Some Musings on Blog Ethics

My law school classmate Eric Muller of IsThatLegal? writes that he agrees with Ed Cone, when Ed Cone says,

Eugene Volokh and Glenn Reynolds are just a couple of guys messing around on the web. They are amateurs writing what pleases them. They have no responsibility to their readers to cover the uncovering of Valerie Plame.

That's all true, and at the same time it is total bullshit. These guys aren't lawyers for nothing.

To skip the CIA story is to declare it unimportant. It's a lie to their audiences. Yet Reynolds is devoting limited energy to the matter, Volokh even less.

A weblog is not a game of Solitaire. You engage your readers. You promise them certain things. Volokh and Insty have created themselves as important commentators on the serious issues of the day.

To ignore this story is to abdicate a role they are only too happy to play in other situations, which in turn devalues their credibility when they want to put the pundit's hat back on.

What they say about PlameOut is their business. If they really do think it's unimportant, then they should explain why it's unimportant.

Of course, as Volokh says, nobody is paying them and they are free to write what they want.

But if they want to be taken seriously as a new kind of journalist , then they have to assume some of the responsibilities of journalists, too. Otherwise, it's just a hobby.

Eric Muller is a very sensible guy, so odds are that what I'll call the Ed-Eric view is worth thinking about, on its own terms and also for whatever impact it should have on my conduct as the proprietor of a blog that truly is at the fringes of the public sphere. (I should disclose that in addition to liking Eric, I also think of Eugene as a friend, and regularly read his blog, but don't know the other participants in this debate. I will use The Volokh Conspiracy as my example here because I don't read the other blog at issue.)

Start here: It's obvious that everyone who puts up a web page on current events doesn't therefore take on a moral obligation to write about all the issues of the day.

Nor does everyone who puts up a me-zine blog.

Nor does everyone who puts up a political blog.

The hinge of the Ed-Eric view must therefore either be something about the responsibilities that come with a large readership, or “new journalism,” or something about the way in which they think the The Volokh Conspiracy and other very popular blogs with lots of political content (note that this is not the only thing they have, Volokh even carries recipes whose ideological tinge escapes me) hold themselves out to the public: “You engage your readers. You promise them certain things.” Well, yeah, if you promise to discuss all the important political issues of the day, and you skip some, you're a lousy promise-keeper. But where was that promise? Ed Cone thinks it is implicit: “Volokh and Insty have created themselves as important commentators on the serious issues of the day.” Thus, “To ignore this story is to abdicate a role they are only too happy to play in other situations, which in turn devalues their credibility when they want to put the pundit's hat back on.” Here's where I get a little lost. Where is this implicit promise? Is it disclaimable? And, legalism aside, why should even large-readership punditish bloggers be expected to weigh in on everything? Why shouldn't we instead respect a decision to only speak about the things where you have something to say? Why do they (or I) have a duty to explain why they (or I) are not writing about this legal/political scandal or that one?

Similarly, I think the claim that “if they want to be taken seriously as a new kind of journalist, then they have to assume some of the responsibilities of journalists” is overwrought. Some blogs are surely engaged in an enterprise like journalism—reporting facts and analysis. Some may even have explicit or implicit claims to comprehensive coverage of a topic or topics. But the political blogs are to my mind a lot more like op-ed columns. Must every newspaper columnist across the land weigh in on each scandal? Or even every syndicated columnist? Talk about pack journalism monoculture!

Before you get too excited, though, there are aspects of this in which I'm in sort of in agreement with the Ed-Eric view. First, I do believe that there are a very small number of issues which touch us all as citizens, and on which we all have a moral duty to bear witness when the opportunity presents itself. I think wars, systematic injustices and deprivations of liberty get on that list for me, but I recognize that other people might have longer, shorter, or different, lists and I am still pondering mine. But those moral duties to speak out are not dependent on one's status as blogger, a pundit, or an any sort of recognized author—although they are neither utterly independent of the chance that one's speaking might have an effect on a listener nor utterly dependent on it either. (And, none of what I'm saying in any way denigrates from Eric's other point, that all web authors ought to think about the consequences of what they post. Where I disagree is with his claim that the two issues are “essentially identical”.) I don't think this scandal du jour makes that list. Bush's lying to the American people about the reasons for war might. Back-alley bare-knuckle political tactics such as outing agents to send a message to future critics and sliming an honorable public servant are reprehensible and well worth criticizing, but that job is being handled pretty well at the moment. Lacking any insight on it, I don't personally feel a duty to pile on, and I don't see how one can fairly impose that duty on others.

That said, I also agree that readers should not only be free, but actually encouraged, to engage their critical faculties and apply it to the silence of authors as well as to their clamor. That someone ordinarily voluble is silent tells us something, although exactly what can be hard to discern. Is it a tactical silence? An embarrassed one? Or perhaps just a modest one?

For the record: I don't promise to discuss all the important issues of the day. Instead, I promise to try to only discuss those issues where I think I have something to say that might be worth your time to read.

Update: It looks as if maybe Eugene and Eric and I have come close to agreement.

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8 Responses to Some Musings on Blog Ethics

  1. Good points, although I disagree a bit about the responsibility to the public part. More importantly though, bloggers keep waving the “new media revolution” flag. The disclaimers of the sort Prof. Reynolds now makes casts a shadow on that. “Idiosyncratic” views on subjects in a catch-as-catch-can manner aren’t really going to get taken that seriously (i.e., as seriously as professional journalists). And they shouldn’t.

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  3. dsquared says:

    While accepting your general point, in the specific case of Reynolds, there is a strong element of “what goes around comes around”. He’s been such a heavy user of the “deafening silence from XXX indicates their endorsement” trope that the lads at Atrios’ site even coined the term “Glennuendo” to describe it.

  4. dsquared, that’s $$.

  5. Well, I generally criticize people who hold themselves out as unbiased providers of news — like the NYT — not other bloggers. You don’t see me criticizing Atrios for being unbalanced, though of course he is. That’s what blogs are about. I do note when people omit logically significant facts or issues, such as focusing on Israeli troops’ killing Palestinians while ignoring Palestinian terror. But that’s hardly the same as saying that people should cover what other people think they should cover on their blogs.

    And now back to reading resumes.

  6. Ryan says:

    “While accepting your general point, in the specific case of Reynolds, there is a strong element of “what goes around comes around”. He’s been such a heavy user of the “deafening silence from XXX indicates their endorsement” trope that the lads at Atrios’ site even coined the term “Glennuendo” to describe it.”

    In other words, reserving the right to be petty. It is denoucing the behavior than engaging in the same. It is being hypocritical with a sad rationalization that it’s okay because that person did it too. This is not made in a vacuum where the original offended are saints however.

    And that is the critical part of the rationalization. Why the left of the blogosphere would be all warm and cuddly if it weren’t for those assholes on the right causing them to fight back…..riiiiggghttt.

  7. Sean E says:

    There have been plenty of times that I have heard a breaking news story on the drive in to work then been disappointed that none of the bloggers I read seemed to consider it as interesting as I did. But hey, that’s life. None of them are getting paid for what they are doing, particularly by me. Complaining about their choice of topics would feel pretty crass.

    I find it hard to believe anyone would expect a full rundown of all major news items from any one blog, no matter how prolific. No one expects that from Maureen Dowd or George Will and they are paid very well to comment on current affairs on a full time basis. Why would you expect it from someone doing it as a hobby?

    —–

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