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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Reviewing Michael Standaert's LAT review of Hugh Hewitt's "Blog"

Although both appeared on the same day, when I wrote my own review of Hugh Hewitt's Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World, I had not yet read Michael Standaert's book review in the Los Angeles Times. In mine, I described Hugh's prose (in the book, and on his radio show and his own blog) as "never, ever mean or bitterly sarcastic." Alas, I cannot say the same for Mr. Standaert's prose (nor always for my own) — but that is a question of style, and my intent here is to comment on substance.

And indeed, Mr. Standaert's fundamental misunderstanding of Hugh's book appears in his review's initial paragraph:

People who pick up the book "Blog" are likely to think that it's about blogs. For the most part, it's not about the Internet phenomenon of blogging, the term for individual or group Web-based chronicling and instant publishing. Rather, this book is a sustained effort of partisan hackery aimed at further eroding trust in what the author Hugh Hewitt calls "mainstream liberal media," which for him means anything to the left of Rush Limbaugh. This regurgitated mantra, in the hands of skilled marketers, can be applied to the latest hot brand — in this case anything to do with blogs.

As I noted in my own review — and as anyone even vaguely familiar with Hugh, his books, his radio show, or his blog well knows — Hugh is indeed a partisan, and fiercely (if very politely) so. "Hack," of course, is a loaded term — perhaps the most loaded term one can fling at a journalist or a pundit or any other sort of writer. To sustain it, however, one ought to at least try to provide a few examples of hackery — and in my judgment, Mr. Standaert conspicuously fails at that task.

Now, it is true enough that Hugh's book is "sustained." It is also true that part (but far from all) of the book is about the mainstream media and the erosion of public trust in it. But "Blog" is not an effort to further that erosion, but to explain and comment on it — and in particular to comment on the connection of blogs to that phenomenon. Somehow Mr. Standaert concludes from this that Hugh's book title is misleading. I'm sorry folks, but to say that this book isn't really about blogs is — gosh, I'm searching for another word, but the one that seems to fit best is "hackery."

I suppose that Hugh may take some comfort for being recognized as a "skilled marketer," and indeed he is one. But his stock in trade consists of ideas and the very broadest of social and political trends. Hugh, at least, understands that what's going on with the blogosphere makes it more than "the latest hot brand." I'm not at all sure that Mr. Standaert does understand that. He seems to think that the emergence of blogs is something like the emergence of minivans or hula hoops.

Mr. Standaert writes, for example, that "[w]ithout traditional media to feed off of, there would be little for most political bloggers to link to and comment on," and that "the other fallacy is that blogging will supplant mainstream media." But Hugh never argues the latter, nor denies the former (although the current pattern includes both controversies that originate on blogs and migrate to the MSM and vice versa). Instead, "Blog" is about the effects of the blogs on public consciousness and opinion, and upon mainstream media (recent past, present, and future). Only a — gosh, here I go again — hack would put words in an author's mouth that the author never used, or that oversimplify and indeed misrepresent what the author has actually said, for the sole purpose of knocking them down.

There's also the problem that — well, how to put this delicately? — Mr. Standaert doesn't seem to have actually read the book very closely.  I don't know how else to explain a sentence like this one: "Hewitt never shies away from celebrity name bashing, dropping every right-wing pundit's favorite punching bag — Barbra Streisand — into the mix." Barbra Streisand is mentioned once in "Blog," and it was because she's a blogger. But Mr. Standaert's review uses that one instance to give the impression that it's an example, instead of an exception. What would we call a writer who takes a single instance and tries to leave the impression that it's representative of a common occurrence?  Would it start with an "h"? In any event, it's an odd book reviewer who confuses a serious book on media trends with People magazine.

Mr. Standaert writes that

unfortunately Hewitt's "independent" position advocates right-wing, corporate or advertisement blogging and not independence as such.

In a Jan. 15 entry on his blog (HughHewitt.com), Hewitt is a bit more forthcoming about the ethical dilemma faced among the top tier of political bloggers who may or may not get paid to advocate for causes, saying "bloggers should disclose — prominently and repeatedly — when they are receiving payments from individuals or organizations about whom or which they are blogging." But in the book, Hewitt describes how blogs should be used by opinion makers to get their points across through directly influencing the most prominent bloggers.

What's rather conspicuously missing here, however, is context and the rest of the timeline. In his January 15th post, Hugh was writing about the then-swirling blog swarm over the Kos/Armstrong Williams alleged nondisclosures (or inadequate disclosures) of concealed conflicts of interest arising from what Mr. Standaert aptly calls "payola" (a term that goes back to covert bribes paid by record companies to radio disc jockeys, if I recall correctly). Amazon.com lists the official date of publication for "Blog" as January 14th, but of course it was actually written weeks before this particular controversy erupted.

And more importantly, nowhere in "Blog" does Hugh suggest or even imply that opinion makers ought to make covert payments to influence bloggers. Rather, in a section explicitly addressed to opinion makers who don't yet "get" blogging, Hugh suggests (chapter 9) that they advertise on blogs (a self-disclosing potential conflict), and perhaps (chapter 10 at page 140, italics mine) that if such opinion makers cannot find "a superstar blogger in [their] midst," they should email some talented medium-traffic bloggers "offering them employment as a blogger." In my own review, I expressed skepticism about the practicality of this latter suggestion because I'm not sure the talent, the "knack," is transferable — but if they are writing on the GM or Coke website as disclosed, paid employees of those companies, I have no doubts about either the bloggers' or the companies' ethics.

