The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Blogging and Incentives, Left and Right

Posted on | March 20, 2010 | 30 Comments

Baseball Crank writes that he has been blogging about politics since 2002 — “RedState wouldn’t be founded until the summer of 2004” — and relates some history of the ‘sphere:

If you have been reading or writing blogs for some time, you may recall the early, heady days of the blogosphere back around 2002-03 . . . The blog world was a small town in those days, where everybody knew everybody, nobody was too big to respond to emails, comments or trackbacks . . . I don’t want to overstate the degree of comity or idealize that era, but there was at least some degree of prevailing ethos that bloggers – amateurs using the internet to gather news and offer citizen punditry – had something in common even when their partisan and ideological interests diverged.
Those days are long, long gone. . . . The coordinated and utterly predictable left-wing assault on CNN’s hiring of RedState leader Erick Erickson over the past few days is merely the latest illustration of how the left side of the blogosphere sees it as its role not to debate conservative bloggers and pundits, but to destroy us and preclude us from being heard.

You should by all means read all of that, but when you’re done, come back here and read the rest of this, because the Crank touches on several points that are extremely important to understanding how different structural incentives separate Left and Right in the blog world and beyond.

Note particularly Crank’s self-description of bloggers as “amateurs using the internet to gather news and offer citizen punditry.” This purposefully draws a line between blogging and “media,” a term that conservatives have been using as a pejorative ever since I can remember. That distinction kind of troubles me, personally, as someone who has earned his living in the news business since 1986 and who is still working as a reporter. Journalism possesses a strange mystique, for good or ill, that I’ve never quite figured out.

Twenty years ago, when I was working as a sports editor for the Calhoun (Ga.) Times — twice-weekly, circulation about 10,000 — I went to a family reunion in Alabama and when one of my relatives learned that I was working for a newspaper, she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. You were always so creative.”

Uh, gee, thanks, cousin, but unless you’re Jayson Blair and just making stuff up, journalism is not about “creativity.”

That’s part of the mystique, however, and I think some people in the news business try to play that up, as if merely working for a newspaper, magazine or TV station made them special. (And not in the “rode-the-short-bus-to-school” sense of that word.) Maybe it’s because of the way I backed into this gig — my original career plan was to become a millionaire rock star, marry Brooke Shields and retire by age 30 — that I don’t take the journalism racket as seriously as do some of my fellow racketeers.

As I’ve often discussed with Jimmie Bise, reporting is not rocket science. It’s a craft, a skill that is learned, a trade that is practiced, rather than a “gift” or a “talent.” Anybody who can write a coherent paragraph can be a reporter, and over the years I’ve edited a few reporters who just barely cleared the coherency threshold.

Especially in Washington, however, there is a sort of Journalism Cult as if covering a Capitol Hill press conference required super-skills not possessed by reporters covering city council meetings in Omaha or Orlando. This attitude may explain why, when people diss “the media,” they especially mean to diss two things:

  1. Political bias; and
  2. The “Let Me Tell You What to Think” syndrome.

A couple of years ago, Ace of Spades erupted with a memorable post blasting some reporter who did that “Let Me Tell You What to Think” thing. (Despite repeated searches, I haven’t been able to find that post.) There is a horrible tendency among elite reporters (and reporters who aspire to elite status) not merely to tell readers the facts of a story — 5 W’s and an H — but to load it up with presumptuous interpretative stuff conveying the message that the reporter has such universal knowledge that he can tell you What It Really Means, so that your own interpretation of the facts is irrelevant.

The Zenith of Prestige

Students of journalism history will tell you that this particular style of reporting, which we might call the Omniscient Objective Style, reached its zenith somewhere in the early 1960s — which also just happened to be when the prestige of liberalism reached its own zenith. And the prestige of liberalism and journalism declined at roughly the same time, for roughly the same reasons, most especially including the war in Vietnam.

The transparent failure of “objective journalism” in accurately describing the situation in Vietnam circa 1963-65 was not because the reporters in Saigon and Hue didn’t report what was happening, but because the big-shot editors and pundits in D.C. were all in the tank for JFK and LBJ. Reporters in ‘Nam kept filing accurate stories, but their bosses back home didn’t want to spoil the whole “Camelot”/”New Frontier”/”Great Society” narrative that their buddies at the White House were selling, so somehow the folks who got their news from the networks and the weekly news magazines never really got any real clue of the seriousness of the problem until it was too late.

