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Parasites or pioneers?

On the "polemical excesses" of the blogosphere

The recent experiences of my colleague Mehdi Hasan rather bear out this passage from Michael Massing's very interesting piece about blogging and the future of print journalism in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books:

The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real. In And Then There's This, an impressionistic account of the viral culture on the Internet, Bill Wasik describes how "the network of political blogs, through a feedback loop among bloggers and readers," has produced a machine that supplies the reader with "prefiltered information" supporting his or her own views. ... With so many voices clamoring for attention, moreover, a premium is put on the sexy and sensational. Headlines are exaggerated so as to secure clicks and boost traffic. ... [Consequently], the Internet remains a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications.

But before aggrieved bloggers conclude that Massing, like the rest of what the members of the "online community" call the "mainstream media", is fearful of his job, it's worth pointing out that he recognises the enormous journalistic and democratic potential of the Web:

For all these problems, the Web is currently home to all kinds of intriguing experiments. YouTube recently introduced a Reporters' Center offering tips from established reporters on how to cover international news. The Huffington Post has set up an investigative fund to support journalistic research. The Boston-based GlobalPost has arranged with dozens of independent reporters around the world to find outlets for their work. Sites like Minn Post in Minneapolis and Voice of San Diego are testing whether metro reporting can be done on the Internet. Among the more notable recent developments are the sharply edited book section at The Daily Beast; the brisk video-debate unit Bloggingheads.tv; and the conservative blogging collective NewMajority.com, set up by David Frum after he broke with National Review. Taken together, such initiatives suggest a fundamental change taking place in the world of news.

And Massing makes an extremely acute distinction between the kind of blogging, often perpetrated behind the cloak of anonymity (as was the case with Mehdi Hasan's grotesque monstering by someone calling themselves "Channel Four Insider"), that is parasitic on print journalism, and what you might call blogging by experts. He mentions Juan Cole here, who, as it happens, is currently writing a piece for the New Statesman:

The blogosphere, by contrast, has proven especially attractive to those who, despite having specialized knowledge about a subject, have little access to the nation's Op-Ed pages. The model here is Juan Cole, a Mideast scholar at the University of Michigan whose blog, Informed Comment, has over the years offered a more acute analysis of developments inside Iraq -- and now Iran -- than most of the reporters stationed in those countries. Today, one can find similar commentators on almost any subject. For a physician's personal take on America's health care problems, one can turn to KevinMD, written by Kevin Pho, a primary care doctor in Nashua, New Hampshire. For a fresh perspective on education, there's joannejacobs .com, by a former Knight-Ridder columnist; and on drug policy, there's The Reality-Based Community, by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman.