The Myth of the Parasitical Bloggers

Maureen Dowd's wholesale, uncredited copying of a paragraph written by Josh Marshall (an act Dowd has now admitted)
-- for what I yesterday called her "uncharacteristically cogent and
substantive column"-- highlights a point I've been meaning to make for
awhile. One of the favorite accusations that

Maureen Dowd's wholesale, uncredited copying of a paragraph written by Josh Marshall (an act Dowd has now admitted)
-- for what I yesterday called her "uncharacteristically cogent and
substantive column"-- highlights a point I've been meaning to make for
awhile. One of the favorite accusations that many journalists
spout, especially now that they're searching for reasons why newspapers
and print magazines are dying, is that bloggers and other online
writers are "parasites" on their work
-- that their organizations bear the cost of producing content and
others (bloggers and companies such as Google) then unfairly exploit it
for free.

The reality has always been far more mixed than that,
and the relationship far more symbiotic than parasitical. Especially
now that online traffic is such an important part of the business model
of newspapers and print magazines, traffic generated by links from
online venues and bloggers is of great value to them. That's why they
engage in substantial promotional activities to encourage bloggers to
link to and write about what they produce. Beyond that, it is also
very common -- as the Dowd/Marshall episode illustrates -- for
traditional media outlets and establishment journalists to use and even
copy content produced online and then present it as their own,
typically without credit. Many, many reporters, television news
producers and the like read online political commentary and blogs and
routinely take things they find there.

Typically, the uncredited
use of online commentary doesn't rise to the level of blatant copying
-- plagiarism -- that Maureen Dowd engaged in. It's often not even an
ethical breach at all. Instead, traditional media outlets simply take
stories, ideas and research they find online and pass it off as their
own. In other words -- to use their phraseology -- they act
parasitically on blogs by taking content and exploiting it for their

Since I read many blogs, I notice this happening quite
frequently -- ideas and stories that begin on blogs end up being
featured by establishment media outlets with no credit. Here's just
one recent and relatively benign example of how it often works: at the
end of March, I wrote a post that ended up being featured in many places
concerning the unique political courage displayed by Jim Webb in taking
on the issue of criminal justice reform and the destruction wreaked by
our drug laws. The following week, I was traveling and picked up a
copy of The Economist in an aiport, which featured an article hailing Jim Webb's political courage in taking on the issue of criminal justice reform and the destruction wreaked by our drug laws.

Several of the passages from the Economist article were quite familar to me, since they seemed extremely similar to what I had written -- without attribution or credit:


has easily surpassed Japan -- and virtually every other country in the
world -- to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently
described as a "a nation of jailers" whose "prison system has grown
into a leviathan unmatched in human history."


Leviathan unmatched in human history", is how Glenn Loury, professor of
social studies at Brown University, characterises America's prison


notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term
political institution from a safely blue state (he's not Ted Kennedy),
but is the opposite: he's a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of
the "toughest" "anti-crime" states in the country (it abolished parole
in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it
executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of
margins, thanks largely to George Allen's macaca-driven implosion.


Webb is far from being a lion of the Senate, roaring from the comfort
of a safe seat. He is a first-term senator for Virginia who barely
squeaked into Congress. The state he represents also has a long history
of being tough on crime: Virginia abolished parole in 1994 and is
second only to Texas in the number of people it executes.


the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable
industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded
weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.


Webb also has some powerful forces ranged against him. The
prison-industrial complex (which includes private prisons as well as
public ones) employs thousands of people and armies of lobbyists.


is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near . . .
.[T]here is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison
reform. To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of
being "soft on crime" has, for decades, been one of the most toxic
vulnerabilities a politician can suffer.


mainstream politicians have had the courage to denounce any of this.
People who embrace prison reform usually end up in the political
graveyard. There is no organised lobby for prison reform.

don't consider that at all similar to what Dowd did, since there wasn't
wholesale copying. In fact, since there wasn't really full-on copying,
I don't think there's any ethical issue involved in this example. I
don't think the writer of that article did anything wrong at all. And
anyone who spends any time writing a blog, or anything else for that
matters, should consider it a good thing when their work is used, with
or without credit. Nobody would engage in that activity in the absence
of a belief that they have something worthwhile to say and a desire
that it have some impact on political discussions.

I raise this
only to illustrate how one-sided and even misleading is the complaint
that bloggers are "parasites" on the work of "real
journalists." Often, the parasitical feeding happens in the opposite
direction, though while bloggers routinely credit (and link to) the
source of the material on which they're commenting, there is an
unwritten code among many establishment journalists that while they
credit each other's work, they're free to claim as their own whatever
they find online without any need for credit or attribution (see here for a typical example of how many of these news organizations operate in this regard).

It's difficult to quantify, but a large percentage
of political reporters, editors, television news producers, and on-air
pundits read political blogs or other online venues now. Many do so
precisely because blogs are a prime source for their story ideas.
Contrary to the myth perpetrated by establishment media outlets, there
is substantial original reporting, original analysis and the like that
takes place on blogs. That's precisely why so many journalists,
editors and segment producers read them. And while some are quite
conscientious about identifying the online source of the material they
use -- The New York Times' Scott Shane recently credited Marcy Wheeler for a major, front-page story on torture and previously wrote an article
hailing FireDogLake as having the best coverage of any news
organization of the Lewis Libby trial -- credit of that sort is still
rare enough that it becomes noteworthy when it happens.

The tale
of the put-upon news organizations and the pilfering, parasitical
bloggers has always been more self-serving mythology than
reality. That's not to say that there's no truth to it, but the
picture has always been much more complicated. After all, a principal
reason for the emergence of a political blogosphere is precisely
because it performed functions that establishment media outlets fail to
perform. If all bloggers did was just replicate what traditional news
organizations did and offered nothing original, nobody would read
blogs. And especially now, as bloggers and online writers engage in
much more so-called "original reporting" and punditry, the parasitical
behavior is often the reverse of how it is depicted. The Maureen
Dowd/Josh Marshall episode is a particularly vivid and dramatic example
of that, but it is far from uncommon.

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