Commonweal magazine has posted an item on its blog, replying to my item replying to their items ( here and here ), replying to Charlotte Allen’s item , replying to the last issue of the print version of Commonweal ¯and anyone who can follow all that is smarter than your average bear. I got lost just typing it.
Anyway, comments appeared on two Commonweal threads that were outrageously offensive about people associated with First Things , and I whined about how that means everybody associated with Commonweal hates us. Now the editors of Commonweal have answered that the comments were, in fact, awful calumny, but that they were left by blog readers, not contributors, and nobody over at Commonweal agrees with them, much less hates First Things .
Fair enough. It raises, however, the new questions of responsibility the Internet has created. When a journal starts blogging, it has added what is, in essence, a second publication to its stable. And how does that touch the original journal’s work? Its positions? Its reputation?
I don’t mean this as any continuation of my complaint about the comments on Commonweal , but as a general question to which I don’t know the answer. First Things has its own blog, and how much that appears there can reasonably be taken to represent the magazine itself? For months after we started last fall, Richard John Neuhaus and I did almost all the blogging, and since we’re the editors of the print journal, that would seem to impute a high correlation.
But there’s writing, and then there’s writing. Do most authors apply to what they do for the Web the same concentration they apply when they are writing their print essays and books? I’d take almost any odds the answer is no. There’s an ephemeral and occasional quality that all Web writing has¯and that blogging has in spades. It’s not just in the topics chosen (see me here blog-blathering about the ukulele), but in the chatty voice, the supersized diction, and, most of all, the completion: A blog entry must, by its nature, gesture at thoughts it lacks the time, will, and form to develop.
So, suppose in writing a blog entry, I say something regrettable¯oh, I don’t know, maybe, "Did you read what that wiggly-waggly idiot Ramesh Ponnuru wrote?" (You understand, we’re just working on a test case here: I picked Ramesh because he’s probably the least wiggly-waggly person I know.) Does the speed of composition, the bloggy voice and diction, make it a less or a more reliable guide to the author’s genuine thoughts? That’s akin to the question of whether what you say when you’re drunk reveals more of what you really believe or less¯since there is a kind of intoxication about blog writing, the speed of posting, the speed of response.
Richard Starr¯as the managing editor of the Weekly Standard , a man keenly observant of the foibles of writers¯once called blogging "the crack-cocaine of writing," and what he had in mind was the addictive quality of the instant gratification. There’s no other writing in the world with the same response time: bang ! you scribble a thought, and bang ! you publish it, and bang ! you get a mailbox full of responses (much of it calling you a wiggly-waggly idiot, but still, a response is a response). Anyway, that regrettable thing I say in a blog entry¯does it represent me? The ease with which corrections, clarifications, and apologies can be posted on the Web seems to weaken responsibility even more.
The more worrisome thing is how much it represents the print version of the publication. If an Atlantic Monthly writer says something wrong on a blog entry, does it count more, less, or the same as if he had said it in the magazine? The army of copy editors and fact-checkers suggests that magazines believe the print version is more important by far: What appears on the blogs doesn’t count, unless it is so egregious that even the subscribers of the print magazine and the advertisers start complaining.
And what about bloggers who aren’t on staff? Where does responsibility for their posts fall? This month, while Fr. Neuhaus is on vacation, we opened up the blog to a set of friends of the magazine. The postings aren’t instantaneous; they get read by editors before they go up, just in case there’s something terrible in them, but still, generally, almost anything goes. If Joseph Pearce and Frederica Mathewes-Green want to argue about the DVD release of The Incredibles , so be it. If Robert Miller wants to take on the pope, let him try. But does that make First Things itself responsible? The print journal, the institution, the established body of work?
And what happens if, like Commonweal , you allow readers to add comments to blog entries? I don’t know what the answer is. Such comments are clearly weighted less in people’s minds than, say, printed letters to the editor. Not that letters to the editor aren’t often nutty, but they’re usually edited for grammar and sense, and they’re supposed to be free from libel. Many bloggers who allow comments from readers¯ Amy Welborn , for instance¯formulate explicit policies about them. But even so, Amy’s blog represents only herself; no one imagines that the comments are from her or reflect her. What about the comments on, say, the print magazine Commonweal ‘s blog? What happens when offensive comments are added by a reader who has also been published in the print magazine and thus appears associated?
I don’t know what the answers to these questions are. Journalism is clearly moving toward some amalgamation with blogs, but the boundaries and the responsibilities are not yet clear. In the meantime, I worry about how blogs touch the reputations of the journals that host them. I worry about First Things .