In Which Steven Johnson’s Ass Is Searched-for via Hands and Flashlight

Pardon me for a bit of inside-baseballing, but trust-funder Steven Johnson has been a fountain of underconsidered cyber-discourse (e.g. ‘people are like ants’) ever since his grandmother gave him the money to start FEED magazine; and it’s clearly still the late ’90s in the hearts of many, for Johnson remains a reputed explainer-of-things.

Johnson: An expert via direct-deposit

Why do people pay attention to Johnson, as opposed to other less-wealthy guys who actually know what they’re talking about? That’s a question that society isn’t too eager to answer.

Five Things All Sane People Agree On About Blogs And Mainstream Journalism (So Can We Stop Talking About Them Now?)

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have very rarely posted anything here on the “bloggers versus mainstream journalism” debate, largely because the market for good ideas on this topic has long been saturated, in my opinion. But Nicholas Lemann’s piece in the New Yorker this week has finally pushed me over the edge. Don’t get me wrong — Lemann is a superb journalist, and I agree with just about everything he says in the article. But that’s the problem. I think everyone agrees with just about everything he says in the article. Jay Rosen tried to kill off this kind of discussion a year or two ago with his smart essay, Bloggers Versus Journalists Is Over, but obviously it didn’t stick. So let me propose a slightly more blunt approach. Does anyone disagree with the following concepts:

1. Mainstream, top-down, professional journalism will continue to play a vital role in covering news events, and in shaping our interpretation of those events, as it should.

2. Bloggers will grow increasingly adept at covering certain kinds of news events, but not all. They will play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all kinds of news.

3. The majority of bloggers won’t be concerned with traditional news at all.

4. Professional, edited journalism will have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than blogging; examples of sloppy, offensive, factually incorrect, or tedious writing will be abundant in the blogosphere. But diamonds in that rough will be abundant as well.

5. Blogs — like all modes of contemporary media — are not historically unique; they draw upon and resemble a number of past traditions and forms, depending on their focus.

So here’s my proposal: if you’re writing an article or a blog post about this issue, and your argument revolves around one or more of these points — and doesn’t add anything else of substance — STOP WRITING. Pick a new topic. Move on. There’s nothing to see here.

Hummana-blubbida. Yes, this is simply the last word on blogs. All sane people agree. “STOP WRITING.”

Not exactly. The fact is that certain blogs have proven themselves extremely reliable as sources of news and commentary — e.g., Digby’s, Billmon’s, Glenn Greenwald’s, and others — while ‘blogs’ as an analytical category is just as scattershot and meaningless as the notion of ‘print’ as an arbiter of sober and reasoned discourse. Briefly: A ‘blog’ is a means of transmission, just as a photocopier (or a videocam, or an offset press) is a means of transmission. What matters is the content — the information and analysis which the medium transmits –, and certain people are extremely good at creating such intelligent and useful content, while most others aren’t or don’t care to be.

The ones that are good over time are ‘reputable,’ while the ones that aren’t are ‘not reputable’ — much like print publications are (e.g., the New York Review of Books vs. the Weekly World News), and much like the people whom one knows.

This would seem easy to figure out after ten years in the ‘digerati,’ but maybe not. Maybe Wired ought to do a story on it first. Shake the bugs out of it, sort of thing. That way it’ll be safe for Steven to ‘pioneer’ the idea, maybe in 2008 or so, with a $500,000-advance book called “Like I’ve Been Saying: Blogs Are Unfortunately Not Exactly Transmissions From An Alien, Post-Human Civilization.”


Comments: 26


I’m not really sure where this vehemence is coming from…I took your point “The fact is that certain blogs have proven themselves extremely reliable as sources of news and commentary …while ‘blogs’ as an analytical category is just as scattershot and meaningless as the notion of ‘print’ as an arbiter of sober and reasoned discourse.” to be pretty much exactly his point (especially #3 and #4) when I read this on boingboing two weeks ago.

More importantly, I think he is saying that this short list are the first words on blogs…certainly not the last. hence, they don’t need to be reported on like they are some staggering bolt of genius.


Meanwhile, the backlash begins against opportunist Democrats:

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sponsored a 35-second ad on its Web site that shows footage of two people scaling a border fence mixed with images of Osama Bin Laden and North Korea President Kim Jong Il.

Pedro Celis, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said in a statement Tuesday that the DSCC should remove the ad because it vilifies illegal Hispanic immigrants and is “appalling.”

