The myth of the parasitical bloggers
Maureen Dowd’s wholesale, uncredited copying of a paragraph written by Josh Marshall (an act Dowd has now admitted) — for what I yesterday called her “uncharacteristically cogent and substantive column”– highlights a point I’ve been meaning to make for awhile. One of the favorite accusations that many journalists spout, especially now that they’re searching for reasons why newspapers and print magazines are dying, is that bloggers and other online writers are “parasites” on their work — that their organizations bear the cost of producing content and others (bloggers and companies such as Google) then unfairly exploit it for free.
The reality has always been far more mixed than that, and the relationship far more symbiotic than parasitical. Especially now that online traffic is such an important part of the business model of newspapers and print magazines, traffic generated by links from online venues and bloggers is of great value to them. That’s why they engage in substantial promotional activities to encourage bloggers to link to and write about what they produce. Beyond that, it is also very common — as the Dowd/Marshall episode illustrates — for traditional media outlets and establishment journalists to use and even copy content produced online and then present it as their own, typically without credit. Many, many reporters, television news producers and the like read online political commentary and blogs and routinely take things they find there.
Typically, the uncredited use of online commentary doesn’t rise to the level of blatant copying — plagiarism — that Maureen Dowd engaged in. It’s often not even an ethical breach at all. Instead, traditional media outlets simply take stories, ideas and research they find online and pass it off as their own. In other words — to use their phraseology — they act parasitically on blogs by taking content and exploiting it for their benefit.
Since I read many blogs, I notice this happening quite frequently — ideas and stories that begin on blogs end up being featured by establishment media outlets with no credit. Here’s just one recent and relatively benign example of how it often works: at the end of March, I wrote a post that ended up being featured in many places concerning the unique political courage displayed by Jim Webb in taking on the issue of criminal justice reform and the destruction wreaked by our drug laws. The following week, I was traveling and picked up a copy of The Economist in an aiport, which featured an article hailing Jim Webb’s political courage in taking on the issue of criminal justice reform and the destruction wreaked by our drug laws.
Several of the passages from the Economist article were quite familar to me, since they seemed extremely similar to what I had written — without attribution or credit:
America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”
“A Leviathan unmatched in human history”, is how Glenn Loury, professor of social studies at Brown University, characterises America’s prison system.
Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he’s not Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite: he’s a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the “toughest” “anti-crime” states in the country (it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen’s macaca-driven implosion.
Mr Webb is far from being a lion of the Senate, roaring from the comfort of a safe seat. He is a first-term senator for Virginia who barely squeaked into Congress. The state he represents also has a long history of being tough on crime: Virginia abolished parole in 1994 and is second only to Texas in the number of people it executes.
Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.
Mr Webb also has some powerful forces ranged against him. The prison-industrial complex (which includes private prisons as well as public ones) employs thousands of people and armies of lobbyists.
That is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near . . . .[T]here is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform. To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer.
Few mainstream politicians have had the courage to denounce any of this. People who embrace prison reform usually end up in the political graveyard. There is no organised lobby for prison reform.
I don’t consider that at all similar to what Dowd did, since there wasn’t wholesale copying. In fact, since there wasn’t really full-on copying, I don’t think there’s any ethical issue involved in this example. I don’t think the writer of that article did anything wrong at all. And anyone who spends any time writing a blog, or anything else for that matters, should consider it a good thing when their work is used, with or without credit. Nobody would engage in that activity in the absence of a belief that they have something worthwhile to say and a desire that it have some impact on political discussions.
I raise this only to illustrate how one-sided and even misleading is the complaint that bloggers are “parasites” on the work of “real journalists.” Often, the parasitical feeding happens in the opposite direction, though while bloggers routinely credit (and link to) the source of the material on which they’re commenting, there is an unwritten code among many establishment journalists that while they credit each other’s work, they’re free to claim as their own whatever they find online without any need for credit or attribution (see here for a typical example of how many of these news organizations operate in this regard).
It’s difficult to quantify, but a large percentage of political reporters, editors, television news producers, and on-air pundits read political blogs or other online venues now. Many do so precisely because blogs are a prime source for their story ideas. Contrary to the myth perpetrated by establishment media outlets, there is substantial original reporting, original analysis and the like that takes place on blogs. That’s precisely why so many journalists, editors and segment producers read them. And while some are quite conscientious about identifying the online source of the material they use — The New York Times‘ Scott Shane recently credited Marcy Wheeler for a major, front-page story on torture and previously wrote an article hailing FireDogLake as having the best coverage of any news organization of the Lewis Libby trial — credit of that sort is still rare enough that it becomes noteworthy when it happens.
The tale of the put-upon news organizations and the pilfering, parasitical bloggers has always been more self-serving mythology than reality. That’s not to say that there’s no truth to it, but the picture has always been much more complicated. After all, a principal reason for the emergence of a political blogosphere is precisely because it performed functions that establishment media outlets fail to perform. If all bloggers did was just replicate what traditional news organizations did and offered nothing original, nobody would read blogs. And especially now, as bloggers and online writers engage in much more so-called “original reporting” and punditry, the parasitical behavior is often the reverse of how it is depicted. The Maureen Dowd/Josh Marshall episode is a particularly vivid and dramatic example of that, but it is far from uncommon.
UPDATE: A blogger who writes on TPM’s open blog site, Boyd Reed, reacted to the Maureen Dowd story today by randomly entering some of his own posts in Google, and found that a reporter at Salem News, Dorsett Bennett, copied several paragraphs of Reed’s post on Michelle Bachmann verbatim for Bennett’s column on the same topic. Reed writes about his discovery today here (h/t Liberal Artist). Compare Reed’s February 20 TPM post with Bennett’s February 27 Salem News column. The copying is extensive and shameless. Parasitical indeed.