East. It is principally through Iranian blogs that one is able to gauge the conflicting levels of Iranian society, far from the often one-dimensional portrayals in the Western media. One Iranian friend, now living in Canada, tells me that many Iranians were outraged at the recent Holocaust conference and blogged that their taxes shouldn’t have contributed to an event that further isolated the Islamic regime from the rest of the world.

In Western nations, blogging has grown in popularity as public trust in the mainstream media has declined. Much of what passes for debate in the Australian press can be called “corkscrew journalism”, a term that originated in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, directed by George Cukor. According to Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, the phrase is defined as “instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade or more”.

Doesn’t this sound like most of Australia’s leading commentators? Endless point-scoring and ill-informed rants against “elites”, the “Left” and the “Right” are constant features of mainstream punditry. It’s no wonder the major newspapers are in terminal circulation decline.

The arrogance of the commentariat was on full display in August when the New York Times columnist David Brooks said on American TV: “One of the things I’ve found in life is that politicians are a lot more sincere than us journalists and we are more sincere than the people that read and watch us.” Could there be a better argument for his early retirement? If Brooks was unaware of how the general public viewed the media – worse than the dodgiest real estate agent – he’d been spending too much time with political insiders in Washington, DC.

In late 2005 and 2006, Roy Morgan polling found that more than three-quarters of Australians agreed that “media organisations are more interested in making money than in informing society”. A similar number believed that the media weren’t objective enough and remained too close to politicians. A tiny percentage of citizens turned to blogs first for information (though this figure is steadily increasing).

Of course, accusations of insularity could be levelled at the blogosphere. The growing polarisation of the political sphere in the US has resulted in often ferocious and partisan discussion on matters of war and peace. September 11 was the catalyst for any number of instant “war on terror” experts. “We are not the mainstream media, and we are here,” wrote the popular blogger Juan Cole in April 2005. “Get used to it.”

Although the growth of blogging has certainly increased divisions in the US political system – it’s not unusual to read hardline bloggers calling for the lynching of “liberal” newspaper editors – it’s also provided an unknown number of citizens the chance to express their opinions and contribute to an ever-growing media democracy. Only a few years ago, it was virtually impossible to get a “non-expert” voice heard and published. While much of the blogosphere is filled with meaningless drivel (not unlike the mainstream press), the finest analysis easily rivals the most astute members of the mainstream commentariat. The last years have seen a steady influx of bloggers being hired by the mainstream media for this very reason.

If anything, the finest bloggers are much more transparent about their biases. Many mainstream journalists and columnists convince themselves and readers that they are simply disinterested and objective observers of events, without political affiliations or motives. In reality, of course, they are often political hacks with an axe to grind. Bloggers are no different, but they will acknowledge past associations and inherent biases. Such moves increase reader respect and contribute to the development of a democratic media ideal. It does, of course, take time to find blogs that you trust, whose sources are impeccable and traceable.

The violence of emotion on display in the blogosphere is sometimes akin to being punched in the head at a World Wrestling Federation final and then going back the next day for more. It’s a blood sport with a surprisingly addictive personality. This probably explains why a July 2006 study by Pew Internet, an American research project, found that 39 per cent of US internet users, or about 57 million adults, read blogs (a huge increase from the previous year) and about 12 million maintained their own blog. Interestingly, most bloggers surveyed did not consider their blog as journalism.

Right-wing bloggers are mostly pro-war and Islamophobic while leftists are anti-war and pro-human-rights. While the “Right” urges jihad against “appeasers, traitors and liberals”, the “Left” wages war against anybody who encourages conflict against designated (usually Muslim) enemies.

If this all sounds infantile, it often is. One of America’s leading conservative bloggers, Michelle Malkin – her site is read by more than 100,000 people daily – wrote in late 2005 that The New York Times, a favourite punching bag of the Right, “crusaded tirelessly this year for the cut-and-run, troop-undermining, Bush-bashing, reality-denying cause”. In Malkin’s world view, shared by many of her persuasion, the mainstream media’s primary role is to unquestioningly support the Bush administration in all its war policies. “So, which side is The New York Times on?” she asked, knowing full well what her readers would answer. The clear assumption was that in exposing government mismanagement, illegality or incompetence, journalists and editors were aiding the enemy. The shrillness of her commentary increased as the US became increasingly bogged down in Iraq. It therefore wasn’t the US that was at fault for its military defeat, it was the “liberal” media.

