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My Response to Mark Bowden’s Article in The Atlantic About VS

Morgen on September 8, 2009 at 6:57 am

Mark Bowden’s piece in the October issue of The Atlantic featuring this blog – and well, me – couldn’t be more timely considering the recent controversy surrounding White House adviser Van Jones, culminating in his resignation over the weekend. And while I very much doubt Bowden is happy about Jones’ resignation, his article is likely to garner much more attention than it otherwise would have considering that his central premise is based around the Sotomayor nomination (which now seems like ancient history).

Bowden’s point is in essence the same as that made by Tom Brokaw and Tom Friedman on Meet the Press this past weekend in response to the Jones affair. As Friedman said, “the Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information”. While Bowden is far more eloquent and even-handed in his choice of words, there is no question that they all lament the declining role of traditional media/journalism in vetting, assimilating, and packaging information prior to its dissemination to the public.

And while blogs and other internet-based sources have indeed “stepped forward to to provide [much of] the reporting that feeds the 24-hour news cycle”, I think Bowden and the Meet the Press crew have missed a critical point in their analysis. And that is that the real-time, collaborative nature of the blogosphere does a far more effective job in scrutinizing and vetting information than the traditional media does – now if not ever. Sure, any wack-job with an internet connection can fabricate the most preposterous or slanderous story-line possible and post it for the world to see. But in doing so they instantly throw away any credibility they might have had, unless their audience consists of conspiracy theorists or other fringe groups. Which collectively have no credibility of course.

And while I wholeheartedly disagree with Bowden’s ultimate assessment that the Sotomayor “court is where policy is made” and “wise Latina” comments were non-controversial when taken in full context, the truth of the matter is that literally within hours (if not minutes) of posting both of these, there were an assortment of bloggers across the political spectrum dissecting and analyzing these finds. And not just the short clips which ultimately played on TV. I posted a link to the full Duke Law video almost immediately, and embedded as much of the “wise Latina” speech as I could in my initial post, so anyone who was interested had access to as much context as they wanted. Many highly-regarded blogs, such as the Volokh Conspiracy, concluded as Bowden did that these statements were not as controversial as they seemed on their face. And of course many others were not so willing to give Sotomayor the benefit of the doubt. The point is that this started taking place within hours on the internet, long before any of this made it’s way into the broader media. (Remember that I posted both of these statements before Sotomayor was even nominated.)

Of course Bowden assigns some blame to the broadcast media for not fully vetting or analyzing this information before airing it. But it’s apparent that as an “old school” journalist himself, he holds the original source of this information (me) most responsible for not providing a full and complete analysis of the context (and it seems, Sotomayor’s entire life background), prior to or concurrent with publishing it. As I told Bowden after seeing an advance copy of his article, I think this is a little unfair. One, because I actually provided more context than he credited me for (and what I didn’t provide other bloggers rapidly filled in the gaps). But more to the point, because he does not seem to understand how blogging works.

In the blogging world, linking to external sources or other background information in most cases suffices for context. Few people are interested in reading lengthy posts from even the most well-known bloggers (which of course I am not). And a central feature of the blogosphere is the collaboration and “crowd sourcing” which takes place as news and other information is passed around the internet, analyzed, and commented on.

If others in the media were guilty of anything for airing this information without more context (a premise I question), I don’t see how I was to blame. Except in the sense that perhaps this information may not have been discovered if I hadn’t found it, which I don’t think is even true. And of course, I have never hidden that my perspective is that of a partisan conservative.

So bottom line, no regrets. And while I can’t help but be a little annoyed by some of Bowden’s characterizations about my “motivation” and “ethics”, I hold no animosity for him whatsoever. Say what you want, but the guy practices what he preaches. He made a concerted effort to obtain all of the relevant facts and background information, and I believe he worked hard to be evenhanded in his assessment. Where we differ is in perspective. Over the nature of blogging and the Sotomayor statements themselves, which I may discuss in a future post.

To bring this full circle, I think the events of last week related to Van Jones clearly demonstrate that the blogosphere has a legitimate and fully defensible role to play in ascertaining and disseminating information of public interest. And more and more we seem to be doing this in the absence of, rather than in conjunction with traditional media. Personally, I think this represents an evolutionary improvement in the free-flow of information within society. Bowden obviously disagrees. Time will tell who is right, I suppose.

Regardless, I hope there will always be a place for true investigative journalism. People like Mark Bowden play a valuable and often thankless role in trudging through hostile environments to sift through reams of mundane information, and interview rambling witnesses who probably overestimate their importance to a story. All to ultimately publish what is probably a very thought-provoking and well-reasoned narrative. And then hope it will be read before it’s superseded by the political or celebrity scandal of the week.

We need more people like Mark Bowden (and Michael Yon) – not fewer. And I am appreciative that Bowden took the time to understand and tell our story, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.

Update (9/14): posted some additional thoughts here.

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