Who You Gonna Believe?

At  Popehat, Ken wrote a post addressing the question of blawger credibility. After all, blawging has been around for a while now, with bloggers like  Patterico celebrating ten years,  Wally Olson coming on 37 (just an estimate as he was the first blawger), and even me passing six.  Are we still perceived as crackpots typing furiously in our bathrobes in the middle of the night?

Despite how mainstream bloggers have become, and despite the fact that almost all “mainstream media” outlets have their own bloggers, the prevailing attitude seems unchanged in more than a decade: bloggers, we’re told, are unreliable, biased, wild-eyed pajama-clad basement-dwellers.

We’ve been told to think that people who went to journalism school, who write or talk for established media outlets, who are clad in the garb of media-officialdom, represent some sort of neutral-and-reliable baseline, and that bloggers are somewhere below that. But it’s fallible humans all the way down, my friends. The notion that someone is trustworthy or honest because they landed a job with an old-school media outlet is, to be blunt, laughable.

It may be laughable to the cognizanti, but it’s hardly a laughing matter. While “journalists” protect their turf by noting their J-school credentials, their legal protections and the ethics of their profession, the most significant element of their credibility is that someone, for whatever reason, decided to let them write for a publication that is publicly perceived as credible. 

If it’s in the New York Times, it must be real, because the Times wouldn’t let some nutjob or ignoramus put words on its pages.  Too old school an example? Fair enough. What about Slate, one of the most widely regarded online source of information.  After all, Slate posts all about criminal law matters, in the capable of hands of Justin Peters, at the cutting edge of respectability,

And yet, when Peters wrote about Aaron Swartz in Slate, it commanded  enough authority that it was  immediately picked up by the blawgosphere.  Had this same fellow not written for Slate, but rather on a blog of his own or for one of the many self-proclaimed investigative journalist websites, no one would have known or cared. Peters has no personal credibility, but enjoys basking in the reflection of Slate’s. 

Ken concedes some of the negatives heaped on blawgers, but questions whether the people hired by mainstream media are above those same questions:

Are bloggers wild-eyed? Sure. Some of us are nuts. But check out the sort of people that “mainstream media” hires. This week’s example — local news writer Kathleen O’Brein Wilhelm, who as far as I can tell thinks deer can’t read because Obama kills babies, and offers deathless lines like this: “Words are fun and worth clearly stating, in English if in America, and with an opinion that is yours because it’s good to have an opinion.” Too obscure a media outlet, an exception that proves the rule? Well, you could go with the crazy Suzi Parker of the Washington Post, whose crazitude led her breathlessly to report satire about Sarah Palin as fact.

It’s easy to point to anecdotal evidence of crazy and incompetent writers working mainstream media, but that doesn’t entirely address the question. The problem is that, more than ten years later, why do all blogs remain in the vast credibility limbo?  Even the most serious and respected lawprof blawgs, where no one ever cracks a joke or has any fun, desperately strive for credibility in that needy fashion that academics do so well.  Why?

It’s long been my view that blawgs, law blogs, are the greatest peer reviewed content every created.  If a lawyer writes something incorrect or foolish, there are innumerable similarly educated and experienced people out in the ether to correct him, whether kindly or by ripping his lungs out. Either way, words put out for public consumption are subject to criticism from all quarters. Why not?

This is a good thing. No, a great thing. With every post, we either pass muster with our peers or get ripped to shreds. And that’s how good thought triumphs over ignorance and stupidity.  It’s different for non-lawyers who write about the law and post inaccurate and utterly insane nonsense. If people choose to get their legal information and analysis from non-lawyer self-proclaimed nutjobs, that’s their choice. It’s a big internet, and there is a point of view that confirms everyone’s, no matter how wrong.

But when it comes to law, whose deep and thoughtful views would merit greater credibility: those of a lawyer with significant experience in the field, or those of a kid journalist who was doing the Trend beat two weeks ago and became an overnight expert because a credible news source handed him the keys to their crime beat? 

Too stark a comparison? Fair enough. What about a lawyer, but one who has never seen the inside of a courtroom, represented a living human being or had to cross a witness?  Smart, Educated. Well-spoken. Just not real. Such pundits are out there, you know, offering expert commentary on matter about which they’re not exactly experts. And yet, we believe them.

As Ken argues that blawgers may be nuts, but no more nuts than the journalists who staff the legitimate and credible institutions of media, I argue the alternative.  Blawgers may never get the attributed credibility that a Justin Peters gets for having been tapped by Slate to write on a subject about which he knows nothing, there needs to come a time when they receive the credibility they’ve attained on their own. 

Without the trappings of a New York Times, ABC or Slate, there is good, credible work being done in the blawgosphere, whether in pajamas or suits and ties.  And some of it is just as solid, if not more so, than anything you’ll find on dead trees or airwaves.  It’s time to give it a little respect.