September 2, 2004

"A New Birth of Freedom:" Why Bleats and Blogs Matter

On Loaves, Fishes, and LILEKS (James)

I'm always among the last to be persuaded of the miracles of loaves and fishes to be found in "new" technologies and "new" media [see item just below this one], but during my recent month's break from blogging I took in a lot of arguments about the significance of blogs in this election cycle. Still, with all the citations of this study and the pointers to that study and the constant links to this issue provided by Reynolds I was, due to my innate conservatism on this issue, not quite persuaded. Until today when, at last, LILEKS (James) put paid to this issue in his usual offhand. "oh, by the way," manner.

James Lileks, the Mark Twain of our era, is always at the top of my must read list. He's best taken with the first cup of coffee in the morning. Although he's at the top of my list, I hesitate to link to him since I assume anybody coming here has already been there.

This morning, however, he serves up a textbook example of why blogging matters.
Hmm. First, Hewitt's interview with Terry McAuliffe.

HEWITT: I want to start with some very easy questions.
HEWITT: Do you believe that John Kerry took a CIA man into Cambodia and kept his hat?
MCAULIFFE: Uh, I have no idea.
HEWITT: You have no idea that he made that story to the Washington Post and that he made it again in 2004 to the LA Times?
MCAULIFFE: If John Kerry said he did something, I'll take John Kerry at his word.
HEWITT: Do you think that he ran guns to anti-communists in Cambodia which he told the U.S. News & World Report on May of 2000? MCAULIFFE: I don't know. You'd have to ask John Kerry about that. I don't know what he did in Cambodia or didn't. That was a war 35 years ago. I want to talk about this year.
HEWITT: Did he go to Cambodia on Christmas Eve -- your understanding-- in 1968?
MCAULIFFE: I think he probably did and probably George Bush when he was in the Alabama National Guard was driving the boat.

"Now watch this.

"In one instance, it's "I have no idea," and in the other he's quite certain what Kerry did. In McAuliffe's mind, the contradiction doesn't matter -- who'll notice? He's compartmentalizing. The Hewitt interview ceased to exist, or matter, the moment it was over. On to the next engagement. But that's oldthink, brother. If you want an example of how blogging can impact elections, this is a perfect example. Radio host blogs an interview with big-time party strategist. Another blogger uses a camcorder, iMovie and a .mac account to post a snippet of an interview with the same guy on the same subject. A third party draws a connection between the two statements. You can hunt and link and draw your own conclusions. You're no longer the reader, absorbing what the editors have sought fit to give you. You are the editor."

Who are you going to believe? Us or your lying eyes?

Lileks, as usual, is the polite Minnesotan in his use of "compartmentalizing." What is really going on is that McAuliffe is lying through his bleached porcelain inlays. He is lying as fast as he can and as hard as he can. He is lying because he knows that his candidate has lied, that his party has bought the lie and that the only slim, razor thin hope, for victory lies in more lying.

The only problem is, as Lileks so deftly demonstrates with one excerpt and one link, is that lies that previously "didn't matter" are now blood simple to expose and distribute.

And with tens of thousands of blogs eager to participate in the exposure of lies and real-time fact-checking it becomes harder and harder to disavow them. Blogs stand McLuhan on his head as a medium that instantly massages messages and finds all the lumps, bumps and blockages.

This current electoral campaign has exposed in harsh and brilliant light the brutal fact that the major media does not now have, nor has ever possessed, a self-policing mechanism. (Spare me the pointers to Dan Okrant, the clean-up of the Jason Blair hoax or any of the numerous other items. These are either desperation moves or post mortem effects -- most likely the latter.)

For a long time it has been obvious that the major media has become, through sloth, attrition, nepotism and cronyism, a self-selected and unelected shadow

government that seeks to advance its social and legislative agenda with virtually none of the restraints of the elected government. While it spends a lot of time and energy telling Americans that church and state must be forever separate, it fails to notice that the Church of the First Ammendment is the current religion of a large section of what passes for the state. It wouldn't do to point that out. Bad for business.

In addition, regardless of it's self-proclaimed allegiance to truth and justice, the overtly-announced ('A glow worth 15 points...'), and repeated behavior of the major media in this campaign has shown these protestations to be mere lip service to an ideal long ago tossed in the dumpster. For a long time, this didn't matter to the media since there were no watchers watching the watchmen. And when that happens you invariably get a lot of ideological looting of the body politic by those thought to be the guardians.

With the rise of the blogs, however, all this has changed and the change, coming for years, has now surfaced. Major media is not happy.

After all, would you be happy if you and your chums had all the best real estate along the beach to yourselves for centuries and woke up one morning to find a trailer park on the sand in front of you filled with thousands of upstarts with a burning down word-habit and a predilicition for putting everything you said and did under a microscope and projecting the results on the screen of the drive-in down the road? Nope. You would be shocked, shocked as this ruination of your view as seared -- seared -- into your retinas.

