You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

Aaron Barlow, The Rise of the Blogosphere: Online Publishing as Pamphlets

In The Rise of the Blogosphere, Aaron Barlow draws many parallels between the distribution of political pamphlets in the days of the founding fathers and the creation of blogs. He touches on the commercialization of journalism in between, noting that the original political pamphlets–the printed precedessors of newspapers–were extremely partisan, and that neutrality or reporting “just the facts” (or, worse, being “fair and balanced”) weren’t goals of these first “blogs on paper,” if you will. The aims of these pamphlets were to spread information but also to get people to take sides.

Barlow underscores Lovink-type arguments about the proletarian power of blogs, emphasizing their role in undermining major media conglomerates. But he also emphasizes that blogs are a further evolution of something that evolved out of something much more like blogs than what newspapers have become, proving, essentially, that there is no correct definition of “news” and that our current conception of journalism is one based largely on a professionalization of an amateur genre. When that professionalization can no longer make a professional wage, when its institutions fail, isn’t it time to return to the roots of news, however amateurish those roots may be?

Barlow explicitly compares Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist Papers to bloggers, noting of these and similar papers or pamphlets that “like blogs, these were not stories resulting from active news gathering.. but were ‘about’ something that had already appeared—something that was, in fact, already well known” (Barlow 33). Existing news organizations complain about bloggers reporting stories that have already been broken, but that’s part of what all news outlets do–report and re-report the same story. (Check five major news websites right now. Chances are all of them have at least two or three of the same stories on the front page–many, many more if they’re sites in the same general geographic area.) Barlow stresses that public journalism–his term for what much of the blogosphere does–“rejects balance” and the idea that journalists are “stenographers” merely presenting notes.

As Barlow suggests, the point of journalism should not just be merely to inform but to engage. Thus Barlow’s argument is, essentially, a call for commentary: a call for stories to be something that will provoke discussion. Many newspaper stories do provoke discussion, but it is often not productive. Commenters “hijack” threads to promote their own (in Massachusetts, often anti-tax / anti-government) agendas, disagree with the story (which is, most often, factual and thus incapable of being “disagreed” with), offer attacks on the journalist or the people in the story, or engage in all manner of other unproductive commentary.

Thus we can, again, question these commenters’ motivations. Why are they saying what they’re saying, and for whom? Is it part of their own trajectory of idea development, or merely a way to get attention? Commentary in response to news often seems to be the latter. Why is that, and how can it be fixed?

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Filed under: Commentary

One Response

  1. aaronbarlow says:

    One important thing making any particular commentary useful is that it (if useful) comes out of a stance of openness concerning motivation and bias.

    One of the problems with 20th-century journalism and its obsession with ‘objectivity’ is that such an obsession leads to a hiding of motivation and bias behind a cloak of ‘we just report the news.’ But reporting requires making choices, and those choices are based on bias and motivation.

    Thanks for your accurate portrayal of my position in “The Rise of the Blogosphere.” I’ll read more of your posts.

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