Mar 9th 2006
Copyright The Economist
JOURNALISM is like making beer. Or so Glenn Reynolds says in his engaging new book. Without formal training and using cheap equipment, almost anyone can do it. The quality may be variable, but the best home-brews are tastier than the stuff you see advertised during the Super Bowl. This is because big brewers, particularly in America, have long aimed to reach the largest market by pushing bland brands that offend no one. The rise of home-brewing, however, has forced them to create Ã¬micro-brewsÃ® that actually taste of something. In the same way, argues Mr Reynolds, bloggersÃ³individuals who publish their thoughts on the internetÃ³have shaken up the mainstream media (or MSM, in blogger parlance).
Few mainstream journalists would deny that the blogosphere keeps them on their toes. Make a mistake, and a swarm of furious pyjama-clad scribes will pounce. Make a grotesque partisan error while masquerading as Ã¬objectiveÃ®, and the ensuing storm may cost you your job, as Dan Rather, a CBS anchor, discovered during the 2004 election campaign after running a story about George Bush shirking National Guard duty based on documents that bloggers quickly exposed as forgeries.
Mr Reynolds spells out some of the bloggers’ advantages. First, their numbers. There is only one New York Times, but technorati.com tracks nearly 30m blogs. With so many eyes, the blogosphere reacts quickly to breaking news. George Bush’s second pick for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, was doomed within minutes of her nomination when conservative bloggers started likening her qualifications to those of the horse that the emperor, Caligula, tried to have made a Roman senator.
Many blogs are awful. But it is easy to filter out the dross, because the good ones provide links to each other. Bloggers may be (mostly) amateurs, but they are often smarter than the professionals, or possessed of useful specialist knowledge, argues Mr Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, whose own blog, instapundit.com, attracts more readers than many established political magazines. That he blogs only part-time perhaps explains why his posts are so brief and to the point. The result is crisp and readable, as is this book.
Mr Reynolds marches the reader briskly through fields where he sees technology empowering the little guy. Wireless internet allows people to work anywhere. With so many people telecommuting, Ã¬latchkeyÃ® kids are now more likely to come home to at least one parent. And burglars find it harder to identify empty houses to rob.
Mr Reynolds’s techno-optimism is exhilarating, though occasionally Pollyanna-ish. He thinks that the ageing process can probably be cured, for example, and that mankind will dodge extinction by colonising other planets. His greatest strength, however, is in describing what he knows best: blogging. He sees communications technology making repression steadily harder. An ordinary video camera can be confiscated and its tape destroyed. But if a video blogger were transmitting footage wirelessly to hundreds of other people as he films itÃ³as will soon be possibleÃ³it would be a rash secret policeman who shoots him.
Mr Reynolds understands that the blogging revolution has ill effects as well as good. The same technology that spreads protests against tyranny can also be used to stoke sectarian riots, as happened recently in Nigeria. And there are some things the little guy cannot easily do. With a few exceptions (Mr Reynolds lauds a do-it-yourself war correspondent in Iraq), bloggers do little original reporting. Posting opinions online is cheap, but news-gathering is not. Mr Reynolds sees this changing as technology costs fall still further and bloggers find niches in local news. But the revolution is unlikely to destroy Ã¬old mediaÃ® entirely. For one thing, with no MSM, what would bloggers deconstruct?