Here’s a question worth asking in the post-election haze: Do bloggers provide a valuable public service?
If you ask them, of course, the answer is yes. They’re awfully proud of themselves these days — at least, those who deal mostly in politics and crave large audiences.
Let’s look at the question this way: Are they filling in gaps in media coverage that would not otherwise be filled?
Well, what we need most in the media these days are reporters. We’ve been shedding them left and right in the economic carnage of the 21st century so far. We’ve seen cable networks and Web sites spring up that employ pundits and repackagers (yes, that includes me in the Sports department), not reporters.
What do blogs offer? Unfortunately, pundits and repackagers. There are rare exceptions in which a blogger with an expertise on a particular topic might offer some input, but generally, we’re talking about generalists who read, link and react.
So what was the question?
Bloggers will say that’s unfair. “At least we’re getting people talking about civic issues,” they’ll argue. Sadly, no. They’re roughly the same as the cable networks, offering spin and counterspin to dissect points on one or two big stories.
Two problems with this approach. The first is that we end up debating small points on big stories without debating the big story itself. That’s because small points come up daily, but big stories evolve over months, and the former suits blogs (and cable networks and other new media) much better. For example, we end up arguing about Dan Rather and Bush’s National Guard memos rather than the larger picture of Bush’s military service (or lack thereof) or the even larger issue of Bush’s fitness to be president. For many readers, we end up with this sort of twisted logic: “Rather was wrong to run the story about the memos; therefore, there’s nothing left to ask about Bush’s military service and he’s a good president.” Logicians’ heads would spin at that one.
The second problem is this: We’ve all become political spectators. Our approach to politics is the same as our approach to sports. We pick a team, cheer for that team and talk trash about the other team. And we’re only following national politics. Sure, more people are “involved” in national politics, if you count “involved” as posting in blogs’ comment threads, which are always doomed to devolve into some sort of posturing between two sides of extremists. But how many people are involved where it counts, on the local level? Are we just dragging people away from doing constructive political work where it can help and getting them wrapped up in shoutfests on the Web?
Don’t read this as some sort of comment against blogs, ironically posted (I know) on a blog. They’re wonderful tools of self-expression, and I love using mine to communicate with the three or four of you who read each week. But I’m not convinced they can be any more than that unless they refocus on niches and something local where the blogger can actually call add something to the conversation. There’s no shortage of blather over national politics. If you must add to the heap to vent your spleen, go right ahead. People may even read it, and the self-flagellating media will always show up to say, “Thank you, may I have another?” But when it comes to providing a valuable service, the kid covering your local town council for $400 a week is outdoing the mightiest blog.