February 03, 2005

Hugh Hewitt's Blog: The Review

The latest issue of Business Week reports that 62% of Americans "have no idea what a blog is." If any of those people are corporate executives, Hugh Hewitt wants them to read his new book, Blog, which begins:

I know you are busy. Perhaps you picked this book up at the airport because you've heard the word blog thrown around. You're not sure what it means, or that it should mean anything to you. Or perhaps someone down the organization chart gave it to you with a Post-It note attached urging "Read." You are wondering, "What's 'blog' mean?"

For people who still need an answer to that question, Blog offers some interesting stories and basic advice. But Hewitt is after something more than just an introduction to blogging. He wants to show that blogging is "smashing the old media monopoly," and he wants to convince blogging neophytes in the corporate world that blogging will change their businesses dramatically. In both of these larger pursuits, he fails. By attempting to achieve both goals in one book, he fails badly.

Blogging and MSM

One of the main themes of Blog is the power of dispersed blogs over mainstream media (MSM). Hewitt offers several examples of the blogosphere in action -- "The Toppling of Trent [Lott]," "Blowing Up the [New York] Times" (the Jayson Blair scandal), "Christmas-Eve-Not-In-Cambodia" (John Kerry), and "Blog Breakout: Routing Rather" (Rathergate). While Hewitt probably assigns too much credit to bloggers for exposing Jayson Blair and John Kerry (after all, John O'Neill started this work in 1971), all of these incidents are nice illustrations of the pajamahadeen in action. What comes next, however, is just silly:

[T]he biggest contribution of the blogs to George Bush's decisive 3.5 million margin in the popular vote on November 2, 2004, may have come in what it -- collectively -- did not do, which was to stampede the internet with bad information on the afternoon of election day that could have energized Kerry's troops while demoralizing the president's.

You may recall that the early exit polls seemed to be favoring John Kerry. To his credit, Hewitt was a skeptic. But the problem was created by bloggers! Hewitt names them: Drudge, Wonkette, KerrySpot. Even though the exit polls were generated by the Associated Press and the five television networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN), they were not disclosing the numbers. In short, Hewitt claims that blogs saved the election for Bush, when in fact blogs created the problem in the first place.

By the way, just down the page from the paragraph quoted above, Hewitt observes: "Lileks would later speculate that the huge and energized crowds of Kerry supporters he witnessed around Minneapolis that afternoon had been energized by the 'buzz' that Kerry was winning." So Hewitt wrote that blogs should be credited with not flooding the internet with bad information that "could have energized Kerry's troops," then observed that Kerry's troops were energized by bad information supplied by blogs. Huh?

The source of this confusion is pretty simple and becomes obvious in reading the whole book: only right-wing blogs matter in this story. Although he discusses jihadist bloggers as part of the larger blogging revolution, Hewitt's metaphor of blogging as an information "reformation" is mainly aimed at how the Right now has a means of combating the Left (i.e., MSM). In other words, the story hangs together only to the extent that you think MSM is completely dominated by political liberals. (And if you don't believe that, Hewitt helpfully suggests that you "go buy Al Franken's or Michael Moore's latest and miss the revolution.")

You also have to accept the premise that "old media" is a "monopoly," that all of the major networks, newpapers, and new magazines are essentially a single entity. Even Hewitt acknowledges Fox and The Wall Street Journal, for example, but that recognition does not deter him from his well-worn rounds.

What troubles me most about this refrain is the suggestion that blogs can displace major news-gathering organizations. While blogs have proven themselves able to offer useful checks on MSM -- and even to prod MSM into covering certain stories, such as Rathergate -- they are lacking a crucial attribute of an effective press: people who view their job as objective and balanced reporting. The individuals who actually work in MSM cannot rid themselves of bias, but that is not the point. The pursuit of balance and the ideal of objectivity produce information of great value. Hewitt scoffs at this ideal and offers another view of news production that looks suspiciously like a trial:

What is coming soon -- perhaps even in the summer of 2005 -- are clashes between competing blog camps. The perfect interblog storm is brewing and will break when the next Supreme Court nominee is sent from the White House to the presidency. [I think he intended to write "Senate."]

In fact all future Supreme Court nominations are going to ignite blog wars as poliblogs of the left and right scramble to analyze, categorize, canonize, or demonize at least the next few nominees....

