There were not one, but two, major newspaper takes on political blogs yesterday. One graced the cover of The New York Times magazine. The other was on the op-ed pages of the LA Times. The first was by a journalist who suspects many bloggers would like to graduate to more traditional outlets for political commentary. The second was by a former blogger who fears the same thing.
Both pieces take very seriously the belief of many bloggers that they represent something truly revolutionary in political discourse, and even in politics itself. And both pieces suggest that celebrity, commercial success, and mainstream respectablility may be producing a Thermidor in that revolution wherein its leaders are being coopted by the hated establishment.
The Times' Matthew Klam focuses on three bloggers who have already crossed the line into celebrity: TalkingPointsMemo's Josh Marshall, Wonkette's Anna Marie Cox, and DailyKos' Markos (Kos) Molitsas, and suggests all three are at a crossroads where they must choose between street cred and fame and fortune. But I think he confuses his story by conflating two very different rationales for political blogs. Some bloggers want to do political journalism. Some view their role as movement-building and agitprop.
While Marshall is quite partisan (who isn't this year?), he's still basically a journalist. And his segment of the blogosphere was made possible by the conjunction of a market failure in traditional political journalism with the emergence of a new technology that provided a way around that market failure.
It's no secret that political print journalism has been a steadily declining segment of a steadily declining industry for decades now. Radically reduced readership; competition from electronic media; ownership conglomeration; cost-driven downsizing; the collapse of commercially viable niche markets; rampant editorial cronyism: all these factors have dried up opportunities for would-be political journalists, while ossifying the profession into a self-referential universe of carreerist status and specialization, much like academia.
Josh Marshall had the choice of spending two decades struggling through old-boy networks and ownership crises to land an insecure perch in a paper or magazine, or taking advantage of a new technology to practice political journalism right now. And that's what he does: chasing down stories, digging beneath the surface, sticking to them when other reporters lose interest. He may feel that he's contributing to a political movement, but he's still a journalist, and there's nothing dishonorable about that. The fact that he's figured out a way to support himself without sucking up to editors or attending Washington cocktail parties is an example of successful entrepreneurship, not betrayal of some blogospheric ethic.
Ms. Cox is another example of journalistic enterprise, but of a very different sort. Unlike print poltitical journalism, electronic political commentary has been expanding in recent years, but only by embracing the entertainment paradigm of television and radio media generally. Like thousands of other, less successful, bloggers, Wonkette probably watched 1,000 hours of scandal-dishers and partisan "pundits" trading insults, and thought, Hell, I can do that. Klam's discovery that she's now ready to graduate to television or even movies is hardly shocking. Like Marshall, she's already doing political journalism--but it's a kind of journalism that commands little respect and adds even less to the common weal. To put it another way, Marshall's type of journalism carries a moral hazard of celebrity; Wonkette's is basically about celebrity.
Kos, of course, is a blogger who's more into movement-building and agitprop than journalism. His temptation is not to go onto the masthead of The Nation; it's to gain real influence over real-life political institutions. Klam's most interesting Kos anecdote involves a near-physical altercation between the fiery blogger and the executive director of the DCCC, involving the latter's allocation of campaign dollars in House elections. If Kos were inclined to think this way, he might say his and similar blogs address a market failure in the political world itself, where the inbred clan of Democratic fundraisers and political consultants are more concerned with protecting their turf than winning elections.
To sum it all up, Josh Marshall and Kos are blogging with a purpose, and thus their efforts can and will be judged in terms of their success in meeting their purposes. And that seems to be the main complaint of retiring blogger Billman in the LA Times. For him, blogging is essentially about itself: a revolutionary culture of dissent, of "speaking truth to power," that "made blogging such a potent alternative to the corporate-owned media." By this measurement, actually gaining influence and power is ipso facto a betrayal of the blogosphere.
I guess you know where I come down on this. Blogging is a means, not an end. It's open to everybody, whether or not you pass the test of subversiveness some would impose. Nobody's forced to read anybody's blog, and it's not like there are limited options. And if bloggers put their work to good purpose, then good for them.