Friday, September 29, 2006

Are academic bloggers prepared to be quoted in the MSM?

(Welcome Balkineers - my thanks to Sandy for posting his very interesting response over at Balkinization, here. I have been trying to post the following extended comment to his post, but for some reason Blogger won't let me do it. If someone wanted to post the following comment to Sandy's post, from Kenneth Anderson, I would be very grateful. This won't mean very much, of course, if you haven't had a chance to read the original post below. My comment to Sandy is the part in red. Also, please see my response to Scott Horton's comment to Sandy's post, below as well:)

Sandy and I have a mutual admiration society, please understand - I regard him as one of the finest and morally most acute intellectuals writing in the US today; his book on torture and his new book on the constitution are simply required reading for anyone seeking to understand our political system today. Why he thinks so well of me - heck, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

So I want to be clear. I have no question whatever about the use of 'banana republic'. Re fuhrer prinzip - well, I don't think it is used inappropriately in a blog post; one of the good things about blogs is that they allow us to speak more strongly, and more emotionally, than we necessarily do in other contexts, and I dislike the idea of squelching that.

What I was concerned to point out is that, outside of the context of a blog - a blog post quoted in the Washington Post - a term like furher prinzip (which was not actually quoted in the article) to describe the US Senate sounds, well, really different. It is a different genre and it sounds very different from how it sounds in a blog post. (But I don't think that's true at all of 'banana republic'.)

The problem I was attempting to describe over at my blog post, using as an example Friday's quotation of Sandy's 'banana republic' blog post in a news article otherwise quoting actual interviews with other famous intellectuals and law professors, is what happens when language that seems okay in one genre, a blog, migrates over to another, such as a regular news story. I queried whether Sandy would feel comfortable had the reporter quoted the "fuhrer prinzip" part of the post instead - I doubted it, and as Sandy says, he shares the same feeling. So it left me wondering what happens in a world in which blog posts migrate over into regular journalism, and whether a journalist ought to check - as apparently the WP reporter did with Sandy - to see if the wording is okay.

I did add a comment, as an aside, and as a conservative reader of Balkinization generally, that it has grown more shrill of late, quite understandably, considering how momentous these issues are, if one sees one's positions losing and essentially given up by one's friends. I hope it was helpful simply to let the contributors know anecdotally that I know of administration officials who used to read Balkinization regularly, not just for its technical analysis but to understand its normative arguments, who find it simply too shrill to follow. I don't mean to suggest that the emotion that I think merits expression should be squelched - but that it does cost readers among some of the people who might, at least on some matters, be open to persuasion. I, of course, will faithfully read Balkinization every day; I'm not sure everyone else will, and I'm not sure that this form of loss will be evident from the feedback given by reader comments.

I am, I should add, coming more and more to share Sunstein's concerns about the echo chamber effect of the blogosphere and the internet generally. An editor friend from abroad came over to our house and saw the NYT, WaPo, WSJ, Wash Times, the Economist, New Republic, Weekly Standard, National Review, and the Nation - apart from suddenly understanding why I constantly miss his deadlines, and the expense, he was genuinely surprised that I would read across, so to speak, confessional lines. Despite what it appears, I'm not patting myself on the back for broad reading or spending lots of money on subscriptions; I don't think there was anything in the least unusual about that for an academic or intellectual even just a few years ago. But I do think it is becoming much more uncommon now, and that is not a good thing.

Sandy, please don't censor your impulse to give some passion to your expression in all this. If we did not have passions about this, there would be something wrong with us. But I don't know exactly what one does about passions taken from one genre and converted, not precisely homologously, into another. The expressions do not necessarily translate, and I don't know what one does about that.


(A ps to the above, Monday, October 2, 2006. It is very frustrating not to be able to post a comment to Balkinization - bad, Beta Blogger, bad, bad! If someone wanted to be kind enough to post the comment below in red to Sandy's post at Balkinization, as a comment from Kenneth Anderson, I'd be very grateful:

I read with particular interest Scott Horton's comment in which he defended Sandy's passing reference to the US Senate as fuhrerprinzip on the grounds that Balkinization readers, being erudite, learned, well read, etc., would not merely associate the term with the Nazis, but would see it as an appropriate term because it reaches back much further and beyond the Nazi regime broadly to signify a certain kind of authoritarianism which is perfectly appropriate to describe the Bush administration. Well. Supposing that is true - what I was noting in my post was not what the erudite and learned readers of Balkinization might think, but instead what happens if that bit were quoted in a mainstream newspaper story, in the NYT or WaPo. Does Scott still think the term's popular connotations irrelevant to that setting - and, recall, the point of the post was to ask, using the quotation of Sandy's post as an example, whether academic bloggers are prepared to have their words migrate from one genre to another.

