October 28, 2003

Mickey Kaus has an already much-commented-on piece defending blogs as a method of communication, or journalism, or whatever the hell it is. Most of his argument is devoted to justifying the one thing that all blogs have in common: that the editor and the author are the same person. A "blog" with a third-party editor, such as the SacBee columnist Daniel Weintraub, is entirely different fauna, like comparing a man with a mannequin, or a Sierra Nevada P.A. to a Samuel Adams.

If I have an argument with Kaus, it is over a specific weakness that blogs have which he seems to gloss over (in comparing this type of journalism to Matt Drudge, for instance), something that might be alleviated with an editor, but is really more a reflection of the blogger himself. That is, the lack of due diligence paid to making sure you get the post right. Sometimes, it's just a matter of using spellcheck a little more faithfully. But more often, it is the nasty habit a lot of bloggers have of publishing something because it sounds like a good story, rather than checking to ensure its accuracy. Spreading discredited stories undermines our craft, and it happens all too frequently with blogging.

For example, last month several right-wing bloggers picked up and ran with the story that actor Ed Asner had made some glowing remarks about Joseph Stalin, to the effect that he was "misunderstood" and that he would love to portray him in a movie. The story came from a conservative radio host who was recounting a conversation he had with the man some time ago. As it turns out, the Limbaugh-wannabee had gotten it wrong, and to his credit, retracted his accusation; an audio recording of the conversation revealed that Asner had merely noted the lack of movies and TV portraying Stalin, and had stated that he would like to take a crack at the role.

Those in the blogosphere who had so uncritically linked to a story smearing one of our most distinguished actors reacted with outrage towards their source's retraction, when a sense of humility would have more appropriate. Did any of these people think to contact their source for this story, to see how legitimate it was (the way a real journalist-blogger e-mailed me to find out how much of my October 6 posting on Gray Davis was truthful)? Did they exhibit any skepticism about what was clearly hearsay evidence? Obviously not. Asner's alleged quote fit within the prism of their ideological worldview, one that views any leftist thought as per se treasonous, and they fisked away. Those who bothered to make a correction blamed their source, rather than questioned their own methods.

This isn't the only example that comes to mind; some of you might recall the bogus definition of the MeChA slogan that made it's way from racist websites to bloggers to Fox News. Nor is this limited to the right; if Michael Moore were to claim that President Bush relieved himself on a homeless person while on the way to this morning's press conference, you can be rest assured that MWO would link to that account before the afternoon, just as it tried to spread a rumor about the homosexuality of one of Bush's judicial nominees last spring. Since not all of us can hire factcheckers to work on our vanity sites, it is incumbent on bloggers to act ethically when posting, and that means treating all outside information with skepticism.

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