A service or a spleen-venting?

Here’s a question worth asking in the post-election haze: Do bloggers provide a valuable public service?

If you ask them, of course, the answer is yes. They’re awfully proud of themselves these days — at least, those who deal mostly in politics and crave large audiences.

Let’s look at the question this way: Are they filling in gaps in media coverage that would not otherwise be filled?

Well, what we need most in the media these days are reporters. We’ve been shedding them left and right in the economic carnage of the 21st century so far. We’ve seen cable networks and Web sites spring up that employ pundits and repackagers (yes, that includes me in the Sports department), not reporters.

What do blogs offer? Unfortunately, pundits and repackagers. There are rare exceptions in which a blogger with an expertise on a particular topic might offer some input, but generally, we’re talking about generalists who read, link and react.

So what was the question?

Bloggers will say that’s unfair. “At least we’re getting people talking about civic issues,” they’ll argue. Sadly, no. They’re roughly the same as the cable networks, offering spin and counterspin to dissect points on one or two big stories.

Two problems with this approach. The first is that we end up debating small points on big stories without debating the big story itself. That’s because small points come up daily, but big stories evolve over months, and the former suits blogs (and cable networks and other new media) much better. For example, we end up arguing about Dan Rather and Bush’s National Guard memos rather than the larger picture of Bush’s military service (or lack thereof) or the even larger issue of Bush’s fitness to be president. For many readers, we end up with this sort of twisted logic: “Rather was wrong to run the story about the memos; therefore, there’s nothing left to ask about Bush’s military service and he’s a good president.” Logicians’ heads would spin at that one.

The second problem is this: We’ve all become political spectators. Our approach to politics is the same as our approach to sports. We pick a team, cheer for that team and talk trash about the other team. And we’re only following national politics. Sure, more people are “involved” in national politics, if you count “involved” as posting in blogs’ comment threads, which are always doomed to devolve into some sort of posturing between two sides of extremists. But how many people are involved where it counts, on the local level? Are we just dragging people away from doing constructive political work where it can help and getting them wrapped up in shoutfests on the Web?

Don’t read this as some sort of comment against blogs, ironically posted (I know) on a blog. They’re wonderful tools of self-expression, and I love using mine to communicate with the three or four of you who read each week. But I’m not convinced they can be any more than that unless they refocus on niches and something local where the blogger can actually call add something to the conversation. There’s no shortage of blather over national politics. If you must add to the heap to vent your spleen, go right ahead. People may even read it, and the self-flagellating media will always show up to say, “Thank you, may I have another?” But when it comes to providing a valuable service, the kid covering your local town council for $400 a week is outdoing the mightiest blog.


D’oh! Stupid Lineworkers

We’re without DSL at the moment because Verizon got our moving date confused. So somewhere in Vienna, there’s apparently a couple that has DSL and doesn’t know it yet. That’s one reason why the blog has slowed down a bit. (The other, in case you missed it, we’re MOVING. E-mail me if you need a change of address.)


A quick post-election thought

All I have to say on the election can be summed up in this letter I just sent to Tom Davis, a Republican congressman who easily won re-election in a district that supported John Kerry:

Congratulations on your victory. The people of this district are proud of you, your service to your constituents and your reasonable approach to politics.

I’m writing with an additional thought I hope you’ll take seriously. As a member of the Republican leadership, you are in a unique position to unify this nation in the wake of a fiercely contested election.

Northern Virginia, Washington and New York — the three areas most directly affected by 9/11 — all voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry, not the candidate who purports to keep us safe. That should tell you two things. The first is that we’re not fooled by George Bush’s rhetoric. The second is that we in this district consider you an exception to the dominant school of thought in the Republican Party.

My greatest fear in the next four years is that others in your party will feel emboldened by the election results to continue on a path of divisive leadership. Some are even driven by a theocratic impulse that poses a great danger to this country. Many of these Republicans are likely to remain in the White House. Many more serve with you in the House.

My hope is that you will be able to appeal to them to remember the rights of ALL Americans, not just those who voted for them. The early response from the White House seems not to take the other 49 percent of the country into account. Our country, I’m sure you will agree, cannot survive if 49 percent is torn asunder.

Again, I write you because you, in addition to serving my district, are uniquely poised to bring this country closer together. I believe you understand that any mixture of church and state demeans both. I believe you will fight for environmental protection, and that you will encourage members of your party to listen to the scientific community for guidance. I believe you will stand up for civil liberties and the respect for everyone in this diverse land.

I believe you will represent the 49 percent as well as the 51 percent. And frankly, that’s one of the only reasons for optimism I have this morning as I look around our divided nation.

Best of luck to you in this mission.