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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Mistaking caricature and generalization for journalism

(updated below)

The Washington Post published yet another article today -- this one entitled The Left, Online and Outraged, by David Finkel -- seeking to depict the liberal blogosphere as being nothing more than the venting ground for the crazed and hateful rantings of what it calls "the Angry Left." To accomplish this goal, the article features a single blogger, Maryscott O'Connor of My Left Wing, examines her posts, finds the most extreme and outrageous, throws in some deliberately selected inflammatory comments buried in various blogs, and then attributes all of that to the liberal blogosphere generally. Based upon these isolated comments, The Post tells its readers that the liberal blogosphere is a place reserved for the furious and the profane -- "Loud, crass and instantaneous."

The article's principal tactic -- really, its sole tactic -- is to search through hundreds of comments on O'Connor's site and sites like Eschaton, pick out the most extreme ones, and then feature them as representative of the blogosphere generally. Thus, we are subjected to sweeping conclusions like this one:

Not that long ago, it was the right that was angry and the left that was, at least comparatively, polite. But after years of being the targets of inflammatory rhetoric, not only from fringe groups but also from such mainstream conservative politicians as Newt Gingrich, the left has gone on the attack. And with Republicans in control of Washington, they have much more to be angry about.

The words and attitudes of Maryscott O'Connor and the handful of comments which the reporter searched out and found aren't representative only of them. Rather, they demonstrate what "the left" in this country -- a term never defined but seemingly inclusive of all opponents of the Bush administration -- has become.

The tactics in the article are as intellectually lazy and empty as they are transparently deceitful and trite. There is no cheaper or emptier form of argumentation than to isolate a specific individual, describe her, and then, without any basis, ascribe those attributes generally to some larger group -- in this case, a much, much larger and more diverse group -- of which she is ostensibly a part. Anyone who has even minimal exposure to "the blogosphere" knows that it is insusceptible to the sort of sweeping generalization oozing from every misleading paragraph in this article.

The blogosphere -- including the "Left blogosphere" -- offers infinite space for any and every person who wants to opine, report, analyze, or rant. Hundreds of thousands do so. As a result, the blogosphere has every possible activity, tenor, and approach that exists, in abundance, and Maryscott O'Connor is no more symbolic of it than is Josh Marshall, or Steve Clemons, or Digby or Steve Benen -- or any other blogger, big, small or in between -- that one could purposely select based on one's goal. Finkel's pre-ordained goal here is to depict the blogosphere as a content-free venting ground where death wishes are heaped upon George Bush, so he simply searches those comments out and then holds them up as illustrative of the blogosphere.

The crude tactics employed by this article are easily dismissed, but the objective of this article -- to destroy the credibility of the blogosphere and what we do here, mostly because it is so threatening to the establishment media's dying monopoly over the flow of information, news, opinion and analysis -- should be taken very seriously. This is not some isolated hit piece. The Washington Post alone has published several articles in the last couple months which suggest, imply or outright state that the blogosphere generally, and the liberal blogosphere in particular, is irresponsible and filled with raged-driven radicals who are as extreme as they are irrelevant. Thus, one can and should ignore what it produces, because it is nothing more elevated than bitter, reckless, and hate-filled rants.

Needless to say, the most simplistic and intellectually corrupt Bush followers have seized on this most simplistic and corrupt journalistic stunt, pointing to it as some sort of vindication for every cheap stereotype in which they routinely traffic. Here, for instance, is how Hugh Hewitt sees and interprets the "evidence" offered up by the Post:

Chapter 5 of Painting the Map Red is titled: "The Democratic Left Is Addicted to Venom, and That Venom Is Poisoning the Political Process."

Today's Washington Post story, "The Left, Online and Outraged," confirms my thesis. Read the whole thing, including the absurd attempt to blame the descent of the left on conservatives:

But after years of being the targets of inflammatory rhetoric, not only from fringe groups but also from such mainstream conservative politicians as Newt Gingrich, the left has gone on the attack.

The left has become disfigured because the excess that dominates the lefty blogs is absorbed by rank-and-file activists and encouraged by the Democratic Party leadership, which embraces, posts at and praises the blogs that are among the angriest and most vulgar/profane/hate-filled.