Houston City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, a Democrat, sent a letter to DSCC Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer of New York asking that the ad be pulled. She said it could alienate Latino voters.

“To liken Latino immigrants to bazooka-toting terrorists not only undermines the positive relationship our party has with this community, but also lowers us to a despicable level as breeders of unfounded fear and hatred,” Alvarado wrote.


“This is the same kind of fear mongering we condemn in the extreme media and now we are seeing it at the DSCC,” said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza. “It’s appalling.”

It appears that the Democrats opportunistic move towards the right has backfired, as their pro-illegal immigration wing is denouncing these ads.

There’s more than enough reasons for Latinos to renounce Democrats.

Democrats stand for abortion, homosexuality, and illegal immigration. All of those things are unpopular with the Latino community.

The Democrat attempt to go to the right of Tom Tancredo is a failure.

It shows that they are opportunists who will say anything to say and win.

Democrats support Bush’s foolish guest worker plan. They should remember that Americans are not stupid enough to fall for opportunists.



If one hasn’t figured out by now that ‘blogs’ isn’t a sufficiently narrow category of analysis, one ought not to be regarded as a leading-edge, in-front-of-the-curve blogger.

Like what level of clueless imbecility does it take to get you trend-followy guys off the trendy-train? Johnson mumbling and gnawing on corners of his cotton sleeves? Diaper incidents?

I hear BoingBoing is really leading the charge on NSA stories these days.


I must agree. I engaged in my first flamewar in 1992. On Usenet, in the newsgroups.

Nothing about the way people behave online has changed one iota over the intervening 14 years, in my experience.

So, Johnson is just now noticing that blogs are just a different (bettler, more efficient) iteration of the same basic thing that Usenet was…. and I’m supposed to let him lead me to silence???


Whatever you think of SJ, please don’t transfer that to FEED. Yes, I’m emotionally invested in the topic because I had a great experience writing for them but I’ll still say that some of the editors I worked with there, including Amanda Griscom, rocked hard and taught me a lot.

My only experience with SJ was at one of “those” parties in San Francisco, with dot-com people and money mixing in a converted industrial space with new, glowing hardwood floors and expensive chairs. I noted his name tag and walked up to the small group he was heading; at a lull in the conversation I introduced myself, thanking him for the work. He glanced up and down at me, seemed to make the calculation that I could offer him little if anything, nodded, and turned back to the others. And that’s my SJ story.


Lemann’s practically attacking a straw man. His main point is that autonomous volunteers won’t replace paid journalists. If we restrict the definition of journalism to 24-hour on-the-spot reporting, day in and day out, he’s right. Despite the foolish predictions of blog triumphalists, the paid media is better at providing the kind of comprehensive, consistent coverage of current events than autonomous bloggers.

Lemann doesn’t seem to understand that the vast majority of blogging uses paid reporting as its fodder. The best-known bloggers are pundits or experts in their fields who analyze and interpret the events of the day.

The issue is not whether blogging is going to replace paid reporting. Obviously not. The issue is whether some bloggers can earn a place alongside the most respected members of the media establishment. Clearly, we’re seeing that they can.

The exciting thing about the blogosphere is that talented individuals can earn a large audiences without working their way through the traditional media power structure. That is a big deal.


Yeah, the floors were indeed glowingly hardwood at those things, but Amanda is at Grist now, and Steven is still a knob.

I’m still waiting for the late-afternoon traffic to start up here, but why are people popping up to defend Johnson? It’s almost as though being a moron is okay if you can write checks and buy attention.

Surprised at you guys.


Boy, I’m loving Gary’s hypocritical tongue-clucking, finger-wagging chastisement over a Democratic attempt at fear-mongering, demagoguery and hyper-nativism. It’s like watching an old whore go after a new girl who has moved in on her street corner.

Message received, Gary, my man. The Reich Wing can continue to claim that shit as its own, and you’ll get no argument from me.


feed isn’t so bad, and I didn’t mean to imply it. I only shoot the lost messenger, not the envelope itself.


Hm. I’m terribly disreputable and still over 5 people read me every day!


I thought the piece was irritating because of that Slate-like here’s-some-wisdom-for-ya presentation of something that should have been ho-hum obvious to both the author and his target audience (which I think is part of what Gav was saying). I don’t think he would’ve had an issue with the piece if it was written my Joe Blow down the street or appeared in the Midnowhere Weekly. And if I’m wrong, slap me with pulled spaghetti for the perfidious perdition of my presumption. Or something.

