Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bloggers: Scourge of Civilization

"Blog" was Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2004 and the popularity of weblogs had been in full bloom for some time before that. It is altogether fitting that now, at the start of 2006, blogs should filter down to the consciousness of Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist who writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

Her overlords at Tribune Media Services call her "A maverick conservative [who] offers readers the best of both worlds: the contacts of a Washington insider with the 'Is-it-me-or-is-this-crazy?' perspective of an outsider." In "Lord of the Blogs," an op-ed column that ran on December 28, it ain't crazy so it has to be her.

In broad strokes, Parker dismisses the blogosphere as the playground of Lord of the Flies savages who have no right to opine on the news because they lack proper formal training and, apparently, souls. The fact that so many of us do what we do (gasp) for free further proves our worthlessness in her eyes.

Before opening the flood gates of irrational anger, however, Parker whitewashes this sepulcher with a paean to the joys of the Internet.
What is wonderful and miraculous about the Internet needs little elaboration. We all marvel at the ease with which we can access information—whether reading government documents previously available only to a few, or tracking down old friends and new enemies.
Yes, there's that, but there's good stuff, too. She fails to mention shopping, porn, a place for Anne Rice fans to meet without risking exposure to the sun, porn and the ability for people from all over the globe to come together, exchange ideas and comment on all that information we can now access so easily (like free copies of columns by syndicated columnists, for example). Since it took Parker until now to weigh in on the "dangers" of the newfangled blogosphere, I guess we can cut her some slack in this department.

After extolling the virtues of the Internet, however, it's time for Parker to stick it to the bloggers. You may have noticed the phrase "new enemies" in the quotation above. Who could they be?
I don't mean al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, but the less-visible, insidious enemies of decency, humanity and civility—the angry offspring of narcissism's quickie marriage to instant gratification.

Kathleen 'Blogs Will Kill You' Parker

And I thought maverick conservatives were against the kind of moral relativism that allows one to mention bloggers in the same breath as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Certainly there's no question that some bloggers are narcissists—the type of narcissists who might want to have their little pictures and bylines printed next to their is-it-me-or-is-this-crazy profundities in a couple hundreds newspapers every day, for example—but there are a heck of a lot of bloggers who do their work anonymously. In the mainstream media, while the sources may be anonymous, the writers rarely are. Strangely, Parker doesn't see anything narcissistic about this in the least. How, dare I say, narcissistic of her.

One thing Parker doesn't like about blogs is their patina of "power untempered by restraint and accountability." Toilers in the mainstream media, on the other hand, are virtual philosopher-saints who police each other (Jayson Blair, she says, is proof that this system works) and think only of serving their communities. (They also sell readers and viewers to advertisers, but she doesn't see fit to mention that.)
Newspapers are filled with carpal-tunneled wretches, overworked and underpaid, who suffer near-pathological allegiance to getting it right.
Somebody call Charles Dickens! While that may be an unflattering way for Parker to describe the interns and copy editors who undoubtedly type her columns into Quark, it has the added distinction of being wildly inaccurate. I worked for a number of years at a major newspaper (far bigger than the Sentinel), and I can say that, just as in the world of blogs, there are all kinds of people working in the mainstream media. Some of them are just as Parker describes, some of them not even close. Paint with that broad a brush and you're bound to gloss over a few things here and there.

"Bloggers," Parker complains, "persist no matter their contributions or quality." I am tempted to say the same thing is true of Andy Rooney, but that would just be glib, like much of Parker's column. The truth is, bloggers can persist for as long as they choose to go on writing, but the same can't be said for their readers. Every blogger has a more-or-less equal chance to gain an audience (something that could never be said about "mainstream" journalists), but that audience must be earned and then maintained, and this is usually done on the quality and consistency of the blogger's work. Considerations like whose father plays golf with the publisher's best frat buddy, who's Gloria Vanderbilt's son or who's shtupping which editor rarely enter into the mix online.