The phrase “credibility gap” entered the lexicon in the late 1960s to explain the yawning chasm that developed between what was actually happening in Vietnam and what Official Sources said was happening. And what’s weird is that, just at the time when the U.S. military started turning the situation around in Vietnam, the same media people who had spent years suppressing the extent of the “bungle in the jungle” suddenly decided that all hope was lost. The Tet Offensive, which caused Walter Cronkite to give up on Vietnam, was actually a major victory for the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies.

Of course, the point is not to re-hash the Vietnam War, but to say that it was during the same mid-’60s era, and in large measure related to the war, that distrust of the major media really became commonplace in the United States. And the sequel of that era had tremendous consequences.

First, the New York Times published what became known as “The Pentagon Papers,” a classified analysis of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Determined to prevent such further leaks, President Nixon created an ad-hoc information-security team that became known as “the Plumbers,” who eventually perpetrated the 1972 Watergate burglary, the cover-up of which resulted in Nixon’s 1974 resignation . . .

. . . and made superstars of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which was the ruination of American journalism. There were other reporters who broke important stories about Watergate, but they didn’t have Ben Bradlee giving them the front page of the Washington Post every Sunday. Those other reporters didn’t get major book deals, and they weren’t portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in an Academy Award-winning movie.

The famous story of All the President’s Men inspired a generation of young Woodward-and-Bernstein wannabes. And God, how I’ve always hated self-important pretentious bastards like that.

You hate them, too, my conservative friends, which is why you hate “the media,” a categorical hatred that unfortunately includes me. It’s OK, I try not to take it too personally.

Introduction to Gonzo

“There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.”
— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

Thompson was somewhere to the left of mainstream ’60s liberalism. His love of firearms, booze and fast cars separated Thompson from anything that today’s namby-pamby liberals could appreciate, but he hated Republicans with a passion and had an intense disdain for the uptight mentality of middle-class respectability he called “Rotarian.” (Probably not a specific contempt for that particular organization, but a generalized loathing of the kind of cliquish small-town mindset.)

To people who don’t “get” Gonzo journalism, I’ve tried to explain that the key to understanding Thompson is that he never planned to become a journalist. As a teenager, he’d been recognized as a literary prodigy, and dreamed of becoming a novelist like his heroes Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

His senior year in high-school, however, Thompson got sentenced to a few months in the local jail for a petty crime (some of his accomplices, from more “respectable” or at least better-connected families, got off with probation), and when he got out, he was drafted in the Air Force. He landed a job as a sports writer for the base newspaper, discovered that he could get paid for writing “that sporty bullshit,” and that was the beginning of a long and peripatetic career as a freelancer. He spent a couple of years as a Latin American correspondent and was at loose ends in San Francisco (turned down for staff jobs at the newspapers there) when he got a magazine assignment that eventually became his first book, Hell’s Angels.

Now, I told you all that to explain why Thompson had such an “outsider” perspective on the profession of journalism. He saw through all that phony “objectivity” stuff, and he mocked it relentlessly. No conservative critic ever hated the mainstream media more than Thompson did, even though he was himself always a man of the Left. Everybody remembers him for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but if you want to see Thompso0n best reporting — and his most bitter critiques of the journalistic establishment — you need to read either Hell’s Angels or Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. So while Thompson was a professional journalist, there was always a sense of distance, a separation between his work and the mainstream Establishment media, that allowed him to critique journalism from the inside yet with an outsider’s point of view.

If all that sounds psychedelic and cosmic — hey, far out, man. And as someone with one foot in journalism and the other foot in blogging, I’ve got sort of a cosmic perspective on the problems that Baseball Crank describes.

The Professionalization of Blogging

Baseball Crank analyzes why the Left side of the blogosphere became what it has become by noting how an influx of money “professionalized” the lefties, and how quickly lefty bloggers got picked up by major news organizations:

Daily Kos, TPM, MediaMatters,, the Huffington Post . . . these sites were increasingly staffed by full-time employees, tasked with taking out people on the Right, in MediaMatters’ case explicitly focused on conservative pundits. One by one, major left-bloggers became professionalized. Moulitsas lived off “advertising” revenue, Glenn Greenwald (already independently wealthy) got hired by Salon, Kevin Drum by Washington Monthly, Ana Marie Cox by Time, Phil Carter got paid by Slate and the Washington Post, people like Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and Oliver Willis got blogging jobs straight out of college . . . Today, the WaPo employs both Klein and TPM veteran activist Greg Sargent; Washington Monthly employs Steven Benen; HuffPo employs a variety of people, including Klein’s former co-blogger Nico Pitney. . .  By contrast, sites like RedState and the New Ledger are staffed almost entirely by volunteers with day jobs outside politics.

