Well, it didn't take long for Isaac Butler to react. Today he attempts something like a riposte to my post yesterday, in which he claims I made him "the poster boy for everything wrong with the blogosphere," but which was actually about the way his (self-admittedly) compromised position as a blogger made him unreliable as a web journalist. As I read his post, however, I found myself wishing he had mustered more of an argument - only because if he had, I might not have to slog ahead with my own thoughts about what is, in the end, a central problem of blogging, and an issue that could hold back its cultural profile.
But alas, he hasn't. Not that he realizes it. For as all thoughtful readers of Parabasis know by now, Butler is nothing if not fatuously self-congratulating. That's probably why I read him, actually; there's a certain charm, I admit, to checking in on someone who imagines you care that he's having a bad hair day. It's considerably less charming, however, to plug all the way through an intended self-justification and realize that, in the end, no real content has come to the fore. And what's more, that the post's author hasn't realized that.
But, wearying as it is, I'll briefly slice up Butler's "arguments":
First, he spends a good deal of time decrying that fact that I pointed out his self-interest is much like that of the corporations he has previously criticized:
"I would hope that most people can see very clearly the difference between what I'm talking about doing and what happened in the MSNBC-Fox-Olbermann-O'Reilly feud," he huffs.
But these differences - that he thinks we may have missed - turn out to be: a) Isaac Butler is not a multinational corporation, and b) he has no vested interests in the Iraq War. And these points are true. Forgive me, gentle readers, if you finished my post under the impression that Isaac Butler was a large corporation involved in the Iraq War!
None of this, of course, has any bearing on the principle involved in these two cases, which is, in a nutshell: self-interest. MSNBC and Fox News perceived that the Olbermann-O'Reilly feud was damaging their respective interests, so they silenced it. Butler perceives that criticisms of certain people would be a bad career move, so he doesn't post them.
But Butler adds:
"I'm openly discussing the dynamics that influence this blog and inviting people to further discuss them . . . Olberman [sic] is a professional journalist whose job it is to inform the public. I am an unpaid blogger who writes about issues I care about on a near-daily basis, etc."
Now the trouble here is that this isn't so much a valid justification as a re-statement of the problem. It's quite true that Butler has "openly discussed" the "dynamics" - i.e., the self-interest - that "influences" his blog. But as for "inviting people to discuss" that self-interest . . . well, what is there to discuss? It seems an opening statement might go something like, "Isaac, you really shouldn't let self-interest determine what's on your blog," to which he in turn would respond, "But that's not in my self-interest." Which would be true. And the 'discussion' would be over.
And let me add, in Keith Olbermann's semi-defense, that there's something mortifying about Butler's seeming belief that there's more honor in blithely admitting wrongdoing than in attempting to hide it. Can you imagine, for instance, Olbermann going before a camera and saying (as Butler did):
I've been writing about and engaging in the national political scene for awhile now and everyone knows everyone and I'm not exactly at a point in my career where I can afford to go pissing people off willy-nilly. So my choices become: attack a major politician (or their work) to whom I want access, or attack another journalist (or their work) that I have to work with. Shit where I live or fuck up my career. Those are the choices. Not being an idiot, and not enjoying bad either/or scenarios, I tend not to broadcast things that will fall into those categories. It's not that I don't think about those things, or have those conversations with friends. To give one example: there was a major policy based on false research that the administration was trying to push through Congress. Everyone who saw the bill that I talked to knew about it. Several of the people I talked to about it were journalists. But we talked about it in a bar. Not on the television. I don't really want to go slagging off an administration in which the general counsel and the majority whip are both friends of mine to the end of...what, exactly?
I only make this parallel to point out the speciousness of Butler's self-justification. It's hardly to his credit that he could airily talk in this manner; in fact, it's almost certainly to his discredit. Perhaps Olbermann's silence on his own compromises is due to some sense of shame, for heaven's sake. Which could prove morally useful in the future.
But Butler is only just getting going:
"I have no institution backing me up (unlike Dana Milbank or Judith Miller or David Broder)," he tells us. "Without an institutional stamp of approval, the only reason why anyone reads me is that I have proven myself to them over time. To me, talking about the dynamics that go into my writing a post is a way of exercising a kind of openness and honesty, and inviting dialogue. It's a way of creating trust between me and my readers. Actually, pretty much every post is a way of doing that, if it's done right. And that's one way in which I try to approach my posts here on the site. Generally my thinking is I have this thing I want to say. How do I say it in a way that is authentic, that constructively adds to the dialogue and that's interesting to read and also feels at least somewhat spontaneous. I don't always succeed in those things, but those are the factors i'm trying to balance . . . The proof, in other words, is in the pudding."
In its sheer discombobulated self-involvement, doesn't this strike you as somehow Sarah-Palinesque? Let me get this straight: Isaac's all alone out here (sniff!), and to him, talking about the fact that he's selectively honest in his posts is a way of "exercising a kind of openness and honesty, and inviting dialogue" . . . admitting that he's editing his posts out of self-interest is actually "a way of creating trust"! And as for "the proof being in the pudding" - the point is that you are leaving things out of the pudding, Isaac!
Oh God - maybe this puppy isn't so cute anymore!
I suppose it's true, of course, that Isaac has "never recommended a show on this blog I thought wasn't worth seeing." And yes, it should be said: he has "frequently talked about my problems with larger theaters . . . " Okay, maybe so; but probably only as long as he has no work prospects at those theatres, correct? In short, Isaac Butler has not openly lied on his blog. He has merely shaped and shaded the truth to benefit his career.
And then there's:
"There's also a difference between Thomas and my positions. I am a working artist. Thomas is a former professional theatre reviewer who cares about theatre and writes passionately about it on his blog. We're going to be coming at these things from different angles fundamentally."
Ah, what can I say, except - bingo! That's it, Isaac! You are a self-promoting ha- - sorry, 'working artist' - while I still try to hang onto some level of integrity and objectivity. That's kind of the whole point (it's also Matt Freeman's point). And no, there's no way for me, or anyone, to prevent you from blogging. Go at it!
The trouble is that, despite your protestations, you and your ilk are steadily seeping into the cultural space that used to be occupied by journalists. Who had plenty of ethical failings, too, it's true, but who at least pretended they had integrity.
The question is, of course: how to ensure the integrity of the blogosphere (if it has any)? Admittedly, that's going to be tough - for the Internet itself, despite what its promoters claim, is hardly a sphere of free speech or unimpeded action; it is, instead, a privately-designed construct, a kind of false agora, which tracks, and even attacks, its users constantly. As the former "bastions" of free speech - the print and broadcast media - stumble and perhaps fall in the Internet age, we'd best think long and hard about the limits and weaknesses of this brave new medium.