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Making Sense of the Blogosphere
Posted by: Jon Henke on Thursday, April 13, 2006

Recently, Matt Welch complained in Reason about how far the blogosphere (specifically, warbloggers) have fallen short of his initial expectations of "critical thinking" and "collegial yet brutal peer review".
Instead of galvanizing the apolitical truth squads of my fantasy world, weblogs became marvelous organizing tools for the most partisan citizens and groups.
The blogosphere is, of course, composed of many dedicated flacks and apparatchiks with their own partisan agendas and biases. But it's a tremendous shame that what Welch calls the "expressly political" acts produced by bloggers have not been consolidated into a fairly comprehensive encyclopedia of information on each issue.

The recent Washington Post story on the mobile biolabs, er, hydrogen trailers is a good example.

  1. The Leftosphere jumped all over the apparent lie.

  2. The Rightosphere pointed out that "two other teams that initially inspected the trailers" dissented from that view, which means the issue wasn't quite as open and shut as the Post story would seem to indicate. Did the Leftosphere deal with that point? Well, no, not really. Kevin Drum even goes so far as to acknowledge the fact, but dismisses it by saying it "fits the usual MO of the Bush administration". But, wait..."the administration was selectively biased" is a far cry from the blanket "Bush knowingly lied" that the Leftosphere is alleging. The point is simply not addressed.

  3. Meanwhile, Slartibartfast at Obsidian Wings points out the incredible disparity between what a mobile biological lab would require and what the trailers actually had, and wonders how any minimally competent "expert" could have concluded that they were actually biological weapons labs. In a variety of fundamentally important areas, they were simply not even close. The Rightosphere doesn't seem to have addressed that point and asked what kind of "experts" could have concluded they were mobile biolabs.

  4. Finally, Seixon has questioned whether "hydrogen production" was really a plausible answer, either, and points out that the Post was scooped by "almost three years" by Judy Miller. So, why is it again news that "analysts [were] divided sharply over the function of the trailers"? The Leftosphere hasn't really addressed that.

Critical thinking? No, mostly just critical.

It's not just the partisan approach to the same stories; story selection tends to reinforce partisan thinking as well. Consider the Cameraman in Iraq stories that two major bloggers choose to highlight...

  1. Michelle Malkin, Rusty Shackleford, Bill Roggio, Captain Ed, LGF, Glenn Reynolds and others point to the story of Bilal Hussein, who has been "captured [by] American forces in a building in Ramadi, Iraq, with a cache of weapons" and is suspected of being complicit with insurents and terrorists.

  2. Meanwhile, Kevin Drum brings up the story of a CBS Cameraman, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, who was arrested because, the US Military alleged, the film in his camera "showed four incidents that proved he was involved in insurgent activity". After a year in jail at Abu Ghraib, everybody involved conceded there was actually no evidence against the cameraman, and his film "turned out to be less than 20 seconds long". For that, he spent a year in prison, with Department of Defense spokesmen, speaking off the record, suggesting "he had previous knowledge of the attack" and that the evidence was "damning".

The blogosphere is a potentially wonderful tool for nuanced inspection, peer review and criticism — for creating a sophisticated understanding of complicated stories. Unfortunately, it's also a very diffused network, and nobody is making sense of our rough draft of history, and bloggers seem more interested in partisan advantage than objective clarity.

There's a market niche there for somebody.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

And of what use are weather ballons to a modern military... That is the supposed use of the hydrogen, correct.

Can someone answer me that question.
Written By: Keith, Indy
URL: http://
You’re right, Jon. It’s frustrating. By reading all of them (and especially the somewhat sensible types like Volokh, Drum, Cole, Yglesias, and you guys), you can kind of get a sense of the overall picture. But finding the dispassionate analysis is tough. I guess that’s why they call it politics.

Written By: Mithras

Artillery needs balloons to provide some indication of wind direction and velocity, which will affect the accuracy of a barrage. Whether they need balloons lofted by hydrogen, as opposed to inert, much less volatile helium, and more to the point, whether they need it produced by a biological means rather than, say, a basic reaction involving acid and metal, is a different question.

What is even less clear is whether the Iraqi military actually fielded such balloon trailers for its artillery, trained with them, etc. If they did (and it’s useful to remember that the Iraqis had sunk a huge amount into their artillery forces, including Bull-designed, long-range G-5s and G-6s), then there should be a number of such trailers to support those units, evidence of training with them, etc.

