Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in one of a series of dismissals of bloggers, summed up his opinion of their contribution to the information society by the following: “Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That’s not bad. But it’s not enough.”
I disagree. Many bloggers are creating new content, hunting and gathering news and information, not just digesting it. The presidential race–or pre-race creates many examples. The invisible primary is a time of severely reduced press attention to presidential hopefuls. Even bigfoot frontrunners like, say, Hillary Clinton, do not get much national media attention speaking to the Women’s Democratic Caucus in a rural county in Iowa. As Richard di Benedetto of USA Today once commented to me: “When I started in this business, I was taught that the job of a journalist was to go someplace that the public couldn’t get to and report what he saw and heard.”
But not many reporters are covering this fallow period for sensational news.
Bloggers, however, are there. When former North Carolina Senator and 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards spoke at the University of Texas in late October 2005, blogger Neal Sinhababu, a UT-Austin student and editor of “Ethical Werewolf,” recounted “the John Edwards experience.” I quote him at length to admire an insightful and useful bit of political reporting, though of course not in the “objective” style of the msm press.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed an incapacity to properly listen to political speeches. I generally approach them in some kind of meta way, analyzing how the speaker’s rhetorical moves and mannerisms contribute or detract from the effect he is trying to create, and considering how they play into a broader political context. It doesn’t usually matter whether I support the speaker or not — it happens as much with Democrats as with Republicans. That’s not what happened today. For most of John Edwards’ talk on poverty here on the UT campus, I was naively absorbed in what he said. This is partly because of my great Edwards enthusiasm, and partly because Edwards’ speech — the stated purpose of which was to encourage students to join a campus volunteer group — didn’t fit within a narrowly political context. It’s also because Edwards is an truly amazing speaker. Everything seemed completely natural, off-the-cuff, and conversational and yet it fit together — often uncannily — into a well-organized speech. (There’s a reason for this — much of the speech is here. Ezra linked to it a long time ago, but I never got around to reading the whole thing.) The following reflections are, almost without exception, ex post facto.
Edwards’ anecdotes about poverty didn’t fit the “here’s an example to obviously fit my point” rubric that disposes unsympathetic listeners to immediately think up counterarguments. In the aftermath of Katrina, Edwards met a man who had lived and worked for 23 years in New Orleans, but whose workplace had been destroyed by flooding and wouldn’t reopen. A truck came by the shelter he was staying at to pick up day laborers for work at 5 AM some mornings. He had stood there for 10 days trying to be among those chosen for work, without success. He told Edwards, “So far, it hasn’t happened, but I want to go to work.” The anecdote segued him from talking about Katrina to talking about general poverty issues, and I only realized later that it defused the stereotype of poor people as indolent and lazy. Some of the less tendentious Lakoff framing principles are operative here — when you want your audience to think “A”, and you know they have some degree of credence in “not-A”, don’t say “not not A”. Give them evidence for “A”, and give it in such a way that people won’t even remember that “not-A” has some appeal to them. One of the major roadblocks to antipoverty spending — the worry, primarily of middle-class whites, that they’ll be supporting lazy blacks — is thus neatly avoided. Does stable belief-change actually result? Perhaps not immediately. But I’m guessing that it would successfully push people towards liking policy proposals premised on “A”, even if “not-A” also has some grip on them. And once people get in the habit of nodding along to “A”, their attachment to “not-A” may fade away.
“Some of you might remember I’m the son of a mill worker” was successfully played for laughs, and that made me happy. Not only because it’s good to see that Edwards knows what he’s repeated ad nauseam, but because it’s good (even in a fairly tuned-in crowd) to see that he’s established his poor-boy upbringing enough that the joke works.
Edwards met with a number of other bloggers, including Phillip Martin of BurntOrangeReport and bloggers from PinkDome and InthePinkTexas. Martin then reprinted the text of the exchange, Edwards’s speech in a post and a question he asked Edwards.
(Note how reaching out to bloggers is not just done in cyberspace!)
That is original content–for all of us to chew on.
Originally posted November 16, 2005 at PolicyByBlog