‘Blogger’ no longer a dirty word

Published 2:30 pm Monday, November 26, 2007

It’s no exaggeration to say that the establishment media’s initial response to the “blogosphere” was panic. The idea of mere citizens talking back to the press was unsettling to Washington media celebrities. Pundits who’d exhibited no qualms about the sordid imaginings of, say, the American Spectator or the Wall Street Journal editorial page, recoiled in horror at online mockery. It was laugh-out-loud funny to see a Washington Post reporter infamous for treating Kenneth Starr’s backstairs leaks like holy writ make a show of pretending the now-defunct Web site mediawhoresonline.com had literally accused her of prostitution. How the system had always worked was this: They dished it out, everybody else had to take it.

Now that many print and broadcast outlets feature blogs of their own, it’s no longer common to hear the word “blogger” pronounced with utter disdain. Even so, competition from the groundlings still provokes unease. The latest high-minded worrier is University of Chicago law professor and sometime politico Cass R. Sunstein.

A Justice Department official during the Carter and Reagan administrations, Sunstein has written a book called “Republic.com 2.0” (Princeton University Press), essentially arguing that the Internet’s “echo chamber effect” is responsible for increased political polarization and declining civility. In an interview with Salon.com, he explained that social scientists find that when people talk only to those who agree with them, their views become more extreme.

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“I don’t like that Rush Limbaugh listeners call themselves ‘ditto heads,’” Sunstein said. “It’s funny, but it’s kind of horrible. Fox News is a self-identified conservative outlet. The more extreme elements on the left treat their fellow citizens as if they’re idiots, or as if they’re rich people who don’t care about anybody.” A former colleague and friend of Barack Obama, he yearns for greater recognition of the truism that “that neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on wisdom.”

No sentient person thinks they do. We’re all a mix of conflicting opinions. I’ve had run-ins with what I call the “anti-gravity left” during my own inglorious career. (I’m pro-hunting, for example, which drives sentimentalists nuts.) Today, however, I’d argue that Sunstein suggests a false dichotomy of little relevance to the current situation.

Among the blogs I read, there’s no equivalent of the authoritarian impulses, intellectual dishonesty and rote chanting of the GOP party line that characterizes Limbaugh and his imitators on the right. Partly, that’s because most are written by educated people who take pride in winning arguments without cheating, and to whom party orthodoxy is anathema. In a saner climate, many wouldn’t be called “left-wing” at all.

How liberal do you have to be to defend habeas corpus, Fourth Amendment privacy rights and the rule of law, as Glenn Greenwald does on his “Unclaimed Territory” blog at Salon.com? A former constitutional litigator, Greenwald brings rare clarity and passion to political issues with legal overtones.

Here are the political blogs I read every day:

Duncan Black’s “Eschaton” blog (www.atrios.blogspot.com) combines the analytical skills of a doctorate-level economist with the irreverent wit of a Philadelphia wiseacre. If you’d been reading Eschaton (or Paul Krugman), you’d have seen the housing bubble and the subprime lending crisis coming.

Josh Marshall’s doctorate is in history, but his talkingpointsmemo.com blog specializes in gritty, detailed reporting. Marshall was on top of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal from the get-go. Link through TPM to Greg Sergeant’s saucy “Horse’s Mouth” media criticism blog.

Bob Somerby’s “The Daily Howler” (dailyhowler.com) provides salty press criticism you’ll read nowhere else. “Radicalized” by the Washington media’s 2000 “War on Gore” (his Harvard roommate), Bob can’t abide liberal fecklessness about the way RNC-invented “narratives” dominate mainstream political coverage, and he doesn’t mind offending “weak, worthless” liberal pundits who look the other way.

Eric Alterman’s “Altercations” blog (mediamatters.org/altercation) is another place to find impassioned disputation between the host and a wide variety of antagonists on everything from Israel’s Likud party to the New York Mets. Sporting a doctorate in history, Eric’s also the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan on the Internet. “Slacker Fridays,” when the inimitable Charles Pierce’s scathing missives appear, is a must.

Media Matters columnists Eric Boehlert and Jamison Foser’s dissections of the vices and follies of the “mainstream” media advance a point of view similar to The Daily Howler’s somewhat more politely.

Kevin Drum at washingtonmonthly.com and the inimitable Digby (digbysblog.blogspot.com), a writer of such analytical brilliance and prodigious output that she shames the rest of us idlers, are two bloggers I never miss. Read around for a while, follow the links to related sites, and you’ll soon find your own favorites list.

A celebrated editor once told me that reading the letters submitted for publication to his magazine had persuaded him that contrary to media careerists in metropolitan enclaves, political intelligence and wisdom are scattered randomly across the American landscape. Thanks to the Internet, they no longer have to ask anybody’s permission to speak out.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.)