Brendan Nyhan's description of how he was forced out of American Prospect — or at least made so uncomfortable he had to leave — is a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving your little sandbox for the greener pastures of a mega group blog or portal. By mounting the larger platform you gain a wider audience but do not imagine that all your advantages have been gained for free. Nyhan writes:
Today, online politics has come to be dominated by two warring camps, just like offline politics. And while many critics complain about the polarization of the blogosphere and its effect on elections, how blogs will affect the economics of opinion journalism is less well understood. In particular, partisan blogs have become so popular that they are threatening the business model -- and the independence -- of center-left opinion magazines, which may be forced to toe the party line to ensure their survival.
I learned this lesson the hard way after I signed on as a contributor to The American Prospect's media criticism blog a few weeks ago. It seemed like a bit of an awkward fit -- the Prospect is a liberal magazine, and I had previously co-founded Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of online spin -- but I assumed they knew who they were hiring. I was wrong.
Last Wednesday, controversy broke out when I slammed two liberal blogs for using an airline employee's suicide after 9/11 to take a cheap shot at President Bush. My post, which initially contained a minor factual error, prompted one of the bloggers, Atrios (aka Duncan Black), to label me the "wanker of the day" and to call on TAP editors to "rethink things a bit." Hundreds of Atrios readers filled the Prospect's comment boards with vitriol. In an email Friday morning, Sam Rosenfeld, the magazine's online editor, asked that I focus my blogging on conservative targets. He specifically objected to two posts criticizing liberals (here and here ) that I wrote after the Atrios controversy. I refused and terminated the relationship.
And the reason outlets like American Prospect must protect the purity of their liberal credentials from people like Nyhan is simple economics. In the detergent business it has another name: brand management, but in simple terms it comes down to this: there are conservative and liberal markets and if you are competing for liberal market audience share then you had better be one hundred percent, genuine and certified liberal. Unless you are the Soap that Floats, you'll be the blog that sinks, or so the logic goes.
Atrios, Kos, and other liberal bloggers have attacked The New Republic for years, helping to undermine the center-left magazine's lagging popularity among liberals. If TNR's subscriber base were to shrink as a result of these attacks, the viability of the magazine could be threatened.
Considering these factors, TAP's decision makes perfect sense; they have no incentive to incur the wrath of the liberal heavyweights whom they depend on for traffic. According to Alexa.com, prospect.org is less popular than Atrios and dwarfed by Daily Kos (whose site also includes reader blogs and discussion boards). With Eric Alterman [a former MSNBC.com blogger now on Media Matters] and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Kos joining Atrios' attack on the Prospect Friday afternoon, the risk was real.
This is not the place to discuss the politics of opinion, but it's probably safe to observe that ideologies have traditionally served as a kind of lazy man's guide to the universe. Anyone who didn't want to take the trouble to think things out for himself could always rent a point of view. And ideologues from every persuasion were always willing to oblige. Ideologies are a simple way to understand everything. What to like, who to hate; whom to believe, what to doubt. The busier life got the more tempting it became to treat ideas like TV dinners. Was there time for anything else?
But this tendency towards herding ideas really throws away one of the most powerful properties of the Internet, its ability to float a noteworthy fact or meritorious idea to the surface of global consciousness within a few iterations. No matter where an idea or fact may appear on the blogosphere, it can be successively promoted until it reaches one of the Domain Name Servers of the memetic world, which in the liberal case is probably a site like the Daily Kos or the American Prospect. Once listed there, anybody can resolve to its origin by simply following the links. But growing partisanship means there will be ideas which the Domain Name Servers of the blogosphere will not list. There will be ideas which, because verboten, will by ideological fiat be buried. What this does is destroy the connectivity of the blogosphere. It slices apart the nodes on the network and once again, creates islands of information.
Ideologues of all stripes will doubtless delight in this, because it is a demonstration of power. But they will be wrong. It is an unwitting reversion to a defect; an expulsion from the blogosphere of the very property which made it so much more powerful than the mainstream media. How strange that the mainstream media should, even in its death throes, attract into its pit the very creatures which once sought to escape it. Yet those tempted to run back after the fatal glitter of the last century's media should remember: be like the mainstream media, die like the mainstream media. Go back to your little sandbox. You will be the better for it.