Your first reaction would be to denigrate these denizens of a media Dogpatch. Your next move would be to think "There oughta be a law," and try to get some passed. Failing that, or while that was working its way through the appropriate legislative bodies, you might try to get some of your employees working the same beat. And at the same time, you'd spend a lot of your white space and bandwidth telling your dwindling audience that it was all "just another Internet fad." And besides, you are major media and much, much bigger than any given blog. World without End. Always. Amen, brother. Can I get a witness?

Word of Mouth Bats Last

Yes, it will be argued, 'the blogging phenomenon is still tiny when compared to the (remarkably shrinking) audience of Dan Rather's Nightly newscast.' That might be a persuasive argument if bloggers were hermits living down in a cypress swamp with only marsh lights and glowing monitors illuminating their fitful existence. Alas for old media, these new media life forms actually have access to the largest and more important media distribution channel on the planet, bigger even then, gasp, The Internet -- Word of Mouth. And in electoral politics, word of mouth bats last and closes the sale.

A blog is not just a page, but a human being -- sometimes several human beings. Each blogger has friends, family, and associates and they read the page, no matter how small. And all those friends, family and associates have other friends, family and associates that they talk to, that they hang out with, that they dine and sleep with. And all those people have backfences of the mind or of the yard and that's how the news gets around. That's how tens of thousands of opinions and facts get spread out to millions upon millions of others -- fast and as sure as the law of gravity. A small page here and a small page there and pretty soon you're talking about a medium with a pretty big mouth.

Every Number Tells A Story, Don't It?

How big is the blogsphere's mouth? Hard to say. But let's look at one of the big bad blog boys on the block, Glenn Renyolds. His - reports that for August 31, "Over 310,000 pageviews yesterday, and just shy of 6 million last month. Thanks for coming by." In addition, his site has nearly 6,500 other sites linking to it.

As an old media magazine hand, I have to say that these numbers alone are staggering. More than 300,000 readers in one day? That's bigger by an order of magnitude than the combined weekly circulations of The Nation, The New Republic, and just about any other 10 political opinion magazines you want to throw in from here and Europe combined.

If Instapudit were a newspaper it would be would be the 26th largest newspaper out of the Top 100 Daily Newspapers in the United States -- between the Miami Herald and the Denver Post. If the newspaper owners of the United States had any insight at all this little factoid would make their either reach for their checkbooks or eat their gun.

But wait, there's more. A monthly readership of 6 million makes Reynolds one of the largest general interest magazines in the United States. In fact, he'd be the seventh largest consumer magazine, right between National Geographic and Good Housekeeping. I know advertising reps that could buy second homes for cash off the commissions they'd make if Reynolds was a magazine.

To repeat the point: If anyone in old media with half a brain and a desire to make money off of media actually looked at these figures and had access to development capital, they'd either be eating their gun, or cranking out a business plan to aggregate sites like this and push out a print echo of them on a wholesale basis. Fortunately for new media, old media just isn't that smart. Besides, it would be difficult to replicate with the colonized-minds they currently employ.

The Minds Are The Message, Not the Medium

Which is, of course, what it comes down to in the end. It really isn't the medium that is the message any longer, but the minds that are the message. And you don't get the message these times thirst for from the colonized-minds of old media. You get it from the free minds of the new media.

I spent 30 years of my so-called career making books and magazines. My first magazine, like my second magazine, wasn't a magazine I was hired to work at, it was a magazine I made from scratch with about five other people. It was back at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. I was in San Francisco then and decided to make a magazine because, well, there was no publishing industry in San Francisco and if you wanted a publishing job you had to go out and make your own. This was during the time, post Berkeley Barb, when the thing called "the underground press" was in flower.

Neither myself nor anyone else involved in dreaming up this magazine had one hour's experience at actually making a magazine, and not a clue how to go about it. We just knew we wanted to do it and, because Rolling Stone had just started up, we knew it could be done. So what did we do?

Frankly, we just made it up as we went along. We made our magazine at first in a windowless basement on a back street in North Beach, and later from inside an immense chicken refrigeration vault in a building down by the bay. (Don't ask. The rent was cheap.) I was the Editor-in-Chief because I'd thought it up. My partner was the Publisher because he had some money. We knew you were supposed to sell ads and I think we even had someone called "Ad Director." We had a printer and a distributor. (I forget the name of the printer, but I remember the distributor, Acme, which went bankrupt in a year with all our money.)

And we managed to make 9 issues of this magazine in about a year. Some were sold and we even had subscriptions. Then it went away into the mists of time and I didn't really think about it until 20 years later when I saw a complete collection in a glass case at the Museum of Modern Art in New York while touring an Underground Press Retrospective. It didn't look half bad.

More than that, I remembered how much I loved that "job" -- how much I liked making something that had no rules other than those laid down by the physical parameters of the medium -- which we were always stretching, of course. ("Yes, we really do want a rainbow of colors overprinting the full bleed of Johnson's face. No, we don't know why.")

I loved that job because I had no idea of how it should be done. Neither did any of my associates. We were uncolonized minds as far as the making of magazines were concerned. We had our issues and our agendas to be sure but what we didn't have were a lot of people and a hunk of history camped inside our minds waving a lot of 'Thou Shalt Nots" at us and threatening our livelihood and our pension if we went off the reservation. Like one of our anthems of the time reminded us:

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

Works today, doesn't it?