Why is this? Why do liberal bloggers get hired by major media organizations or work on full-time sites  while, with a handful of notable exceptions, conservative bloggers are part-timers who could never in a million years expect to get hired by the WaPo, etc? Let’s take this from several different angles:

  • The gap may be exaggerated — Hey, what about the Corner at National Review? What about conservative journalists who blog at the Weekly Standard, Townhall, Newsbusters, Reason‘s Hit & Run, or the Web sites of organizations like Cato and Heritage? Do those guys not count as bloggers? Everyone acknowledges that the Left has the overall edge online but (a) their edge that has arguably shrunk in the past couple of years, and (b) the balance has never been completely one-sided.
  • ‘Consultantitis’ — One of the things you learn by watching Republican Party operations at close range is that the GOP prefers to do business in a very business-like way. They want to hire a guy in a sharp suit and shiny shoes who comes highly recommended by All The Right People, a guy who can walking into a meeting, hand them a slick portfolio and rock a tight 20-minute Powerpoint presentation. So GOP Web operations tend to fall into the hands of professional consultant types, well-connected Alpha males who quite frankly are contemptuous of the kind of Beta schlubs, misfits and weirdos who do blogging. As hard up as Democrats were circa 2002-05, they were scrambling for someone — anyone — to show them a way out of the wilderness, and so the personal or professional deficiencies of Moulitsas, Hamsher, et al., were a bit easier to overlook.
  • Academia’s shadow — The Left’s online advantage may be a byproduct of the liberal tilt of academia. In general, university faculty members tilt leftward, a bias that is replicated among liberal-arts grad students who themselves aspire to positions in the professoriate. It is my general impression that a lot of the “back-pagers” and second bananas of the liberal blogosphere are the kind of faux-bohemian slackers you find still hanging around college campuses in their late 20s and early 30s — the Perpetual Grad Student type, as opposed to normal human beings who go to school, get their diplomas and get a job. There is a lot of spare time and ill-focused angst in the Perpetual Grad Student crowd, and their typical political attitude is Left of Lenin. So academia inherently provides a ready-made talent pool of overeducated slackers with nothing better to do than blog. Just sayin’ . . .
  • The Sympatico Factor — The MSM is crammed full of liberals who, during their bored-at-the-office hours, aren’t likely to be seeking out Jonah Goldberg’s latest smackdown on the Corner, or yucking it up in the comment fields at Ace of Spades. No, indeedy. To the extent that the staffers at the New York Times or CBS News read blogs, they’re reading liberal blogs, and if those organizations are looking to hire blog talent, you bet they’re going to hire their favorite liberal bloggers.

So that’s four plausible explanations for the career advantages enjoyed by those on the left side of the ‘sphere. What are some of the factors inherent to the right side of the ‘sphere that constitute disadvantages to conservatives?

Ideas (Still) Have Consquences

One of the things that annoys me more than anything is when people try to make equivalent analogies between the Left and the Right, as if liberalism and conservatism were just labels and the differences weren’t really important. You sometimes see people compare Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan in this stupid way, or they’ll suggest that the success of Democrats in recent years can be compared in some meaningful way to the rise of conservatism from the post-World War II ideologists — Weaver, Kirk, Hayek, Buckley — through the Goldwater campaign onward to the Reagan era.

No, that won’t do. Liberalism is not like conservatism in that sense. Why? Because liberalism is wrong and conservatism is right, and if you don’t agree with that proposition, get the hell off my blog, pal. More than a difference in ideas, however, liberalism and conservatism attract different sorts of people. And one of the fundamental differences is that Republicans tend to think of politics as a job. You do your job and you get paid.

That is why the Tea Party movement is so extraordinary. Here you have rank-and-file Republicans showing up on their own time, on their own dime, to engage in political activism — for free!

Which brings us back around to Baseball Crank:

The professionalization of the Online Left created a sense of entitlement – left-bloggers tended not only to crusade for their policy goals, but to work for a personal seat at the table for themselves and their colleagues, becoming an interest group of their own and thus even more personally invested in the accretion of power to their own side . . .
The effort to not only disagree with conservatives but agitate to have them driven from the public square is endemic with these paid, professional left-bloggers. . . .
The common thread is that the Online Left isn’t content to debate these people; they want them to be defunded, unemployed and unheard by the public, while they themselves reap funding from like-minded donors and interest groups.
It might be a good thing for the networks and major newspapers to put more bloggers, from both sides, on the air and in print, and let the consumer decide. But to the Left, that means only bloggers from their side need apply, and you risk an organized campaign against your sponsors if you try to give a conservative blogger a job. . . .
[T]he people doing the complaining [about some of Erickson’s posts] produce vast volumes of far more offensive and foul-mouthed stuff; they just rely on the fact that nobody on the Right has paid staff with the time to comb through it all.

