IS THE BLOGOSPHERE ELEVATING THE POLITICAL DEBATE? I just had an interesting conversation with a journalist who's writing on that question, and who pretty clearly seems to feel that the answer is "no."
If "elevating the debate" means a sort of good-government, League-of-Women-Voters focus on where candidates stand on health care, etc., that's mostly true, I suppose. But I think it misconceives what blogs are about. There certainly are bloggers posting on healthcare and other issues -- see, for example, Jeff Jarvis's Issues 2004 posts and this post by Ann Althouse on medical malpractice -- but the political blogosphere is to a large degree about media criticism. If the Big Media were talking more about issues, and less -- to pick RatherGate as the example which I think inspired this conversation -- about Bush's National Guard service, probably bloggers would be talking about issues more, too.
Of course, what's striking about RatherGate is the absolutely incredible degree of ineptitude, arrogance, and outright political manipulativeness that it has revealed. In light of that, I can understand why members of the media would rather talk about other things.
But, all blogger triumphalism aside, the media criticism matters. And it matters because Big Media are still the main way that our society learns about what's happening, and talks about it. A serious breakdown there, which seems undeniably present today, is very important. In many ways, as I've said before, it's more important than how the election turns out.
Meanwhile, I don't recall much tut-tutting about bloggers focusing on Trent Lott's racial remarks, instead of his position on national health insurance. Were we elevating the tone then, but not now?
UPDATE: Ann Althouse, on the other hand, points to someone who isn't elevating the tone. As you might expect, she manages to deflate him, without using improper language. Plus, she comes up with a cool new blog name. [LATER: My linking of Althouse has apparently turned her into one of my "minions." Minions? It sounds so very Ming the Merciless. "Minions! Sieze him! We'll see if Professor Leiter can maintain his trademark self-regard after a few months of grading exams in the bluebook mines of Kessel!" Okay, we're in Frank J. territory, now. . . .]
ANOTHER UPDATE: Interesting Gallup data on public attitudes toward the media in the wake of RatherGate. Apparently, it's not just bloggers who care.
MORE: Reader Tucker Goodrich has these thoughts on "the issues:"
The issues the blogs have been addressing are issues the press and the Democrats would rather not address, because (in my opinion, and I guess, by their omission, on theirs) they'd lose.
We're in a war. The character and suitability of the commander-in-chief is a valid issue. A partisan media trying to throw the election by releasing forged documents to throw the character and suitability of the CinC in doubt is an issue. Whether or not the new CinC would prefer to win or lose the war is an ISSUE!
But the Democrats and the press are trying to win the debate by framing those as not "issues", but as partisan carping. Nice try, but sorry. They are issues, and are every bit as important as healthcare or the economy, if not more so.
They'd simply like to frame a debate where they, the press, define the issues in such a way that they'll win. The real impact of blogs in this election is that the press can no longer frame the debate to their liking. And this is a huge win for people who don't agree with how the press tries to frame the debate. And competition in framing the debate can only be good for our democracy and our republic, even if it's bad for the Democrats and the Republicans.
And the press. As reader Bill Gullette emails: "Where did Rathergate originate? And most certainly even in the most favorable terms, the story was hardly an above the belt effort in terms of what CBS or Rather/Mapes intended the story to achieve."
Reader Merv Benson adds: "Blogs are the letter to the editor that the editor does not want to print."
All the MSM really needs to do is be the professionals they have falsely claimed to be all these years. A real news organization which was devoted body and soul to getting the truth out, chips fall where they may, would embrace the new world that is growing up around it. . . .
The real story is a happy one. The MSM is on the verge of a new golden age. If it would just learn to do its job, take advantage of these new developments, quit trying to be "gatekeepers" and drop the ideological and partisan shilling, good things would start to happen sooner rather than later.
FINAL UPDATE: This article on the contributions of blogs is worth reading, too.
OKAY, REALLY FINAL UPDATE THIS TIME: Virginia Postrel has more thoughts, and says that the real issue is that reporters aren't interested when blogs elevate the debate:
Reporters and media critics are bored, bored, bored by the very sort of discourse they claim to support (a lesson I learned the hard way in 10 long years as the editor of Reason). They, and presumably their readers, want conflict, scandal, name-calling, and some sex and religion to heighten the combustible mix. Plus journalists, like other people, love to read about themselves and people they know.
That's no doubt true. Virginia also thinks I sound "defensive" in this post. Maybe, though I'd say "reactive" -- the interview, with a guy who warned me up front that I wasn't likely to like his story, seemed driven as much by unhappiness over RatherGate as anything else.