One or two trailers are about as useful as 1-2 radars or 1-2 missiles, i.e., extremely limited.
Written By: Lurking observer
URL: http://
I think you run into basic supply and demand. There is a huge demand for partisan news: that’s why there are so many overtly partisan, well-funded blogs. There are a ton of blogs that do engage in relatively disinterested, nuanced analysis... but they are often relegated to the bottom of the Technorati lists because people don’t have the time to read nuance, they want to be told what to think.
Written By: Josh
Yeah that’s it Josh people is stoopit... the Sheeple, next time use the word "Sheeple."

I mean who’da thunk it, give everyone a microphone and a platform and cacophony breaks out! Excuse I’m tired from a late night’s work... but Matt Welch is a boob. For a libertarian or someone at a libertarian site to make such a silly announcement astonishes me. HEY MATT THAT’S WHAT FREEDOM IS ABOUT!

What Mr Welch REALLY means is, "The Internet did not turn out as I had hoped it would and so it is flawed." Sorry we all didn’t turn out like Eugene Volokh or John Kerry, if you want "nuance"...
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Matt Welch is one of the primary reasons I keep throwing my Reason subscription renewal cards in the trash. Even though he’s moving on (to the LA Times), he’s emblematic of Reason’s current crop of contributors, that produce superficial whining and snark instead of analysis and reasoning.

I remember a time when I eagerly opened each Reason, expecting to see at least one article that challenged my thinking on a subject. Now I can pretty much predict the gist of what all the articles are going to say by reading the Table of Contents. Since I don’t think I’m that much smarter or well informed that I used to be, I consider that a sign of seriously deteriorating quality.
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
"The blogosphere is a potentially wonderful tool for nuanced inspection, peer review and criticism — for creating a sophisticated understanding of complicated stories."
Yeah, if most people actually were serious about pursuing the truth.

"The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear."

Written By: Unknown
URL: http://
This is a great post Jon.

Don’t blame the the blogosphere though. It just reflects the population.

When Gore ran against Bush, Saturday night live ran a parady of the election that implied they were really the same guy. Much like when Clinton ran against George the first, the election was seen as two moderate candidates. It was widely perceived that it really didn’t matter which one was elected. The next election was disupted and nobody except for a few wild eyed lefties really cared.

People once complained about not having a real choice. The country is now as polarized as it has ever been during my lifetime. Maybe Viet Nam was worse, maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe red and blue states will ultimately split over abortion the way the blue and grey once split. Its a very bad thing. The radical right took power, the radical left was made stronger by it and the moderates have lost their say. Who listens anymore to those who urge caution, consideration and collaboration?

Written By: cindyb
URL: http://
CindyB, twas ever thus....My party is out to turf out YOUR party. The nation has always been polarized, YOU as a Liberal just never noticed, because until 1994 Liberals ran D.C.. Then some NOT Liberal folks came to power and suddenly polarization. We on the Right NEVER agreed with Ted Kennedy, the difference was from 1968-1994 it really didn’t matter as much what we thought. Now it does, so suddenly folks discover, there’s differences of opinion! Who KNEW!?!?!

CindyB you remind me of the nice white person who suddenly discovers that the Negroes around the corner are NOT happy with the status quo! Usually when they begin to protest and boycott. Your side never really noticed until my side got strong enough to be noticed.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Is it just me or did Joe just make a very insightful comment? With the comparison to the civil rights movement something went click! and I made a giant step in understanding liberals. At least that is my initial impression. Thanks Joe.
Written By: Notherbob2
URL: http://
Billy Hollis beat me to it; I was going to say that what Welch said about blogs (while not untrue) also applies to Reason these days. There’s too much snark and not enough consideration.

Which is why I didn’t renew my subscription last year.
Written By: Sigivald
URL: http://
There’s too much snark and not enough consideration.

Which is why I didn’t renew my subscription last year.

Yet you continue to visit QandO. ;)
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://
Joe, I never said people were stupid. Rather, they are rationally ignorant. It isn’t rational for most people to spend their time pouring through blogs and multiple news sources to figure out what’s going on, they expect either news analysts (a laughable term, I know) or actual blogs to do that for them. My point in saying "people want to be told what to think" is that someone with a job, who doesn’t have the luxury of spending hours a day pouring through lengthy blog posts, is not going to seek blogs with nuanced critique and analysis—they are going to find the shortest-length, hardest-hitting blog or other sources they can find. And since very few people enjoy reading contradicting opinion, they’re going to seek out those sources with which they most agree.

Hence, we have a huge variety of well funded, highly-partisan, unnuanced blogs. It is the market working. If people wanted to read tightly argued, deep blogs, they would, as they most certainly do exist (I read several). But they’re not cash-makers, just as academic-quality books on policy don’t make money, Ann Coulter screeds do. Basic supply for demand.
Written By: Josh
I think as a busy man who likes to be informed and knows better than to trust the MSM, I look for:

1) Blogs that are, at least, not hostile towards my politics,
2) From that group, Blogs that are hard-hitting and fast-paced, with relevant news about world and national events,
3) From that group, Blogs that do a good job of trying to keep you updated on actual developments and admit when they are wrong (leaving a "Update!" e-trail, preferably).

