Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The poster boy fights back, or The Decline and Fall of the Blogosphere, Part 2

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.


  1. I debated even writing this comment, because in my experience, we're already in a mode that isn't conducive to real discussion. But...

    I don't see how someone who is transparent about their conflicts of interest is lacking in integrity. That makes no sense to me.

    If there's a whiff of self-interest I smell, it's that you're a journalist that doesn't like non-journalists of Isaac's "ilk" "steadily seeping into the space that used to be occupied by journalists."

    And the name calling, belittling and insults? Enough already. There must be a better way to spark a discussion about this than to treat people with such a lack of respect.

  2. Out of curiosity, why are you expecting bloggers to have the sort of ethics that journalists ceded a long time ago? You acknowledge that Butler isn't lying outright, great; in what way is that different from a political correspondent choosing to bury a story in response for access to a bigger scoop down the line?

    Both are choosing what to report on to further their goals; the only real question you should have in reading a blog (or paper) is whether or not their "editorial purpose"--i.e., their goal--overlaps positively with your own goal as a reader.

    (I could still be misreading; that's why I asked for clarification on Part 1.)

  3. For the record, I was never a full-time journalist, and I certainly don't intend to become one. Nor do I respect Isaac Butler, it's true; but the only way for that to change is for his blogging to improve. As for how someone can be technically "honest" but still lack "integrity" - really, you can't figure that out?

  4. To Aaron: I'm not expecting bloggers to have the sort of ethics "that journalists ceded a long time ago." I'm simply pointing out that they don't, and criticizing them for it. And if you'll forgive me, I think I sense in your question a subtle form of doublethink. It's true that MSNBC and FoxNews, to cite the example from the post, are being more hypocritical than Isaac is, in that they pretend, to some extent, to hold to some ethical standard. But their M.O. is essentially his M.O. He is no different from them, aside from his honesty about his tactics. And that's great if all you care about is hypocrisy. If you care about something like "truth," however, there's still a rub. The trouble comes as "journalism" becomes less economically viable, and people begin to think of what Isaac does as a substitute for it (which, let's be honest, is already happening). But while Isaac's form of pseudo-journalism may be less hypocritical than the old form, it's still just as ethically compromised. In fact, potentially it's even more so, in that there is no economic distance at all between the writer and his subject. And yet amusingly enough, what was considered ethically dubious in the past is now seemingly considered perfectly fine by folks like you as long as it's in a blog. People like Isaac are, in effect, writing advertising copy - in many forms, perhaps; but it's all still advertising. Again, they're free to do that. But you feel that my only question should be whether or not the goals of Isaac's advertisements overlap with my goals. I'm afraid, however, that I have questions about how to assess that overlap, as when I wonder "Has Isaac left out pertinent facts about this theatre to protect a friend?," or "Is there a better show out there that he won't comment on because it's in competition with a group he'd like to work for?" Suddenly, you see, those standard-issue free-market justifications are not so simple, because there's no transparency in this market.

  5. I guess what I'm confused by is, if you're not expecting bloggers to have the same ethics as journalists, why are you criticizing them not having the same ethics as journalists? I understand your worry that other people (please don't lump me in with those "folks") will take what Isaac does as journalism, but neither he nor Matt (who you've tied into this) claim to be unbiased, nor journalists.

    If you're concerned that Isaac is leaving stuff out, then clearly his blog does NOT overlap with your needs--it falls short of your high standards. And that's fine.

    Again, the difference Isaac made between himself and CNN/FOX is that he doesn't claim to report/cover the news. He just claims an honest opinion, flaws and all.

  6. Aaron, for you this seems tied to some sort of complicated punishment model. Which is okay, I guess. But the point simply is that bloggers generally (and Isaac is just the most handy, happy example) not only have the same ethics as the journalists they criticize, they also lack an economic model for staying clear of conflicts of interest and other ethical quandaries (which journalists do have, even if it doesn't always operate properly in the real world). That is the takeaway.

  7. Matt might want to check out Ricky Jay's fascinating comments on "honesty" and deception:

  8. I've never considered what I read on Parabasis journalism (and I don't mean that perjoratively). And to Isaac's credit, he's never tried to pass it off as that. It's very clear reading it day to day that it's a personal weblog. Same for Matt Freeman.

    Insisting that he defend himself as a "web journalist" doesn't make any sense within the context of what he's doing.

  9. Okay, just as long as you remember that his personal weblog is essentially a self-promotional tool. Which means that it's not actually that useful for building "community," as he imagines (although to be fair, I imagine he thinks of said community as being organized around himself). I suppose it's true one can think of Butler as a kind of web "friend" who happens to criticize "journalists" for the very same behavior he indulges in himself. To you, because he is mixing with a certain profession but is not "of" that profession, it doesn't matter whether or not he commits the sins he accuses the "professionals" of succumbing to. He's simply like a friend who withholds information and generally edits their version of reality to suit themselves. But is there really nothing at all wrong with that kind of friend? And is his status in the morphing quasi-journalistic sphere of the web so clear-cut? You may be sure, but I'm not. And I'll be thinking about those issues further in future articles.

  10. "just as long as you remember that his personal weblog is essentially a self-promotional tool."

    This is true. That's kind of the nature of Web 2.0. And I don't always like it or necessarily feel comfortable with it. I think some writers are better able to present themselves in that environment than others. And each reader has to come up with their own personal calculus w/r/t to what they're willing to accept and not - just like with any other sort of media. At the same time, I resist the urge to be prescriptive towards content and presentation.

    I realize we're floating in a gray area, but that's where conversations like these can be useful.