Tim Blair, one of Australia’s much-read bloggers (and self-described journalist), is equally incapable of explaining any issue without a requisite put-down, smart-arse comment or personal smear.

Some bloggers on the left and right have become unashamed partisan hacks, spruiking for one side of politics or the other – sometimes for money and, perhaps even stranger, often not – and the political elite is listening. A growing number of US politicians now write their own blogs in an attempt to connect with a disinterested populace. In June 2006, Las Vegas hosted a conference led by Markos Moulitsas, the svengali behind America’s most popular blog, Daily Kos. Any number of politicians prostituted themselves just to get close to the new media king.

In Australia, the Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett runs the country’s finest politician’s blog, writing about parliamentary deliberations and the often-tortuous political process. He told Crikey last September that he wanted his blog to “talk about the substance of issues, rather than feed the notion of politics as sport or something mysterious involving artful strategists using tactics beyond the comprehension of all but the cleverest analysts”. He noted that “the comments I get on my blog from people across the political spectrum are usually of a much higher standard than what I have to listen to in the Senate chamber”.

In the early days of the internet revolution, newspapers were already being consigned to the rubbish bin. Today, as Arianna Huffington, the “queen of the blogosphere”, recently observed, “the argument that the old media will simply die off is becoming obsolete. Honestly, there is room for both of us. Both are us are here to stay.”

Even with ever greater budget cuts, big media still has the financial clout to sustain foreign correspondents and investigative journalism. With notable exceptions, new media has yet to find its utopian (let alone workable) business model. In many ways, though, it doesn’t need to compete with broadsheet titles. Its role can be critic, commentator, researcher or shit-stirrer. The best blogs are by people who believe, like the finest non-fiction writers, that political and ideological risk is the mainstay of provocative dialogue.

When Time magazine announced “You” as its 2006 person of the year – managing editor Richard Stengel breathlessly wrote that “user-generated content is transforming art and politics and commerce” – much of the blogosphere reacted with bemusement; we all wondered how long it would take old media to realise the days of sermon-on-the-mount pronouncements were coming to an end. Media commentator Jeff Jarvis applauded the choice because “it was the conceit of mass media that they could pick one person who mattered for the world and that we would listen”.

He was right, of course. One of the successes of this information explosion has been that journalists and editors have had to accept that their credibility is on the line unless they adapt, communicate and provide transparency in their methodology to readers. Why should we trust them because they have a fancy title before their name? More journalists should write blogs to demystify the craft, explain how sources are found and editorial decisions made (what stays in an article and what gets trashed).

The Australian media have a long way to go in this area principally because – and I’ve heard this from any number of prominent reporters – they don’t think they have to explain themselves to anybody, let alone a faceless public. But it’s this increasingly active public that has already decided such arrogance should be punished (by not buying the product). A recent article in The Guardian wondered if in 10 years all newspapers would be free because “even the wealthy no longer invariably see why they should have to pay for news, entertainment or material to pass the time on a tiresome journey”.

As a blog addict, I’ve long believed that the blogging age signifies both the democratisation of information and a unique opportunity to include a growing number of citizens in the democratic process. A wider range of views, diverse and mostly free, can only further challenge the mainstream’s stranglehold on “serious” content. During the writing of my book, My Israel Question, any number of readers of my blog provided invaluable information about the Middle East that I would simply never have discovered on my own. It was participatory journalism in action.

For some, blogging is more than an optional extra, it’s a way of staying sane. A female Iraqi blogger tells me that “as Arab Muslims, we have been stereotyped a lot, and I believe that bloggers have kind of proved those stereotypes are nothing but myths. On the other hand, blogging has also helped us, Arabs, abandon our paranoid attitudes and stereotypical views of Westerners.” Such online discussions contribute more to cross-cultural understanding than any other technology in history.

Perhaps the future of online consumption is South Korea, the most net-savvy nation in the world. Seven out of 10 Koreans go online, online newspapers have more readers than their dying paper cousins and 20,000 internet cafes sustain a broadband-hungry youth. Citizen journalism has exploded, with the most popular site, OhmyNews, attracting more than 700,000 daily visitors. In South Korea, blogs are not merely a way to communicate, they’re an essential part of life.

Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent in Britain, believes that “in a world where everyone has a blog, there will be a premium on sober analysis, skilled editing and authoritative comment”. He’s probably right, but it’s too soon to tell whether the next generation will agree.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, blogger and author of My Israel Question (Melbourne University Publishing).

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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