What is the Blogosphere? Mr. Kos–meet Mr. Greeley

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

3 thoughts on “What is the Blogosphere? Mr. Kos–meet Mr. Greeley”

  1. "Newspapers were also the way that political parties could transmit their messages:"
    Which is worth remembering whenever the "reformers" start whining about "electioneering": "Electioneering" isn't some kind of abuse of 1st amendment rights, it's precisely what the 1st amendment was created to protect.

  2. Your general point is well-taken, but I think the main thing that made partisan newspapers obsolete was the "penny press" or "yellow press" which is the direct ancestor of all those stories about disappearing teens that plaster our "all-news" outlets today.
    Late in the 19th century, mass-production of newspapers on a really huge scale became possible. The problem was to find content that would attract enough buyers to make the investment pay off. And the answer was sensationalism.
    It came in many forms (and it wasn't a new invention, just a new application). Murders were always good and sordid. Hearst, you may remember, drummed the Spanish-American war. Actually, almost any kind of hysteria would do. This was later exploited by the Wilson administration's PR genius, George Crile, with a few unfortunate side effects.
    In the 20s the sensationalism tended to be about Prohibition and gangsters as well as things like flagpole-sitting, sports, airplanes– anything that could be ballyhooed and that could yield a good picture (which they could print as half-tones by then on ordinary newsprint).
    In Britain they did much the same thing, but most of the "press lords" were much more overt about combining sensationalism with politics, usually right-wing.
    Fox "news" is really the extension of that British pattern to the US. And it's no accident that Newt Gingrich made it possible by creating special exceptions for Murdoch. He was familiar with it and saw its potential for turning politics into a food fight, which served his purposes well for many reasons.
    One thing Democrats and other progressive types tend to forget is that the "conservative" reaction was trans-national in scope as well as coordinated across different realms of action like politics, media, academia, etc. The VRWC was real, but it wasn't just focused on Clinton. It was, and is, a true Reactionary International. Losing sight of its scope is one reason progressives constantly get blind-sided.

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