In any case, while I don't doubt for a moment - I am not being ironic - that Balkinization's readers are among the most highly educated, learned, and intellectually sophisticated in the blogosphere or anywhere else, suppose we take a poll of Balkinization's readers and ask what they think of when they think of fuhrerprinzip - a long intellectual history of Middle European political authoritarianism, or ... Hitler? For that matter, Sandy is a thoroughly honest person - Sandy, were you thinking of all the various things Scott was talking about, or were you, too, thinking about Nazis? When it comes to international humanitarian law, "a field," Scott reports, "with which Ken supposedly has some familiarity," I think Fuhrerprinzip and I think Nazis. But then, given that my knowledge of the field is "supposed," perhaps that doesn't count. Maybe Scott doesn't merely think Nazis, although his discussion of it turns out to be not so much Weimar, but mostly Nuremberg and, well, Nazis. Maybe you, gentle Balkineers, think about Middle European political theories. But I bet you think Nazis. And I bet Sandy does, too - which was surely why he used it in his post.

And, again to be perfectly clear, to return to the point in my original post - I do not object to that kind of reference in a blog post. I don't mind it. It's okay by me. I might very well use it and even stronger language and references myself - I like provocation. So thanks, Scott, but in order to defend Sandy you really don't have to offer a whole intellectual history about why fuhrerprinzip is not just about Nazis and is all about alternatives to liberalism. It's okay with me even if it is a reference to Nazis. Others do object - including some in the comments to Sandy's post - but not me. I myself think it is perfectly okay for Sandy to invoke indirectly these kinds of images, and 1984, and Stalin and the Gulag, and all the rest. I may agree, I may disagree - but I don't think they are somehow beyond the pale in a blog post, a genre which accepts a certain level of passion that academic writing usually does not. It is a genre with its own internal sense of style, including a certain amount of passion, which is one reason I like it - and beyond a certain level, a reason I don't like or read the wilder parts of the blogosphere.

My question in the post - which Scott doesn't actually address - is whether Sandy, comfortable with using that kind of referrence in a blog post, would still be comfortable with seeing it quoted as a description of his view of the Bush administration in a newspaper story, surrounded with quotations from other experts who were actually interviewed and not simply blog-mined. "Banana republic" - sure. But "fuhrerprinzip"? I wouldn't be, if it were me, and my guess, and question to Sandy, was that he wouldn't be, either. And I was curious about whether the journalist contacted him directly to ask him about the quote - he did - and whether those of us who blog think there should be some kind of known, understood journalistic convention here, about quoting, about contacting for quotes, etc. I don't have a view on this - I don't often get interviewed, and anyway tend to turn them down. My question is about the migration of language from one genre, blog posts, to another, newspaper stories, and what the conventions should be for writers of blog posts and journalists mining them for material.

(Welcome Instapunditeers! and thanks, Glenn for the Instalanche. Do see the comments - they have been very thoughtful, including this very interesting response from Daniel Solove over at Concurring Opinions, here. I very much welcome comments on this question - I am a novice in the blogging world and so, for example, Dave Glazier's distinction of list serv posts is new to me. I also hope Balkineers will not take my comments below on the recent Balkinization as anything other than a cordial suggestion from a devoted reader reporting anecdotal reaction from other conservative readers.)

R. Jeffrey Smith has a reasonably objective short analysis of the detainee legislation in today's Washington Post, Friday, September 29, 2006, here. I am not going to comment on the substance of the legislation in this post, but rather on a side issue about blogging and its increasing intersection with the mainstream media - especially academic bloggers.

I was interested to see that he quoted from Sandy Levinson, writing in Balkinization, describing the bill as the "mark of a 'banana republic'." Sandy's original post is here (and also this followup, here). This quote from Sandy's blog post is mingled in with quotes that Smith presumably got in phone conversations or interviews with other people, including Harold Koh, Brad Berenson, Doug Kmiec, and Deborah Perlstein. Sandy's is the only blog post cited and is described as an internet post.

