Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Hugh Hewitt: Blog -- part 3

Continued from yesterday. Some of the remaining chapters of this book offer little to detain us, but I will go through them all, for the record, and at the end offer some final thoughts.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is entitled 'Why do Bloggers Blog? And Why it Matters to You.'

The author's thoughts on these two questions are not very illuminating, but he does make some fair points. One of these is that 'the information monopoly, especially in the world of politics, is shattered'. This is fair enough. The existence of a million or two blogs certainly does provide a few extra sources of information, over and above the MSM.

Chapter 7

Part III of the book begins here: Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Tornadoes -- What's an Executive to Do?

Given that executives are Hewitt's stated target readership for his book, this third part is, I guess, the heart of the whole thing.

Chapter 7 is entitled 'Establishing a Defense', which indicates that Hewitt primarily sees blogs as a source of danger and risk to businesses and organisations of all sorts. Better be ready, he says, to defend yourself against a blog storm, e.g. if you're a food producer and you're found to have been using a food dye which is carcinogenic -- precisely what has happened in the UK over the last couple of days. The suggestions for defending a company seem sensible enough.

Chapter 8

Here the advice becomes frankly risible. Hewitt proposes that a leader of industry ought be blogging daily, to his employees, and the employees should be faithfully reading said blog.

Boy, is this ever a two-edged sword.

In the first place, what gives Hewitt the idea that the average CEO can write, or even dictate, a halfway readable blog? It takes talent, folks. And the example that Hewitt gives of a 'good' post in this context is the sort of thing that would have British employees sniggering for a week. That's if the boss was lucky; if he wasn't lucky he would be faced with a delegation from the union, asking some searching questions.

I don't know what the position is in the US, but here in the UK we have traditionally had a healthy degree of scepticism about the wisdom of our bosses. We often suspect them of being more or less complete fools, elevated well above their deserved station by having been to the right school or having married the boss's daughter, or whatever. A blog written by such a person might have the unfortunate effect of proving, within a week, that such suspicions were fully justified. I recommend extreme caution before Hewitt's recommendations are adopted.

Chapter 9

Title: 'Blogging You, or Your Organization, to the World'. In this chapter Hewitt argues along the lines of 'they won't know unless you tell them', a position with which I have some sympathy. Modesty is the enemy of talent, that sort of thing.

This chapter is notable also for the fact that it is crisply written: short sentences, short paragraphs. A sort of Ed Murrow technique, and none the worse for that.

Chapter 10

Title: 'Finding a Blogger For Your Organization's Blog'. Now this is a bit more sensible. Hewitt suggests that, if an organisation has concluded that it would benefit from a blog, it should recruit a 'professional' blogger, with a track record, to write it. You need, he says, someone who can write and who is ridiculously productive. I second that.

Chapter 11

'There is Plenty of Time to Start', says Hewitt. By which he means that you have not yet missed the boat, but that you should launch your blog as soon as possible.

Chapter 12

'A Dozen Blogs I Would Launch if I Were...' This chapter contains the names of some real companies and some hypothetical individuals, such as an eBay entrepreneur or a Cleveland Browns fan, and describes how blogging might be of benefit to them. There is further encouragement for businesses of all kinds to take advantage of the blogosphere to improve their reputation and profits.

Chapter 13

'Getting Started: the Technology'. An extremely brief chapter, containing hands-on advice of an elementary and obvious kind.


The conclusion is titled 'The Inevitability of Dominance'.

Here Hewitt repeats another of his constant refrains, namely that the key to blogging is trust. 'To build trust', he says, 'is a tremendously difficult thing, requiring patient attention to detail and discipline over long periods of time.'

Well, he got that right. And developing trust is likely to be a real problem for companies that hope to increase sales and reputation through the blog medium. Unless what they say on the blog is extremely carefully handled, it might well end up by having the opposite effect: it will just provide ammunition for critics.


There are two lengthy appendices.

The first contains some of Hewitt's early writings on blogging. These demonstrate that he is undoubtedly a capable polemicist: when he puts the boot in, people emerge bruised. Whether Hewitt is justified in saying what he says is a different matter, and doubtless there is room for more than one view on that.

In the course of these reprints of earlier writing, we hear a lot more of Hewitt's view that the American MSM have lost all credibility because of their 'bias'. The media, he alleges, are 'filled to the brim with agenda journalists who will not only shade the truth, but who will also almost inevitably distort it... for the purposes of advancing the causes of the left.' This has led to the rise of Rush Limbaugh -- a man who, it is implied, is without any agenda at all. Well, that ain't what I've heard, though I confess that I have no personal acquaintance with the gentleman.

