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Obama Takes on The Blogosphere…?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on September 20, 2009 4 Comments

President Obama made some surprising comments today about the blogosphere during an interview with the editors of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade:

“I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”

I am somewhat astonished by his comments, or at least his way of framing the news aggregating and disseminating juggernaut that is the blogosphere. Obama, a self-confessed “newspaper junkie,” aligns “[j]ournalistic integrity,…fact-based reporting, serious investigative reporting” with newspaper-based news, whereas (as you can see from the quote above) the blogosphere becomes a space of opinions chaotically swirling around, with little accountability or sense of responsibility for “facts.” The former, affirms the President somberly, is “absolutely critical to the health of our democracy.”

Neither of these-the concerns expressed or the kind of reductive and sharply dichotomizing lens employed-is new. Many commentators have expressed their fears that the rise of blogs as news resources will inevitably lead to the demise of newspapers; and the recent closure of many major newspapers across the United States has done little to dispel these fears-in fact, they have surely fueled this kind of alarmism. The reasoning, however, smacks of a “straw man” argument. It is blinkered to conceptualize (or present) the new media space as one in which traditional news organizations are in constant adversarial opposition to news blogs. Both blogs and newspapers (in their online and traditional paper-based offline forms) have been cast into a ferociously competitive field, and yes, the landscape of news dissemination has undergone a massive transformation (if not “revolution”) in recent years. Traditional monopolies stand challenged, and decades, even centuries-old newspaper organizations are struggling to adapt to new (media) circumstances. However, to reduce the battle for consumer attention to us vs. them model is to fundamentally misinterpret it. The new landscape is not a polarized space; it is a hybrid space, a fluid space, where traversal, border-crossing, rather than stasis, and boundary-building are the “norm.” Newspapers have their own blogs now (eg, The New York Times, The Washington Post), and blogs have to go that extra mile in their quest to appear more credible. While credibility was at a premium for centuries, “opinion” is coming into its own, and has acquired new respectability in the transformed news-scape. Most importantly, the relationship between newspapers and blogs is not parasitic; it is a fundamentally symbiotic one. This is not a case of living in harmony, for sure, but to render it as purely a site of conflict and struggle is to misrepresent it.

But this is what President Obama misses-or ignores-in the block quote above, which we’ll now return to. First of all, the appearance of “neutrality” that newspapers have claimed to have is easily challenged on many grounds. Regardless of the neutralizing filter of myriad editors and writing manuals, at the end of the day, in my opinion (ironically!), what we have are perspectives on the “truth,” and not truth “itself.” A left-leaning paper in the US, for example, will offer a different take on a piece of news than will a Right-leaning one, or a Center-leaning one. Sure, the question is one of degree:  if you consider this to be a spectrum, then by and large, the “personal commentary” nature of news reporting moves from less to more from newspapers to blogs, generally speaking. But consider this: traditionally, “Op-Ed” pieces have enjoyed tremendous respectability, and been valued as windows into the defining ethic of newspapers.

There are too many factors to attend to here. Which blogs? Which newspapers? Even a brief Google search of newspaper gaffes tells us that newspapers have also fallen prey to poor fact-checking and egregious decontextualization. And “opining” does not mean merely shouting; sure, some of the blogosphere back and forth becomes heated, due to the open-comments nature of most blogs and because of the furiously intertextual/dialogical nature of blogging itself, but that is not all there is to the experience in the “living in” or the “being in” the blogosphere, as readers or as writers. Not all blogs are “opinion” sites, many popular ones serve as “aggregators” that push readers to MSM stories or just extract MSM stories themselves. And there’s no denying that blogs have led to a democratizing of the word and the world. But Obama, who has blogged on (the liberal blog) the Daily Kos himself, must be more sensitive to these aspects than his quote reveals him to be? Or maybe I’m just picking up too little from the parsed out, decontextualized quotes the newspaper article offered.

This debate is not ending any time soon. I believe that the remarkable shift that has occurred in news consumption in the last few years has fundamentally challenged traditional notions about “truth” and “fact.” The new landscape is more honest in admitting that almost everything is “perspectival.” In making claims about the blogosphere, President Obama reveals himself to be either fundamentally ignorant of the evolving nature of blogs themselves, or reductively dismissive. I’m still an “Obama girl,” though I think it’s time for…let’s say….qualifications.

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4 Responses to “Obama Takes on The Blogosphere…?”

  1. daveski on: 5 October 2009 at 12:03 am

    I agree with you that the comments seemed to be pretty off-the-cuff, not thought through, and ironic considering how much of the ‘new media’ that blogs represent Obama himself (and his campaign machine for example) use. The White House website itself has much more interactivity than seemed to be the case under Bush Era I & II (has anyone done a study of White House websites? they must have).

    But it also seems that it could be significant that his comments were made to newspaper editors. What was the context of his comments, I wonder?

  2. lenny bruce on: 12 October 2009 at 7:42 pm

    yadda yadda yadda… unfortunately any one possessing a key board or black berry can and will be a blogger and it is also unfortunate that compared to the “traditional” media there is no sprite de corp and any training in professionalism to become a blogger. The internet as always is a simply a tool for information dissemination and with no editor or guides and it is very reasonable for president Obama to express his reservations against such a double edged sword. Last time I looked there were not fact checkers with most if not all bloggers.

  3. michinoski on: 12 October 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Perhaps President Obama did not think through his comment in that he is acknowledging his own use and manipulation media through blogs, which is politically damaging to him in the end:)

  4. michinoski on: 12 October 2009 at 8:30 pm

    It is indeed a double edged sword just like “democracy”, right?
    It is great if everyone is well-educated while never being manipulated.

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