Monday, February 21, 2005

Hugh Hewitt: Blog -- part 1

Hugh Hewitt's new book, entitled Blog, provides useful information, plus plenty of food for thought, for anyone who (a) writes a blog, (b) reads blogs on a regular basis, or (c) works in the traditional mainstream media -- i.e. newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

The subtitle of Blog is 'Understanding the information reformation that's changing your world'; and the dust jacket goes on to add: 'Why you must know how the blogosphere is smashing the old media monopoly and giving individuals power in the marketplace of ideas'. All of which gives you a fair idea of the contents.

The back page of the dust jacket claims that 'until now, no influential blogger has written a definitive book about this phenomenon.' That is a typical piece of publishers' hyperbole, and it isn't true. We have had, for instance, Rebecca Blood's Weblog Handbook, Biz Stone's Blogging, and Essential Blogging, by Cory Doctorow and others.

The back page also says that the new book 'helps you position yourself and your organization at the forefront of this information reformation.' That gives us a hint that much of the content of Blog is concerned with offering advice to businessmen on how to use blogs to further the interests either of themselves or their companies. The inside flap copy repeats this emphasis.

Well, I suppose Hewitt and his publishers are entitled to aim a book on blogging at the business community if they wish, but I wouldn't have thought that that was the best market to aim at; neither do I find Hewitt's advice to such people particularly convincing. But more of that later.

Hewitt himself is a name new to me, but he is evidently well known in some areas. He is obviously what the Americans call a high-energy guy. He acts as the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, heard in more than 70 cities, and is a professor of law at Chapman University. He is also, as you would expect, a blogger, and in his spare time he writes a weekly column for The Daily Standard. Previous books by Hewitt have featured on the New York Times bestseller list.

So much for the background. What I propose to do is to go through the book chapter by chapter, giving you an outline of the key points, and also giving you my own take on some of the issues. All of which will, I suspect, occupy us for several days.

Introduction

We soon learn two things about Hugh Hewitt; he tells them to us straight. First, he is a practising Christian; and second, he supports the Republican party and occupies what he refers to as a centre-right position in terms of politics.

Since the book's author declares his position in forthright terms, I suppose the reviewer ought to do the same. Well, I am not a churchgoer, though Mrs GOB is. I assume that she prays for my welfare while there, but when questioned on this point she tends to muttter evasively.

As for my political viewpoint: I hold the view that the last great privilege of the Englishman is that he is still able to ignore politics. Just about. And I tend to exercise that privilege to the full. If pushed, I would say that I too share the views of the centre right -- in UK terms. But it is actually quite hard to tell. The new Labour Party has moved well to the right in recent years and now occupies much of the space hitherto taken up by the Conservatives. And the Conservatives seem to be having difficulty in deciding what exactly they do stand for. So it may well be that I am actually to the right of modern Conservative thinking on several issues.

As I say, Hewitt makes his political position crystal clear. And it also becomes plain, early on, that he takes the view that many of the American mainstream media (which he abbreviates to MSM) are staffed by people with an entirely different approach: in particular, they are left-wing liberals.

I get the impression, from the book overall, that Hewitt is not a mouth-frother. He appears to be rational and amenable to argument. All the more unfortunate, then, that I also get the impression that he holds the view that the MSM are hopelessly 'biased', towards the left, while people like himself are somehow much more trustworthy, honest, and committed to telling it like it is.

Admittedly, it is many years since I was resident in America, and I am not a daily reader of US newspapers and magazines; as a UK citizen I obviously don't listen to US talk radio or watch network news very often. However, as a general observation, based on European experience and European history in the last hundred years or so, I would say that there is very little reason to believe that writers, reporters, commentators, TV news editors and the like, are going to be any less 'biased' if they come from the right than from the left.

Political systems of the extreme right and left tend to produce dictatorships (Hitler, Stalin) which are pretty much indistinguishable if you happen to live under them. Both the extreme right and the extreme left also go in for book burning and news control on a massive scale.

All of that being so, I do have a bit of a problem as early as page xv of this book, when Hewitt tells us that 'Blog is a book about trust; how the old media -- mainstream media -- lost it and how new media is gaining it.'

As an example of all this, he quotes his own blogging from the Democratic National Convention in 2004. His blog, he claims, gave his readers interviews with three of the President's key men and with two leading Democrats. What this meant, in practice, was that people got 'unfiltered information from the president's side and a good dose of hilarious and ineffective spin from the two lefties.'

It may be that, in this isolated instance, Hewitt and his Republican buddies did tell the truth and did present a more neutral, objective bundle of information than was available through the liberal mainstream media. But on the whole I can see no reason to believe that media dominated by right-leaning personnel are likely to be more objective than the MSM which are so despised by Hewitt. None whatever.