Reading SJ also felt like I was watching a man join a group that’s flogging a dead horse, and begins to flog away at it himself. He then intones in a Geroge Will way that the activity in which they participate is called “beating a dead horse,” and that it’s annoying how all of these people are all into beating dead horses these days. Instructing all to watch his form, he gets his last few licks in, and says “unless you have a flourish to add, STOP BEATING THE DEAD HORSE.”

It’s like Captain Obvious, Mr. Me-Too, and his brother Too-Coo-Fo-Yoo all in one.


Hm. I’m terribly disreputable and still over 5 people read me every day!

But l4m3, you post like once every week or two!


Isn’t picking a new topic when you can’t add anything of substance just a good rule of thumb anyway?

and has SJ really adding anything of substance himself? Shouldn’t he pick a new topic?


The Democrat attempt to go to the right of Tom Tancredo is a failure.

It shows that they are opportunists who will say anything to say and win.

Democrats support Bush’s foolish guest worker plan. They should remember that Americans are not stupid enough to fall for opportunists.

Gary, last week weren’t the Democrats moving ‘sharply to the left’ as evidenced by the primary win of Ned Lamont? this week they’re moving right? It’s not a dance, Gary, which is it?

Democrat’s supporting Bush’s plan? I though we were unreasoning Bush-haters, who oppose anything Bush proposes. When did Kos change the orders?

Some Americans MUST be stupid enough to fall for opportunists; they all voted for Bush.

There HAS to be more than one Garybot running around out there, like several hundres Tom Servos. There’s too much cognitive dissonance for one person, even your basic wingnut.


Johnson is simply another silver spoon a-hole, and one not worth any froth.


I’m a dork. I’ve never heard of Steven Johnson. But this whole “Its a blog – No, it’s journalism” discussion is well and truly stupid. Reminds me of the old SNL “It’s a floor polish – No, it’s a desert topping” gag. Blogs are simply a technology enabler. They allow anyone to put up some web content that can be read by the whole world. This is good – the most democratizing influence in publishing, like, EVER. Now some people are going to do remarkable things with that technology. And some people are going to put up paens to their cats. Some will wield the language like a fine scalpal, others like a misshapen bludgeon. Some will become rich and famous, many will never be noticed. There are many things you can do with a blog – I have one I just use to write fiction. It’s nothing more than a use-anywhere word processor and remote storage.

Of COURSE a technological sea change like that which is being enabled by blogs is going to change the way stuff is done. The gatekeepers are out of the game. But there is, and will continue to be, that small nagging matter of credibility. So nothing is replaced, everything evolves. As it is now, as it has always been. A men…



Well (to get on topic), as someone whom the IRS brands as a professional journalist, I’m in awe of some bloggers for what they do and dig up and verify, while it’s clear to me others are junk. If you think about it, blogging is just another way of cobbling together and distributing a Web page, qualitatively no different than hand-coding the HTML in BBedit or using a gazillion-dollar CMS like Salon or Ziff-Davis or CNN does.

I’m just riffing here: first, it seems that we’ve taken the term “blogger” and assigned all sorts of connotations to it, which in turn confuse the issue. Personally, I think the sooner we lose that whole term, the better.

Second, there is the (more) substantial issue of professional v. amateur, made more critical given the nature of this interweb thing. It’s easy to differentiate Newsweek, your local free weekly paper, a FSG book and a hand-photocopied ‘zine. We’re used to that, so it’s easy for us to navigate relative trustworthiness and social status. The more sophisticated technorati (I use this term ironically) can tell a MySpace page, a crappy Blogspot attempt and Juan Cole’s site apart. But how are most people to weigh the value of Josh Marshall, Pam Atlas and so on — the good readers of this site are in the know, but that’s their own damn fault.

If I were to hand you a bunch of names of Euro’ bike racers and ask you to tell me which ones are fit to comment on Algerian cattle production, how would you be able to respond?

That’s the value, right now, to most people of Big Names online. They know that CNN will have facts, etc. And to some degree, they’re right — there is an infrastructure in established publishing concerns for fact checking (oy, I have to get sources to my own editors tonight), error correction, etc. As for them bloggers, as far as most people are concerned, we can only take their “to live outside the law, one must be honest” word for it. Or rely on other voices in the blogosphere, which just means we shift the problem to statistics.Or you have to spend a hell of a lot of time on your own, reading TPM, or Instapundit, or Dr. Cole, or looking up primary sources (ha! yeah, I cracked myself up — who does that?).

