Since the WTC Towers crumpled to street level, and a hijacked plane punched a hole in the Pentagon, web surfers have had an unquenchable thirst for facts and discussion - or anything, for that matter, relating to the attacks. Online pundits and a kaleidoscope of `bloggers' (`net lingo for webloggers - a weblog is a kind of online diary) have swept in to the fill the void.
Some bloggers are regular Joes, with intense net savvy and a thing or two to say. Others are journalists or academics looking for a way to wade into the fray. Their advantage is they are real time, they don't have editorial deadlines or broadcast times to slow them down. They also have the entire web at their disposal, and devoted readership acting as their eyes and ears.
Glenn Reynolds, a Law Professor at the University of Tennessee, is perhaps the most influential blogger around. Visit his site and you'll see that he doesn't seem to sleep. A fresh post on the latest developments in the war against terrorism usually awaits you in the morning, and it's likely there will be a dozen more before you go to bed at night.
Prolific blogging has won him the respect of his peers and members of mainstream media. Glenn has appeared on Larry King Live, PBS' News Hour, Fox's O'Reilly Factor, and he's been published in the LA Times and Chicago Tribune, among others.
The slogan on his website reads "Ahead of the Curve Since 30 Minutes Ago!" - a boast not far from the mark. In fact, by the time most people are reading opinion pieces in the big newspapers the issue was probably already digested by online pundits the day before. Bloggers were among the first to flag the plight of postal workers exposed to anthrax in New Jersey - long before mainstream editorialists set their sights on Nervous Nelly government officials.
The content ranges from the absurd - online jokes about the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden - to the serious, like intense legal discussions on gun control. But perhaps InstaPundit.com's biggest edge is its ability to scoop the major news sites like MSNBC and CNN with nuggets of crucial information. Add to the mix some powerful debate, and you have yourself some good reading.
David MacLean: When the Web came to be, pundits hailed it as a savior -- predicting the mass democratizing effect it would have on media. Now we've seen the economics of the web collapse, and online media leaders like Salon are scrambling to find ways to survive. With online pundits flourishing, are we seeing this potential still exists for the web?
Glenn Reynolds: Yes. I think that weblogging is the Web as it should be. It's a sort of Jeffersonian cyber-Yeomanry at work. I think that as "traditional" media like, say, the New York Times become more opinionated, even in their news coverage, and cut budgets for reporting, the distinction collapses. And online pundits often research their points more than reporters do, especially on military issues.
David MacLean: Do political hacks and PR people take online pundits into consideration when developing strategies?
Glenn Reynolds: My counter (software that tracks hits on websites) says I have a lot of readers in the Executive Branch and in military departments, and I sometimes get email from them, but I don't know if they care what I have to say.
David MacLean: A debate is raging online about freedom of speech during the war on terrorism. It appears everyone is shifting to the right and criticism of the American response is muted. What's your take on this?
Glenn Reynolds: I don't think that people are abandoning their commitment to free speech. I think they're mostly exercising their own freedom of speech to criticize statements (like Susan Sontag's) that they think are dumb or disloyal. Some have tried to act as if being publicly criticized is equal to censorship, but that's just silly. And a bit self-aggrandizing.
David MacLean: Why are people flocking to your site, and those of other pundits?
Glenn Reynolds: I don't know. Perhaps it's accountability, as opposed to bureaucracy, which rules traditional media. If I say it, it's my opinion, and it's obviously my opinion. If somebody convinces me I'm wrong -- either on a fact, or on my opinion -- I immediately say so online. Compare that to the sluggishness, mealy-mouthedness, and unresponsiveness of traditional media. The NY Times once called me "Glenn Harlan Roberts" in an article and wouldn't even run a correction.
David MacLean: Is there a lesson here for mainstream 'paper' and broadcast media? What is the long-term trend?
Glenn Reynolds: Mainstream media are too much a part of the establishment, and too bureaucratic. It's not that they don't have opinions, or let them affect their reporting, they just try to maintain plausible deniability. People have caught on to that, and it's affected their credibility.
I think, too, that personalized media are just another part of the general high-tech trend toward customizing things. When economies of scale meant that you could only print a few different newspapers even in a big market, we got least-common-denominator content. Now the economics are different, so the delivery is different.
Online punditry is teaching us, I think, that there are a lot of people just as smart and capable of expressing clear opinions as the famous names you see in your newspapers. I think that's good. It's a return to a less elitist conception of public discourse.
David MacLean: Is the mainstream media missing the boat on these fast moving issues? It seems by the time the old school editorialists have their head around a topic, the issue has already been digested online. The web certainly beat the mainstream press to the story of the infected postal workers, and their legitimate gripe against the government. What is the relationship between online pundits and mainstream media?
Glenn Reynolds: The mainstream media have been slow to catch on. You're right: a lot of what you see on the editorial and op-ed pages seems like old news by the time it appears. I think that the mainstream media haven't paid much overt attention to online pundits yet, though I do notice a lot of things appearing there that seem to be, ahem, rather derivative of online punditry from the day before. It's competition. It's hard to expect them to plug it.
David MacLean: Has your role as a real time pundit and source of information changed since 9/11?
Glenn Reynolds: I got a lot of email from people in the immediate days after 9/11 saying how comforting they found my site. I think that it may have helped people make sense out of something very threatening. Also, the format is good for keeping up with rapidly evolving events, which makes it especially valuable at times like these.
I had intended InstaPundit to be far more archly amusing than outright serious, and to post less often. I'm posting so much I'm getting wrist problems, and I'm fairly serious, though I do run sex tips for the Taliban and such from time to time, and I do still post on things other than the war. But it's what everyone's thinking about the most, including me, so it's natural that it's come to dominate.
By David MacLean