Friday, August 19, 2005

Re: Richard Posner and the Media

August 18, 2005

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Re: Richard Posner and the Media.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

On July 31st Judge Richard Posner wrote a book review for The Sunday New York Times. Beginning on the cover page of the Book Review section (a practice recently inaugurated by The Times), the piece then ran for four full pages thereafter. This is astounding. Neither I nor others whom I asked can remember a prior piece in the Book Review section that ran longer than two pages, and the vast, vast majority are confined to one page or less.

Nor did the piece seem in reality to be a book review, although it ostensibly was a review of no less than eight books on the media. It was far more an essay giving Posner’s views on various subjects related to the media, with the eight books mentioned relatively little (albeit one assumes that Posner likely got some portion of his information and views (some considerable portion of them?) from those books, and he cited books’ views to support his own). In regard to being an essay giving his views, rather than a standard book review detailing what the pertinent books say, Posner’s piece was much like the opening section of lengthy reviews in The New York Review of Books, which discuss the general subject before turning (as Judge Posner in places did briefly) to the book or books at hand.

One wonders how it is that The Times Book Review did something so out of the ordinary for it as publishing a four page essay. The answer would almost surely seem to lie in the regard in which the editors of the Book Review section hold Posner. This regard was displayed in the relatively new segment on page 4 entitled Up Front and signed "The Editors." Here is what "The Editors" said:

How does Richard A. Posner do it? A federal appeals court judge, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, an editor of The American Law and Economics Review and a blogger, he is the author of 38 books, more than 300 articles and book reviews (including one, in these pages last year, of the 9/11 Commission Report), and almost 2,200 published judicial opinions. One reaches for science fiction explanations: Posner has cloned himself; he has found a way to slow down time. Surely it's the case that he never sleeps. Posner may be inhumanly prolific, but he is neither formulaic nor superficial. In books like The Frontiers of Legal Theory, Catastrophe: Risk and Response and An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment and Trial of President Clinton, he ranges widely, mastering a vast array of material, from economics, literature and philosophy to sex and aging. He is also the founder of an influential school of legal interpretation.
I agree with the editors’ view of Posner. As a matter of disclosure, I admit to being biased because Posner has been generous towards this writer and our law school, but the fact of agreement with the editors exists regardless. Indeed, in one respect the editors’ description was insufficient. Posner not only is a blogger, but this writer considers his blog to likely be the best one in the United States. Appearing roughly once a week -- and sometimes written by his partner, Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker (it is called "The Becker/Posner Blog", but is predominantly written by Posner) -- each effort is a literate, thoughtful, analytical essay on some subject of importance. Posner (and Becker) also respond with similar competence to comments submitted by readers of their blog.

Lest the reader think this posting a mere exercise in sycophancy, I am obliged to say that I do not necessarily agree with Posner’s approach to subjects. I think his approach excessively economic and theoretical -- although Posner surely has shown potential or actual economic underpinnings in areas where none had been thought to exist. Relatedly, I sometimes think his approach excessively analytical, when the human factor, not abstract logic, would seem to come into play. And he seems to come from a much more conservative point than my own views do. (His favorable view on the Supreme Court’s election of George Bush to the Presidency would be a case in point.) But be all this as it may, there is no doubt in this writer’s mind that Posner is a wonder.

Not everyone agrees. It took only one day for Jack Shafer, Slate’s editor at large, to lambast Posner’s essay in a piece -- sometimes a quite funny piece -- posted in the late afternoon of Monday, August 1st. Starting by quoting both The Times editors’ question of "How does Richard A. Posner do it?" and their numerical list of his writings, Shafer says that if the book section essay "is any example of Posner’s technique, he does it as fast as he can, takes five minutes and a cigarette to recharge, and repeats." (This is pretty funny, although, as a matter of unwonted literalism, Posner does not smoke as far as I know.) Shafer accuses Posner of "Deploying four words where one will do (perhaps that’s the secret to his productivity)," of "ignor[ing] journalistic history as he spots emerging ‘trends’ and gets basic facts wrong," of being "too lazy to collect the evidence" and in effect of having little or no evidence, of being wrong about competition having, in Shafer’s humorous words, "pushed the established press to the left . . . . Fox News making CNN more liberal. Has Posner lost his cable connection?", and, in general, of having produced "this piece of hackwork." Believing that Posner is wrong in his assessment of the media and in logic he has used, and apparently taking umbrage at Posner’s view that the media is inaccurate, Shafer, himself a member of the assailed profession, concludes by retorting against Posner’s profession, saying that "Sloppy writing like Posner’s is enough to erode my trust in American jurisprudence."

