"Fresh produce in the marketplace of ideas,"

New Orleans Times-Picayune, Thursday, March 03, 2005

Eugene Volokh


Weblogs are the hot new medium. These Web sites, unedited, opinionated and often written by amateurs, sometimes attract hundreds of thousands of readers. To some observers, blogs are valuable contributors to the marketplace of ideas. To others, they are -- in one professional journalist's words -- a "lynch mob" composed of "salivating morons."

Last month, blogs helped bring about the resignation of Eason Jordan, the former CNN chief news executive. Last year, they led the way in exposing the likely forgeries in the "60 Minutes" report about President Bush's National Guard record. In 2002, they led the criticism of then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for his pro-segregationist comments. Blogs are getting big; is that good? I think it is, and let me explain why.

To begin with, ask yourself: Is it good that books were invented? Of course books can be used for ill (think "Mein Kampf") as well as for good. Moreover, most books are badly written, badly reasoned or just boring. Of the millions written, you'd probably like only a tiny fraction. But you're still better off because books exist, since you can find the ones you want and ignore the rest.

Likewise with blogs. Millions have been created, and most are only interesting to their creators. But some are useful, and link to still more useful ones. My favorite is InstaPundit.com, a great source of commentary and links run by constitutional law professor Glenn Reynolds. And it has over 100,000 daily readers, so others share my view about it.

Moreover, many bloggers are experts. For instance, one of my co-authors at our volokh.com blog (which gets about 10,000 daily readers) is Orin Kerr, a scholar of computer crime law. His posts on this topic are thus more likely to be insightful, accurate, and timely than what you read in a newspaper. Even good reporters are usually generalists who rarely have deep expertise in the fields they cover. It's not their fault, but it gives expert bloggers an edge over traditional media.

Of course, bloggers often write outside their professional areas; and they make mistakes, like reporters do. But while bloggers don't have editors who can catch mistakes, other checks and balances help the truth come out.

First, blogs usually link to the sources they discuss. A blogger who says some newspaper article erred will generally link to the article, and to the data that supposedly proves the article wrong. Blog readers can then see the facts for themselves. Newspaper readers can't do that.

Second, most bloggers write because they want to be influential and respected. The best way to lose influence and respect is to consistently make mistakes and to refuse to correct them. Other bloggers will mock you, and readers will stop coming. So bloggers have an incentive to get things right, and what they get wrong, they can quickly fix.

Third, because bloggers are relative unknowns, their influence flows only from their writings' credibility and persuasiveness. No bloggers can get a journalist fired simply by making allegations; why would anyone listen to such charges? But if the blogger provides evidence, explains why readers should believe the evidence and persuades readers who are themselves journalists to write more about this, then the charges might stick.

Blogs, in fact, aren't a substitute for mainstream media; the two reinforce each other. Many reporters read and benefit from blogs, just as bloggers benefit from being read and trusted by reporters. Likewise, many blog posts are triggered by media stories. Some posts rely on the media's reporting, and some criticize it, but either way bloggers need the media.

Moreover, blogs' criticism of media outlets may annoy some journalists, but it's good for the media as a whole. Just as media scrutiny helps make government more honest and competent, so media critics, including bloggers, help make the media more honest and competent. And because bloggers also criticize each other, they make other bloggers more honest and competent, too.

Internet readers should read cautiously and skeptically. But as recent media scandals have shown, newspaper readers should read cautiously and skeptically, too. And the more voices there are to point out others' errors, the better.

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Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA School of Law, is the 2004-05 Phelps Lecturer. His lecture, on "Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope in Constitutional Discourse," is today at 1 p.m. in Room 257 of the Tulane Law School. The talk is open to the public.