Old media is always the first to remind America that a free society is not possible without a free press. The problem that old media has is that was once the case that "freedom of the press" was possible only if you owned one, or -- lately -- a broadcasting network. That, for many centuries, was a very good deal for a very few self-appointed, self-selected, unelected owners and their forelock-tugging legions of lackeys. No longer. We're finally in the stage of the evolution of media where everybody owns a press, where there is a true democracy of information and not merely a series of fiefdoms.

What happens now is anybody's guess, but the days of America looking at one time at one screen at one face that says "And that's the way it is..." are long gone and they're not coming back.

If you look hard and pay close attention, you can see the wind as it shifts. August was not only when the media wind shifted but when it became certain that a new wind was blowing fresh air into the American mind for good. Maybe what we are really seeing is the Decolonization of the American Mind. If so, that would be another, and even more profound, "new birth of freedom."

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Posted by Vanderleun at September 2, 2004 10:42 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

just hope you're right about the last part, not everybody looking at the same "that's the way it is"-head. But how numerous could 'not everybody' get?

Posted by: bekwon at September 2, 2004 11:18 AM

It can't come soon enough

Posted by: Eric Blair at September 2, 2004 11:56 AM

I agree that changes are coming and probably faster than we expect.

Four years ago my sons told me I would be reading
the news on my computer and I said, "oh, no I
would never do that, I love my newspaper."

Well, guess who finds the largest majority of her
news On the internet, where choices of what to
read are so numerous, I find what is really being
said about the news stories.

I still read my paper every morning, but then
I go to the blogs, columnists, and the newspapers

They told me a number of years ago there would be little cash used sometime in the future, and I did not believe them, and now I do my banking on the net and use my debit card for 90% of my shopping I write one check a month. My rent, that is it.

I believe the main networks and newspaper will have to change if they want to survive, the
internet will be a strong force in the future,
as has be shown in the Swiftvets campaign.

With very little money they have succeeded in bringing their story to millions of people with the help of blogs, talk show hosts and the ads they have shown on televison. Many of the blogs
are also talk show hosts and they got this news
and have hung in there like bulldogs and never
let up. We are now learning the truth about
Kerry, all documented and fair.

The msm ignored it and now must see they can
no longer ignore news that is bad for their choice of president and they are still
sticking to the story that Kerry would be a
great CiC. I know there will be people who
belive the MSM, but there are many others who will search for the truth.

The fact is they could be quiet and say nothing
which has always worked in the past, but because of the internet their loss of credibility is so easily seen now their power is being eroded. As time goes by they will have to learn to be honest in their reporting. Imagine the msm not having the power to avoid news they don't like and presenting their continual bias sounds good to me.

Posted by: Carole at September 2, 2004 12:11 PM

It's good to have you back, Mr. Vanderleun.

Posted by: Eric B at September 2, 2004 12:45 PM

"free minds in the new media"

I believe you just wrote the manifesto.

And hurray for Lileks. The cigars will be on me if ever our paths should cross.

Posted by: Matt at September 2, 2004 12:54 PM

I don't know, would you have trusted this free-minded radical hippie Editor-in-Chief?

Isn't he looking just a little too bright-eyed, and perhaps a tad bit on the happy side? Well, you would be too if you were sporting not only a super cool headband, but also a groovy macrame pouch. Yes, courtesy of the other Mrs. VdL, my adorable mother-in-law Lois, it is my pleasure and privilege to share this rare glimpse of one of Gerard's proudest sartorial moments. My only question is, where's his Army blanket thrift shop poncho?

Posted by: Mrs. VdL at September 2, 2004 2:27 PM

Sorry about that. My husband's sophisticated website wouldn't allow me to post a picture in my previous comment. So you'll have to take a look here:

Posted by: Mrs. VdL at September 2, 2004 2:46 PM

One remark though. 310.000 pageviews for Instapundit doesn't mean he had 310.000 unique visitors - only that 310.000 pages were served. We don't know how many readers there were, although Glenn should be able to come up with those numbers.

That's not to say it isn't an impressive number - it's still an awful lot!

Posted by: G.J. Wolfswinkel at September 3, 2004 1:31 AM

I get virtually all my news and 99.9% of editorial from the Internet. Every now and then when I want to see a talking head I'll turn on Bret Hume and also enjoy the FNN news flash eye candy.

Newspapers? Great for local sports, local news, local entertainmnet, local adds and coupons. Oh, I also found it handy for wrapping the fish parts after cleaning my catch. Try that with a computer!

Posted by: phil gilbert at September 3, 2004 3:15 PM

The scarey part of the circulation figures of Instapundit compared to the major media is that he is one person doing it part-time on a low budget.
He still has a day job. He doesn't have a multimillion dollar budget and a huge staff. Multiply Instapundit by the thousands of other blogs and the MSM has much to fear.

Posted by: RHunter at September 3, 2004 4:20 PM
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