Looking back over 2007, particularly the last couple months of it, I realize that I have learned a sobering lesson:
We cannot rely on the major blogs to police themselves.
Blogs are extraordinarily adept at finding and publicizing errors of fact in the mainstream media. When Reuters and CNN and France 2 unquestioningly report hoaxes, falsely attributed material, staged photographs, and all the other manufactured propaganda of the Left and the Islamists, the distributed intelligence of the blogs exposes them immediately. Major American blogs with their large readership are particularly important to the process of discovering and reporting the truth as it pertains to the MSM. Without these blogs, corrections and retractions would be extremely unlikely.
This is not true, however, when it pertains to one of their own. For whatever reason — professional courtesy, a reluctance to get into a flame war, or just a general distaste for conflict amongst one’s peers — it seems that large blogs shy away from reporting on factual errors committed by other large blogs.
Blogging success relies on a reputation for trustworthiness. We expect the truth from a popular and respected blog. Trust is earned over a long period of time through scrupulous accuracy and a rapid correction of errors.
Ultimately, the trustworthiness of a blog depends on the character of the blog’s writers. People with a natural sense of probity and the ability to accept criticism will build up a record that deserves our trust.
Unfortunately, if a blog with a large enough readership falls away from these standards, no mechanism exists to expose and correct it.
It brings to mind the age-old question:
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who will guard the guardians?
– – – – – – – – –
The Latin adage is from Juvenal’s Satires (iii.347), but the question derives originally from Plato. In his dialogues with Socrates, as recounted in Book III of The Republic, Plato describes the ideal polis, a tiered city-state with guardians who protect and govern the city by means of their wisdom and special training.
Socrates is asked, “Who will guard the guardians?” Plato’s answer is that they will in fact guard themselves. In order to do this, they will be told the Noble Lie:
The noble lie will inform them that they are better than those they serve and it is, therefore, their responsibility to guard and protect those lesser than themselves. We will instill in them a distaste for power or privilege, they will rule because they believe it right, not because they desire it…
In Plato’s view, the noble lie was a necessary evil, designed to avoid despotism and at the same time prevent the state from falling into chaos and anarchy. In the centuries since Plato political philosophy has grappled with the same problem — how to prevent the accumulation of power in the hands of those unfit to exercise it — but has never arrived at a satisfactory answer. Solutions suited to particular times and cultures have emerged — the separation of powers, constitutional monarchy, various caste systems — but none is perfect.
And, in any case, the lie may be a noble one, but it is still a lie. The guardians are not better than ordinary people.
The hoi polloi of Blogopolis are just as capable of discerning the truth as are the aristocrats.
So what is an alert reader to do? The major blogs are guarding the MSM, but who is guarding the major blogs?
Regular readers will not be surprised when I offer a distributed solution.
Smaller blogs are more competitive, and an aggregate of the truth is likely to appear among them. This argues for a variegated base of news sources. Include the big blogs in your reading, but look for independent sources among the smaller blogs. If possible, find more than one original source for any given important fact. The wisdom of crowds will arrive at the true story, but you’ll need a crowd of information sources in order to find it.
Readers and commenters have an important function in maintaining the standards of any given blog. Provided that the group can avoid becoming an echo chamber, if the expertise of these contributors is acknowledged, then they are performing their custodial duty to truth.
We bloggers have a responsibility to acknowledge our readers’ acumen. We need to recognize that we’re communicating with our peers.
It’s also important to beware of undisclosed biases. Virtually no one dispenses information from an unbiased point of view, so a source that is up front about its natural biases is inherently more trustworthy than one that claims to be dispassionate.
That’s my two cents’ worth. It’s a rather meager reward for cashing out of 2007, but it will have to do.
Happy new year, everybody!