Well, that’s pretty heavy criticism that could hardly be more at odds with the paeans of praise for Posner from the editors of The Times' book section. (Candor requires me to add that Shafer’s criticism has been joined by a few comments on his piece.) But though Posner generally garners heavy praise from most people (including this writer), Shafer’s slam is not the first or only time someone has taken out after him (though I would bet the criticism rolls off his back like the proverbial water off a duck). A few years ago Posner wrote an attention-getting book attacking the work of public intellectuals, called (appropriately enough) Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. (Full disclosure requires me to say that he appeared on MSL’s one hour long book TV program, Books of Our Time, to discuss this book.) The book angered some public intellectuals, and one of the most famous of them, Alan Wolfe, an oft-lauded professor at Boston College, wrote a savage critique in The New Republic. Without getting into the substance of the critique, suffice it to say that an overarching criticism was of "two of the decisions that Posner made in conducting his study of public intellectuals. One is methodological. The other is substantive." This doesn’t leave much. It is reminiscent of Fred Rodell’s priceless, long true description of law reviews about 70 years ago or so. There are only two things wrong with law reviews, said Rodell. One is style. The other is content.

(Somewhat ironically, just over a year after Wolfe’s slam in The New Republic, Posner himself wrote a slam at Justice William O. Douglas in the same magazine, in a review of a book on the life of this Justice. Adopting the views of the author of the book that Douglas was scurrilous, one could even say a scurrilous pig (views that may be right or may be wrong -- I really don’t know, except to say that Douglas was very kind to me on the two occasions on which I met him), Posner’s piece could easily have raised the hackles of a liberal. Whether or not the book he reviewed and agreed with is more than a hatchet job against a liberal -- its author had previously written a book savagely assailing Brandeis and Frankfurter -- is something I also do not know. I probably should add, though, that although my criteria are worlds apart from and I think far more historically justified than those of most law professors, I think Douglas was a Justice who almost always had things right. I am a great admirer of what he did on the Supreme Court, and think he may be the only prominent lawyer since Lincoln who understood that it is not the Constitution which is the basis of this country, but the Declaration of Independence, because of its timeless phrases declaring that all men are created equal and have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

Notwithstanding the burning criticism that is occasionally directed at him -- criticism which in truth will unavoidably occur occasionally when one writes as much and as strongly on subjects of such importance as Posner does, and assails those who themselves have the power of the pen such as public intellectuals and the media -- the fact remains that Posner is one of the greatest talents of my generation, and indubitably is such in the field of law. That, at least, is the view of this writer.
* * * * *
Let me now set forth and make some comments about a few of the substantive points of Posner’s book review. Posner seems to see traditional news media as being in decline in respect to readership, viewership, and credibility. He sees the traditional news media, I gather, as being heavily politicized in the sense that it seeks to accommodate the political leanings of its customers lest it lose both them and money. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically in a country that one would think is far more conservative today than previously, he says that the mainstream media have become more liberal, not less, apparently in an effort to attract and keep customers on the left since those on the right are deserting anyway to the various print and electronic Limbaughs of this world. Posner also says the media "have become more sensational, more prone to scandal and possibly less accurate." As one method of demonstrating why these points are true, he puts forth some arguments that seem like economic theory -- arguments premised on greater ease of entry into the electronic news business due to lowered costs, with a consequently heightened battle for customers. The arguments may also, of course, have solid factual underpinnings that, I would guess, could well be presented in some of the eight books ostensibly being reviewed.

