Kausfiles Special

The Case Against Editors

Why it still pays to not have one.

The take-home lesson from last week’s  Easterbrook affair seems to be that it was a blow against blogging, or at least unedited blogging. Any halfway-decent editor would have made Easterbrook recast the offending paragraph before publication, after all. The ADL would be happy and Easterbrook would be happy. New Republic’sLeon Wieseltier, who stood up for his colleague, nevertheless told the L.A. Times’ Tim Rutten that the episode illustrated

the hubris of this whole blogging enterprise. There is no such thing as instant thought, which is why reflection and editing are part of serious writing and thinking, as Gregg has now discovered.

Fair enough. But we don’t stop driving just because someone has an accident!  A few points on the blog side:

1. Edited pieces crash all the time.  I myself managed to make a similar moral error in the actual, printed pages of the New Republic, as discussed here. Several layers of editors did not stop me. Although TNR’s editor-in-chief later told me he objected to the misguided paragraph–after it had been distributed to the libraries of the world–I noticed the same argument on exactly the same page of the New Republic a few years later in a piece by someone else. Old-media pieces–New York Times op-ed columns being the most prominent example–often sluice into print with very little intervention beyond mild copyediting.  Paul Krugman might as well be blogging.

2.  What about all the blogs that land safely? Editing makes embarrassing errors less likely. That doesn’t end the argument, because the purpose of writing isn’t simply to avoid embarrassing errors. There are benefits to blogging, including speed and uncensorabilty, that compensate for the greater risk of humiliating folly. And the virtue of speed isn’t simply, or even primarily, that you can scoop the competition. It’s that you can post something and provoke a quick response and counter-response, as well as research by readers. The collective brain works faster, firing with more synapses. In theory, “faster” can mean “fast enough to have real-world consequences” that print journalism or even edited Web journalism can’t have. (The obvious example: Post-debate spin, where every minute counts. If only James Lee Witt had a blog, Al Gore might be alive today.)

3. First thought, good enough thought! Wieseltier’s right about the hubris that has accompanied the growth of blogging–the pretense that editing doesn’t ever improve pieces, that it just dulls prose down and gets in the way, that an ecstatic unmediated interaction between writer and reader will eliminate such obsolete impediments and (incidentally) reveal the entire structure of print journalism as a fraud, that the elites are no better at analysis than anyone else, that they just held a monopoly, etc. But the better argument for blogging is that while editing almost always improves things, it doesn’t improve things enoughto be worth the loss of speed and the risk of excessive self-censorship. Exhibit A here is Daniel Weintraub’s Sacramento Bee blog. A few weeks ago, in the heat of the California recall campaign, nervous Bee executives made Weintraub start submitting his copy to an editor. The jury is now in: Weintraub’s blog is still good but there’s no question it isn’t as vivid as it was before.

4. Got hubris? How do the risks of blogging compare with other types of speech? How about talking? Even Serious Thinkers talk. Why isn’t blogging like talking, except that you are talking to (potentially) the whole world? That isn’t so innovative. Talking on television is talking to (potentially) the whole world, without an editor in sight. I’ve even seen Leon Wieseltier on TV on occasion. Talking on television is actually more dangerous than blogging, because on the Web there’s an opportunity to revise in a way that will actually perform a corrective function. You can’t go back and change what you said on Nightline. And if there’s a hubris of Weblogging, there’s also a hubris of Gutenberging–the idea that you can routinely comment on current events in a way that merits permanent commitment to paper. What’s more arrogant than hitting “send”? Hitting “print.”

5. C-SPAN at TNR: If blogging is like talking on national television, a key difference is that on the Web the talking is itself a crucial part of the editing function–the “collective brain” process.  When they aren’t on national television, old-school writers talk at least in part to get the reaction of others, including their editors. Then they modify their thoughts accordingly. That’s a lot of what goes on in the halls of the New Republic. Instead of talking in private, bloggers blog. We may have no editors–no halls for that matter–but we do have readers, and they have e-mail. They in effect become our editors. The dialogue is basically the same; the difference is with blogging the process is public. When I worked for the New Republic, editor-in-chief Martin Peretz enjoyed the editorial meetings so much he wanted to televise them on C-SPAN. Blogging is a bit like Marty’s idea, with the crucial added benefit that the viewers can talk back.