Do I have a point? Or am I starting to sound like SJ?

My lawyer GF said to me that published is published, in the eyes of the law, and putting something online is publishing, so she thinks it’s cut and dried.


The Democrat attempt to go to the right of Tom Tancredo is a failure.

It shows that they are opportunists who will say anything to say and win.

Democrats support Bush’s foolish guest worker plan. They should remember that Americans are not stupid enough to fall for opportunists.

That’s awesomely incoherent, Gary. More proof that the GOP is a pathetic failure- their lapdogs can’t even write coherent talking points anymore.


“But l4m3, you post like once every week or two!”

VICIOUS LIES!!!11!! My computer is no longer brokitybroke.


Gary, doll, could you please not dump random poo-nuggets in here? It really stinks the joint up, and since we’re trying to have a little talk, that’s kinda disruptive. Tell ya what–when the need overcomes you, go out back behind the toolshed and crap your guts out like a good cocker spaniel. Maybe you’ll even earn yourself a nice biskie!


I’d just like to point out This Week’s Sign of the Apocolypse (with absolutely no apologies to Sports Illustrated):

Gavin used the expression “the fact is” in the post. Gary Ruppert showed up and did not use this phrase.


Gary as a Cocker Spaniel.

Ha. I totally see that. Jumping up and wiggling aorund all excited all the time, humping your leg, chewing on your shoes, then finally piddling on the carpet. Always straining at the leash on a walk and barking incessantly at random air molecules…

Gary all the way. Excellent work Marq.

Hate Encrusted Eyes

Second, there is the (more) substantial issue of professional v. amateur,…

This is the rub so to speak, the issue that makes the Steve Johnson’s of the world pick up a pen and doodle a few phases on fullscape, review, type into the word processor and submit to their favorite publisher.

I can’t really do the topic justice at 11:42 during my coffee break but if I could make a short observation, I would say that there is something about the absolute lack of professionalism of the current official press, especially with regards to politics, that has diminished the very meaning of the words: professional journalist. It is one thing for the hacks and hitmen at FOX lie to our faces, they are a terrible influence on Americans but they are becoming increasingly transparent to all and one hopes a bit of a joke. But when the AP staff starts getting played by Rove and the RNC you know that Columbia just ain’t making them the way it used to.

The political blogs are pointing at journalism’s fallen standards in the face of political manipulation and the press doesn’t like it, no one would, but hopefully this will help journalists recover their ethics, an ethic that puts the public interest before corporate loyalty.


Like I said back in 2003 already, bloggers are just 21st century pamphleteers and there surely is no need three years later to repeat the same old floor wax/dessert topping discussion, as Mikey put it, again



True, though I’m sure for every Thomas Paine there were a dozen proto-Malkins — same problem of how to distinguish when someone forces on you a tract. We, the general populace, are not trained to be able to dig out the good and bad; we’re trained as consumers from birth, so we know how to follow and trust known brands.


i was going to write:

ddt and hate encrusted eyes pretty well covered what i was going to say, but still, let me reiterate:

one of the perpetual feedback loops this argument gets into is the mis-defining of “journalist” to mean both “reporter” and “pundit” in terms of what bloggers are/are not/can do/can not do/want to become/have no chance in hell of becoming.

granted, there are very few bloggers who actually investigate and report (brad friedman of brad blog comes to mind as an exception, as do epluribus media’s exposing of jeff gannon/guckert, as well as talking dog’s several interviews…and i even once interviews a communications professor at quinnipiac u. about lamont/lieberman and the role of blogs therein).

so no, blogs will never replace the billion dollar infrastructure the big media have in place to actually report on a story.

but to comment and analyze and pontificate…well, hell, every jerk in america has been doing that for a gazillion years. it’s only now with blogs that the big guys in the ivory towers have been made aware of it.

and yes, a lot of the analysis not only holds up to the george wills and tom friedmans of the big media, it often surpasses that which we must pay $$ for.

that’s what scares the big media.

and as hate encrusted eyes pointed out, the actual standard of “good” journalism has been slipping exponentially in the past decade, so any new media that points that out has got to be considered the enemy.

anyway, i was going to write about all that, but sj told me to stop writing. so i gues




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