Because there are so many accomplished lawyers and law professors who are blogging, they will quickly establish story lines and mine and excerpt the nominee's opinions, articles, and internet-available after-dinner speeches. Every electronic mark ever put down by the nominee will be unearthed and instantly processed and debated with abandon. Because the stakes are so high with such a closely divided court, the energy that will be expended on trying to shape public opinion will be enormous. Left and right polibloggers will follow the lawbloggers closely, capturing the information they can use to advance their agendas. The blogs will move much more quickly, and with much greater authority than MSM. They will make or break the nominee.

Notice that the emphasis throughout is on distortion and counter-distortion. Hewitt's world is not a world in which people are attempting to make reasoned judgments. Instead, people are mining data to advance their preconceived agendas. My hope is that we will not lose those who strive toward the ideal of objectivity.

Corporate Blogs

The idea of corporate blogging (or, more broadly, organization blogging) is not original to Hewitt, but Hewitt writes as if the idea is news to him. The appearance of chapters entitled, "Blogging You, Your Product, or Your Organization to the World" and "Finding a Blogger For Your Organization's Blog" seem somewhat jarring after reading about how blogging will "smash" MSM. Even if he were right about the smashing part, corporate blogging is not designed to combat MSM. This is about marketing.

Even as he describes how a business should "earn the eyeballs," he offers no examples of successful business marketing through blogs. Instead, he relies on the oft-repeated references to his own blog and Instapundit and Drudge. Hewitt describes a dozen blogs he would launch immediately, but he doesn't explore any of the corporate blogs already out there. Such as the much-praised Scobleizer. Or the many VC blogs (see my sidebar under "Das Kapital"). I walk away with the impression that Hewitt simply didn't do his homework. It looks like someone, perhaps his publisher, wanted an angle that would sell more books, and who buys more books than corporate executives? Maybe college professors, but that isn't much of a market for a book like this.

Like Oil & Vinegar

Hewitt tries to tackle two big topics -- poliblogging and corporate blogging -- but he clearly is passionate about one of the topics while he plods through the other. A more important problem, in terms of the structure of the book, is that these two forms of blogging are not governed by common principles.

According to Hewitt, the power of poliblogging over MSM lies in its "speed and trust," but the power of corporate blogging lies in its "authentic voice and earned credibility." While trust/credibility might appear to be the common thread, these are the foundation of all effective communication and they do not distinguish blogging from other forms of information dissemination.

In contrast, the attribute of speed or immediacy is crucial to poliblogging's power, but simply does not have the same traction in corporate blogging. Corporate blogs are not primarily about getting news out quickly. If speed is the issue, corporations don't need blogs. They can just post a notice on the website or issue a press release. The bigger challenge for corporate blogs is credibility, but as just noted, that is everyone's challenge.


The back cover of Blog contains this statement from the W$J: "Hugh Hewitt [is] the unofficial historian of the blogging movement." Recording that history is important, and I suspect that Hewitt's book will be useful years from now as people strive to recall the early days of blogging. Hewitt is at his best when he is looking backward. He is an engaging storyteller, even if he sometimes muffs the punchline, as he did with the story about election blogging described above.

When he turns his gaze to the future, however, the whole enterprise seems to implode. This is not merely a disagreement about his "triumphalism" -- which is how he dismissed my prior post on the book -- but rather a fundamental disagreement about the importance of reportage. Hewitt dismisses MSM as "very slow and very distrusted." While "newspaper circulation will not die, ... it will fade, and large sections of the paper will go unread." People will not stop reading, he believes, but they will be reading blogs.

Why? Not because bloggers are more diligent than reporters. Not because bloggers are less biased than reporters. It is because bloggers are more trusted than reporters. This sort of generalization seems patently ridiculous to me, but even if we accept this premise, Hewitt misses the crucial point: people who are fleeing MSM will not all gravitate to the same source. To say that "bloggers are trusted" is almost meaningless because different people are placing their trust in different bloggers. No more Walter Cronkites. As I stated in the prior post, "What we see is a fragmentation of trust, people investing themselves in all sorts of different sources."

Posted by Gordon at February 3, 2005 02:21 AM | Blogs and Blawgs