Blogging as a form of dissident media*
November 27, 2007
COMM-275 Dissident Media
Blogging and Dissident Media
Accurately proclaimed as the most egalitarian media to date, the internet has certainly changed the way consumers interact with their news. But according to Rodger Streitmatter, author of Voices of Revolution, “Several of the Internet’s traits have particularly stunning implications for the dissident press” (281).
Indeed, the ubiquity of the World Wide Web has allowed progressive thinkers to communicate their views with an international audience, a luxury that dissident journalists of decades past clearly lacked. But to what extent is the blog, arguably the most decentralized and least structured of the news types, a form of dissident media? Throughout the semester, our class has maintained a blog that analyzes the insufficiency of present political discourse; yet, can we accurately label our efforts dissident? This paper analyzes the practice of blogging as a form of dissident media, with an emphasis on our own efforts. It first presents a definition of dissident media, and then analyzes the viability of blogging as a form of dissident media. Finally, it offers a reflection of our Talk Monkey blog and the ways that future writers could improve it.
Blogging as a form of dissident media
“Dissident media” is certainly a difficult phrase to define. But Streitmatter makes, perhaps, the most comprehensive pass at it: “Indeed, in order for a publication to merit the mantle of “dissident”… it not only [has] to offer a differing view of society but also [has] to seek to change society in some discernible way (x-xi).
Concerning Streitmatter’s first condition, bloggers are inherent critics of journalism. In the tradition of critical theory, they effectively deconstruct traditional journalism by questioning its ideology, unmasking its power and challenging its hegemony (Broofield 39).
For example, blogs often avoid the inverted-pyramid, recognizing how mechanized reporting – arguably, the ideology of the journalism machine — bores and fails to engage readers. Bloggers are also quick to assert their decentralization; unlike some mainstream media, blogs are citizen-owned Web sites, not corporate-driven conglomerates, and power is in the hands of the readers. And bloggers aren’t necessarily degree-holding journalism graduate students. True, some of the best bloggers are academics and professionals, but blogging is a democratic process, not a privilege reserved for the most educated.
That a considerable number of blogs embrace these alternate approaches to news out of laziness is to be expected. In his scathing August 2007 column, Los Angeles Times writer Michael Skube rebukes the bloggers’ “euphemistic” attempts to criticize and reinvigorate the national conversation, writing, “One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more… Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background — these would not seem to be a blogger’s trademarks” (Skube, “Blogs: All the noise that fits”).
To a degree, Skube is correct; unbridled, warrantless “armchair opinion” contributes nothing to the national dialog and undermines the blog’s power as a form of dissidence. Yet, one of bloggers’ main criticisms of more structured journalism is that there is little to no emotion in what is written or broadcast. As a result, critics argue, fewer Americans willingly consume news. A “loosening of the grip on editorial employees’ personal lives [is] a way to better connect journalist and reader,” thus posits Steve Outing of the Poynter Institute, as a way “to forge a stronger relationship between them and… readers” (“What journalists can learn from bloggers”).
Furthermore, not every blog is dissident, and for Skube to treat all blogs as such oversimplifies the medium. Indeed, remember the second condition in Streitmatter’s aforementioned definition: Blogs are effective forms of dissident media only if they seek to change society in some discernible way. Not every blog fulfills that role.
A perfect example is the American media’s coverage of September 11, 2001. Like many of the nation’s esteemed newspapers and networks that scrambled to make palpable the tragedy 9/11, The Boston Globe opened its article, “Noon Attack on America,” with a parallel: “The twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed this morning after two airplanes crashed into them, in what President Bush described as a terrorist attack. The raid, followed by attacks in Washington, far overshadowed the Oklahoma City bombings, and prompted comparisons to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” (Barnard and Kowalczyk A1)
Of course, the underlying assumption behind the Globe’s lead was that the terrorist attacks were wholly unexpected. But as Washington Post writer R. Jeffery Smith reported nearly two years after the World Trade Center collapsed, “Analysts warned of potential attacks by unspecified terrorists in New York and California, and by operatives of Osama bin Laden somewhere in the United States.” (A14) His seminal article then detailed the various reports counterterrorism agencies submitted to Washington politicians and bureaucrats months prior to the attacks.
