Academic Blogging, Style, and Substance

by John Sides on January 30, 2011 · 2 comments

in Academia,Blogs,Media,Political Science and Journalism

Brad DeLong:

The best of us webloggers try to shift America’s public sphere from celebrity gossip toward policy substance.

This is in a quote he offers up in an email with a NY Times reporter who is writing a story about academic bloggers. DeLong kindly mentions The Monkey Cage as an influential academic blog.

I thought of that quote when reading this NY Times article, “Political Blogs Read to Flood Campaign Trail.” Here’s the gist:

The New Hampshire primary is over a year away, and the first major candidate has yet to formally declare. Just don’t tell that to outlets like Politico, Talking Points Memo and RealClearPolitics, which are already planning to smother the 2012 campaign trail in a way they could never have imagined four years ago when they had far smaller staffs of bloggers and shoestring budgets.[1]

Here’s are Politico’s specific plans:

It will start a Web site, 2012 Live, this weekend that will serve as a home for what Mr. VandeHei described as “tons and tons of stories” in addition to the kind of minutiae that Politico believes political enthusiasts can never get enough of—politicians’ daily schedules, county-by-county demographic data in key primary states and historical voting trends. There will be biographies in micro-detail, right down to midlevel state campaign consultants and unelected local political leaders…Politico has also developed an interactive map that tracks where candidates have traveled as far back as 2008 and how many visits they have made to a particular state—a feature resembling the Santa Tracker for children on Christmas Eve. If all this sounds as if the question “How much is too much?” has never occurred to Politico, that is because it hasn’t. “There probably is in theory a point where there’s too much,” Mr. VandeHei said. “But we certainly haven’t discovered it.”

On the one hand, this is great. It looks like there will be some interesting data gathered (e.g., schedules) and lots of reportorial labor invested. The problem, however, is this:

Politico, for example, has published at least 36 articles in which Sarah Palin was a principal figure in the last month. In the last week and a half alone, the site has characterized her political fortunes as slipping, on Jan. 18 (the article explained her “incremental” but “significant” drop in favorability); indeterminate, on Jan. 20 (one writer cautioned those who underestimate her “do so at their own risk”); and imperiled again, on Jan. 22 (an article noted her “disconnect” with New Hampshire voters).

I don’t object to coverage of Palin per se—lest anyone think I am suggesting that DeLong’s reference to “celebrity gossip” applies to her (although certainly there is plenty of gossip about her and her family). What the NY Times really uncovers in Politico’s recent coverage of Palin is precisely the downside of VandeHei’s “too much”: the unwillingness to believe that minutiae is really minutiae. So what Politico did in these stories is try to figure out What It All Really Means, and the resulting “analysis” is a mess. Lesson: minutiae doesn’t mean much at all.

If there is one thing I hope that our blog can accomplish (is accomplishing?), it is pushing our own version of DeLong’s “policy substance.” With regard to election campaigns—something I blog about a lot (too much)—this means emphasizing the relationship between the economy and election outcomes, the thin-to-nonexistent evidence for many “turning points” in political campaigns, and so on. It makes for monotonous blogging and reading, but I see it as a necessary counterpoint to the flood of “micro-detail” and armchair punditry.

Of course, we’re not above a little celebrity gossip now and again.

fn1. Let’s ignore the fact that none of these outlets are blogs. (TPM is the closest, I suppose.)

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