What it all seems to come down to in plain English is that the media are profit oriented, that media organs therefore feel compelled to give the people what they want -- or at least to give this to enough people to make money -- that people want to hear stuff that reinforces their prejudices or that entertains them, rather than stuff that enlightens them, and that reinforcement and entertainment are therefore what the media gives them. As Posner summarized much of this:

Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it. We see this in the media's coverage of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues. Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates' statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness; it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.

This does not mean, says Posner, that the "news media were better before competition polarized them[.]" For "[a] market gives people what they want . . . ." Moreover, "[c]hallenging areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious the consensus," is largely off limits for the media, because it wins no friends among the general public. The mainstream media do not kick sacred cows like religion and patriotism." (Emphasis added.)

"Journalists," Posner later continues, "are reluctant to confess to pandering to their customers’ biases; it challenges their self-image as servants of the general interest . . . ." Journalists, rather, see the nation as a "‘deliberative democracy’" in which the people make policy by deliberating the issues. A democracy, as Bill Moyers says, "‘can’t exist without an informed public.’ [But] [i]f this is true the United States is not a democracy (which may be Moyers dyspeptic view). Only members of the intelligentsia, a tiny slice of the population, deliberate on public issues."

There is, says Posner, only a "limited consumer interest in the truth," and the media panders extensively to this limitation. Yet the "sliver of the public that does have a serous interest in policy issues" seems also to be sufficiently well served through serious magazines, through National Public Radio, and/or by having their own preconceptions challenged by reading both "The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal," or "watch[ing] CNN and Fox," or reading both "Brent Bozell and Eric Alterman." (Emphasis in original.)

What Judge Posner is describing sounds awfully much like a journalistic equivalent of an idea in economics called Gresham’s Law. That is, the bad -- indeed the worst -- are driving out the good to a large extent. That would seem to me the meaning of the notion that the one-sided, the sensationalized, the inaccurate are increasing at the expense of good journalism. Posner plainly implies, indeed I think it fair to say he explicitly states, that this does not mean "the news media were better before competition polarized them . . . ." "For "[a] market gives people what they want."

Yet, despite the now longstanding triumph of the Chicago school, I think it is now becoming increasingly recognized that the market fails to provide for lots of things appropriately. (This is true even if one would not wish to see regulation partially replace the unalloyed market -- e.g., in regard to print media -- lest things become far worse, albeit in a different direction.) In this connection, a press which concentrates (as Posner rightly says the media do) on horse race aspects of public life rather than on the fundamental underlying issues and the differences that could result from the triumph of different candidates and positions, is a press that is irresponsible and quite often hardly worth a damn. Nor do I honestly think that coverage of the horse race, rather than coverage of the substance, is what lots of people want. To the contrary, people hunger for substance, but get horse race because that is all that reporters know and is what they have done all their lives. (I gather that the absence of substantive knowledge is one of the reasons that Lee Bollinger wants changes at the Columbia Journalism School.)

Nor can it fail to matter, I should think, that the press rarely "[c]halleng[es] areas of social consensus, however dumb or even vicious," since such challenge "wins no friends among the general public. (Emphasis added.) Can we really live with a press that, in the interest of sales, does not challenge a "dumb or vicious" consensus? Down that road lie debacles like Viet Nam and Gulf War II. Not for nothing, I would judge, has The New York Times found it necessary to apologize for its grossly inadequate coverage of, for its incompetent failure to sufficiently investigate, report on and challenge, the Administration’s prior claims and reasons as to why we supposedly had to invade Iraq in 2003.