One thing that really riles Parker is the substandard content churned out by bloggers.
Some bloggers...offer superb commentary, but most babble, buzz and blurt like caffeinated adolescents competing for the Ritalin generation's inevitable senior superlative: Most Obsessive-Compulsive.
(Note to Parker: Something you should have learned in the 5th grade is that while alliteration can be clever and whimsical, it is by no means always so.) Anyone who has ever seen or read Robert Novak on a good day—or Tucker Carlson even on a bad one—knows that the blogosphere holds no monopoly on infantile tantrums. Sure, plenty of blogs are worse than worthless. Can the same not be said of the mainstream media?


But Parker is not interested in the journalistic ideal of balance in this case. Without getting into geese or ganders, it's safe to say blogs get the short end of the stick in her rendering.
Each time I wander into blogdom, I'm reminded of the savage children stranded on an island in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies." Without adult supervision, they organize themselves into rival tribes, learn to hunt and kill, and eventually become murderous barbarians in the absence of a civilizing structure.
First with al Qaeda and now it's "murderous barbarians"? She's certainly puts the "hyper" in hyperbole, but what she's describing is a problem with opinion journalism in general, not just blogs. When I think of belligerent partisan hacks, I immediately think of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, Michael Moore and Al Franken, the entire FOX News staff. How is this in any way special to blogs? It sounds like a standard Sunday morning on the networks to me.

Embedded in the hysterical quote above is a major theme of Parker's infuriatingly condescending editorial and, perhaps, its hidden agenda as well. Bloggers are children without adult supervision.
Plenty smart but lacking in wisdom, they possess the power of a forum, but neither the maturity nor humility that years of experience impose.
Elsewhere she worries that bloggers "have grabbed the mike and seized the stage, a privilege granted not by years in the trenches, but by virtue of a three-pronged plug and the miracle of WiFi." What it all comes down to is this: Parker and her friends likely spent their (or their parents') hard-earned money going to journalism school (where they teach you how to write topic sentences and not to tell lies—a couple more things you should have learned by 5th grade). They "paid their dues" and now they're jealously guarding the clubhouse, intent on barring anyone who tries to slip in the side door. I can almost muster a little sympathy for someone who sounds so much like an old horse-and-buggy driver circa 1905. As she feels her grip slipping, as the paradigm shifts and crumbles around her, Parker can do nothing but cling to the ancien regime of the mainstream press, fiercely loyal to "the way it's done."

The irony in all of this is that Parker employs the extended metaphor of Lord of the Flies but doesn't recognize her own animalistic need to show her dominance by rubbing her supposed superiority in the faces of the less powerful and less deserving. She ruffles her feathers, puffs out her chest and then squawks nonsense that exhibits neither maturity nor humility: "Incivility is their weapon and humanity their victim." So blogs are victimizing humanity now? Forget war, disease and pestilence; wipe out blogs and you will save humanity. You may come down off that horse now.

Parker makes it clear at the end of her column that she's not talking about all bloggers.
I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant people out there—professors, lawyers, doctors, philosophers, scientists and other journalists who also happen to blog.
As long as you're a professional of some kind, you're fine. The opinions of the great unwashed masses of normal people, however, aren't worth a thing. For Parker, who seems more conservative and less maverick with each passing moment, class and status are what really count in the end. It doesn't matter what you have to say. What's important is that you exhibit the correct social markers in order to appear to be worth listening to.

For those who don't meet Parker's arbitrary standards, only one thing will do: oblivion.
...we should beware and resist the rest of the ego-gratifying rabble who contribute only snark, sass and destruction. We can't silence them, but for civilization's sake—and the integrity of information by which we all live or die—we can and should ignore them.
First of all, some of the best blogs out there specialize in snark and sass. Without them the Internet would be as boring as, well, the Orlando Sentinel. Second of all, did I read that right?! Blogs are a danger to civilization itself? I guess they don't teach a sense of proportion at journalism school. Either that or she's still working her way through a potent batch of egg nog left over from Christmas.
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