Sunday, September 17, 2006

Blogging The Symptom Not The Problem

At this point some must be asking what's wrong at the New Republic ? The magazine has been a staple of American Journalism since 1914, but in the last few decades has suffered from one humiliation after another. The most recent in the magazines long string of troubles is the suspension of one of its senior writers, Lee Siegel, after he began posting increasingly outrageous comments to his blog under a pseudonym. However, little has been made over the fact that yet another New Republic writer has found himself at the center of scandal. The response to this latest journalistic failing has been to suggest that real journalists can't handle the bidirectional nature of the blog medium. The give and take the blogosphere is to much for the pride filled professional writer. This is a convenient explanation for the magazine as it allows for the old ghosts of its past failings, Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit, to remain buried. But is the blog really to blame? It's hard to look at the publication and not wonder if this most recent debacle couldn't be part of a larger problem one that has reared its head more then once in the past. Perhaps the blog itself isn't the problem, but rather merely a symptom.

The Ruth Shalit affair was the publications first major modern misstep. Shalit as it turned out had not only plagiarised pieces of a number of her works, but had also, on occasion, manufactured some of the more critical facts, this is of course before Fox made it fashionable. After the affair, the magazine instituted an official fact checking department to exercise the control its editors seemed unable or unwilling to .This response seemed reasonable both at the time and even now in hindsight. Plagiarism is bound to occur in any endeavor that relies on the intellectual product of the human mind. So when engaged in such endeavors it seems only reasonable to guard against such human failings. However, one question might have been why the editors were guarding against this already, but that was lost in magazines efficient response to the crises.

The same question should have been asked during the Stephen Glass affair. Glass young and pressed for time, increasingly resorted to fabrication, and not of the minimal sort of which Shalit was guilty. Glass constructed not only the facts, but also often the context. As a New York Times writer pointed out after the public revelation of Glass's fraud, one is prepared for the interview to be falsified or misconstrued, even the interviewee to be nothing more then mere character, but not the institution of which the article was about. The suggestion then was that Glass had not been found out because of his audacity and the scale of his fictions. However, while audacity may explain a lack of popular scepticism it fails to explain just what happened to the fact checking and the guiding authority of editorial control. In many instances Glass was only one phone call from being found out. One can't hide the nonexistence of entire corporations for very long. The problem was the phone call was never made and Glass remained, for quite some time undiscovered.

Given this history it seems that the most recent failings of the publication might be better explained from a editorial perspective then a technological one. Siegal's blog is not an isolated incident, but part of the much larger pattern outlined above. In the case of Ruth Shalit the New Republic lacked the editorial controls necessary to guard against her mistakes. In the instance of Stephen Glass it failed to use them. Now in giving Siegal a blog the New Republic removed any pretense of editorial control. Having always and often erred on the side of carelessness in creating official blogs, the magazine chose to institutionalised the practice.

The New Republic has for some time relied on the passioned and unbridled expression of its writers. To foster this image the magazine hires young fresh writers, often newly graduated from the countries finest schools. The use of the raw medium of the blog was simply another tool to keep the publications image alive, but as in the past, with Glass and Shalit, the strategy backfired. The only difference between then and now is that it happened online.


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