There is no question that there is anger and even some extremist rhetoric on the Left. But no sane person could deny that one finds the same type of mindset on the Right, but to a magnitude that is incalculable. The real difference is that, to find rank hatemongering on the Right, one need not go digging into the 300th Comment on a blog or the most extreme postings of a relatively obscure blogger, because this type of limitless rhetorical attack has been a staple of the mainstream Right for more or less two decades now.

The Right's best-selling author calls liberals traitors and urges that they be beaten with baseball bats and attacked with bombs. Its most popular radio talk show host -- with his 20 million daily followers -- has spent the last 20 years urging that liberals be deported and praising the kidnappings of his political opponents, while other favorites on Right-wing radio routinely call for the imprisonment of leading Democrats. Similarly, some of the Right's favorite commentators have urged that those who espouse liberalism be tried for sedition, or worse.

One favorite right-wing commentator has written two books - one devoted to showing that liberals are mentally ill, and the other defending the internment of innocent American citizens in prison camps. The Right's leading elected officials and pundits just in the last couple of years have repeatedly taken to threatening federal judges who issue opinions they dislike.

And how fondly I recall these sentiments from Sen. Jesse Helms during the Clinton years:

In an effort to dampen the furor over his Commander-in-Chief remarks, on November 22 Helms told a newspaper reporter from his home state of North Carolina that the President should be careful about visiting military bases in that state. "Mr. Clinton better watch out of he comes down here," Helms said. "He better have a bodyguard."

Can one even contemplate the reaction if a Democratic Senator today warned George Bush to avoid military bases becasue he would likely be physically attacked by a military that hated him? Granted, those threats against the President were merely from a leading Republican Senator, not from an anonymous commenter on a blog, but they do nonetheless demonstrate that the Right, including its most powerful figures, long ago relinquished any limits when it comes to rhetorical attacks. The only difficult part of compiling this list is deciding what the worst offenders are and which examples should be left out. And that is to say nothing of the daily doses of hatred and bile that spew forth from the Right blogosphere, which I have no doubt someone else will be compiling shortly -- again.

It is just astonishing to have to read an endless article from the Post about the supposed rage and anger on the "Left" -- all based on the sought-out, most extreme sentiments of people with little or no real influence -- while the eliminationist and traitor rhetoric that has been a central rhetorical tool of the Right's primary power centers for decades is mentioned only in passing, only by way of explaining how the Right used to engage in this sort of rage-driven politics until the Left took over. But anyone who listens on any given day to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, or who reads the hate-mongering and treason-accusing screeds of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Powerline, know how fundamentally false that picture is.

Any time old, crusted, failing, dying institutions launch attcks on new and innovative competitors, it is an unmistakable sign that the attacking dinasour feels threatened and feels its power slipping away. That dynamic, more than any ideological goal, is what is motivating the steadily increasing appearance of these types of hostile blogosphere caricatures masquerading as news articles. The reality is that the blogosphere need not be a hostile competitor of journalists, but can be a uniquely valuable research and analysis tool to supplement the governmental adversary role which journalists are supposed to perform.

But until they realize that, and as long as they continue to perceive that their stranglehold on conventional wisdom is being abolished as a result of the irreverent and increasingly substantive blogosphere, these types of "articles," devoted to the destruction of the blogosphere's credibility, are going to become more and more common - and more and more desperate. Today's exercise by Finkel in the lowly art of absurd caricature and sloppy generalization advances that process, ambitiously and enthusiastically.

UPDATE: O'Connor has posted on her blog an account of the experience she had with Finkel, and it contains two revealing though unsurprising facts. First, before writing this article, Finkel "had never been to a blog before." Gee, what a surprise -- more journalists who have no idea what blogs are writing articles on the blogosphere like they are experts. Second, before writing the article, Finkel hilariously said that he "didn't have in mind any angle." But "[h]e did have a phrase weaving in and out of his mind: 'The Angry Left.'" To recap: Finkel had no angle in mind for the article beforehand - merely a phrase floating around in his mind (where, I suspect, there is plenty of room for phrases to float comfortably): "The Angry Left." How to respond to a proposition that negates itself?

The scariest part: none of this is unusual. It is not an unrepresentative picture of how much of our "journalism" is produced.

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