(I am, I should add, a huge fan of Sandy - as one of the most lovely people I know, as a scholar, a friend, and his books on torture and the new book on the constitution are required reading. The questiion about journalists quoting bloggers I'm trying to get at here is not really about Sandy - it just so happened that the article quoted from his blog post. It might have been Jack Balkin, or it might have been me, or anyone else.)

As with much of the language I myself use in blog posts, and that other people do, too, Sandy's language is not over the top, so to speak, yet it is stronger language, it feels to me, than that of any of the other people quoted, on either side of the issue. What interests me here is that blog postings generally tend to be much more strongly put than people - I include myself certainly - would say in an actual live or phone interview with a journalist. Presumably this is one reason why they can be an attractive source of material for journalists, besides the ease of searching them out rather than telephoning. For example, Sandy also (in the second of the 'bananan republic' posts) described the Republican controlled US Senate as operating through "the American equivalent of the fuhrer-prinzip."

Fuhrer-prinzip? This is not really such unusual language for the blogosphere, I suppose - but would Sandy have used that precise wording in an interview with a journalist intended to be quoted in the Washington Post or the New York Times? Perhaps, but I doubt it. At the same time, would Sandy anticipate having that language quoted in a MSM newspaper along with actual interviews from other people?

(Although, curiously, it is the kind of language one might actually use these days with the New York Times, since it is the kind of language that the Times is increasingly tempted to use in its own editorials. The Times editorial page is managing to perform a minor miracle in the history of literary style - to speak simultaneously ex cathedra, the voice of God Addressing Eternity, and yet in the whiny, petulant, nastified, hysterical, positive-feedback-loop cadences of the blogger-at-his/her-worst (a condition to which all bloggers, myself included, sometimes succumb, possibly even here today). But isn't it plain weird to see the most authoritative editorial voice of MSM, the Grey Lady herself, sound increasingly like a blogger - sound just like another lefty blogger, and frankly not as good at the 'rant' genre as many bloggers over at Kos on the left or Townhall on the right?)

I say this in part from having used strong language in blog posts and then being surprised - when I shouldn't be, I guess - at seeing those words quoted other places. My blog says that what I write on it is first draft, subject to mind-changing. Which is quite true - I use my blog to test out ideas and I change my mind on various topics. Geoff Corn has convinced me that he is right in saying that unlawful belligerency does not really exist in a CA3 conflict; Dapo Akande has not convinced me that he and the ICRC are right in saying that unlawful belligerency is never a crime as such but only a status under CA2, but it has certainly caused me to do more research.

But I once posted, concerning waterboarding, that I would do it to Zarqawi, if he were known to be in my hands, "in a heartbeat" in order to learn what he knew. Well. I will say flatly (just to be clear about what the difficulty with the post was, in my mind, viz., the colorful blogospheric language and not the fundamental position - I am not writing to revisit the substantive question in this post, thank you in advance, commentators) that I do not consider waterboarding to be torture per se, in all and every circumstance, and I would be willing to have Zarqawi, back when he was alive and on the loose, waterboarded if it appeared that he still had actionable intelligence that could save Iraqi lives from his terrorists - none of which, of course, could be determined "in a heartbeat." Waterboarding KSM was appropriate and right, in my view, and, in the accounts of reasonably objective journalists, such as ABC News' Brian Ross, it saved lives.

But it was that phrase "in a heartbeat" that stuck, even more than the substance of the position, because it was over the top. It attracted the warm attentions first of Marty Lederman, and then later on some writer at the Nation doing a tendentious, presume-the-conclusion piece on professors supporting torture (leaving me aside, Phil Heymann or Juliette Kayyem, "rogue scholars" supporting torture? Please.). I don't regret the substance of what I wrote on that issue. But the language was more colorful because it suggested an insouciance that was not what, on reflection, I really intended. If it were really all first draft stuff, it would be possible to say, okay, I've rethought this and this is what I mean - including that I've changed my mind, you commentators are right, and waterboarding is always torture. But the whole situation is changed when you find that your blog post is getting quoted in some magazine or newspaper somewhere. What you thought of as being first draft commentary turns into the mini-"gotcha" moment.

The political blogosphere is these days mostly an intemperate place. There are exceptions, such as the refined, respectful tone of Opinio Juris where, in a group blog with people of sharply differing political opinions, people are appropriately very careful in how they express themselves. Balkinization, where Sandy blogs, is a group blog of the like minded, and, as Cass Sunstein has noted, these blog environments tend to reinforce and spiral upwards the emotions of the group.