Nor can I honestly agree that those on the liberal side of the spectrum are being well served by the fractionated media that is now said to exist. I confess here to a handicap and consequent possible error. As said before on this blog, I read or at least skim three major newspapers each day, The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. But because of a desire to leave time to read books as well as do one’s workaday job, I do not generally watch television, listen to the radio, or read magazines. So my information is incomplete. But sometimes I do these things, and from what one does read, see or hear, I do not feel well served. Much of importance seems out of bounds most or all of the time for the mainstream media, however liberal they supposedly (but perhaps not really) are. Before the war, how much investigation and challenge was there to the lies of Bush and Cheney in the mainstream media? -- there is a reason The Times has had to apologize. One simply never sees, hears or reads of the possibility that the Bushers are criminals because they have allowed -- I think connived at -- torture. Only recently -- after two years of a war that the Administration tells us is crucially necessary -- have mainstream pundits commenced asking, on more than highly infrequent occasions, why none of these warmongers in office send their children off to Iraq if the war is so critical to the future of the nation they are running. One did not see on American TV the human destruction -- the thousands or tens or scores of thousands of civilian dead and wounded -- caused by our incessant bombing and shelling and shooting; no doubt the mainstream media was too busy sucking after the latest bushwa from Bush, Cheney and company on why the war is essential and why only other people, but not us, are terrorists. The views of people like Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti and Noam Chomsky on foreign and domestic affairs are never presented in the mainstream media. (I think the words "never presented" are accurate; if not, it would surely be right to say are "rarely presented.") People with their views are instead regarded by the mainstream media as wackos whose positions are not respectable and are not to be carried. Rarely, if ever -- I think it likely that, once again, "never" would be an appropriate word -- does the mainstream media bring up, let alone discuss, the question of whether the fundamental political problem of the last 55 years, the overarching question that has existed since June of 1950 (and, some think, since FDR’s destroyers for bases deal ten years before), is whether Congress has de facto surrendered virtually all power over foreign relations decisions to the Executive, thereby enabling the Executive to launch us into war after war after war since 1950.

Thus it is that this blogger does not think that the liberal side is being adequately represented in the mainstream media. (Indeed, the absence of such representation is probably the reason for the existence of this blog.) There is a certain irony to this, of course. Some wag once said that conservatives are persons who worship dead liberals, and, if one looks over history, one finds that it was reformers who were unrespectable in their day who proved right in the end, or who at least prevailed in history: abolitionists, women’s righters, proponents of labor, civil righters. But today their intellectual and emotional descendants like Zinn, Chomsky, Parenti, etc., are not considered worthy of being carried in the mainstream media.

One is afraid that there is much to be said, though, for Judge Posner’s view that only "a tiny slice of the population . . . . deliberate on public issues." At least it is true that only a tiny slice is heard, although one might quarrel with the idea that it is "[o]nly members of the intelligentsia" who deliberate on these issues. Politicians debate them, but almost never are members of the intelligentsia. The uncabined loudmouths on Fox, MSNBC, CNN and the rest debate them, although it is hard to see how many of these shouters are members of what one thinks of as the intelligentsia. It also seems to be the case that ordinary citizens consider the issues (even if such citizens generally are more concerned with local news, as Posner says, but which one might doubt to be anything like a universal or omnipresent case). The interest paid to Bush’s plan for social security reform, to Clinton’s decade-ago plan for medical insurance, and now at last to Bush’s war, would seem to indicate that citizens care about at least some of the national issues rocking our country. But let us not kid ourselves. If one hears relatively little from ordinary people on these matters, it may well be because the media don’t care and don’t carry what ordinary citizens have to say (outside of quoting a few people on the spot when a story breaks and a small number of letters to the editor in such publications as The Times. But would it really be so hard, or so excessively expensive, for major newspapers or major magazines to devote three or five pages per publication to essays by ordinary citizens?) Many ordinary citizens know this, or quickly become aware of it, so they do not attempt to be heard even if they are interested in public issues. And, to the extent they are not interested, it often is because ordinary people also tend to think -- rightly, one judges -- that national politics or even all politics are generally only a loudmouthed selfish frenzy and it is merely a question of which side will pick people’s pockets. Nor are there many people who, lacking the kind of access to the mainstream media that Judge Posner deservedly has because of his brilliance and incessant diligence, will organize trips to Crawford, Texas to sit outside the home of George Bush because it is only acts like this -- acts ala the picketing, marching and draft card burnings of earlier times -- that will cause their views to be covered by the mainstream media. Looked at realistically, in various respects we do not have -- and Bill Moyers is right in saying we do not have -- a democracy. We have only a partial democracy. We also have, partially, a plutocracy and a corporate kleptocracy. Not to mention that at times we also have a partial kakistocracy: government by the worst.
* * * * *

