Truth Serum

Date: Sun 08 Jun 2003 - 21:39:12 GMT

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    Truth serum by David Warren
    "We get results," is a characteristic boast in James Taranto's daily blog, Best of the Web Today. (It is one of the Wall Street Journal's free online features.) The cry goes up each time someone he has exposed for shoddy or vicious journalistic practices is compelled to make amends. Last Sunday I wrote about the Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times, and what it portends for print journalism at large. On Thursday, the Times's top two editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, resigned in half-acknowledged disgrace. With his newsroom melting down, the publisher brought the previous editor out of retirement, to begin a clean-up. Desperate measures will be required to salvage the paper's reputation. Now, my reader will guess it was not my Sunday Spectator that pulled Mr. Raines down. (I can only dream of such power!) It was instead the relentless exposure of internal facts about the "grey lady" -- chiefly by a cast of Internet bloggers, working without direction, management, or deadlines, and without pay except through "tipping jars" directly from their readers. They got results, which could never have been achieved had the Times's management been able to circle its wagons in the old way. To many of my readers, a "blog" will be a mysterious thing. I would no more wish to describe how one works than to tell you in prose how to assemble an aeroplane; the best thing is to connect to the Internet and enter one. Let me suggest, for starters, a tour of the Koh-i-Noor of blogs, Glenn Reynolds' s InstaPundit, at: Let your fingers walk: scroll down, scroll up, read around, try some of the links, check some of the readers' comments, and within an hour you'll be at home in it. Or if you get lost, just ask any kid to help you. From there you may link to many other locations in the "blogosphere" -- and you will begin to understand the concept. A revolution is happening in journalism, right now; a revolution with huge political implications. Blogs are the cause. And the fall of Howell Raines this last week is like the first brick in a Berlin Wall. It will not stop tumbling. Though made of words, a blog is a different thing, in kind, from printed articles in a newspaper or magazine, in which sources of information may be stated but must be taken by the reader on faith, unless the reader has the time, ability, and personal connexions to retrace them. And if he does, what he finds must then be taken on faith by his readers. The blog may be updated by the minute or the hour, it remains accessible and searchable through its archives, but most crucially, it contains those Internet links. Through them, the bloggers are universally networked. They link each other's precise words, and -- comes the revolution -- are able to reference most of their sources almost instantaneously, in the original form. The almost infinitely extendable electronic field of text, allows whatever space is necessary to delve into fine details. The
    "comments" that readers can append to each blog "post" provide a court of cross-examination, so the blogger himself is quickly exposed in any sharp practice. The bloggers also act as checks on one another, and cross-link when they contest each other's views and findings. Example, bloggers have recently demolished one malicious misquotation after another of Bush administration officials, by leftwing newspaper reporters and columnists, simply by juxtaposing through links what the journalist tried to get away with, to the original transcripts. In another breakthrough on Thursday, the Guardian, a British leftwing daily, found itself retracting two of its biggest recent stories. In the first it alleged Colin Powell and Jack Straw had had doubts about the evidence they gave before the war of Iraqi WMD, citing a meeting between them that -- had never taken place. In the second, it said Paul Wolfowitz had admitted the U.S. went into Iraq for its oil, quoting -- wilfully and dishonestly from a text retranslated through German. Bloggers had been all over both stories, and made the difference on the second. Through a variety of methods of pooling and focusing the immense resources of the Internet and its readers, a series of other propagandist try-ons have been demolished recently, including the BBC's allegation that the U.S. Army "faked" much of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, and the Baghdad Museum "looting" story. Nothing is too big or too small: A radical left journalist such as Robert Fisk of the London Independent, finds his copy being forensically examined by bloggers to show that one story requires him to have been in two locations at the same time, and that in another, where he claims to have been writing from "behind Iraqi lines", it was from a town the U.S. Army had already occupied. Not all these stories get retracted. There is a learning curve, and many newspapers and broadcasters have yet to discover what public relations professionals did long ago: that if you don't retract a falsehood promptly and completely, far more damage will be done to your credibility than if you do. Others are learning, mostly the hard way, that the age of blogging has arrived. In principle, it is a reversion to and extension of the invention of the footnote, by the scholastics in the High Middle Ages. This was one of the great advances of Christendom -- the idea that the truth should be sourced, precisely -- though it entailed, as Ivan Illich argued, a compensating loss -- the transformation of "reading as prayer" to "reading as learning". That aside, the political implications expand, as the possibilities for news management by an overwhelmingly glib and "liberal" media establishment contract. And likewise in the nearly closed shop of academia: for the rapid advance of academic blogging will soon put paid to much of the rubbish which passes for scholarship today. For those living under tyrannical regimes in the "Third World", access to alternative information improves with imported technology. In Iran, for instance, the number of bloggers has recently exploded, leaving the ayatollahs with only the bad option of unplugging the entire country from the outside world. Truth and freedom have usually marched together. In the larger view, blogging does not threaten print, but enhances and extends it. The web is now offering both media and world a new and powerful truth serum.

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