Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, October 24, 2008

  Blogging and expertise

A crazy story has reached its predictable outcome. Today the Republican staffer working in Pittsburgh has recanted her story that a black mugger carved a "B" in her face with a knife after taking exception to her McCain bumper sticker. She made it up.

The details were scarcely credible, and in any case I could tell immediately from my own personal expertise that her story was false. That's nothing remarkable in itself, but it does underline something about blogging that can't be emphasized too often.

Reporters working in the traditional media sometimes bring a particular expertise to the job, but that's not always the case. Many are generalists who have neither the time nor inclination to become expert in any fields. A great deal of reporting is done by people who are barely competent to weigh in on the issues in question, much less control for the biases of their informants. That's rather painfully obvious in particular with political reporting. There's a reason why political reporting tends to focus on process and image rather than substance; why as Pew reported yesterday the majority of news reports about the presidential race are framed in terms of who's winning. To reporters who don't understand much about complex issues (e.g. healthcare), or how government works, or what voters are really concerned about, it seems on the face of it much easier to focus on process. And that is partly because few reporters realize how little they understand the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.

So blogging is a communications revolution in large part because it gives people from every background a chance to contribute their expertise to the national dialogue. Traditional media reporters could not possibly replicate that range of expertise. For all their myriad faults, bloggers have vastly expanded the media's base of information and competencies.

As for my own contribution to this tawdry scandal, I decided yesterday not to make it public. Rather than accuse Ashley Todd of lying about a purportedly brutal attack, I prefered to wait until she admitted to what was a transparent deception.

However, to state the matter briefly, the evidence was in the (reversed) letter-form carved on her cheek. I could tell it was done in a mirror - rather than from above by an attacker - because the bottom loop was carved after the top loop. My doctoral research happens to have been on ancient Greek inscriptions, which involved studying how block letters are cut. The letter "B" is an unusually difficult letter to carve and is always done from top to bottom...sometimes creating the awkward letter-form seen in the photo of the fake-victim's face. It's a bizarre expertise to have, and the first time I've ever drawn on it as a blogger, but the episode drove home to me again how important expertise as such can be.

Anyway, I wanted to make a further point. This underlines another luxury that bloggers have that greatly differentiates us from traditional media reporters and pundits. Corporate media types are on a treadmill, to some degree at least; they're obliged to keep churning out material even if they have nothing insightful to say, or can't complete enough research to write intelligently, or just don't wish to address a topic at all.

Bloggers, however, can simply refrain from posting if they have nothing important or new or useful to say. And incidentally, to be candid, I wish that a few more bloggers would avail themselves of the luxury of remaining silent occasionally. It has the potential to make what they do say seem much more worthwhile paying attention to.

crossposted at

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