Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Belloc Makes NYT

It's not every day that Hilaire Belloc makes it into a New York Times headline, but he did it this morning:

The Future of Journalism as Told by Hilaire Belloc in 1918.


"The Free Press" is still worth reading, for it describes, with some important adjustments, the evolving relationship between political bloggers and the mainstream media.

The free press that Belloc describes was a horde of small, highly opinionated, sometimes propagandistic papers that arose in reaction to "the official Press of Capitalism." What characterized the free press, Belloc wrote, was "disparate particularism."

As he says, "the Free Press gives you the truth; but only in disjointed sections, for it is disparate and it is particularist." (For "particularism," Belloc offers the synonym "crankiness.") To get at the truth by reading the organs of the free press, you have to "add it all up and cancel out one exaggerated statement against another." But his point is that you can get at the truth.

There are whole paragraphs in Belloc's essay where, if you substitute "blogs" for "the Free Press," you will be struck by the parallels. He notes that the journals of the free press seldom pay their way and that they often suffer from the impediment of "imperfect information," simply because it is not in the politicians' interests to speak to them. They tend to preach to the converted. And they are limited by the founder's vision. "It is difficult," Belloc writes, "to see how any of the papers I have named would long survive a loss of their present editorship."

Belloc's point is not to expose the limitations of bloggers — excuse me, the Free Press. It is to show how, imperfect as they are, they can contribute enormously to our ability to learn what's going on. Anyone who spends much time reading political blogs will hear a familiar note — in far greater prose — among Belloc's certainties. He writes, in short, as a blogger of his own time.

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