Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in one of a series of dismissals of bloggers, summed up 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.”
If, indeed, that it was all bloggers were doing or could do, it would not be enough, but blogging today is much more than media criticism. In fact, there are bloggers who are doing everything that journalists ever did. Indeed that’s the point about the world of “PolicyByBlog”: blogging is a genre, a medium and a technology that can be used by professionals.
I don’t think Keller was making a movie allusion. But to historians of political communication who are also interested in politicians using blogs to reach the people it is worth recalling the implications of the word “chew.” I think of a potent icon of individual populist autocracy gone mad.
There were no blogs in 1956 when director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg crafted their famous meditation on the perils of democracy, “Face in the Crowd.” In his best (and first) movie performance, Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas yokel who, by his quick wit and ruthless character, rises to the top of the talk show radio and television game. Of course, he abuses his power, crushing people who stand in his way, and even attempts to hogtie the course of the nation.
In one famous sequence, he adopts the political fortunes of a well-known conservative senator with presidential ambitions. The man is a dignified, thoughtful, old-fashioned politician, modeled perhaps on the late Robert “Mr. Conservative” Taft of Ohio. Griffith tries to turn him into a cracker barrel populist, creating a television show in which the senator mingles with some good old boys at a country general store, chewing “tobacca” and offering political homilies.
In the movie the scene is meant to be both low comedy and high satire. The points were that (a) the pol was demeaning himself with each chaw and (b) the relatively new medium of television–which in 1956 was young as Blogs are now!–offered many opportunities for demagoguery.
Bill Keller was not thinking of Lonesome Rhodes when he portrayed bloggers as news-chewers, but the concerns about populism run amok are the same. I just think that they are misplaced: bloggers are LESS likely to be hypnotized by demagogues than audiences of the television (or the speech era), because blogging is a relatively active, questioning, process and inauthenticity by a politician is both more easy to detect and deflate.
Originally posted November 21, 2005 at PolicyByBlog