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Cathy's World: Blogapalooza

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   Aug. 7, 2002 at 1:55 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- You know that the self-referential world of bloggers has reached some sort of critical mass when attacks on it are transformed into free advertising.

Case in point: John Bradley's railing in the Arab News last week about the Wall Street Journal's ur-blog, OpinionJournal.com, and its pro-Israel editor James Taranto.

Taranto delightedly turned a line from Bradley's rant -- "What Sharon is doing on the ground, Taranto is doing in cyberspace" -- into a blurb on his site.

Meanwhile, Bradley is now known as Lord Haw-Haw on another blog, Littlegreenfootballs.com, which specializes in tracking the Arab press.

Traditional media can be hostile to bloggers. As John Leo noted this week in his U.S. News and World Report column, "The established media learned long ago how to marginalize critics and shrug off complaints of bias as the ravings of right-wing fanatics. But the bloggers aren't so easily dismissed. They don't bluster. They deal in specifics and they work quickly, while the stories they target are still fresh."

Or, as Los Angeles blogger Ken Layne (kenlayne.com) put it in what has become the rallying cry of bloggerdom: "We can fact-check your ass."

"Blog" used to mostly mean someone's personal online diary, typically concerned with boyfriend problems or techie news, but after Sept. 11 a slew of new or refocused media junkie/political sites reshaped the entire Internet media landscape.

Blogs now refer to addictive web journals that comment on the news, usually in rudely clever tones, with links to stories that back up the commentary with evidence.

The blogging revolution has rendered obsolete Mark Twain's famous crack about never arguing with a man who buys ink by the barrel -- and that goes for the man who buys bandwidth by the barrel too.

Even big corporations have gotten into the act. Foxnews.com began running blogger commentary on its site last spring. MSNBC.com is getting ready to start something called "Weblog Central," a links page to blogs arranged by subject.

Bloggers have no patience for the omniscient, passive voice ("doubts were raised," "sources observed") of the traditional media institution, which they see as The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz manipulated by a snake-oil salesman behind a curtain.

Blogs pull aside that curtain, revealing the logical flaws, incorrect facts and occasionally the self-important approach of the reporter who wrote the "obligatory old-media putdown piece," as University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds often calls this genre at his Instapundit.com site, probably the Grand Central Station of Bloggerville.

A prime example was Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam's attempted takedown of the bloggers in April. Following a link on libertarian blogger Virginia Postrel's vpostrel.com site, Beam found what he thought was a good example of "bizarre" blogging in Norwegian blogger Bjorn Staerk's "left-wing raving."

Unfortunately, free-marketeer Staerk's left-wing raving that day (on bearstrong.net/warblog/) was a pretty obvious April Fool's joke, complete with a link to a North Korean press agency.

As Postrel explained somewhat wearily on her own blog later: "Hint to Alex: When a well-known libertarian links to a site, noting rather strongly that the date is April 1, and when that site appears to be Stalinist, something just might be up."

Bloggers make mistakes too -- I still blush when I think of the guy who for some strange reason imagined I was married to superblogger Mickey Kaus (kausfiles.com) and posted that imagined fact on his site -- but at least they always correct them immediately.

Alex Beam, on the other hand, sullenly refused to acknowledge in print he'd fallen for an April Fool's joke.

At first Beam ignored my request for a comment about the whole fiasco, explaining later that "your questions made you sound like you're about 14 years old." (Little did he know I'm far too old to find that insulting.)

He added, "I had my say. They got to dump on me. That was fine."

Beam's biggest offense to the bloggers was his rude treatment of James Lileks, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist whose surreally sarcastic commentary via his own Web site, Lileks.com, has made him a giant in the blog world. ("We are not worthy! We are not worthy!" announced an Instapundit link to a Lileks piece.)

Lileks is indeed a brilliant writer -- sort of an aggressive Dave Barry with a razor-sharp political edge -- and that he now has an audience far wider than Minnesota is one of blogging's big achievements.

But you'd never know that from Beam's dismissive description, which began with this e-mail request to Lileks for a quote: "James, weren't you once a talented humor writer? Why are you churning out this Web dreck?"

In Lileks, many see genius, while Alex Beam recognizes nothing higher than himself. No matter, because a blogger always gets the last word.

"Conspicuous flaming idiocy is often treated by bloggers like a shank of meat thrown into Blofeld's piranha pool," Lileks wrote of Beam's column on Lileks.com, "but this one just refuted itself; it was like one of those biodegradable camping crapbags that collects the offal AND returns it to nature."

In any event, just because they pull aside the curtain doesn't mean that bloggers are immune to the Wizard's wonderfulness.

"Why do you become a critic of media?" asks Glenn Reynolds. "At least in some sense, it's because you like it. If you don't read the paper, you don't get mad at the paper."

The mainstream media generally looks upon bloggers as a bunch of mutts crashing the dog show, an attitude that was first formed about proto-blogger Matt Drudge and continues still.

"It pains me to write the name Matt Drudge in a story being published in a legitimate news outlet," wrote Newsday's Jack Matthews, discussing the Oscar race last March, in a column that was much hooted in Blogland.

It PAINS him? Oh, please. I find Drudge sometimes annoying, with the manners of a squid, for reasons I might as well admit right now because the bloggers have already noted it.