A major portion of Posner’s essay, roughly a page and a half of it, is devoted to the new phenomenon of blogs. Blogs, he says, may represent the gravest challenge yet to the traditional media. They do not have the conventional media’s costs -- anyone with an electronic pen, so to speak, can create a blog. They do not have the traditional media’s imperative of accuracy lest reputation, customers and money be lost -- albeit corrections in the conventional media are slow, uncertain and unread, while a blogger who makes a mistake in the 12 million strong blogosphere finds that a host of people will have jumped down his throat with a correction in a New York minute. Besides, Posner says, people know enough not to trust the accuracy of blogs because, unlike the media, bloggers are "unfiltered" amateurs, "don’t employ fact checkers," "don’t have editors," and "can hide behind a pseudonym." (How is it, though, that the conventional media so often get facts wrong -- usually get them wrong in some particular(s) in my personal experience -- despite having this array of filters?) Bloggers can specialize in topics to an extent impossible for the traditional media, and can stick with a subject for long, long periods of time, again unlike the traditional media.

And the conventional media cannot really hope to compete with blogs, says Posner, because the latter are "parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab." The main problem here, therefore, is that bloggers are "free riders" on the conventional media and may consequently "undermine" the latter’s ability to "finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend." The so-called "free rider" problem is, of course, one that Posner has -- almost single handedly? -- made a staple of corporate economics and antitrust and which one now occasionally sees, as here, being imported into other areas. But, in any event, says Posner, blogs do "enable unorthodox views to get a hearing" and allow people to blow off steam.

Much of what Judge Posner says about blogs is inarguable. Anyone can set one up. They lack the filters of the conventional media but the blogosphere as a whole is a giant correction machine. They can specialize and/or stick with a subject. They let people blow off steam. Etc., etc. Yet there are, perhaps, other or additional aspects to the story as well.

Let me begin with the style that is so prevalent on blogs. I admit to being at a disadvantage in discussing this because, as often said here, this blogger does not even know how to turn on a computer, so he doesn’t surf and skim and sees less on the Internet than would otherwise be the case. (This does have an advantage though, in that one does not become addicted to sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, one has a chance to read books, one is more able to have a life. The Internet is (in my estimation) to many people like a dictionary is to a few; if you let yourself get hooked, if you don’t deliberately tear yourself away, watch out -- you’ll end up spending huge amounts of time at the addiction.) But while my own time surfing and skimming electronically is nonexistent, other people pull down things for me to read in hard copy. And, in this way, this writer has been a participant -- if only to read what was being said -- in what could be called threads, sometimes threads by bloggers responding to each other. So my experience is lesser but existent.

Based on this lesser but existent experience, I would have to say that, in the particular realm of blogs, the Internet is not generally living up to its possibility, as I see it, of being the greatest advance in human communication since Gutenberg invented the printing press. For there seems to be very few blogs like Posner’s: literate, thoughtful, articulate, a stylistic and substantive pleasure to read. So many blogs, it seems, are more like gossipy, sniping phone calls or two person bull sessions. There are single and sometimes simple-minded thoughts, undeveloped ideas, four letter words, personal attacks, bad grammar, misspellings and the whole nine yards. The relevant blogs are an electronic, off camera Barberino as it were. Maybe we should not or cannot expect a better overall performance from a medium in which 12 million people write, and which exists in a society where, it seems, ever less attention is paid to teaching people how to read and write, ever less concern is displayed about the lack of their skills, and ever fewer people have a concentration span longer than two New York minutes. But whatever one might or should expect, a medium that so heavily consists of such poor stuff is not going to replace conventional media. When the conventional media will have to watch out is when -- and if, because it’s not likely to happen -- the Internet, or its subspecies called the blogosphere, has 10,000 or 50,000 Posners and Victor David Hansens writing on it regularly.

