Strong opinions, weakly held

What blogs are and aren’t good for

After the horrific shootings in Norway, James Fallows demanded an apology from the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who in the immediate aftermath of the attacks blamed al Qaeda and went on to argue that the attacks were proof that people who are argue that the war in Afghanistan should end or that we should cut defense spending are wrong based on the attacks. As we now know, the attacks were perpetrated by a lone madman who justified them based on his Christian nationalist ideology.

Today, he posted a response to some critics of his reaction to Rubin’s post. Some critics argued that he should have been just as upset at his Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg as he was at Jennifer Rubin because Goldberg also published a “blame al Qaeda” post in the immediate aftermath of the bombing in Oslo.

This brings me to my first point. Blogs are a terrible medium for reacting to breaking news. When news breaks, details are sporadic, overwrought, and often completely wrong. The conjecture based on the limited details that are available is almost always completely off base, and usually looks stupid or embarrassing within hours of the events transpiring. Rubin’s post was great proof of this. She assumed she knew who had committed the acts in Norway and then made poor arguments based on her erroneous conclusions.

Here’s Fallows’ description of why Goldberg failed to note that he’d updated his post during the day:

Jeffrey Goldberg has explained, in an update-update, that the initial lack of an “update” label was a mistake rather than a deception. He was on the road, by car in upstate New York and Vermont, and was having trouble connecting. He filed the post, erased part of it inadvertently (this has happened to me) when adding later updates, and refiled it piecemeal.

My question is, why bother publishing something in that situation at all? Will the world somehow be poorer for the lack of one more uninformed post about an unfolding tragedy? Just skip it. Goldberg’s post wasn’t as offensive as Rubin’s, but it wasn’t any more useful. The temptation to take to your blog or to the Internet to discuss breaking news is great, but my advice to anyone in these situations is to practice restraint.

The second thing blogs are bad for is gotcha journalism. The sorts of posts that Fallows is defending himself against are what blogs are known for in many quarters. Calling out other blogs for perceived inconsistencies or hypocrisies may be fun, but it’s not particularly useful, and it contributes to the perception that blogging is mainly an outlet for spiteful jerks and pointless nitpicking.

When it comes to covering current events, what blogs are good for is digging deep into a story, detail by detail, over time. For example, go read Nelson Minar’s post on the writings of Anders Breivik, the terrorist who placed the car bomb in Oslo and murdered 77 of his countrymen. The power of blogging lies in the efforts of large numbers of interested people to break down an event or story and explore every detail. Of course, that’s a lot more work than having the equivalent of a barroom conversation about something that just showed up on the television.


  1. Thanks for the endorsement; the Bitcoins are in the mail 🙂 I think there’s a real difference between blogs like mine that only post when they have something to say vs. commercial blogs that meet a # of posts / day quota. If you run a 10 post a day political blog you had to comment on the Oslo bombing when it happened, probably before we even knew the real horror was to unfold on Utøya. That’s no different than a news site, except (most) blogs lack the journalistic standards that make news outlets report responsibly on unfolding events.

  2. It sounds like blogs are just a poor medium for people who can’t think before they hit “post,” and can’t be bothered to do a 10-second proof afterwards.

    I don’t think journalistic standards are inherent in either blogs or “outlets,“ but are either held or ignored by the people writing and editing for them.

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