This is exactly right — the Left is attempting By Any Means Necessary to prevent the conservative blogosphere from gaining any access to mainstream media, thus to prevent them from increasing their influence or, especially, from getting additional funding. Liberals want to dominate the blogsophere in the same way they now dominate academia and the mainstream media, and leaving conservative blogs stuck in their own ideological corner with Fox News and talk radio.

It seems to me that, leaving aside for the moment the Left’s attacks on Erick Erickson, there are two related problems here:

  • First, conservative bloggers have been too willing to relegate themselves merely to being “amateurs using the internet to gather news and offer citizen punditry.” Because there is no personnel department in the blogosphere, no office where you fill out an application and collect a paycheck every week. To conservatives, that doesn’t seem like a job. And because revenue at most small blogs tends to range from neglible to non-existent, it doesn’t seem like a business. But Ronald Reagan once said that “America is too great for small dreams,” and I think there is still plenty of growth opportunity online.
  • Second, because of the influence of and John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, the Left has been able to push non-profit funding into its online operations in a way that the Right has not. How many times have I pointed this out? In the 2007-08 election cycle, the national GOP — RNC, NRSC and NRCC — raised more than $800 million. Ask any independent blogger what $200 a week would mean to him. A hell of a lot. So $10,000 a year would buy you a lot of blog love, and if you multiply that times 100, that’s $1 million. For a mere $8 million, which is just 1% of that 2007-08 total, you could give $10,000 annual stipends to 400 bloggers.

Dude. What the hell is going on at GOP HQ?

Understand that I am not actually saying that the Republican Party should dole out cash that way, so as to have hundreds of conservative bloggers sucking on the GOP teat, but I am saying that relatively small amounts of money — as political money is measured — can have a significant impact online, if it is allocated with some sense of trying to build up a network of bloggers.

The good news is that the clueless morons at GOP HQ have pissed off so many of their donors recently that I get tip-jar contributions from Republican donors infuriated by screwups like the Dede Scozzafava blunder in NY23 or the NRSC’s Charlie Crist endorsement in the Florida Senate race.

The bad news, however, is that erecting a mental barrier between blogging and “media” prevents people from realizing there is no actual obstacle preventing bloggers from trampling right in on the media’s turf. The Big Media are shrinking (the layoffs in the newspaper industry alone during the past five years have been mind-boggling) and the online world is growing. But very real opportunities can be missed if you limit yourself.

Good-Bye to the Gold Rush

In February 2006, New York Magazine published a long feature article suggesting, in essence, that the Gold Rush days of blogging were over, and that there was no point in newbies even trying to start anything:


30 Responses to “Blogging and Incentives, Left and Right”

  1. Adobe Walls
    March 20th, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    I see the “amateur”, part time or “self employed” status of conservative Bloggers and the non troll commenters on their sites as a strength. There is something about having to earn an honest living that keeps one’s head out one’s a*s. If for no other reason being exposed to real people everyday helps give perspective. As for Baseball Crank’s concern about the left’s attacks on CNN I’ll shed no tears for them.

  2. ehvogel
    March 20th, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    The difference is this: I don’t have to go to HuffPo to get news. I don’t have to go to MSNBC to get news. I have lots and lots of sources, and I can CHOOSE what I want to see.

    Yes, in the old days there were very few blog sites to go to. One of the first blog sites I went to I can no longer recall and didn’t bookmark. We have grown.

    That’s not a bad thing!

  3. Robert Stacy McCain
    March 20th, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    I don’t have to go to HuffPo to get news. I don’t have to go to MSNBC to get news. I have lots and lots of sources, and I can CHOOSE what I want to see.

    Yes, but that will only last until Smitty and I succeed in our Underpants Gnome plan to take over the entire freaking blogosphere.


  4. Lonely Conservative
    March 20th, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    We don’t hate you Stacy. We just want to keep the rest of them honest. Now hurry up and finish this excellent post. I need to link to it, if I can stay up that late.

  5. Patrick
    March 20th, 2010 @ 8:39 pm


    I left a comment and it disappeared! WTF?!?!

    Anyhow, Well put Stacy.

  6. craig henry
    March 20th, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    Were you thinking of the AoS classic response to the Decider?

