Recent Events in “You”

A couple sad episodes in the recent history of the blogosphere haven't made anyone look good.

It’s been two weeks since Time magazine ill-advisedly named “You” as its Person of the Year, and we have to say, “You” aren’t exactly covering yourself in glory.

Well, not “You” exactly, but the massive, homogeneous, undifferentiated “You” that Time was referring to when it decided that the Internet, and the opportunity it presents to “build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person” was worthy of its annual honor.

We get what Time was going for, and while the decision might have been a cop-out, and the prose a little purple — didn’t we read article upon article using the same language back in the late 90s? — we thought we’d check in to see what You’ve been up to.

And the results ain’t good. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve seen some blogs expend an enormous amount of energy attempting to shoot down an AP story out of Iraq, only to be forced to backtrack when it was discovered that they were at least partially wrong; worse than that, though — just for the sheer inanity of it — was the fierce ether-based debate over a picture of John Kerry in Iraq.

We’re not going to get in to all of the particulars, since you (You!) probably already know them, but suffice to say that both episodes are pretty embarrassing — but some commentary is in order, anyway.

As for the AP story, while Iraqi police captain Jamil Hussein has been found, what’s still uncertain is how reliable a source he has been, since no other news organization has been able to verify the story about six Sunnis being burned alive in Baghdad that started this whole mess. While a huge part of their criticism of AP — that Hussein doesn’t exist — has been shot down, that doesn’t mean that this fight is over. That a bunch of bloggers had to eat crow on the story (and are now busily shifting the terms of the debate), makes a whole bunch of “citizen journalists” look silly.

But that story pales in comparison to the pointless firestorm that accompanied a blogger’s mid-December publication of a picture of Senator John Kerry, sitting at a mostly empty table in a Baghdad military dining facility. A bunch of conservative blogs claimed it was proof that the troops were purposefully snubbing Kerry. A host of liberal blogs shot back, questioning things like the time stamp on the digital image and the flags visible in the background, all in an effort to prove that the photo wasn’t what it was said to be.

Well, it turns out that in the end, everyone was wrong about pretty much everything, and the whole episode was a gigantic waste of time. Kerry wasn’t being snubbed, but sought out an empty table to have a sit-down with two reporters. And all that blogging about the issue? Into the trash heap of history, merely another example of the self-referential, self-obsessed, circular firing squad that a big segment of the political blogosphere has become.

(Full disclosure: We jumped into the fray on the AP story, because after watching it unfold for a few weeks, it seemed that to the .01 percent of the American people who pay attention to this kind of thing, it was important. And it is. If a news organization can’t vouch for a source — or prove the source exists — that is, obviously, incredibly important.)

But the contretemps over the Kerry picture was, in contrast — or by any measure, really — staggeringly pointless. It encapsulated perfectly all the worst aspects of blogging, wasting time that could have been better spent talking about something of relevance.

These incidents come at the same time as a new Gallup poll, which found that after all the hype, and the crowing of some bloggers that they’re busily tearing down the walls of the MSM, one blog post at a time, twice as many news consumers in the United States “still rely on newspapers: 44% daily vs. 22% daily for Internet use.”

Gallup also reported that “Between 2002 and 2004, the number of daily Internet news consumers increased by five percentage points (from 15% to 20%); but in the most recent two years it increased by only two points (from 20% to 22%).”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that newspapers have defeated blogs in the quest for eyeballs. Far from it. Newspapers, or the smart ones at least, are trying to incorporate blogs into their online news offerings, with mixed success so far. To be sure, newspapers print their share of fluff (Bill and Hill, anyone?) and are hardly immune from getting things wrong, but we can’t help but think, in some way, that the blogosphere’s unfortunate habit of obsessing over digital time stamps, Senators’ meal companions, and other silly and pointless pursuits can’t help but hurt the medium.

But have at it, You. Debate pictures of long since washed-up presidential candidates to your hearts’ content. It’s not like there’s a war on or anything. And congratulations on the award.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.