Furthermore, by about five or six pages into this book I am already beginning to feel doubts about Hewitt's belief that the blogging world is going to become a useful business tool.

If the blogging business is about trust, as Hewitt says, why should anyone trust a blog which is sponsored by a commercial entity? Is it likely that such a blog is going to give us a completely objective picture? I find it difficult to believe so myself.

As an example of what he thinks should be happening, Hewitt tells us that a 'savvy publisher' should be developing 'a blog about books that became a must-stop in the world of reading and selling and buying books.... There is a New York Times Review of Books in blog form coming.... It would be best to own it,' says Hewitt.

Well yes. Maybe. But are we really expected to believe that HarperCollins or Random House can somehow organise and pay for a blog which will generate trust? Especially if, as Hewitt recommends, the blog starts running ads for the publishing house's own books, and 'buzzing that publishing house's own buzz.'

In my view such a blog ain't going to attract any but the most naïve readers. It is already the case that the key trade magazines in publishing, the Bookseller, Publishing News, and Publishers Weekly, are all compromised by the fact that they depend for survival on publishers' advertising; they aren't likely to be all that critical of the people who keep them alive, and some readers are smart enough to figure that out. Some readers (me, for instance) have got so fed up with it that we no longer even subscribe.

Hewitt also uses the introduction to stress that he is aiming his book at senior and mid-level executives in business, government, the arts, the church, and especially politics. His view is that company CEOs should all read his book, then distribute it to their senior leadership, and finally 'hold a few days' retreat to discuss what is going on.'

I mean really. Hold a few days' retreat to discuss blogging? Retreats are the biggest waste of company time and resources ever invented. There is nothing that you can do on retreat in Hawaii or deep in the woods of Maine that you can't do in an hour round a table in your office; or even over lunch in the canteen. And besides, while it is true that blogs are going to change many things, they are not quite that important.

None of this inspires great confidence in Hewitt's thinking.

Later in the introduction we get the first taste of a recurring theme. People are deserting the old 'biased' media, Hewitt says, and transferring their loyalties to new ones, or to versions of the old media which tell the truth. An example of these allegedly more reliable sources of information, which occurs many times in the book, is Fox News.

Fox News? Is this man serious? Is this the same Fox News that we see in Europe?

I do occasionally watch Fox News, or try to. Usually when I switch to that channel I see a list of the temperatures in European cities. I assume this is because American viewers are watching adverts at this point, but the European branch of Fox can't sell the ad space so we get a weather statement instead.

I have watched Fox News from time to time over the last couple of years, and I've made a particular effort to do so while reading Blog. So far I've seen a lot of weather and nothing else worthy of note. I've seen a live report on the arrest of a rape suspect (a matter of zero news value I would have thought) and a discussion about the death of Princess Diana.

The Diana piece featured an interview with that well known source of reliable information, Mohammed al Fayed, together with a studio discussion involving Geraldo Rivera and a woman lawyer. The discussion centred on whether Diana's death was an accident or whether it was a murder, arranged by Prince Charles and his father, and carried out by British intelligence.

True, the moderator of this discussion did occasionally try to distinguish between fact and fantasy, but without much success. All in all, to call this discussion superficial would be to pay it an undeserved compliment. If this is the shape of the future, Hugh, then thanks but I'd rather live in the past.

Well, so far we haven't even got out of the pages with Roman numerals. I thought this would take some time. More tomorrow.

3 comments:

Bookdwarf said...

Not to complain about a book I haven't read, but Fox news is not exactly a solid source of information here. Sure you have to take all media with a grain of salt these days and try to figure out what angle they are working. But the liberal media in America is a myth.
But I am a liberal, so of course I am going to disgree with a conservative. That's my point though. The liberals claim the media is all right-leaning and the right complains about the liberal media bias. Who knows who is telling the truth? I just don't trust any of them anymore.
I am eager to see the rest of the breakdown of Blog. Great job so far.

Peter L. Winkler said...

I happen to live in Los Angeles and have seen Hewitt on the local Public Broadcasting affiliate's TV station (KCET), where he used to appear as part of a panel of three commentators on a half-hour loca news show. I also have the ability to hear his daily AM radio show, if I want to, which I don't.

Hugh Hewitt is basically a Republican shill and his book on blogging, from the LA Times review I read, is just an opportunistic exercise in jumping on the media's current fascination with blogs and yet another entry in the endless stream of rightist books all echoing each other about how the media is a prisoner of left-wing bias. Suffice it to say that someone who implicity trusts that whatever some Republican spokesman says is inherently trustworthy, while rejecting the opinions of two Democrats as the suspect opinions of "lefties" (which I find a very juvenile appelation) is unworthy of serious consideration.

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