WASHINGTON -- Many Americans will doubtless read of the fracas over the unhappy blogger suing the very happy Ariana Huffington for $105 million. He is claiming that approximately 9,000 bloggers should be paid by The Huffington Post for their work -- particularly since the site recently sold for more than $300 million.
The blogger, one Jonathan Tasini, has likened the ever-richer and ever-more-puzzling Arianna to being a "slave owner on a plantation of bloggers." The exchange becomes interesting!
For a traditional journalist like me, the thought of even five or 10 bloggers all together in one place is enough to make my hair stand on end and to bring on a heart attack, much less 9,000 of them. It reminds us regular journalists that our world is cracking apart and leaving us in the middle, wondering where the future of information lies.
Already, the case has brought out some important points. Ms. Huffington, an attractive woman who has gone from being a far-right conservative to a leftist Internet "publisher" worth millions, told the London Telegraph last month that people should simply not expect to get paid for their contributions.
"It is really important to make a clear distinction between people who write and blog. Confusing the two is really missing the point of what is happening online," she said. "We do not pay bloggers. This is not a question of ever paying bloggers. When people go on (the BBC's) 'Newsnight,' do they get paid? Do people complain that Newsnight doesn't pay you? I can show you emails from very influential people (asking) to post their blogs on the Huffington Post. And that's because they get exposure."
For his part, Jonathan Tasini, who also was behind a successful lawsuit of freelance journalists against The New York Times a decade ago, argues that there would be no Huffington Post, which is indefinably half-news and half-opinion, without the bloggers. "This," he said in a recent Wired magazine interview, "is about the future of culture and the ability of creators to make a living. And if we don't keep drawing these lines and fighting these fights, we won't have a class of creators who can actually make a living."
While this case can surely be simplified, in truth it puts before us some important questions about the press and information today.
Of course, there are differences -- big ones -- between those who write and are at least minimally paid to do so for newspapers, and those who blog for the new Internet companies such as Arianna's Post, Politico and a whole batch of others. Traditional journalists are proudly an integral part of big newspaper enterprises; our copy is usually reviewed by several editors before it goes to print; if we're wrong too often, we're out. We consider ourselves one of the pillars of power, and we take that responsibility seriously.
Although an unworthy corporatism began taking over newspapers from the great "old family" owners in the 1970s and '80s, there are still a lot of us around who are not selling soapsuds or Viagra; at our best, we're "selling," if that's the right word, authenticity, legitimacy and relative truth -- the famous "first take of history."
To the contrary, on the Internet, bloggers (simply anyone who wants to write can start a blog) can hook up with an outlet like The Huffington Post and, with minimal vetting ... write! Abracadabra, they are instant writers! Some are good, but most are selling a point of view, while a large group -- the worst -- are ranting and raving about something or other. There are no professional culling-out processes; no editor watching the copy with a gimlet eye; no in-house corporate procedures that lay out the rules for behavior.
The kind of devil-may-care freedom the bloggers have is, to be sure, attractive. But as Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., once commented, "If someone says he read it on the Internet, it's the same as 'Someone told me.'" What it surely is not is real journalism. Authenticity? The bloggers are indulging in self-expression. Legitimacy? They have no roots to legitimacy -- those roots are to be found in the history of journalism as expressed through newspapers and their owners. Truth? Bloggers are primarily passionate about advocacy.
Journalists are involved in the little relative truths that, piled up upon one another, day after day, begin to carry us toward larger truths. Bloggers can partake of that in the same way a personal letter might influence a person -- but blogs do not participate in the greater philosophy of journalism, informing us systematically and structurally about the world in which we live.
In his amazing book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," the late Neil Postman described the new relationships of Americans that came about through the development of photography and telegraphy, writing of a "language that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America." He could just as easily have been talking about computers and new media.
Given able trial lawyers, all of these points and many others may come out in this court case. As concerned Americans who love their country, we need this discussion, For we need badly to know what we know, and why and how we know it.