Saturday, January 20, 2007

Who Can Tell the Dancer from the Dance? With Tom Friedman, We Should Have Paid More Attention

I saved this the other day, and now I can't remember who I borrowed it from. Was it William Powers at the National Journal? The point of the piece was that some publications still have "authority," that they have that combination of wide circulation and good reputation that makes you turn to them to seek their judgment on current events not to determine your own judgment but simply to see if there is "weight" on your side in the controversy.

Is your conduct changed by the presence of that weight? The writer doesn't say, but it's fair to assume, knowing human nature as we do, that we might be freer in sharing our opinion -- we might be heartened; we might use the "authority" source in making our own arguments or in tweaking our arguments-- if someone with a publication that enjoys "authority" speaks out.

The "authority" referred to was USA Today, and you know I more or less agree with qualifications and reservations. It's middlebrow and middle of the road, but it is long past its status as joke.

I know with some it's an "anti-source." Whatever it thinks must be wrong. But that is not the part of the of the piece that interested me. What got my attention was the bit near the end where the writer talked about popular websites that in his estimation lack authority on current events. And in that section he touches on what I know *is* a problem -- for myself and for others, which is that when you feel that your opinion lacks weight, you substitute stylistic tricks as a substitute for "weight." (This hints at a deeper problem in all opinion pieces. You really don't have room to make an argument. You are really just stating a conclusion and if nobody knows your name or trusts your gatekeeper .)

Anyway, here's the excerpt. (And I grieve I cannot link to it. My bad.)

The Huffington Post is an influential blog with a large following -- by blog standards, it's near the top of the heap. But as brands go, it doesn't yet have the track record to speak with authority. And while Jayne Lyn Stahl may be a brilliant poet and playwright, I've never heard of her and wasn't ready to trust her. She began: "While the president is busy poll dancing, a senior member of his beloved Pentagon has surfaced with some stunning comments about boycotting law firms who represent prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay."

"Poll dancing"? "Beloved Pentagon"? There was something inapt and tone-deaf about both phrases. I read the rest of the piece restlessly, wondering why I was there in the first place.

It's a bit unfair to single out one blogger and ask her to match the authority of national newspapers. It would be marvelous if every voice in the new agora could have equal sway. Maybe in some future online utopia they will.

All that is as may be. The part of the piece that i like was the reminder how often that I, given my lack of authority, plug in the jape and the twinkle, trying to imply the existence of some deeper intellectual quality that gives what I write heft in the arena. Mr. "Lost Name" is correct. You read some failed effort at wit from someone you've never heard of and more often than not you think: I really don't think I want Oscar Wilde as king of the world.

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