January 21, 2005

Boxing day

Since I'm just about the only person on record even remotely defending -- well, not quite defending, but challenging the people who are trashing -- Sarah Boxer's NYT article about Iraqi bloggers, and since the group beat-down has gotten utterly orgiastic (for starters see links here and, less vitriolically here) I figured I oughta explain myself.

My original response is in the comments section of Jeff Jarvis' initial scathing attack. Here's what I dashed off then:

In the previous post on this article, Michael Zimmer wrote something important:

"One thing to keep in mind is that this article is in the Arts section, not News. This isn't supposed to be (and the reporter probably isn't fully skilled to perform) a deep, investigative report as to the authenticity fo ITM. This is an article talking about how the blog has created various reactions among other blogs/bloggers. It correctly notes the "intrigue and vitriol" - its purpose is not to close the book on the issue... Again, it seems that the purpose of this article was not to refute claims that ITM has been "astroturfed" or to discredit Martini Republic. It is telling a story; it is recounting how these sites are embroiled in a larger online conversation. If anything, the article ends up in support of the authenticity and genuiness of Ali and ATM. "

Bingo. I find this kind of thinky culture story intolerably silly, but I would never try to read and analyze it as a news article. Jeff is half-right when he says that Boxer "sex[ed] up your lead and get your story atop the front of the Arts section." In fact, the whole story was sexed up. That's what the Times arts section is for.

And that's why Jeff's nuclear response is so out of proportion. He may be too close to this story to accept anyone writing about it as a matter of mild cultural interest rather than Important News, but on those terms, the article is perfectly accurate and responsible: it captures the spirit of an online discussion. Boxer includes wild speculations (they are not her own, but ones that we are to understand are vaguely in the air) because this story is partly about people speculating things wildly. It shows a lack of trust in the Times' readership to assume that by the end of the story, they would not get that Boxer's lede was intentionally over-the-top for dramatic effect.

Again, I think this is a dumb story, but it's not an irresponsible one. If I want hard news about this issue, I'll look for it in the news section -- or on blogs. The only genuine issue that Jeff raises is whether the story compromises the bloggers' safety. I will give the Times the benefit of the doubt that the brothers agreed to have their names made public. If this is not the case, then YES, the Times did do wrong in that respect. [Update: this part of the criticism has been scaled back once everyone admitted that the names are common knowledge]

And here's that same stuff said a different way:

To make this clear: I found Sarah Boxer's article completely appalling. I just disagree with most folks about why. Everyone else thinks she was trying to push a bias against ITM and was ignorantly, lazily or maliciously using bad evidence to support it. I don't think she cares about ITM at all, and I think she knows her evidence was bad but didn't care about that either, making her motivation not maliciousness or sloppiness but lack of interest. What she cared about was writing a "funny" "clever" (actually gratingly corny) narrative about those wacky bloggers, so of course she sought out the wackiest stuff she could find. (My point about it being an arts article was not its placement in the paper but its style and tone, which communicates to the reader that you're not supposed to really care about facts so much as soaking in a vibe; when the BBC rewrote it in a newsy style, THAT was bad).

The real problem with the article was that it was ridiculously condescending and intentionally uninformative. You could make a case that it's inherently irresponsible to run an uninformative and willfully ignorant article about blogs, but you'd have to take blogs a lot more seriously than I do. Bloggers who flip out about this should think about what people who run film studios must think of the way movies and movie stars are covered every day in "serious" publications.

So Boxer's article can't really be inaccurate because it doesn't make or try to make any claims at all. On its own limited terms, it is successful. People who don't know or care much about blogs will come away from it with their stereotypes of the nutty Internet reinforced, but I doubt anyone will come away from it believing anything at all about ITM or Ali specifically -- or indeed caring. Which is why I find it hard to get worked up about.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


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