(Aside: Balkininzation provides some of the most useful and trenchant analyses by leading legal minds, at its best providing a fast but highly, highly informed technical read of statute such as the detainee bill and/or a genuinely profound take on a topical issue of political values, whether one agrees with the position or not, or is persuaded by the argument or not. Especially if you don't agree, it's important to read the best of what people on the other side think - and with a mind genuinely open to persuasion by a good argument. But at least at the moment, Balkinization seems to be getting more and more shrill. Sandy directed a question in a recent post to "conservative readers of this blog." It occurred to me reading it that I might soon be among the last of its faithful conservative readers; an administration official who has long read it with a genuinely open mind, appreciated its analyses and has sometimes been persuaded by its views and sometimes not, remarked to me the other day that the level of emotion and invective had started reaching the point where it made reading it just a pain in the ass - and that would be an enormous loss, as what's the point in always preaching to the converted? End aside.)

And an individual blog, like this one (where I have no idea who reads this besides undergraduates looking, so far as I can tell, for materials for term papers, possibly to plagiarize, on just war theory and Michael Walzer) tends to go over the top, to indulge the upward cycling positive feedback loop, because there is no structure of countervailing views that forces one to think about being respectful and take the other side's views into account. But as the blogosphere interacts with MSM, to become a source of material for the MSM, so that MSM feels free to quote blogged opinions, especially of famous intellectuals and scholars - such as Sandy Levinson or Jack Balkin - essentially as though their blog posts were free floating interviews, then there can be mistmatches of expectations.

This last makes me wonder whether we need some kind of developing journalistic ethic here. Normally, one feels free - as a scholar or a journalist - to quote whatever a person published in writing, without going to them in any way. But are blog posts like that? What I wrote in a recent NYT magazine piece, for example, or in the Times Literary Supplement, was carefully scrutinized by me, by editors, and it represents not my first draft thoughts, but, for whatever they are worth, my considered opinions. I can't say that is true of my blog posts - which is part of their very point - I can't even say that of this post.

Should a journalist or scholar check with a blogger before quoting a post in these circumstances to see if that is what he or she would say in a considered way, either what he or she would say in a published article or what he or she would say to a journalist in an actual interview? I don't know. I am curious as to whether Smith contacted Sandy first, before quoting him - I certainly would not think that, as our current journalistic practices go, a journalist or scholar would or should feel obligated to do so - the article identified it as a blog post, not an interview - but I wonder whether we should move toward such a convention in the future. I really don't know. But I do know that the interaction of MSM with the blogosphere, particularly the expert/academic/scholar blogosphere, in which it becomes a source of quotes, may require shifts in how bloggers view what they post.

10 comments:

Andrewdb said...

It may not meet the standards of peer reviewed journals, but even an e-mail can be repeated.

As for your readers - Chicago Boyz did a survey, maybe you could piggy back on that.

As for me, I am a corporate lawyer, 10 years at the Bar - Dad was an ex-pat working in USSR and we lived in Germany during the peak of detante. I am also a commissioned officer in the JAG Corps of my State Defense Force (see 10 USC 109).

Dave Glazier said...

I presume that people blog (full disclosure - I'm a sometime contributor at Intel Dump) with the intention of informing, or even persuading, their readers of their views. That's both a voluntary and highly public act, and once you've done so the information becomes available to virtually anyone with access to a search engine. You also have no control whatsoever over the ability of others to link to your words on their own blog or website. Why, then, should there be any basis for objecting to further dissemination/quotation in the mainstream media?

I think there is a clear distinction that might be drawn between more private internet use, such as emailing, or even distribution to a limited set of individuals via a listserv. In each of these cases it seems to me the author has fair claim to expect dissemination of their words only to the addressed audience. But a blog puts out words for all the world to see, and I just don't see why the MSM should be expected to refrain from use just because some may reflect less than fully thought out statements. We don't let public folks restrict the quotation of off the cuff statements they later regret (just ask Senator George Allen about that!), so why should a blogger who has the chance to preview and modify their posts before putting them out for the whole world to see have that right?

Meme chose said...

"makes me wonder whether we need some kind of developing journalistic ethic here"

Isn't it a bit naive to think that MSM journalists are at all interested in submitting to any new ethical restriction?

I don't want to be 'drive by' abusive here, but they generally appear to do exactly as they want, and are mostly preoccupied these days with keeping their careers out of the ditch as the businesses which employ them contract.

