Can (Political) Blogs Be Trusted?

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At an ALA Annual program sponsored by ACRL’s Law and Political Science Section section titled “Can Blogs Be Trusted,” Jason Zengerle of the New Republic raised questions about the objectivity and reliability of political blogs that went beyond the simple and oft heard objection “anyone can write a blog so they’re not authoritative.”

Zengerle, a senior editor at the New Republic, focused mainly on liberal political blogs such as the Daily Kos and described their ascendancy after the 2000 presidential election. Zengerle gave two examples of how the Daily Kos and other liberal blogs should be treated more like political campaign tools than reliable information tools.

The first involved Zengerle’s investigation of the possibility that Markos Moulitsas (of Daily Kos) was indirectly participating in a kind of pay-to-play scheme in which payment was received from a politician in exchange for favorable coverage on the blog. Zengerle discovered the existence of a listserv called the Townhouse used by liberal bloggers to stay unified and on message. Zengerle gained access to the listserv and posted a message by Moulitsas asking liberal bloggers to not talk about the pay-to-play story. When Zengerle posted something that turned out to be a factual error and a fabrication (which he claims to have admitted and fixed after discovering it) he described how liberal bloggers used this as a cudgel to discredit him and all the reporters at TNR. Furthermore, on the Townhouse list they discussed the strategy to use this information to discredit TNR. This according to Zengerle, led him to believe that liberal bloggers were acting more like a political campaign that had an organized strategy to discredit opponents as a primary motivation rather than as reporters with a responsibility to produce articles with accurate information. Zengerle’s claim appears to be that the bloggers were willing to be silent to defend Moulitsas, even if it was not warranted, and then opportunistically attack him for breaking the silence.

The second example involved a remark Harry Reid made in a conference call to liberal bloggers. Reid said that a general in the field was incompetent. (At this point in the talk someone in the audience shouted that Reid had never said that.) Zengerle went on to explain that a Washington newspaper, the Politico, had reported that Reid said it, and the Daily Kos accused the Politico of simply making it up. Later, when a tape was produced of Reid saying it, the Daily Kos said oh never mind. Zengerle criticized Daily Kos for making the serious allegation that the Politico had simply made it up and implied that the liberal bloggers knew that Reid had said it (since they were on the conference call) but chose to deny it because it hurt their political goals.
(It’s not clear to me if Daily Kos was on the conference call, but Zengerle implied that the major liberal bloggers are all on the same page because of the Townhouse listserv.)

Zengerle concluded that political blogs are not the most reliable resources for objective facts, but they can be useful as a kind of primary source–as an insight into a mindset and a worldview and for detecting breaking trends such as a groundswell of support for a candidate (e.g. Dean, Lamont, Thompson). Zengerle also pointed out that other blogs, such as Talking Points Memo, are doing reporting that is sometimes better than the mainstream media. He also stated that conservatives have been “working the refs” for years and that perhaps now that liberal blogs are performing that function maybe things are more balanced.

Still, the idea that some bloggers may be getting paid by politicians but not revealing it, and that political bloggers are united by a behind-the-scenes listserv in which strategy of what to reveal or who to attack is discussed, while not completely shocking (conservative talk radio supposedly has been operating this way for years), is unsettling and does raise concerns about objectivity.

In the Q & A, Zengerle seemed to backtrack, saying that the biases of most bloggers is obvious and easy to detect. Maybe so, but there’s a difference between having an editorial opinion and having a concerted strategy to advance political objectives even when the facts get in the way. Just because one is writing opinion doesn’t mean that facts can be distorted or used selectively to support an opinion.

Does this put political blogs such as Daily Kos and others a notch below the opinion sections of newspapers and magazines on the trust meter? Or is there not really much difference between a political blog and the opinion section of a newspaper or magazine?

As librarians and educators, we often recommend that students distinguish fact from opinion, usually without much more guidance than just stating it. This guidance is usually given in the context of the student needing information to write an argumentative paper, perhaps for a first year writing course. When we advise students this way, are we saying that all opinion writing should be distrusted? Or treated with less trust and more skepticism than so-called factual writing? Does this advice help for teaching students how to cultivate a useful attitude for dealing with opinion writing for the rest of their adult lives?

Regardless of the merits of Zengerle’s case against Kos, it does state two specific ways that opinion writing can be corrupted:

1. presence of unknown money contributions,
2. political motivations that override concerns for truth.

How would a lay person recognize these signs without being able to do the investigative journalism that could uncover a money trail or gain access to a private listserv? Zengerle was asked as much, but didn’t provide a direct answer. Are political blogs in fact more susceptible to this kind of undue influence and therefore are a notch below the opinion in newspapers and magazines? (Note I’m not saying newspapers and magazines are free of these and other nefarious kinds of influence, just perhaps less susceptible.) If so this would be interesting to point out to students.

On the other hand, liberal political bloggers in general were less taken in by the U.S. government’s case for the Iraq War, perhaps precisely because they weren’t being fed the so-called authoritative information from the government, as well as being more skeptical of the government to begin with.

There’s also the problem that readers of political blogs an opinion may be reading them for other reasons, to have their own opinions confirmed for example, and are therefore less likely to be open to information at odds with their own point of view. Or they may also just be nakedly politically motivated and perhaps they agree with attacking someone who disagrees with the group, regardless of the facts.

Needless to say these motivations are at odds with the critical thinking most of us hope to inspire in our students. This is one reason why libraries are urged to follow the Library Bill of Rights and “provide materials and information presenting all points of view.”

Librarians need to continue to aware of the difficulties of disentangling fact from opinion, especially with the new media. We can explain, uncover and give examples of the mechanisms by which truth can be and has been obscured in opinion writing. We should convey the subtlety of an information medium such as the blog that can both challenge vested interests and conceal vested interests at the same time.

One would hope that if opinion writing is not based on facts then ultimately those sources would lose credibility. Yet there seem to be an increasing number of people (often disparaged as wingnuts) who seem not willing or able to let any conflicting information get in the way of their own worldview.

As educated members of an information abundant society, we need to learn not only how to disentangle fact from opinion, but also how to put a check on our own ability to customize the information we receive by actively seeking out opinions that differ from our own, so that we aren’t increasingly caught in our own echo chambers.

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