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The Netherlands 25

Jan
29
2006

If you can’t beat them, buy them. Traditional institutions and power structures, having realized that blogs aren’t going away, are co-opting the pajama-clad harbingers of the new era of journalism. And the bloggers are making it all too easy.

The latest example is the decision by Holland.com to send twenty-five American bloggers to the Netherlands. Presumably this is to promote tourism there. Indeed, if the Dutch wish to attract visits from tedious left-wing hairsplitters with all the social skills that passionate and frequent online argumentation implies, they’ve made a sound investment. Realistically, Holland.com just squandered a great deal of money for no discernible return whatsoever, and the crowd it is flying Amsterdam-bound can be counted upon to admiringly highlight the very facets of the Netherlands polity — killing young people, killing old people, daring and creepy social experimentation — that will assuredly ward off most American families seeking European holidays. One can only wonder at the rationalization that spurred Holland.com to this frittering-away of euros: Market research showing valuable blog-audience tourism going elsewhere — say, to places blogs talk about more often, like Iraq? A graying mid-level manager wishing to get in on this interweb thing? A low-level manager — or Henry Copeland of BlogAds — taking advantage of his superiors’ ignorance?

It seems that the answer may be a combination of all three: the junket is the brainchild of Amsterdam Tourism Board Internet manager Sebastian Paauw, who has decided — based upon no apparent public data — that it’s time to treat bloggers to the amenities once reserved for actual journalists and travel writers. Paauw isn’t operating in a vacuum: I’ve written before on the emerging phenomenon of moneyed interests that co-opt bloggers. They fall into three basic categories: private-sector entities that wish to generate positive press; public-sector entities that wish to do the same; and non-profit, non-governmental entities that wish for positive press if not for themselves, then for their causes.

Of the private-sector entities I have written all that I wish to write: it is enough to note that if you see a blog praising Wal-Mart, you would do well to ask why. This phenomenon is nascent, and it remains to be seen if it will expand. Until an effective boycott of a product is organized online, this strikes me as doubtful. The universe of products susceptible to meaningful help or harm from an engaged online community is limited mostly to the gaming industry; when that expands to common cheeses or AA batteries, then the for-profit sector will engage bloggers with abandon.

Non-profit, non-governmental entities seeking positive coverage from bloggers are even more rare than their private sector counterparts. As it happens, I was fortunate to be included on one of the few blogger-specific endeavors from this corner when I was given a ticket to go see Live 8 in Scotland this past summer. You can read all my posts on the experience here. We will shortly visit the question of whether I should have taken the free travel and lodging from the event organizers — and whether that affected my writing. (It should be noted that my blogging colleague on that trip, John Aravosis, is also on the Netherlands junket.)

Finally, and most important, we come to the public-sector entities that wish to engage with blogs. They include government agencies (the Netherlands tourism bureaucracy, natch), political parties, and individual politicians. The utility here is obvious: an engaged online community can bring a massive amount of noise to bear on a topic — as the Washington Post has found to its regret — and it can provide substantive money besides. Neither Ginny Schrader nor Paul Hackett would have gotten the money to run (and lose) without the numberless online coming to their aid; and the 2004 George W. Bush campaign was able to raise millions online for what was assuredly a massive proportionate return on investment. Thus politicians rush to court the bloggers and their followers: not for nothing did John Kerry make sure to announce his farcical filibuster of Alito at Daily Kos. It’s not just the major websites who get this attention — by way of full disclosure, at NoEndButVictory.com, a small pro-Iraq war site I founded several weeks back, you can see in the list of Contributing Editors the five Congressmen who have posted at the site thus far. Political blogging is hot, and few persons in power — or their press secretaries — want to be left out of it.

There are right and wrong ways to handle a website relationship with these public-sector entities. DailyKos.com and RedState.com, to name the two prominent community sites at each side of the partisan spectrum, appear to have arrived at a respectable model whereby politicians post as guest editors or diarists. In this, the politicians come to the online community as participants, or even supplicants, and are exposed to the full feedback of that community. Whatever the machinations on the back end, this has at least the appearance of propriety and openness.

Set against this model is the example of Matt Margolis. The founder of BlogsForBush and GOPBloggers is indefatigable in his efforts to promote and praise the Administration of George W. Bush. When not posting howlers about the fiscal rectitude of the GOP or touting the superiority of Republican partying, he can be found running interference for the odious Roy Blunt, or otherwise prostituting himself for the greater good of the Party. Margolis is one of many — men for whom brushes with power are as enticing as Twinkies to fat kids — and so we should not be too hard on him, nor assume that he’s a uniquely fallen example of the power of blogging to corrupt and co-opt. (Who can forget David Adesnik’s poignant joy when the blog-minders at the RNC threw a former Miss America at him?) He and far too many like him do their yeoman’s work for free, and so it’s no wonder that the institutions of power seek them out and use them with deserved ruthlessness.

Thus we come full circle to the Netherlands 25. Are they among the fallen of the Margolis model? Almost certainly not. Are they a good investment for Holland.com? Again, almost certainly not — no more than I was a good investment for Live 8. (And in fairness, Aravosis himself was no Live 8 shill either.) Are they to be classed among the ranks of those blogging for business without public disclosure? No — to Holland.com’s credit, their sponsorship is open and apparent. This is being handled about as well as it might be, with the sole exception that the sponsor is assuredly wasting its money. But so what? If they didn’t squander it, Dutch taxpayers surely would.

Keep in mind that “as well as it might be” is not the same as well. Bloggers as a group have yet to fully acknowledge the responsibility that comes with their power. And because that responsibility would entail tedious ethical and process demands, the pathetic phenomenon emerges of individual bloggers at once boasting of their import and denying it. Glenn Reynolds, who bears perhaps the most responsibility for popularizing blogging, thus issues an endorsement of a candidate for House Majority Leader while denying that he can issue endorsements. And Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos.com, denies that he’s a leader of any sort despite having promised a lead an effort to annihilate the DLC — and despite leading the single most active online community of all time. (You can download the audio of my exchange with him on this subject on KQED here.) Both of them are symptomatic of the larger problem of bloggers as a whole who wish to function as power brokers and major media, while assiduously avoiding any of the constraints of being power brokers and major media. It is a hypocrisy that cannot long endure — or if it does, it will consume the whole of public discourse.

I don’t look down on the Netherlands 25. I would have taken the trip too — and still would — but then, my wife and I were contemplating an Amsterdam trip in 2006 in any case. We have a soft spot for erstwhile Protestant strongholds. More to the point, Spot-On.com isn’t a blog, but an online publication with an actual editor and investors who will insist upon the same level of transparency and ethics that you can expect out of “real” journalism: which means that the acceptance of these freebies comes with disclosure and oversight — and a reflexive desire to not appear bought. It’s tempting to state that until blogs at large get with that level of professionalism, they’ll forever be relegated to the second tier of media. But that’s not true: they’re already moving into the first tier. The pity is that as they eschew the former demands of that tier, the standards of discourse sag accordingly. Blogging was once supposed to bring an elevated level of truthfulness, transparency, communication and comity to the public square. Four years on, we know it has done none of those things. If, by contrast, its main effect is to tear down former standards of rectitude, what might be farce at first glance would in the end be tragedy.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 9:43 PM | Permalink

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