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to say that I have to take issue with Hewitt's continual use of the word 'bias'.

It is certainly the case that anyone smart enough to be working for any of the MSM will have acquired a set of opinions and beliefs, including opinions upon political matters -- if only, like me, that they wish to spend as little time contemplating politics as is humanly possible. Since Hewitt is so damn keen on objectivity and the truth, he might start by dropping the word 'bias' and substituting the word 'mindset', a term which is at least reasonably neutral and is not immediately insulting.

I am prepared to accept that American MSM have a mindset which leans towards what, in American terms, is quaintly spoken of as 'the left' -- though it is a left entirely unrecognisable to most Europeans of that persuasion. But surely it is blindingly obvious that Rush Limbaugh and like thinkers also have a mindset. Not only is there room for both sets of opinions, but there is a need for both. One has the uncomfortable feeling that if Hewitt were appointed as dictator of America -- and I doubt that he would turn down the opportunity -- we would be presented with only one point of view.

In this section of the book we also have repeated evidence that Hewitt is all too often ready with a quick sneer. The TV programme Meet the Press is referred to as Meet the Cuomo Aide -- a position formerly held by its presenter. Now I am not an unqualified admirer of Meet the Press, which I see on satellite, but this kind of abuse is unhelpful. It is doubly unfortunate because, as I said above, Hewitt at his best puts his finger on some important facts, and he can really turn a phrase; it's just that he lets himself down with these sneers, insults and sweeping generalisations.

Here -- lest I be accused of my own unfair treatment -- is a bit of Hewitt at his best:
Ultimately, the blogs force a choice upon you: If you join in and have the goods, you are opting out of elected life and any prayer of eventual judicial or other high-level governmental selection because candor is the first requirement of successful blogging... and there is no erasing your past work. But if you can set aside those ambitions, the world of blogging is where the life of the mind has moved. Genuine argument is emerging from the stranglehold that the bigs of the first three generations have imposed upon it. 'Cut and thrust' is back, and a web duel makes light sabers look tame.
This quote might perhaps be described as the key to the book. I have little doubt that what it says is true, and I also find it deeply worrying. It suggests (and again Hewitt is probably correct) that anyone who says what they think is going to find it difficult to gain elected office. To get elected you have to be all things to all men; it's no good, apparently, having principles.

After 40 pages of early writings (reprinted) we come to the second appendix, What the Blogosphere has Wrought. This consists mostly of emails from readers of Hewitt's blog, responding to his request that readers should tell him how they use blogs and the internet to acquire information. All one can say is that some of these people spend far too long in front of a VDU. Stop it at once. You will only get over-excited.

Final thoughts

First, some thoughts on blogging, as they come to me after reading Hewitt.

I may be out of touch, but it seems to me that blogs are not yet as well established in the UK and Europe as they are in the USA. As Hewitt demonstrates, there are some US blogs, particularly in the political field, with massive readership and, as a result, real punching power. I don't see the UK equivalents.

Hewitt is also correct in saying that blogs provide a wonderful opportunity for ambitious young men and women. The young Kenneth Tynan, for instance, would have sacrificed the whole of his left arm, gladly, for a facility like blogs, back in the 1950s. But again, where are the clever young men and women of Oxbridge on the blog rolls? If they're there, well, sorry, but I've not noticed.

I also agree with Hewitt (a tad reluctantly) when he criticises the MSM for being superficial and not as informative as the better blogs. For instance, the GOB, as you well know, deals with books and publishing. I make no attempt to provide up-to-the-minute news coverage: others do that, chiefly in the UK and Publishers Lunch in the US. But recently I have more than once felt obliged to point out that articles about the book world in major newspapers have been less than accurate and perceptive: see my posts of 18 February and 7 February.

And what of Blog as a whole? Well, as I said at the beginning, the book is worth reading if you are (a) a blogger, (b) someone who reads blogs regularly, or (c) someone employed in the MSM.

It is for the most part well written and presents us with some valuable insights.

However, in my opinion the book lets itself down, badly, where it overtly reflects the author's political preferences (one might reasonably call them prejudices). In those passages he adopts a tone of voice which is all too common in American politics, at any rate as observed from the UK. It is a tone of voice which is strident, aggressive, and, in a word, nasty. It is not a tone of voice which is used in rational, civilised discourse. It is at best unattractive and at worse repellent.

It is a voice which reflects a particular mindset. This mindset admits of no possibility of ever being wrong; it admits of no possibility that others might have a contrary but valid, and valuable, opinion; it denies the sincerity of its opponents, and it attributes to them the worst possible motives.

America deserves better than this; and America is certainly capable of it.