6. The lesson of Luke Ford: I don’t want to minimize the difference between trying out your ideas in private conversations and trying them out on the Internet.  I didn’t realize just how irresponsible we normally are in everyday private conversations until I encountered L.A. blogger Luke Ford. Ford goes around to parties and immediately posts snatches of his conversations on the Web. His reporting is impeccable. He has faithfully quoted me libeling dozens of people on two separate occasions. The second time I was even trying to be careful–but I was still operating under the conversational illusion that the range of my statements was limited.

7. Speech’s Dirty Little Secret: Is there a reason we tolerate greater irresponsibility in private spoken conversation? I’d say yes. It’s functional–it helps us probe for information and try out ideas that might not be ready for Broadway. Life would grind to a halt if everyone we met was Luke Ford.  Is this functional difference between spoken and printed speech acknowledged in libel law? I haven’t brushed up on my First Amendment, but I suspect not. It may be that the only reason spoken speech can perform the off-Broadway function it performs–allowing people to try out ideas, even outrageous ideas, and see which one flies–is that the Times v. Sullivan “reckless disregard of truth or falsity” standard cannot, as a purely practical matter, be applied to most spoken conversations the way it is applied to printed speech. (For starters you’d need an eavesdropping system connected to a computer that could track all conversations, and that doesn’t exist–except maybe in North Yorkshire.)

8. Sullivan v. Sullivan: Is it worth adding, to the private conversational sphere, a weird public off-Broadway tryout area like the “blogosphere”? The costs (potential libel, potential premature publication of half-baked thoughts) are now familiar. Matt Drudge, meet Gregg Easterbrook. But the “collective-brain” payoff is pretty big too. I’d even argue (I think!) for different, more permissive legal standards to protect this big, open, Web editorial meeting–standards that reflect the Internet’s technological virtues of rapid dissemination and rapid correction. True, even if all blogging were implicitly prefaced by the silent warning “What you are about to read is tentative and subject to revision,” some defamatory statements create permanent wounds that can’t ever be completely healed. (“Let me tentatively suggest that X is a child molester”). But other Internet speech that might normally fall into the “reckless disregard” category doesn’t necessarily leave ineradicable scars. (Today’s example: Reporting on the latest rumors about which Arnold Schwarzenegger scandals are about to break.)

Bloggers have only been at it for a few years, and already we’re asking for special treatment! But you don’t have to buy my legal argument–I’m not sure I buy my legal argument–to accept unedited blogging as a valid journalistic enterprise.

Now available with less hubris.

Update–My editors at work:  Professor Volokh, who knows more about the First Amendment than I do, says libel law already distinguishes between printed libel and spoken slander, making it harder to sue for the latter. He doesn’t recommend trying to further distinguish print from blogging, due to unspecified “complicated line-drawing problems.” More detail please! You mean like blogs that are printed out? We can handle that. (Theyr’e still blogs.) Newspapers that post articles on the Web? (They’re still print!) Judges could come up with some sensible rule for those cases, at least,, if it was worth making the distinction. But maybe Volokh has something more complicated in mind. …

More– A question for Prof. Volokh, or anyone else: Is printed libel distinguished from spoken slander a) because print is permanent (i.e. long-lasting, hard to correct) or b) because printed materials are published (i.e. made available to all comers)? If publication is the defining act, then blogs are like newspapers. If permanence is the key, blogs seem more like most conversational speech. My argument would that blogs should be cut whatever slack is cut for spoken speech–even though, unlike typical spoken speech, they are published to the whole world. Why? Because even though they’re published, they’re easier to correct than traditional printed publications. (They’re actually also easier to correct than normal conversational speech–ever try to stop a whispered rumor you’ve started?) And while the act of publication on the Web extends the zone of possible damage, as it does with print, it also (unlike print) brings a corresponding benefit, namely the ability of everyone within the zone of publication to respond easily and instantly. …