Vol. 11, No. 2,640 - The American Reporter - May 6, 2005

On Media

by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif

LOS ANGELES -- It was in a stack of used books being sold for two dollars apiece outside a dusty museum of hollywood memorabilia. The book, Humor from Harper's (1961) held a brief essay by William H Whyte Jr. which, though satirizing a literary trend of the 1950s, seems to resonate in terms of that current fad or phenomenon known as the "blog."

Web logs, or "blogs" as they are referred to within their following, have been proliferating seemingly as the spring pollen, or at least did so during the recent election season. They are, for the most part, characterized by a particular format in which the author posts items one atop the other, often several times a day. Opening the blog of AndrewSullivan.com, for example, you will find his most recent offering - a snitty remark about Senate majority leader Bill Frist - and just below it, a link to an essay about why Donald Rumsfeld should be replaced, and below that, two postings from earlier that day, one taking a shot at Anne Coulter, the other at the New York Times. Further down the page, you will find items from the day before, and so on.

Some blogs include comments areas where readers can reply to postings and to each others' comments.

In many cases, blogs are the product of one person who may occasionally farm out some of the commentary to others. Other blogs such as Oxblog.com seem to function as cooperatives, as it were, allowing each of the owners to post his own work. American Reporter editor Joe Shea reports on late-breaking developments on his favorite stock, the West African-owned oil company ERHC, in a blog called "ERHC On The Move" at http://erhc.blogspot.com.

Bloggers seem to think they are important. They seem to think they are the next wave in journalism. They tend to think of the print kingdom as somewhat akin to the dinosauria. Bloggers over on the right wing take credit for debunking Dan Rather's story about President Bush's service in the National Guard. Bloggers on the left think of themselves as the pioneers in a new political movement that can lead to progress and reform.

Bloggers also seem to think that the print newspapers are terribly interested in them, worried even. After all, bloggers can pass along rumors at the speed of electron flow, whereas newspapers are limited by their printing presses and delivery trucks.

To pick up the thread about that old book in the $2 stack - it seems strange that a satire published in 1953 about magazine writing would speak to us about the foibles of blogging, but let us consider.

"You, Too, Can Write the Casual Style," published in Harper's Magazine in 1953, was a lighthearted send up of the New Yorker tone of the day. Familiar to readers of the Talk of the Town columns, the style in question featured whimsical reminiscences, even if it was only the remembrance of the previous day's lunch or, in our case, a visit to the museum.

Whyte satirized by explaining:

The subject matter, in the first place, is not to be ignored. Generally speaking, the more uneventful it is, or the more pallid the writer's reaction to it, the better do form and content marry. Take, for example, the cocktail party at which the writer can show how bored everyone is with everyone else, and how utterly fatuous they all are anyhow. Since a non-casual statement - e.g., "The party was a bore" - would destroy the reason for writing about it at all, the Casual Style here is not only desirable but mandatory.

What could better describe so much of what we can read, if we are willing, in all those personal musings, diaries and vacation almanacs that make up so many tens of thousands of personal web pages? Whyte had the tone and style pegged half a century ago.

Whyte's piece goes on to list twelve stylistic elements that went into what he called the casual style. They are not exactly the form and tone of the modern blog, but they express rather well a certain attitude that finds its expression in lack of expression. He begins with "Heightened Understatement."

Where the old-style writer would say, "I don't like it," "It is not good," or something equally banal, the casual writer says it is "something less than good." He avoids direct statement and strong words - except, as we will note, where he is setting them up to have something to knock down. In any event, he qualifies. "Somewhat" and "rather," the bread-and-butter words of the casual writer, should become habitual with you; similarly with such phrases as "I suppose," "it seems to me," "I guess," or "I'm afraid." "Elusive" or "elude" are good too, and if you see the word "charm" in a casual sentence you can be pretty sure that "eludes me," or "I find elusive," will not be far behind.

This is kind of the mirror reversal of what we see in so many of the political blogs. Although the modern style is to overstate and to rant rather than to understate, both depend upon the reader caring about the personal prejudices of the author. One form may be understatement and the other overstatement, but what they have in common is that they convey personal prejudices (tastes, if you will) rather than well-reasoned judgment. Each is a departure from traditional "objective" journalism.

When it comes to another authorial weakness, that of waffling, Whyte has a great ear. He describes "The Multiple Hedge": "Set up an ostensibly strong statement, and then, with your qualifiers, shoot a series of alternately negative and positive charges into the sentence until finally you neutralize the whole thing." This is something we are all familiar with, and is the curse of much amateurish prose. There is much amateur prose in the bloggers' internet.

Whyte's third stylistic element gets right to the heart of the blogging world.

Narcissizing Your Prose. The casual style is nothing if not personal; indeed, you will usually find in it as many references to the writer as to what he's supposed to be talking about. For you do not talk about the subject; you talk about its impact on you. With the reader peering over your shoulder, you look into the mirror and observe your own responses as you run the entire range of the casual writer's emotions. You may reveal yourself as, in turn, listless ("the audience seemed not to share my boredom"); insouciant ("I was really quite happy with it"); irritated ("The whole thing left me tired and cross"); comparatively gracious ("Being in a comparatively gracious mood, I won't go into the details I didn't like"); or hesitant ("I wish I could say that I could accept his hypothesis").

Among the supposedly serious political blogs I have been reading of late, I have learned about one author's favorite pub, another's case of sleep apnea and yet a third author's taste in college football teams. One blog, wonkette.com, has turned a slightly sexualized, alcoholic version of Whytes narcissism into one of the most widely read sites.

If we look at a representative collection of today's blogs, we notice certain similarities with that long ago Talk of the Town style of doing journalism. There is the sense that space - lots of space - is being filled with comparatively inconsequential trivialities. There are the personal references that are opaque to the rest of us. There is so much personal material that the blog often enough becomes more a statement of who the author is than of what he wants to say. There is the sense, when looking into a blog after some interval, that you don't quite understand where the author is picking up. Often enough, having finished reading today's postings you also fail to understand where the story has tried to take you.

Those old Talk of the Town features were, if nothing else, pieces of a larger picture that developed over the weeks and months. Like a literary type of pointillism, they built up a picture out of the little snippets - the walk through the park here, the cocktail party there - and out of all this you were supposed to develop a picture of life in the big city lived a certain kind of way by a particularly privileged set of people.

In the same way, many of the more serious blogs are creating a kind of political-literary pointillism. Each little tidbit goes to building a larger picture. One has only to consider the way the political blogs have been filling their screens day after day with the minutiae of the Iraq campaign to see that they are trying to tell us something about those who are supposed to be leading us.

As such, it is an interesting experiment. Political pointillism is not the only conceivable way to build these pictures. We might consider I.F. Stone's Weekly as the alternative form. Stone gathered quotes and data from public sources and put them together in the form of cogent essays. His publication time frame was a week, not an hour. Stone did what bloggers would like to think they can do, but it would be hard to credit any current day blogger as being half so good as Stone was.

Until bloggers start to research and write like I.F. Stone, newspaper reporters and editors can relax about the competition from blogs.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.