In the wake of Yearly Kos, Blogistan is getting a lot of very sophomoric attention from the MSM. The overall winner, is TNR’s Lee Siegel, who has commented that the blogosphere is “hard fascism with a Microsoft face” (whatever that means). Siegel’s work has received the derision it deserves, and so too has David Brooks.
Ironically, though, there is a very good analogy to the current blogosphere, which as far as I can tell has been ignored by most of the pundits, both on- and off-line. I am speaking of pre-World War I American newspapers.
Throughout the first 150 years or so of American history, newspapers had little pretense of being high-culture, objective sources. There were Federalist papers and Jeffersonian papers, Jacksonian and Whig papers, Democratic and Republican papers, etc. They were harshly partisan and often insulting: Abraham Lincoln was a baboon, Andrew Jackson an adulterer, John Adams a monarchist, etc. etc. They also featured much of the best writing around.
This was true even of the New York Times. Henry Raymond, the Times’ publisher during the Civil War, simultaneously served as chairman of the Republican National Committee, and no one thought that this was something odd. Across town, Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, actively lobbied delegates at the 1860 Republican convention. As Richard Carwardine demonstrates in his superb new Lincoln biography, the administration relied heavily on the advice from newspaper editors to gauge public opinion.
In the fiercely partisan 1790’s, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson even hired Philippe Freneau as a State Department translator in order to tide Freneau over so that he could publish a rabidly anti-Hamiltonian newspaper. Hamilton responded in just as partisan a fashion in the pages of The National Gazette, a Federalist sheet. Newspapers were critical in building the Jeffersonian political infrastructure.
There were also lots of newspapers: many cities had 7 or 8 a day, and they came out with at least two editions a day. After the Union triumph at Atlanta, readers stormed the offices of the National Intelligencer to get the most recent reports.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but the blogosphere is similar: fiercely partisan and ideological, burgeoning in number, producing quick news cycles. Obviously, there are significant differences, but the pattern holds.
What does all of this mean? First, it suggests that the analogy to fascism or irresponsibility or antidemocratic character is just ridiculous.
Second, it points to how the MSM can establish a new market niche for itself: by doing its job. There’s nothing really new in this call, but the reason why “quality papers” and an “objective media” arose might have been because the market for information was saturated with opinion and at times bile. Newspapers were also the way that political parties could transmit their messages: they can do the same now through the web. No one needs NPR or the NYT to tell us what the President said: we can just access it through blogs or websites. How about doing some actual reporting, for a change?
Third–and this is very sketchy, because my knowledge is thin–changes in the economy and technology made the newspaper wars obsolete. Economies of scale and bigger costs of newsprint and paper put the small sheets out of business; electronic media made several editions less valuable. There’s no obvious equivalent on the web, unless Congres scuttles net neutrality and makes production of websites costly. But I’m wondering whether there won’t be some economic or technological change that profoundly alters the structure over the next few years.
No–I don’t know what that will be. If I did, I would be investing in it.