I Went Down to the BlogRoad
Ed Cone has a nice perspective on the "Why Do We Blog?" question. The links he gives are interesting.
His answer to the "Why Does Ed Cone blog?" is "Because Ed Cone can!" Of course, that's the same reason a dog licks its private parts*, so maybe we are talking about something more primitive here.
(*No, not because Ed Cone can lick his private parts; because a dog can lick its own private private parts. Pay attention, will you?)
Dan Drezner and Henry Farrell have an interesting paper, and now an edited volume coming out, entitled (I think) THE POWER AND POLITICAL SCIENCE OF BLOGS (titles change, but that is the name of the paper...)
Dan and Henry were kind enough to allow me to let me write the concluding chapter in that book. Below is a brief excerpt from my chapter....do buy the book, when it comes out next year, or the year after that!
TRUTH AND TRUTHINESS
The distinction I want to focus on is one popularized by Stephen Colbert in his October 17, 2005 segment of “The Word” on The Colbert Report on the cable TV network Comedy Central. To distinguish much of current political debate from questions about truth or falsity, Colbert suggested a neologism:
Truthiness: the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.
Colbert’s point was that truthiness trumps truth, because it is an intuition based on feeling or values rather than debate and evidence.
Some of the key topics raised in this book can be distilled down to questions about truth vs. truthiness, or so I will argue. I want to ask the reader to consider the blogosphere as a (potential) generator of truth claims, in effect a statistical estimator that returns predicted values for an unobservable parameter of political interest. Under some circumstances, this estimator has desirable properties, and is a means of glimpsing outlines of the truth. Under other circumstances, blogging is simply an exercise in truthiness, and reinforces pre-existing disputes over the truth, possibly rendering their resolution more difficult, or even impossible.
Truth vs. Truthiness: The End of the Beginning
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Winston Churchill, The Lord Mayor's Luncheon, Mansion House, November 10, 1942
Churchill was referring to what he called the “remarkable and definite victory of Allied troops at El Alamein. But the claim is strikingly apt for the state of blogs and their impact on elections and politics. Never again will we be surprised by the kind of frenzy that swept the blogosphere in 2004, and the strange political consequences of a large number of nameless, faceless writers who had rented an IP address and an FTP client.
The end of the beginning of the blogging phenomenon will, for future generations, have a definite place. This incident is cited so commonly, and so smugly, by bloggers that it is now its own meme, reduced to the status of a fortune cookie saying. But it really happened, and it is important to get the events right. And it is important to say why it is important: we depend on truth, not truthiness, as a basis for political discourse.
The date was September 9, 2004. The television show 60 Minutes, a dinosaur even by the standards of the main stream media, had been accused of being duped by doctored documents. These documents purported to show significant irregularities in G.W. Bush’s National Guard service, most particularly in a failure to report for a physical when a direct written order to do so had been issued May 4, 1972 by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian. CBS had the documents to prove it, and they had broken the story on 60 Minutes on September 4, a conspicuously short time before the election scheduled in November.
The Executive Vice President of CBS News, Jonathan Klein, was appearing on the Fox News Channel on that night of September 9. He was “debating” Weekly Standard writer and pundit Stephen Hayes, in the confrontational style now popular on TV news shows. Hayes, and the host, were both citing claims by bloggers that the documents were obvious forgeries, and that CBS should acknowledge that.
Jonathan Klein responded with a level of condescension that will take its historical place beside Marie Antoinette’s dismissive, “Let them eat cake.” The last words of the main stream media’s ancien regime were:
“You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [i.e., fact checkers at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”
It turned out to be true, though not in the way that Mr. Klein intended. The documents were forged, just like the bloggers said. The pajamas guys ended up having a better claim to truth than the multiple layers of checks and balances.
The reason is that, in this instance, the main stream media giant CBS was acting out of a sense of truthiness. Dan Rather had believed in the “essential truth” of the claim that George W. Bush had violated an order to report for a physical. This was, for Rather, part of a larger “essential truth” (Rather’s words), that the President’s service record was an indication of indifference (at best) or outright shirking of duty during wartime. This idea of an essential truth, or a truth that transcends mere facts, is a remarkable claim for a news organization. CBS persisted in defending this exercise in truthiness long after it was clear to most people, even those who shared the basic distrust of the President and his policies, that they had gotten their facts wrong.
Now, the documents either were or not forgeries. Three decades had passed since the letters had been written (if they were real), so it would not be surprising if memories were hazy. But peculiarities in the letters quickly surfaced, and the focus quickly moved to apparently simple features of the primary letter in particular, the one in which the supposed “direct order” was issued. The most obvious problem was with the raised (superscripted) letters, in a smaller font-size, on unit numbers in the letter. This way of typing would not be conventional on most military typewriters, as it would have required changing the type ball and manually moving the line setting to create superscripts. This, it was pointed out on dozens of blogs, is nearly impossible to do without distorting the line-up of type at least slightly. Furthermore, other (legitimate) letters from the files at around the same time from the same office showed a completely different, nonproportional typeface.
None of this is proof, of course, but the questions kept coming as more and more people independently studied the letter. My use of “independent” is important, because each person is bringing a new perspective, trying to make sense of the truth in a complicated problem. Before long, the supposed “source” for the letter had changed his story about where he had gotten it, and CBS eventually threw in the tool. Dan Rather issued a tepid, narrow apology for the use of the letters, and CBS News fired four people, including the (apparently) overzealous producer Mary Mapes.
Right up until the end, Dan Rather defended the story as “essentially” accurate. That is, even though the specific documents were (possibly) not real, Rather and the producers at CBS argued that their description of the behavior of President Bush was real. CBS saw the behavior, and not their evidence documenting the behavior, as the real issue. On several occasions, as documented in the Thornburg-Boccardi (2005) report and elsewhere, senior CBS personnel (including Dan Rather) flatly stated that they could prove the essential truth of the story: The President had not denied their claims about his missing service time.
Let me summarize what I have intended by giving this extended example. CBS’s 60 Minutes producers, particularly Mary Mapes, believed so firmly in the essential truth of their argument that the Killian documents were seen as examples, not evidence. In fact, no evidence was required. They both relaxed the normal standards of fact-checking and speeded up the production process so it could have an impact on the election. The President’s guilt was a foregone conclusion; the news producers’ only job was to get the word out.
The universe of bloggers, partly out of (nearly universal) innate contrarian impulses and partly out of (widespread, though perhaps not majority) partisan antipathy, jumped on inconsistencies in the evidence for the claims. And the particular evidence that CBS had used had varied between flimsy and fabricated. Consequently, as an exercise in discovering truth, blogs proved far more accurate and useful than a respected mainstream media organization.
But CBS had erred in a relatively narrow and technical sense. There was quite a bit of other evidence, both in the form of documents and eyewitness testimony, that supported the CBS claim, at least in its broad outline. Because of its surrender to truthiness in one broadcast, CBS appeared to be biased, and the blogosphere appeared to have the better claim to generating truth.
At a minimum, guys in their pajamas had laid low the people in suits, acting as an independent check on veracity.