Now what kind of reviewer would lead his readers to believe that Hugh's ethical positions in his book and in his blogging were inconsistent with each other, when they're not? And what kind of reviewer would fail to note that the controversy over blogger payola had developed after "Blog" was already at the printers? Gosh — are half-truths and cheap shots characteristic of "hackery"? Or is that just part of being a "literary" (i.e., non-literal, i.e., fictional) critic?

Even the credit that Mr. Standaert is willing to give to Hugh and the blogosphere comes grudgingly (boldfacing mine):

Though at times Hewitt makes important points about how blogs have kept scandals such as Rathergate and Sen. Trent Lott's flub over Strom Thurmond's segregationist past in the public eye, his fanatical fervor leads him down the path of triumphalist bombast.

I was glad I'd set my soda can down and swallowed before I read that sentence, for I was one of many metaphorical midwives to the term "Rathergate" (helping publicize it and offering instructions on how to superscript the "th" for the .html-challenged).  At the time that it first appeared (eventually to make its way into the consciousness of even those like Mr. Standaert, superscript and all), no one in the mainstream media had yet started writing seriously about the forged Killian memos, and CBS News was still resolutely ignoring the blogosphere. "Keeping [the scandal] in the public eye"? Mr. Standaert seriously thinks that's the sum total of the blogosphere's contribution? And yet he expects us to take him seriously as a writer and a book reviewer about the blogosphere? (Oh, wait — perhaps Mr. Standaert expects the readers of the LAT who don't also read blogs to take him seriously. That might be a more achievable goal.)

But about that last phrase — "triumphalist bombast."  Oh, that is very rich indeed!  Did Mr. Standaert read these paragraphs (boldface and bracketed portion mine; italics Hugh's) in the introduction to Hugh's book?

A word about the scoffers. I hear from them every day — every day. They think they have the internet figured out; they have a strategy; they don't see the sales; they don't care about amateurs; they even blog a little themselves [Mr. Standaert writes a literary blog called Nipposkiss that's not listed in TTLB's ecosystem, has no obvious Sitemeter-type counter, but for which a Technorati search produces "13 links from 12 sources," as compared to "2,438 links from 1,740 sources" for HughHewitt.com—Beldar] and they don't get the big deal. The best word they have is "triumphalism." "A little too much triumphalism in that point of view," the scoffer will say.

Well, John Kerry was probably once a scoffer as well....

If people like Kerry, Raines, Rather, and Lott can be humbled by the blogosphere, so, too, can you, your company, your movie, your church,  your anything.

"Triumphalism" isn't exactly an obscure word, but neither is it exactly common. Gosh, I wonder if Mr. Standaert's use of it in his review was an example of unconscious plagiarism? Naw, that's far too harsh and speculative a charge. On the other hand, now, that H-word ... Well, I'll leave it to you, gentle readers, to decide if that shoe fits.

Mr. Standaert would doubtless class mine as among the "bevy of rightist blogs" whom "Blog" supposedly fawns over, and I plead guilty to having been a fan of Hugh's long before his nine generous references to BeldarBlog in the book. But with respect to Mr. Standaert, perhaps we can all agree that the word "scoffer" certainly does fit. And I suppose time will tell whether his scoffing is justified. In the meantime, I also plead guilty — in being a reviewer of a reviewer — to being a scoffer at a scoffer.

Posted by Beldar at 11:28 PM in Books, Mainstream Media, Weblogs | Permalink


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(1) Kent made the following comment | Feb 14, 2005 1:17:35 PM | Permalink

The tone of Standaert's review is certainly unsurprising. It's just good business to attack the competition, especially when they're pulling ahead.

f people like Kerry, Raines, Rather, and Lott can be humbled by the blogosphere, so, too, can you, your company, your movie, your church, your anything.

And the problem with this is ... what, exactly?

(2) Unoti made the following comment | Feb 14, 2005 1:41:30 PM | Permalink

I enjoyed your meta-review and smackdown on Standaert!

The triumphalist thing was hilarious, but I'd wager Standaert isn't paying close enough attention to be humiliated.

(3) Pat Curley made the following comment | Feb 14, 2005 10:10:35 PM | Permalink

I do confess to being a little awed by the power of the blogs at this point, and just a tad unnerved at the potential for abuse. Certainly the lefty bloggers have tread very close to the line of abuse with this Jeff Gannon incident.

(4) Stephen M. St. Onge made the following comment | Feb 15, 2005 2:03:21 AM | Permalink

      No, actually, Beldar, I don't think it's "hackery."  I think "lying" is a better description.

      (Note to self: don't ever get Beldar mad at moi.  This man takes no prisoners).


(5) Boger made the following comment | Feb 17, 2005 9:23:23 PM | Permalink

Mr. Curley,

If I am understanding your position correctly, I couldn't disagree more. This Gannon thing is a royal embarassment. He is a fraud; a right wing ringer, operating under false pretenses; Gannon isn't his real name--he is James Guckert. Bush should fire whomever is doing the credentialing for the WH pressroom.

I chalk it up as another clear notch on the blogospehere 'gun.' Perfect example of the new paradigm: Pull a fast one, you are going to get nailed.

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