Tuesday, January 04, 2005

New York Times Chides Blogs

In New Jersey, where I live, there is a very wealthy town called South Orange. An acquaintance of mine who used to live there talked about how, when she wanted to put the simple folk in their place, she became the South Orange Lady -- somewhat similar to the Queen of England, but more stylish. Well, the New York Times today put on its South Orange Lady routine in an article by John Schwartz called "Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate."

Here's a sample:

As the horror of the South Asian tsunami spread and people gathered online to discuss the disaster on sites known as Web logs, or blogs, those of a political bent naturally turned the discussion to their favorite topics.

To some in the blogosphere, it simply had to be the government's fault.

Schwartz quotes a contributor to a discussion about the tsunami disaster on Democratic Underground, which Schwartz calls a "a blog for open discussion and an online gathering place for people who hate the Bush administration." (Democratic Underground is more of a web forum for posting articles and debating politics in discussion groups than it is a true blog, but never mind.)

...a participant [at Democratic Underground] asked, "Since we know that the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants, etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the 'bones' of our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been affected?"

The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the writer said, could be the war in Iraq. "You know, we've exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor planet," the writer said. "All that 'shock and awe' stuff we've just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth - could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt."

The obligatory paragraph praising the blogosphere for providing compelling on-the-scene coverage of the tsunami and giving readers information about charities is so obviously stuck in as defense against charges of "one-sidedness" that you can practically see the glue pasting it down. And Schwartz immediately follows his disclaimer with more condescension:

In many ways, Web logs shone after the tsunami struck: bloggers in the regions posted compelling descriptions of the devastation, sometimes by text messages sent from their cellphones as they roamed the countryside looking for friends and family members. And blogs were quick to create links to charities so that people could help online.

But the blogosphere's tendency toward crackpot theorizing and political smack down could not be suppressed for long.

"It's so much of what they feed on, so much of what they are," said James Surowiecki, the author of "The Wisdom of Crowds."

Certainly it's true that the explosion of blogs on the Internet creates a strong responsibility for accuracy and journalistic integrity in a context where anyone can start a blog with no accountability to workplace supervisors or formal professional codes of ethics -- and some bloggers don't pass that test. But it seems odd for the New York Times to be lecturing bloggers about journalistic ethics, given the problems the Newspaper of Record has had on that score. Remember Jayson Blair? How about Rick Bragg?And then there was the Judith Miller debacle, which you can also read about here and in another Slate piece here. Wild speculation about what caused a tsunami is one thing; but there's nothing like knowing that your newspaper's biased and inaccurate coverage of another nation's weapons program helped start a war that has killed over a thousand Americans and injured thousands more, now is there?

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