It is true, though, that blogs give those who wish it an opportunity to focus on a few subjects -- an opportunity to specialize -- and to keep hammering at the same ideas. (This blog, by way of example, seems to have focused over time on about eight major fields or ideas, including the war, torture, the media, higher education, and the desperate need for a resumption of honesty and a resurgence of competence.) But such continuing focus is not merely a strength of the blogosphere, I would judge. Rather, its absence is a weakness of the conventional media. Nor does one agree that such absence is necessary and unavoidable. As some brave souls have found out even in television, in-depth focus on subjects from local news to national events past and present draws viewers and readers. Has there ever been a better example on television than Ken Burns’ in-depth series on the Civil War? The same is seen in the print media. Look at the readership of and interest in The Times lengthy series on class in America, and from the opposite political side of the newspaper spectrum, The Wall Street Journal’s series of articles on the subject.

The absence of in-depth work is not, it seems to me, some unavoidable imperative of the conventional media. It is, rather, the product of bad standards, ignorant journalists, and corporate greed -- it costs less. (In-depth journalism cuts into profit levels that in some areas of the media, one understands, can apparently run as high as 50 or 70 percent of revenues.)

Something analogous is at work with regard to the question of why the conventional media does not track subjects for lengthy periods, but instead flits from subject to subject in a non-stop search for the story de jure -- the latest murder, the most recent and often meaningless Presidential statement, etc. Here the problem seems to be heavily attributable to a shallow idea of what is news, and a correlative failure to focus on and consider first principles. Journalists apparently find it impossible to define what is news, so they fall back on the old saw that "If a dog bites a man, it’s not news. If a man bites a dog, it’s news." So they are always running after the new, new thing. But God forbid that someone should emphasize the same point or same story over and over. That is not news, it is political partisanship and grinding an axe and beating a dead horse, say journalists, regardless of whether one is discussing war, politics, sports, police forces, business or what have you. Equally, always seeking and communicating about the new new thing, journalists ignore how courses of action or problems first began and what the original goals were. (Why did the Arab Israeli conflict commence in 1947, for example, or why did the Israelis decide to keep conquered territories in 1967?)

One of the (to me) unforgettable recent examples of the no-no character of focusing on a single subject over a period of time in the conventional media, or of continuously bringing up first principles there, occurred in connection with the former (and, I gather, generally unlamented) editor of The New York Times, Howell Raines. Among the complaints over Raines stewardship, if memory serves, was that he ran 13 or 17 or some large number of pieces on Augusta National’s refusal to admit women. This was considered a vendetta, I gather. And, remarkably, when Raines got into deep trouble for this and other reasons, nobody seemed to consider that maybe Raines was justified in continually bringing up the fact that women were being excluded from one of the high level meeting spots of corporate America -– just as they are excluded from the Bohemian Grove, a fact which almost never is mentioned in the media. Equality (or at least equality of opportunity) is a first principle, isn’t it? It should be continuously stressed, shouldn’t it? Why, then, should it be considered bad for a major media outlet to keep bringing up a story about its denial, much less its denial at the upper reaches of the corporate and social world? If people are bored reading about it, then let those who are bored not bother to read the stories. Why should stories about it not be done because they are not the new new thing?

Nor do I think that blogs should be considered parasitic "free riders" in the sense in which the term "free rider" grew up -- it grew up, I believe, in the context of discount dealers who did not have and pay for the fancy showrooms, ads, etc. that full price dealers used and paid for, but who benefitted from the latter because people could, for example, view or even try the product at the showroom of the full price dealer and then buy it for less from the discounter. (I might disagree with Posner’s view of the discount dealer situation, but that is of no never mind one way or the other in the present context.)

