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The Echo Chamber Argument

Adam Radwanski has a column in the National Post today (behind the subscriber wall) where he makes the tired claim that all that is happening on political blogs is preaching to the converted. I've heard it before and don't buy it. Here's the summary of the problem as he perceives it:

The blogosphere is good for music and trading notes on pop culture. It can be great for sports commentary. It's a way to pass time for those interested in reading the mundane details of strangers' personal lives.

But what it is absolutely lousy for is political debate -- mostly because what it encourages is not debate at all, so much as support groups in which the converted preach to one another about the evils of some dark and mysterious enemy. Those frequenting blogs don't learn much and their views are rarely challenged. What they get out of the experience is having their own views reinforced over and over again, until even relative moderates are converted into hard-liners.

He doesn't really give any evidence for these claims. This is as close as he gets to explaining why this is:
The Internet has not done it alone; talk radio and Fox News have played their role. But what the blogosphere has going for it, more even than those outlets, is the ability to bring together people of one specific viewpoint from all over a given country.

For simple reasons of geography, other outlets cannot do that. A newspaper can be liberal or conservative in its editorial stance, but there simply aren't enough ideologues in any given city for it to be sustainable as a one-sided pamphlet. And with the broad base of viewers needed to draw in advertisers, the same usually goes for TV networks.

A Web site, however, is a different matter entirely. With little or no overhead and no geographic restrictions, it can be successful just by cobbling together a few thousands fans somewhere within a country's borders.

The result is that opinionated Americans no longer have to suffer the ordeal of encountering views they disagree with. Instead, they can simply go online and find an endless supply of writers eager to tell them that they're right and everyone else is wrong.

And of course, the style sheet for these kind of articles require the writer to close with a warning:
This would be a relatively minor concern if such fulminating was limited to the Internet. But conditioned by their online reading, as well as listening to Fox and talk radio, consumers are demanding the same stuff elsewhere.

The rise of an Ann Coulter on the right or an Al Franken on the left -- commentators who spend most of their time attacking cartoon versions of liberals and conservatives, respectively -- suggests where this culture is taking us.

And it's not just the big names: Go to the American politics section of your local bookstore, and you'll find that half the titles are simple-minded polemics against either the left or the right, many of them written by people who made their reputations online.

In Canada, we're moving slower. But there's little doubt we're headed in the same direction.

Here, the right is a little more organized than the left -- the "Blogging Tories" group creating a community of hundreds of like-minded blogs with similar obsessions (the liberal media, pacifists, etc.) to the ones found south of the border. But it's the Canadian left that has actually shown the biggest crossover into mainstream media, courtesy of Antonia Zerbisias -- a media columnist and blogger for the Toronto Star whose main job appears to be attacking conservative commentators on both sides of the border.

True, we don't yet have entire TV programs devoted to advancing an ideology. But with commentators increasingly emulating the zealous partisanship of the online crowd in the hope of eliciting similarly strong reactions, it might not be long. It's a trend that should remind us to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to seek out dissenting views and think critically about the perspectives being sold to us -- because the last thing we need is a nation of Right Girls and their sycophants.

The whole article is pretty lazy, and I'm sure Radawnski knows it. But if you haven't dipped into the blogosphere before, he presents it as how you would probably imagine it: a bunch of angry, red-faced loonies shouting their talking points over and over while they keep their fingers in their ears. But of course it isn't like that.

First of all, this 'two-camps' view of political discourse is nonsense. Sure, there are people that view themselves as 'right' or 'left', but many are just writing about things as they see them. All types of views are out there that don't easily fall into either 'side'. There are anti-war libertarians, neo-con liberals, so-con isolationists, and everything in-between. There's a great variety of views available.

And there is a lot of communication between even the most contrary of political positions. Blogs are not empty of discussion. If an idea is spinning through the 'left' side of the blogosphere, it will soon appear in the 'right' as well -- for debunking if possible, or just as comments by visiting members of the opposing camp. I see the blogosphere as a brain, with each blog acting somewhat as a synapse. They're all wired up in a way that's impossible to understand, and yet it works. When a useful or interesting idea appears on a blog somewhere, it might be picked up by other blogs in its neighborhood, subjected to close examination, commentary and refinement, and be forwarded along. It might eventually travel through dozens of blogs and may even travel the corpus callosum of the blogosphere to appear on blogs with a different ideological bent than the one that created it. Contrary to Radawnski's characterization, information on many blogs is not one-sided boilerplate, but may have been subjected to more scrutiny than most information in the mainstream media.

What bugs me most about the piece is its intrinsic conceit. There is the conceit that newspapers and other traditional media -- though not Fox News, which he disparages twice in an article ostensibly about blogs -- are a more balanced and honest source of information. When he writes of the importance 'to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to seek out dissenting views and think critically about the perspectives being sold to us', the self-congratulation is palpable -- and for me, completely undeserved. But there is also the conceit that blog readers and writers are unthinking dittoheads, interested only in preserving their cosy cocoon of safe assumptions. But from what I see, these are the people that 'think critically'. There are interested in the world and find the thin gruel of the lowest-common-denominator MSM insufficient for their needs.

A year and a half ago, the Post published another piece bashing blogs. Responding to it I wrote:

[T]he entire tone of this piece was a sneering, 'Ghod, those bloggers are just soooo lame', with which the editors of the Post seem to agree. I see this attitude often when the mainstream press mentions blogs, but other groups of enthusiastic amateurs are never covered in a similar light. You will never see mockery of customized car buffs, or amateur musicians, artists, film makers, and actors. But amateur political writers? Beneath contempt.
And the same hold true to this article. It's understandable, I guess. Considering the dwindling readerships of most newspapers, the last thing they would want to do is turn their customers on to the competition.

UPDATE: Greg Staples at Political Staples has some more commentary on this article.