Friday, May 29, 2009

The Responsibility of the Blogger

While America may boast the best paid bloggers, it certainly doesn't have the most important. That distinction goes to bloggers like Hao Wu of China, who was imprisoned for 140 days for writing about “subversive subjects online”, and Omid Reza Mirsayafi, a 29-year-old cultural blogger who died under mysterious circumstances in an Iranian jail after being sentenced to two years for insulting “the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khomeini”.

These so-called “cyberdissidents” weren’t writing fiery polemics online calling for the overthrow of their country – quite to the contrary, they dared to write the truth about their oppressive governments, usually couched in satire to tone down the sting of their reporting. They knew full well the danger of writing what their newspapers were afraid or forbidden to print, but they understood that it was their responsibility to their country, the international community, and themselves, to use the most powerful mode of communication in the world to expose injustice and call for change.

While we can breathe a sigh of relief that America is not a tyrannical state like China or Iran, we should not be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2008 analysis, the United States ranks a dismal 36th among the world’s nations for freedom of the press and the “efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.” America’s ranking ties it with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, South Africa, Spain, and Taiwan, and sets us behind considerably behind countries like Namibia (tied for #23), Latvia (tied for #7), and Luxembourg (tied for #1).

Some may dismiss this ranking as another shameful legacy of the Bush years, but we are almost certain to once again tumble lower on this list under the Obama Administration as the nation’s newspapers quickly perish and the few surviving news sources fall victim to both devastating newsroom cutbacks and media consolidation.

However, while it may well be too late to save our newspapers, it is not too late to save journalism. That’s where bloggers come in.

At this year’s Brooklyn Blogfest, hundreds of bloggers from New York City came together to discuss “why we blog”. Some bloggers said their motivation was self-expression; others wanted to focus on an interest; and Jake Dobkin, founder of The Gothamist, got the strongest response by offering strategies to make money from blogging.

Unfortunately, all of these reasons are tantamount to teaching a student how to write great poetry, and then telling that student they should use their newfound gift to get a job writing greeting cards.

What is extraordinary about the Blogfest is that it brings together hundreds of passionate, thoughtful, observant, and talented writers and photographers, who are concerned for their communities and the welfare of the people around them. What is a failure of the event is that the bloggers are never told that together we outnumber the reporters at the New York Times and if we were all worked together as citizen journalists we could rival its worldwide influence.

Hao Wu and Omid Reza Mirsayafi understood intuitively the responsibility of blogging. They realized that blogging is a force so powerful that it can even stand up to Big Brother. Information, discussion, investigation – these are the core foundational components of democracy. Blogging is the most extraordinary tool in the history of media because it is the only weapon that truly levels the playing field between the haves and the have-nots and lets independent reporters write on a platform as accessible to the public as the largest television network.

As yesterday article’s “How Politicians and their Publicists Took Over the Press” from the True News blog made clear, the death of newspapers and the shrinking of America’s media has allowed politicians, developers, unscrupulous CEOs, and their ilk “to spin, scheme, and steal with impunity”.

The only recourse the citizens of this country have is to speak out wherever there is silence and ask questions whenever the explanations we are given are inadequate. Blog about the shady building going up on your block, blog about how your local elected official never returns your calls, blog about the sorry state of your child’s school.

Write the stories that are unwritten, and write the stories that have already been written better. If you do so, your fellow bloggers will follow your lead and eventually all of us might have the information we need to really know what’s going on in our world.


Ray at Sheepshead Bites said...

Thank you for bringing us this information. It helps us bloggers to remember that our freedoms are very valuable, even as we watch them slowly dwindle.

I'm thinking that in the first paragraph you meant to say that the U.S. 'doesn't' have the most important bloggers. Am I correct on that? I know how easy these little errors can pass us by, even though we've read it about 100 hundred times while checking for errors.

"While America may boast the best paid bloggers, it certainly does have the most important."

Be sure to check out our site -- Sheepshead Bites -- where we try our level best to keep it factual -- and very real.

mrothste said...

Without a doubt, the saddest casualty of the demise of the print news industry is something that has not yet been mitigated by the rise of blogs - access. The simple truth is that while the playing field has been leveled for those who wish to report the news to enter the game, discovering the news has always been the domain of those with experience and prestige.

Blogs allow for information to get to readers faster and on a wider scale, but I would say about 99% of blogs merely repeat stories that come from somewhere else. The level playing field and everyman nature of blogs means that those with information who would give it to journalists may not give it to bloggers whom they respect less, justifiably or not.

I love blogs, and I think they're going to get better and more necessary as time goes by, but it will be interesting to see if they gain the same positioning and access that old-fashioned print journalism once had. Right now, there's a vacuum as blogs are still (probably) in their relative infancy and newspapers are circling the drain.