Using Power Line as a place-holder for an argument

A Duke University graduate student named Brendan Nyhan thinks that the internet is failing to meet its promise of improving political debate in the U.S. He bases this conclusion on the fact that he was sacked as a blogger by The American Prospect (TAP).

Actually, Nyhan may have half of a point. He says that TAP sacked him after he came in for heavy, vitriolic criticism from left-wing bloggers like Atrios. Although TAP claims that its decision was based on its own thinking about several posts Nyhan had written, Nyhan notes that no one at TAP had ever criticized Nyhan’s work until the assault from the lefty blogs began. Moreover, Nyhan says, TAP knew from his prior work that he was going to be critical of the left at times. Apparently, his criticism only became a concern when the left turned up the heat.

From this tale, Nyhan concludes, plausibly, that liberal opinion magazines may be losing their freedom to be idiosyncratic and less partisan than their readers. He writes:

The initial incarnation of [TAP]. . .had a thoughtful, academic tone. But the availability of more points of view online (while laudable in many ways) has paradoxically increased the pressure on ideological publications to pander to readers, who have the option of seeking out exclusively partisan blogs instead. In addition, the huge audiences of the partisan bloggers make them a key source of online traffic for opinion magazines if they supply ideologically favorable content. . . .

In some cases, the threat may be existential. Opinion magazines lose money — a lot of money — and are vulnerable to further financial losses. 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.

Nyhan may well be correct about his description of what’s happening on the left. However, he errs when (inevitably) he tries to show that there’s something similar about the relationship of conservative blogs to conservative magazines:

[C]onservative magazines, while less heterodox than their liberal counterparts, also face competition from ultra-partisan blogs like Power Line, Time’s 2004 blog of the year (sample quote: “It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice.”)

This is a poor argument at several levels. First, Nyhan fails to acknowledge that his central point about the left — that bloggers “enforce” an orthodoxy against opinion journals — simply doesn’t apply to the right. He cites no instances (and I can’t of any) of leading conservatives blogs spewing venom at the authors of conservative magazine articles or the magazines themselves. Nyhan shrewdly tries to explain away this difficulty (for those who may notice it) by suggesting that conservative magazines themselves are less idiosyncratic than their liberal counterparts. Even if true (and the proposition is debatable) it is not the explanation for the lack (absence, really) of vitriol directed by conservative bloggers at conservative magazines. For conservative bloggers do not direct the left’s kind of venom at non-conservative magazines (say the New Republic) either. For example, our blog, though critical of Peter Beinart, is respectful towards him.

With no hope of establishing the analogy on which his thesis about public discourse rests, Nyhan resorts to attacking Power Line. We stand accused of being over-the-top partisans who worship President Bush as a visionary. Even if this were true, it would do nothing for the argument Nyhan wanted to make unless he could show (and he can’t) that we viciously attack conservatives who think less of the president than we do. In reality, though, we are frequently critical of Bush on a wide range of issues — immigration, Israel/Palestine, spending, to name perhaps the most important ones. Nyhan’s “sample quotation” (which I believe goes further than anything Scott or I have written) is flatly misleading if intended to demonstrate our “partisanship.”

I can’t remember which blogger (it may have been Ann Althouse) wrote that when she writes something the left doesn’t like, the left inundates her with hate mail; when she writes something the right doesn’t like, the right ignores her. Neither response is all it should be, but they are very different responses.

JOHN adds: The point may not be worth making, but the post that Nyham–of whom I’ve never heard–quotes, but probably hasn’t read, is here. It’s an excellent post; it deals with the Bush administration’s carbon emissions policy, and has stood the test of time very well. The first paragraph, a portion of which Mr. Nyham quotes, was obviously tongue-in-cheek, and is followed by this: “Hyperbolic? Well, maybe.” But liberals are, apparently, immune to nuance.

PAUL adds: Good point, John, and one that I should have caught. So Nyhan’s “sample quote” actually goes further than anything anyone on Power Line has written other than in jest.


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