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Bite this, Bullard

May 9, 2007

David Bullard wrote an article for the Sunday Times this Sunday: Name and shame offensive bloggers. In it, he slams bloggers, saying the typical blogger is an “anonymous, scrofulous nerd pumping meaningless drivel into cyberspace at all hours of the day and night simply because he can’t find a girl to sleep with him. These are the sort of w ackos (sic) who gun down their fellow students at university.” He also called on the government to crack down on bloggers. When bloggers around the world are being jailed and tortured for their activities, that’s a pretty shocking statement to make Nice one, Bullard.

Not surprisingly, this caused some upset in the South African blogosphere, with most bloggers feeling absolutely outraged about his comments.

Comrade Ian sensibly suggests that Bullard’s piece is just flamebait, and should be ignored.

Well, fools rush in and get the best seats, and I’ve missed the boat in terms of commenting on this one, but here are my thoughts anyway:

I have to agree with the majority: Bullard’s piece is outrageous. The Sunday Times apparently has 1.5 million readers, and most of them have never seen a blog. Plenty of people still think the Internet is ‘evil’. – Bullard doesn’t help matters.

He probably doesn’t know what a blog is, either: I’m sure when he thinks of blogs, he pictures teenage MySpace pages.

I sense the old man’s fear of a new generation.

Bullard also talks about the ‘quality’ control mechanism of the mainstream media, with editors and sub-editors ensuring copy is accurate. This is precisely the problem: stories go through so many filters they become watered down and meaningless. Most of it’s not about quality at all, it’s about “will this upset our advertisers”, “will our readers be offended” – not to mention fears of offending newspaper owners.

And since most of the mainstream media is owned by a right wing clique, this is very worrying indeed.

So when you take badly written and unimaginitive copy like Bullard’s and put it through the above process, you’re left with something worse than drivel.

Blogs are this century’s Samizdat. They are rough and ready, and quality varies considerably. Bullard is right about one thing: most blogs are crap. But that doesn’t matter, because most blogs aren’t read, and are seldom unique enough to be picked up by search engines. They operate in a deep web and have no effect on the world at all.

The sanitising process that mainstream news stories go through is precisely why people are turning to blogs. I don’t just write a blog, I read about 40 of them regularly, and spend more time on blogs than on mainstream media. Riverbend and Salam Pax gave us a better view of Iraq than CNN, and alternative media sources like Electronic Intifada give a much better picture of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than even quality mainstream sources.

Bloggers wear their hearts on their sleeves. We are biased. But our bias is clear, and our readers know they are reading opinion. Increasingly, the lines between mainstream media, PR and propaganda are blurring, and newspapers are not the clear channels of unbiased information they pretend to be.

Aside from issues of censorship, newspapers try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which has the effect of reducing the copy to the lowest common denominator. In contrast, there is a blog for every niche.

Here’s a prime example of the difference between what gets published on a blog, and what makes it into a newspaper:

A few years ago, I was working as a freelance journalist. I wrote a piece called Let’s make Tsotsitaal the national language, and tried to sell it to This Day. I got a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ from the news editor, but he also accidentally copied me in to an email he forwarded to his features editor: “Do you want this shit?” he asked. “I don’t”.

I’ve developed a thick skin, so I wasn’t hurt, but it did signify a break with the mainstream media. I am arrogant enough to want to write what’s interesting to me, not what some news editor thinks Tannie Bettie in Senekal wants to read on a Sunday morning.

So I posted the piece to my blog. Since then, it has become the most read piece I have ever written. It gets at least one hit a day, despite the fact that there are no links to it on the front page. It was nominated for ‘best post’ in the SA blog awards, and I’ve picked up references to it in academic articles and on linguist’s discussion boards. It comes second on a Google search for ‘Tsotsitaal’.

Partly, it’s because there’s not much else written about the subject, but I still think the paper would have benefited from publishing it. Anyway, This Day folded, but I’m still here.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, I consider myself a journalist, and so does my union. I know that blogs are a different medium, but I do my best to provide interesting, accurate and relavant copy for my readers.

I don’t know how many people read my blog regularly, but I suspect it’s not more than 30. But that’s OK: I’d rather have 30 intelligent readers who seek me out among the 70 million blogs on the Internet than be wrapping tomorrow’s fish supper. Bullard, you’re yesteray’s man, and tomorrow’s fish wrapper.

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