Continued from yesterday.
Part 1 of the book is entitled What Happened, and Chapter 1 deals with blog swarms and opinion storms. The chief content of the chapter is a description of how four famous names in America got into big trouble as a result of the research and hard work of various bloggers.
The four stories concern Senator Trent Lott, who was forced to resign as majority leader of the Republican party after some unwise remarks; the exposure of Jayson Blair, a young reporter on the New York Times, who had an unfortunate tendency to invent stories which he then presented as the truth, and whose downfall brought others to grief with him; Senator John Kerry, who seems to have embroidered upon his service in Vietnam; and Dan Rather, of CBS TV, who placed too much reliance on documents which bloggers soon demonstrated had been forged.
Most people will, I guess, have been broadly aware of these stories before, but it is interesting, and useful, to have the details.
The Dan Rather affair is a particularly good demonstration of the power of the internet, and Hewitt is right in thinking that Rather should have taken more care before gleefully presenting material damaging to President Bush. By the sound of it, however, any reasonably thoughtful person, aged fifty or above, ought to have been able to spot these forgeries just by looking at them -- which is what the bloggers did.
Hewitt's conclusion from these incidents is that bloggers have already played a crucial role in public life in America, and will continue to do so. I have no difficulty with that.
Hewitt's second chapter is a brief account of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, his point being that the massive changes which occurred then are echoed by present-day events. In particular, he argues that it was the invention of printing which made Luther, Calvin, et al so famous and so influential so quickly, and that the internet facility to blog is a similarly revolutionary development.
The picture is perhaps over-painted and over-simplified, but in general I support the thesis. I will certainly admit that I for one was initially slow to see the possibilities of blogging; and it may well be that blogging developments still have a long way to go and that my own crystal ball is severely fogged.
Next we have 'A Brief History of Text'. This includes a quick history of writing, so brief as to be perfunctory, and some fairly obvious points about how a small number of people, writing for a relatively small number of widely read outlets, have in the past exercised huge influence. All perfectly true.
The chapter includes lots of quotes from other writers, plus some data on the typical lifespan and activity levels of blogs. The bottom line: people who start blogging tend to give up, and even if they continue they don't update very often.
We now move into Part II of the book, which is entitled What Is Happening Right Now, and Why. The first chapter in this part is headed 'There is a New Sheriff in Town' -- or actually, Hewitt suggests, a million new sheriffs, i.e. the bloggers.
Again, lots more quotes and extracts from other sources, together with data showing that the readership figures for the big three weekly newsmagazines (in the US) are falling; meanwhile the blogosphere, the Fox News Channel, and talk radio, have all attracted more readers/viewers/listeners.
In Chapter 5, 'The Meltdown of Mainstream Media (MSM) and Where its Audience Went', we begin to hear more of Hewitt's belief that the MSM are staffed 'by people who are overwhelmingly left of center' and that their choice of news items, and the way in which they present them, inevitably involves 'bias'.
Hewitt's explanation of how this state of affairs came about is, once more, interesting and useful. And I certainly agree that 'consumers of news and information are hungry for reliable, unfiltered information'. And this, he says, 'is where the blogosphere comes in.'
I simply don't follow this at all, for several reasons.
First, are we seriously supposed to accept that all MSM are corrupt? That they deliberately distort the facts for their own ends? Given what I know of Americans generally, and American traditions, I find this hard to accept.
It may be true, for all I know, that there is not a single newspaper left in America which overtly supports the Republican cause. But there was one once, and in 1958 I worked for it: it was the New York Herald Tribune. The Trib was so Republican, in fact, that if there was an earthquake in Japan the headline would read 'Ike hears of earthquake'. If the New York Times is such a godawful lefty shit-sheet, how come the Trib died and the Times survived?
Furthermore, how is the blogosphere going to rescue America from the horrors of a left-leaning press? What earthly reason is there to suppose that bloggers are going to be objective, unbiased, totally accurate? None whatever, known to me. On the contrary, there is ample evidence to suggest that bloggers are very much pursuing agenda of their own, without the ability to do much original fact-gathering.
If there is a problem with MSM bias, which I take leave to doubt, the solution is not in a million blogs but in the conscious and deliberate pursuit of objectivity and even-handed treatment of the news. Fifty years ago, as a schoolboy, I was present at a lecture by a senior staffer from the London Times. He explained to us schoolboys that the Times made every attempt to be even-handed and accurate. In terms of its political stance, e.g. in editorials, it adopted the following procedure: immediately after an election it would tend to support the new government, no matter which party was in power. Midway through the government's term, the Times would tend to become more critical; and at the end of a term of office, the government could expect its every move to be subjected to close scrutiny.
That is one way for a responsible paper to proceed. Doubtless there are other strategies, equally valid and responsible.
Another example of neutral and objective reporting used to be the BBC Radio World Service. At one time this had an international reputation for accurate reporting, and it was virtually the only source of untainted news for the citizens of many countries. In recent years the World Service has not always maintained this high standard, but it could, in principle, regain its reputation.
Hewitt mentions none of these possibilities. Instead he tells us that, on matters such as nominations to the Supreme Court, 'the blogs will move much more quickly and with much greater authority than the MSM.' Well, they may indeed be quick to comment, but where the authority is going to come from I really don't know.