Simon Kenton said...

Dave wrote:
"...a clear distinction that might be drawn between more private internet use, such as emailing, or even distribution to a limited set of individuals via a listserv. In each of these cases it seems to me the author has fair claim to expect dissemination of their words only to the addressed audience."

I've run a couple of listservs populated in part by scientists and academics, and we had to be explicit, up front, as a condition of membership, that nothing sent to the group could be promulgated elsewhere without advance permission from the author. Too much was at stake, both in the sense of idea-theft, and in the tone or style of community we wanted to educe, which relied on fostering trust between the members that they could open up to these distant electronic presences. We also had to go to a nomination - second - research the nominee sequence to try to prevent the inclusion of doltish friends-of-friends. I suggest based on experience that while the author may have a fair claim to privacy of communications within the group, he won't necessarily receive it without setting up some clear rules ab initio.

blspro said...

Whether it is one's first thought or one's final thought on a matter, as a poster or a blogger one makes the conscious and deliberate choice to make public that thought. In other words, one has taken the action to transmit one's thoughts to others. As such, the burden of responsibility is not upon others to make certain you mean what you say (or write). The burden of responsibility is upon you to make certain the thoughts you make known to others are thoughts you actually want others to know are your own. If they are not, then one needs to either refrain from making assertions or one must place very obvious disclaimers along with the posting of those ideas.

Of course, if one were to continually post disclaimers that one's ideas are merely works in progress and may not represent one's actual ideas, I suspect such ongoing ambivalence would result in many people simply turning to other blogs instead.

Put simply - don't make assertions or use language when publicly posting that you would be ashamed to have others hear or read.

Dr. Melissa said...

I learned at the ripe old age of 16 not to write anything I wouldn't want the whole world to read after some nosey adults intercepted letters to a friend.

That said, I sometimes use inflammatory rhetoric in my blog posts. Perhaps I wouldn't use the same choice of words in a conversation with friends. Certainly, if the MSM quoted me, I might be uncomfortable.

The bind, assuming you're interested in blog readership, is that staid, measured writing equals bland and boring writing. Blogs are fast, quick and incisive. The best bloggers capture the heart of the argument in a sentence or two. Usually this means a more direct choice of words.

That the NYT is moving this direction is not surprising given their competition. Your concern is well-placed, though. Their mission ostensibly should not be the same as a blog's mission. A blog presents a clear point of view. A major news source should be objective.

Objective. Yeah, right. Okay, maybe the NYT is just revealing themselves for who they are and it is uncomfortable to see their bias so unmasked.

Stephen M. St. Onge said...

        My own rule, concerning any action, is that if you want to stay out of trouble, you should never do anything you wouldn't do in front of your spouse, your mother, your minister, your lawyer, the district attorney, and a camera crew from a hostile news show.

        Similarly, you should never put anything online without expecting someone to quote it.  You might want to put a disclaimer at the top of the blog, something like: 'These posts represent works in progress, hyperbole, and a certain amount of unseriousness.  I would appreciate it if, before you quoted me, you got in touch, showed me the material you intend to use, and asked if I have any second thoughts about it.'

        But in the end, you have to be prepared to find yourself 'a little bit pregnant.'

Rowena Hullfire said...

I would not expect emails, text messages, or listserv postings to be confidential. Listservs especially, since they are usually archived and publicly searchable.

Colleges and universities usually have policies about their employees and when they may refer to their status in the university when making a public statement of their opinion. YMMV, so check your C/U's policies. One should know the policy before publicly stating one's name and affiliation on a blog, listserv posting, or letter to the editor. Be careful of making yourself out to be a spokesperson of the university when you are not speaking in that capacity but strictly as a private citizen. Big brother will slap you down.

Of course, I am a full professor now there's less pressure that can be brought to bear. The untenured need to be careful.

submandave said...

There is too often a tendency in the blogosphere to assume an equivalence between "emotion" and "invective". I have no problem reading and appreciating an emotional appeal from "the other side," but I quickly loose interest when the writer seems to have surrendered to their emotions at the expense of logic or reason.

That said, I think it is entirely possible (and perhaps proper) to express oneself emotionally but still in terms that one would not feel uneasy with in the face of wider public disclosure. Passing a private e-mail to another for publication is one thing, but once a person goes through the effort to publish their thoughts themselves it would seem niggardly to then complain about even wider publication.

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