Friday, December 31, 2004

Qualified and credible 

Henry Farrell has started a debate on whether the blogosphere can replace the MSM and about whether the blogosphere is full of "slavering right-wing hacks". Instapundit and PowerLine, whom I will guess Farrell considers part of that group have responded. I need to tell a story to get to my point, centered around an observation I made at lunch yesterday.

This struck a chord because of a conversation I had yesterday with a regular lunch partner, a fairly mainstream liberal Democrat (which is to say, among our faculty at SCSU, he's a saner part of the dominant paradigm.) He has been confounded by my blog and radio-hosting because to him I'm not the Republican he envisions. He comforts himself thinking I am libertarian and that therefore I must not also be Republican. (If he reads this, he will be truly disconcerted by that last sentence.) He had read Coleman's swipe at Powerline and wondered if I knew those guys. Of course, I said, we're on the same show and in the same alliance. He confessed at that point he simply doesn't get blogs.

Now, this guy is smart, very smart. He reads a great deal. He is not argumentative by nature but he's quietly passionate about his politics. And he knows no more about blogs than I've told him, even though he and I are about as close as I am to anyone in St. Cloud outside my family. No curiosity to explore further. Smart people are curious by nature, so this struck me as odd.

As we were walking back to the office, I pointed out to him a flyer. It is titled "Share the Love" and its purpose is to suggest behavior that confronts racism and homophobia. The flyers are all around campus. They are a little reminiscent of Soviet-era posters to exhort workers to forget the fact that they are cold and hungry and make more tanks. But this one contained the following bullet point.

Be informed. Don't accept stereotypical characterizations and beliefs. Read reliable sources and talk to qualified persons.
I asked my friend, what is the meaning of that last sentence? Who decides who are reliable sources and qualified persons? I am not trying to ascribe ill intent to the writer of this flyer; I am saying that this is an odd thing to write. It seems to suggest that you can't trust sources other than those already accepted, i.e., the MSM.

He gets information from MSM because those conform to his views. We all watch news through the filter of our beliefs and experiences. The blogosphere exists as a phenomenon because for many MSM reporting causes dissonance with our filters. Of course, that explanation is also there for Fox News, so to me there must be more to the explanation than that. And I think there are two other demands of the information market that bloggers meet which even a network like Fox does not.

Blogs have always had two purposes, and not necessarily to watchdog the MSM. That is a byproduct of the other two functions. The first, so wonderfully illustrated in Rathergate, was the Hayekian dissemination of specific knowledge. My own Instalanche centered on specific knowledge of Ukraine. I disagree with Reynolds that "Big Media organizations have an enormous advantage in gathering hard news" unless he means the first AP reports from places like Aceh about tsunamis. On that he'd be right. But blogs get a huge payoff for gathering a piece of information that helps shape stories other bloggers and the MSM are gathering. It does so in an efficient fashion: Spontaneous order occurs because those blogs able to gather good information draw eyes, Technorati rankings and NZ Bear love. In contrast, the marginal value to an MSM organization of getting a particular piece of data is small; ad rates and subscriptions will not be affected by coverage of one particular story nearly as much. As the mainstream media comes to understand that order in the blogosphere, it will rely on blogs more and more to help with the information gathering -- rather than compete, there will be some desire for cooperation between the blogosphere and the MSM. See, for a current example, the reliance on Sharkblog's coverage of the Washington governor's race by the Seattle Times. I think this absorption will only grow.

The other purpose, though, is more insidious to this discussion, and that is to assemble and analyze the information gathered. Powerline's advantage in the Rathergate story wasn't just that it had good readers providing information about IBM Selectric II's but also that it has three writers of high quality able to assemble and present the information in a persuasive manner. One of the great advances in macroeconomics, rational expectations, was first written about by John Muth in 1963, but it took another eight years for someone to write about it in a way that economists could grasp.

My personal problem with mainstream journalists, as a profession, is that they are badly trained in economics. Let me give you an example of a good one: James Gleick, longtime science writer for the New York Times, actually understands the science about which he writes. My field has practitioners who use chaos theory, but none of them explained it to me in the way Gleick did. He created none of the research, he only explained it in a way intelligent people outside of physics could understand. Good journalism should be able to do that. (And Gleick is certainly not conservative.) I do not see economics writers who provide that same thing on a reliable basis in the MSM. In the blogosphere there are quite a few, though. Enough that I don't feel the need to add many articles to the 'sphere in that area.

The blogosphere reduces the cost of people who are able to write such stories reaching a market. It is full of "qualified and credible" people, and full of unqualified and not-credible people as well. Just like the MSM. Caveat lector.

Written without any idea what Hugh wrote, because Amazon is pokey and some of us don't get comp copies. Ahem.