The fact is, as Posner says, that lots of bloggers (like this one) rely on the conventional media for information and articles that bloggers then comment on (and sometimes, as Posner says, link to). But relying on the conventional media for information and views on which one then comments does not seem to me like free riding in any pejorative, parasitic sense. For isn’t that what the conventional media itself does when it jumps on a story after some other station or paper spent the money or time to uncover it? (E.g., The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and hundreds of thousands of everyday stories.) Isn’t that what columnists in the conventional media do when they jump on and write about some story previously uncovered elsewhere or some column previously written by someone else in another paper? Isn’t that what book reviewers do when they review a book that, as always, was written by someone else? Isn’t that what scientists do when they replicate the work of someone else, or use the work of someone else as a starting point for their own? (Who was it (Newton, maybe?) that said, "If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants?) Isn’t that what social scientists and lawyers do when they use someone else’s work, ideas or opinions as the basis, or as the take-off point, for their own? Isn’t that what all of us do when we repeat views we heard from another? If all this is free riding, yet forms the basis for obtaining money, attention or other forms of compensation, then I say that what we need is more free riding, at least high quality free riding. (A famous composer -- I’ve forgotten whom -- when speaking of composers’ use of musical themes created by others, once said that good composers borrow; great composers steal.

What is more, the free riding in question is supposed to be, and sometimes is, a two-way street. Yes, bloggers get and use information and ideas from the conventional media. But the conventional media can get and use ideas from the blogosphere, e.g., as when the blogosphere uncovered, and conventional media then picked up, Dan Rather’s and CBS’ gaffe about George Bush’s (no doubt highly distinguished) military career. Of course, the street would be more of a two-way one if the conventional media were willing, as it is not, to pick up and develop ideas which it presently considers beyond the pale, ideas mentioned here earlier or put forth by persons mentioned here earlier.

I do worry, though, about questions of accuracy and style. There is not much concern, I suppose, that bloggers will cause the nation to believe false or inaccurate things. For, as said, the Internet, as Posner makes clear, is a giant correction machine, and it has partisans on both sides of subjects -- indeed on all sides of them. There should be far more worry that the conventional media, not the Internet, will lead us down the primrose path, as it was so instrumental in doing in 1964 with regard to Nam and recently with regard to launching Gulf War II. The Internet, if anything, may be a corrective, or partial corrective, to mistakes or shortcomings of the conventional media in future.

So the issue of accuracy is not a question of the Internet, or blogging, as a whole. It is more a question of individual standards. The question is whether individual bloggers feel a responsibility to be as accurate as they can, a responsibility drummed into educated people as a matter of course in at least the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century (even though there were many in whom the lesson did not take). Or do bloggers feel they can say nearly any damn thing they please without too much regard for accuracy? To me the question is stupefying, because I can’t even begin to believe in my gut that people would not care about accuracy. But one’s head says this too often is so. The matter is, of course, a question of personal standards in the society. Honesty, and accuracy to the best of one’s ability, should be desiderata; we should not be forced to rely solely on the giant correction machine because we cannot rely on the individual’s integrity.

The question of style also is bothersome. People express themselves in the most outrageous and extreme ways on the Internet, including on blogs. I have even had people tell me that obnoxious, deeply offensive expression is the way of the Internet -- is Internetspeak -- so one ought not take it seriously or be offended, because it is not meant seriously or offensively. Well, one begs to differ about whether to take it seriously or be offended. The kind and degree of partisan and/or obnoxious speech á outrance that one finds on the Internet can do nothing to further any search for truth or bring people’s viewpoints closer together. It can only offend, drive people further apart, and create more breaches. No good can come of it. Accordingly, one wishes for more blog writing in the style of Posner and Becker, persons whose felicity of expression and thought causes one to want to read their blog, and to ponder what they are saying, even on occasions when one disagrees with their views.*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, and do not object to your response being posted, please send it to, and it will automatically be posted in the (new) "comments" section of this blog. That section can be read by clicking on "comments" below. If you do not want your response to be posted, please email it to me at

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