"La tres persistente Cathy Seipp a suer pour obtenir une interview de Drudge pour Penthouse, sans succès," French blogger Emmanuelle Richard wrote on Emmanuelle.net a while ago, after hearing me complain about Drudge at a party -- and believe me, the whole story sounds better in French. But old media's tsk-tsking about Drudge and his ilk can be just ridiculous.

As it happens, some of the most popular blogs come from big-name journalists and former editors who are brand names to even the most harrumphing old-schoolers.

Mickey Kaus, who used to write regularly for the New Republic about welfare reform, needles gassy media navel-gazing pieces with his witty, condensed SeriesSkipper (TM) annotated versions on Kausfiles.com, which was recently annexed by Slate.

"There are only so many glamorous blogger parties you can attend before you ask yourself, 'Is this all there is?'" Kaus said, explaining why he'd moved Kausfiles over to Slate. "What about -- I'd ask this to myself when I was alone, in the middle of the night -- what about making some money and using it to buy consumer goods?"

Former New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan reported last spring that his andrewsullivan.com site now has more traffic than Slate and Salon combined. Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason and the author of "The Future and its Enemies," comments on everything from steel tariffs to the inanities of Maureen Dowd.

I am not a blogger, but the blog world is friendly to kibbitzers. I get invited to blogger parties here in Los Angeles because blogging has its roots in media criticism and bloggers here remember I used to write a monthly column about the Los Angeles Times for the old Buzz magazine, which could be considered sort of a primitive '90s proto-blog.

Through all this I met LA star bloggers Ken Layne and Matt Welch (who's married to Emmanuelle.net's Emmanuelle Richard), close friends who worked together on a newspaper that Welch helped start in the early '90s in Prague, and then on Tabloid.net, an extinct online site that Layne ran in the late '90s out of San Francisco.

Los Angeles seems to be the capital of blogging -- except of course for Knoxville, Tenn., home of Instapundit. Mickey Kaus moved to L.A. a couple of years ago from New York to be near the Pacific Ocean air.

Another prominent L.A. blogger is Charles Johnson, who coined the term "anti-idiotarian" to describe eclectic blogger politics and is a jazz guitarist who used to tour with Al Jarreau and now works as a professional Web designer. Johnson's hobby is scouring the Arab press (via the translations at MEMRI.org) for the latest anti-Semitic blood libels and strange news stories, which he posts at littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog.

Also in L.A. is Heather Havrilesky's Rabbit Blog, a hipster advice column at tinylittlepenis.com. This is more like an old-fashioned online diary but is well known in Blogville because Havrilesky's old Suck.com column was such a cult favorite. Suck, though dead, remains an inspiration to bloggers because of its motto: "A fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun."

Shooting fish in a barrel is a favorite blogger pastime. A pet target is Michael Moore, who often seems to be just asking for it. (Charles Johnson: "If you put all the new anti-idiotarian Web logs end to end, they would stretch halfway around Michael Moore's belly.")

Moore's own blog (michaelmoore.com) lamented in March that there seemed to be a conspiracy to keep his latest book, "Stupid White Men," out of bookstores, and pleaded with readers to call or write the publisher to complain if they can't find it in stock. Bloggers had a lot of fun with the notion that a book can be a bestseller and at the same time suffer from an evil plot to make it unavailable.

As Canadian blogger Damian Penny (Daimnation.com) pointed out to Moore's supposedly frustrated fans: "Jesus Christ, guys, if you want the book that badly, Amazon.com will ship it out to you in 24 hours. They'll even give you a $9.98 discount off the cover price."

Reynolds, who was an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer before he started Instapundit, sees blogs as this genre's huge, mutated offspring. "The format is: This article says this. Here is the fatal flaw in that approach. Here is why the author of that article is wrong, and I am right," he says.

Reynolds began blogging last August, hoping to get perhaps 200 high-level academic readers a day. On Sept. 11, he had a little scoop -- the Aryan Nations Web site had a message of congratulation to the World Trade Center attackers -- and got 5,000 hits. By last spring, Instapundit's traffic had reached about 50,000 hits a day.

"The most striking media development of the last year has been the instant rise of Instapundit," says Kaus, who estimates he gets between 5,000 and 7,000 hits a day, which is quite good for someone who often takes a day off. Part of what drives Instapundit's huge traffic is Reynolds's constant updating.

Last spring bloggers began to notice, just by typing their common first names into Google, that they'd risen to the search engine's heady heights. Now it's true that Google considers its top sites by linkage and recent activity, not only sheer numbers of hits. But still, it's saying something that when I tried this experiment myself recently, Andrew Sullivan was the top Andrew; Kausfiles was the top Mickey (I expected it to be Mouse), and the top Ken was not Barbie's boyfriend but Ken Layne, beating out over 3 million other Google results.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, blogs have brought serendipity -- the great advantage of actual newspapers -- to online publishing. I always find more than I was planning to read on blogs, even though I'm never looking for any particular subject.

Obviously, it's easy to waste an appalling amount of time in Blogland. But as a journalist, I find it's rarely time completely wasted. My clip files for three long stories I was working on last spring are filled with items and ideas found on blogs.

Glenn Reynolds's day job may be law professor, but I like to think of him in his off hours as my unpaid personal research assistant.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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