Certainly, the federal government erred Americans in the weeks leading up to 9/11, but had the American media committed an equally inexcusable failure? According to Matt Welch’s “Blog World and its Gravity,” “The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon created a huge appetite on the part of the public to be part of ‘The Conversation’… Many, too, were unsatisfied with what they read and saw in the mainstream media.” (24). To an extent, Welch later argues, Americans soon embraced the blog as both an outlet for news production and consumption, picking up mainstream media’s slack.
It would thus seem that bloggers, in a way not unlike the dissident journalists of decades past, filled a void created by traditional journalism’s failures. Running counter to mainstream media forces and broadcasting a message that sought to alter the way “MSM’s” covered daily life, some of these blogs formed a dissident ‘fifth estate’ that seemed determined to check the once unquestionable authority of big name newspapers and networks.
Indeed, Skube argues that bloggers’ investigative abilities pale in comparison to what traditional media can do. Again, he is correct; blogs often lack the financial capacity and manpower to produce content comparable in its depth to mainstream counterpart. But as Jay Rosen writes in his equally scathing L.A. Times response column, bloggers have debuted a number of stories mainstream media has missed. In fact, Rosen includes 14 instances of “Blog sites doing exactly what [Skube] says blog sites don’t do: ‘the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence … the depiction of real life’” (“Blowback”).
To that extent are blogs adequate forms of dissident media. Offering an alternative view of society and seeking to ferment a discernible change within it, blogs are merely a more technological version of its printed, dissident predecessors.
Conclusions: Our Talk Monkey blog
But with a better understanding of blogging as a form of dissidence, we can certainly analyze our own efforts. From the start, the class was somewhat conscious of its goals in relation to Streitmatter’s definition of dissident media; our frustration with the presidential debate system’s inadequacies motivated our desires for change, and we believed we could best affect that change using the written word.
For the most part, our content effectively embodied that aim, and the diversity in our viewpoints further emphasized the blog’s underlying message. Aspirations aside, we occasionally legitimized Skube’s nasty criticisms. Some students’ posts were little more than “armchair” editorials that insufficiently rebuked a point already developed by mainstream media. Other times, our relative inexperience with blogging relegated us to rehashing what another blog or media source said. Original content was equally scarce; covering news is still uncharted territory for bloggers, and most of our work embodied those subconscious uncertainties and fears.
But a few shortcomings do not resign our blog to failure. Dissident publications are the hardest to manage and maintain; all of the alternative newspapers in Streitmatter’s text, for example, faced a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle, a fight for a devoted readers and advertisers that few publications won. Even successful and widely circulated dissident media had little to brag about upon conception, as it often took years for publications to secure name recognition and arguably longer to affect a “discernible change” in society.
Our blog faced similar obstacles. Although Streitmatter correctly posits that the internet allows for unparalleled user interconnectivity, cheaper publishing and faster news production (281), our blog was merely one Web site floating in an infinitely deep sea of information. We produced content for about two months – a relatively short time – and while we did manage to pique the interest of informed readers as far away as India, our blog’s relative infancy was indeed preclusive. In some sense, the internet initially worked against us.
Still, the vastness of the internet, the technological marketplace of ideas, gives dissident publications like our own some hope. And if the Web is as truly egalitarian as academics like Strietmatter assert, we need not worry about the future of the national conversation.
Anne Barnard, Liz Kowalczyk. “Noon Attack on America.” Boston Globe 11 September 2001:
Brookfield, Stephen D. The Power of Critical Theory. Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Rosen, Jay. “Blowback: The journalism that bloggers actually do.” Los Angeles Times 22
Skube, Michael. “Blogs: All the noise that fits.” Los Angeles Times 19 August 2007.
Smith, R. Jeffrey. “A History of Missed Connections.” Washington Post 25 July 2005: A14.
Streitmatter, Rodger. Voices of Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Welch, Matt. “”Blogworld and its Gravity”.” Colombia Journalism Review (2003): 24.
*A special thanks to Chris for catching my heinous spelling error*