  7. Charles Johnson
    March 20th, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    You are all racists, because I say so! Just like those former allies of mine like Sharmuta, Wild Irish Rose, hell even anti semetic screeching harpy Pam Geller (I have been told I am a misogynist, but who told me that is a real bitch).

  8. Lonely Conservative
    March 20th, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    Looks like Charles Johnson could use a good therapist.

  9. Lonely Conservative
    March 20th, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    You should ban him. I hear that’s all the rage.

  10. William Teach
    March 20th, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    What an excellent article by Baseball Crank. Heck, I haven’t read him in years, and he really hit the nail on the head. The political blogosphere was a much smaller place, where so many of us “knew” each other. we had little cliques, which often included both left and right. And a good chunk of us on the right are still those amateurs just having fun, as we always did, on the right. Even the pro’s, like you and Smitty, RS, have fun. Look at those on the Left: they rarely, if ever, have fun.

    Remember the days of the Meme’s and constantly changing blog themes? Rarely did a lib join in.

    We always wanted to stay independent, and even the big wigs on the Right have stayed independent.

    So much of what we did was a way of saying “OK, let’s pull apart the left wing spin of the media,” and we still do that.

    We all checked our status on the Truth Laid Bear ecosphere, we joined alliances, we had special cross posts among blogs on special days, we had all sorts of blog things and quizzes, we just had fun. That has become a little more staid these days, but, we are not unhinged nutters like the left, for which everything is of “Great Importance!”

    The best explanation for the lefty blogosphere was an article from years ago, I believe it was in the Washington Post, about a lefty blogger and her day. She would wake up early, and not be able to go back to sleep because she was so mad about Bush. So, she would drag herself out of bed, grab a non-alcoholic beer at 7am, light up a smoke, and decide what to write about Evil Bush or Evil Cheney or Evil whatever. Basically all made up moonbattery.

  11. Robert Stacy McCain
    March 20th, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    Were you thinking of the AoS classic response to the Decider?

    No, that was very good, but that wasn’t the one I was thinking of. The one I’m thinking of, he quoted the story and then said, “Stop telling us what to think!” It was dead on target and I’ve wanted to cite it several times since, but AOSHQ is not very search-friendly.

  12. Robert Stacy McCain
    March 20th, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

    We all checked our status on the Truth Laid Bear ecosphere, we joined alliances, we had special cross posts among blogs on special days, we had all sorts of blog things and quizzes, we just had fun.

    I think part of the relaxed mood of the right circa 2002-05 was a function of the utter dominance of the GOP in the 2002 and ’04 election cycles. It’s easy to have fun when you’re winning. I think the Republican electoral meltdown since 2006 has taken a lot of the fun-and-games out of it. And then there is the ferocious playing-for-keeps attitude of the Left, which has so viciously attacked Michelle Malkin and others.

    Still, you could kind of shrug and laugh at the madcap antics of lefty bloggers back in the day when the Left was in suicide-watch over the ass-kicking they took in 2002 or that “values voter” thing — remember? — in the 2004 election polls.

  13. William Teach
    March 21st, 2010 @ 6:36 am

    Quite true. Back then, we used to consistently highlight the insanity of the left, picking things from Kos, the DU, etc and so on. Right Wing News used to have at least several DU Threads of the Day.

    Now we have daily insanity coming from Obama and the elected Dems.

  14. Cheney W. Halliburton
    March 21st, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    In a past life, I was blogging back in those small-town days, though at the time I thought I was a latecomer. Life on the ‘tubez was nicer then, and for me more fun.

    We had trolls, including some that were truly vile, but the worst they would do was circumvent then then-primitive tools we had for keeping them out. These days trolldom includes people who would make the Capital One Pillaging Hordes wet their loincloths.

    And as Friend Teach says, some of them are in public office.

  15. Why did the Post Standard Publish a Daily Kos Poll? | The Lonely Conservative
    March 21st, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    […] a related note, Stacy McCain wrote a long but interesting essay on blogging and journalism that’s definitely worth a read. AKPC_IDS += "18070,";Popularity: […]

  16. Right-Wing Links (March 21, 2010)
    March 21st, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    […] Blogging and Incentives, Left and Right [Classical liberalism] and capitalism address themselves to the cool, well-balanced mind. They proceed by strict logic, eliminating any appeal to the emotions. Socialism, on the contrary, works on the emotions, tries to violate logical considerations by rousing a sense of personal interest and to stifle the voice of reason by awakening primitive instincts. — Ludwig von Mises […]