So yeah, I favor blogs that share my partisan perspective, but I still select for quality within that group. And I doubt Matt Welch does any different in his blogreading, no matter his moans and groans.

And Reason and other magazines that exist to be magazines do a far worse job at all but point number 1, I think, than blogs.
Written By: Dave
URL: http://
I think what’s missed is that the labs aren’t of high enough quality for the standards that modern, western scientists would use but could be used for a variety of activities beyond "hydrogen production." Reports from the soldiers that found these is that they were buried to hide them, which is an odd thing to do if all they did was produce hydrogen. The truth is, we don’t know as much about this as the guys who examined them, and are just guessing and postulating.
Written By: Christopher Taylor
Jon —

This is why a lot of blogs have comments sections. And updates. I think all of the questions you raise re: the mobile "biolabs" were covered in the post and comments on the subject I made on my site — and in fact, I think Slart first raised his question in the comments there.

As you well know, when we are writing these posts, we simply don’t think of all the possible angles, but I think if you look around aggregately, you’ll find that they HAVE all been covered (for instance, I think someone linked to a David Kay quote that noted that the most laughable explanation for what these trailers were used for was "hydrogen production" — which rather ironic). For my part, I took aim at the Post’s choice of how to present the story, which I believe to another important question that goes to establishing and shaping public perception at home.

There are many strictly "Hannity" or "Colmes" blogs, if you will — but if you look around enough, you can find sites that will cover stories comprehensively, even if they rely on the posts merely as a way to start the discussion.

In short, I think there’s more critical thinking than simply criticism happening out there. You just have to learn the new grammar of blog reading to find it.

Written By: Jeff G
Excellent point Jeff G, and exactly why I started my blog. The comment sections of blogs often have as good or better examination of the events than the original blog article. Things that aren’t covered on rightwing blogs, commenters will note. Things the leftwing blog misses in their analysis, commenters will point out.
Written By: Christopher Taylor
Blogs are different things to different people. The fact that Matt Welch hasn’t seen the blogsophere develop into what he wanted isn’t so much of a criticism as a complaint. And I’m really not sure how valid it is because I’m sure you can find some blogs out there that fulfill his desired role.

Everyone has made valid comments. Some people want partisan reinforcement. They feel their POV is underrepresented and they seek out blogs that reinforce that POV.

Some people want writing that is short, sharp and snarky. There are blogs to fulfill that role.

Some people want political analysis from a different angle that is available in the MSM. There are blogs to fulfill that role.

And on and on. The fact that Welch seems upset because blogs as a whole didn’t fulfill his fantasy doesn’t at all mean the blogsophere isn’t something of value. Those of us that have been observing the blogosphere for a few years have seen instances when it was an invaluable resource for getting stories right (Rathergate, Katrina) as well as giving deserving stories the visibility they deserved when the MSM wasn’t interested.

The blogoshpere will continue to develop along many lines, but as Josh points out blogs are no different than any other venue in which the laws of supply and demand pertain. And frankly I think that’s a "good thing".
Written By: McQ
because until 1994 Liberals ran D.C..
How far right do you need to be to call Ronald Reagan and the republican congress that was with him Liberal? What about Nixon? The last time that Liberals held both houses and the presidency was 1970.

Read some history.
Written By: cindyb
URL: http://

What you write makes no sense. First off, in 1970, when Richard Nixon was President, he was a liberal?

Furthermore, the House was solidly Democratic from 1954-1994. The Senate was Democratic from 1956-1980. So, from 1956-1980, the Dems automatically controlled both houses of Congress.

Therefore, when Jimmy Carter ran the White House, and the Dems controlled Congress (both houses), which was the conservative?

And when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, through 1994, when the Dems again controlled both houses, which was the conservative?

Ronald Reagan only brought the Senate with him.

Perhaps it is you who needs to read some history?
Written By: lurking observer
URL: http://
Heck of a post, Jon. We are reading many of the same blogs — Obsidian Wings, Captain’s Quarters, Kevin Drum, and I see you at Brendan Nyhan’s — but you are doing much better at assembling all the perspectives together with critical thinking and noticing the blind spots.

I don’t really like any of the blogs you linked to as the "Leftosphere." Come 2009 I am hoping to find out that I am not really liberal and was really just anti-Bush.

Written By: Noumenon

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