"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

First Drones of History

Of all the literature distributed each year through the American high school system, the only genre that gets read with anything approaching fondness is the time-wasting personal note. Not the anti-authoritarian bon mot scrawled onto an inclined notebook for some fellow student's amusement, not the furtive billet doux a slightly older or younger person might pass along to a sweetheart, but the casual regurgitation of a casual thinker. Often featuring such typographical effects as letter i's dotted with hearts or smiley faces, frequently signed an insidery "Love, Me," these notes tend to get written in a sort of intensified first-person, in which not only the voice but the content is swaddled in one's personal concerns and circumstances. "I'm sitting in this boring trig class," such a note might begin, or "It's study hall and I have nothing to do, so I thought I'd write to you." Sometimes, even "I think I have a cold" can be considered a suitably gripping lede. Depending on the writer's perceptiveness or verbal skills, or your own fascination with the writer, these notes can be dull or charming, but they rarely move beyond the writer's immediate circumstances.

In the cycle-and-a-half of high school years since the cell-phoning kids of Clueless made their debut, new and ever more compelling electronic means of communication have come up to replace the old-fashioned note, and with the obsolescence of penmanship generally, it's unlikely this literary form will survive many more years. In any event, the passage into adulthood, and with it the realization that there is a wide world of people who don't take much interest in your school schedule or fleeting impressions, makes this form of self-expression as short-lived as Chatterton, the Marvelous Boy. The first few years of the web inspired some brief hope of a one-to-many medium in which all and sundry might take an interest in you and your sputa, but like so much about the web, this optimism proved chimerical.

Lately, however, the random note has received new life born of a web trend and a class of people who never really left high school behind, most likely because they never had to work for a living. This new form is, for lack of a better term, the celebrity web log. We speak not of such early projects as KelseyLive, the apparently defunct forum for TV's Frasier's random thoughts (and a site for which Suck alone had a kind word), but of the vanity blogging of professional journalists. And in particular, journalists of some note — Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and many more — who, apparently not satisfied with the ability to publish at will on a paying basis, have judged their every passing fancy and thought belch worthy of immediate dissemination.

The journalistic celeblog has its roots in fertile soil — the hallowed tradition of "Nobody asked me, but..." columns that newspaper hacks have for decades used to fill space with short-paragraph rambles on the folly of Liberals, the folly of Conservatives, or the folly of the guy who invented the shrink wrap on compact disks. The beauty of this short form (the most debased example of which can be seen every Thursday at Suck) is that it allows the writer to avoid the work of staying on topic for any length of time. Thus a columnist can switch from "Kudos to new Attorney General John Ashcroft" to "Let's hear it for the Chunky bar!" in the space of only three dots.

But what makes the celeblog truly new is the way its practitioners lard it with heapin' helpin's of personal detail. Observations — nearly always a reaction to something the blogger read — come with modifiers about the writer's travel plans and taxicab eurekas or casual mentions that this or that article was written by a "good friend." The methods of old-fashioned self promotion are flavored with new forms of coyly selective self-revelation. " I don't really buy Pirie's dichotomy," asserts former San Jose Mercury News columnist Joanne Jacobs, because "I was a studious student. I also was a very good test taker. I learned details. I used my knowledge to see the big picture. Both skills are essential." And of course, if it's good enough for the writer, then: "Test-hating Americans should remember that asking students to perform under pressure is an 'authentic assessment' of what they'll face in life."

The most effective of the celebloggers is Andrew Sullivan, the former New Republic editor, steadily employed freelancer and ubiquitous talking head whose celebrity persona — gay, Catholic, English, Thatcherite, conservative, contrarian — we secretly suspect is the result of countless hours of focus grouping. Not surprisingly, his blog is the most professionally assembled (and navigationally horrific) of the bunch: The site features sophisticated Shockwave effects and a musical soundtrack (not, sadly, the clip from Sadeness the author's résumé might suggest, but a little riff that sounds like it might have been cooked up by Sullivan himself while he was noodling on his Casio).

But where Sullivan really takes top honors is in combining intriguing personal details ("Just back from a dinner party at Christopher Hitchens's — a refreshingly eclectic crowd, from David Frum to Lewis Lapham."), self-involved log rolling ("Michael — an old friend — is simply the most evocative reporter-writer of his — my — generation."), grand pronouncements of iconoclastic opinions ("Please don't expect me to excoriate Eminem."), unsavory insinuations that wouldn't pass muster in any legitimate medium ("In the United States, most opposition to Israeli defense actions, or diplomatic initiatives, or military strikes, is veiled through an anti-anti-Arabism that never quite gets to the point."), travel details — with additional log-rolling ("I also mention it since I've just read — in this endless trans-Atlantic flight — one of the best little pieces about the magazine since Michael Kinsley's so many years back."), even attempts by the Popish pundit to establish his philo-semitism so strenuously that we are reminded of Freud's warning about goys who are too eager to seem friendly ("I also hope George W. realizes the political risks Tony Blair takes in supporting strong military action against Iraq. On this one, I tip my borrowed yarmulke to the guy."). And all these examples are culled from a mere seven-day period of Sullivan's blog. Clearly, we're in the presence of a champion.

By comparison, Mickey Kaus, whose Kaus Files appears daily and gets favored placement at Slate, has just about refined himself out of existence. The End of Equality author — though he also fills his daily updates with more references to Good Friends than a Jerry Lewis Telethon — generally eschews detailed biography. But he appreciates it in others: One recent KausFiles entry, which we're genuinely sorry we didn't see in time, detailed how Harvard professor Lawrence Tribe's "delightful and revealing personal web page" included a confession that the Ivy'd windbag loves Simon & Garfunkel and unagi (Tribe's page has since been changed).

On the other hand, Kaus's "friend" Joshua Micah Marshall permits an occasional lift from the old personal diary: "Well, for what it's worth, 32 doesn't feel much different from 31. At least not during the first few hours." Except for an occasional back atcha, however, (Kaus, it turns out, is not only a personal friend but "Yoda to my Skywalker"), Marshall only occasionally lets loose with a personal anecdote. "Okay, tonight we're reporting directly from the official Talking Points sickbed," the Washington editor of The American Prospect reported at 8:21 PM on February 10. And while we're pleased that he appears to have gotten through whatever ailed him, it's a little disappointing that Marshall didn't treat us to a full illness diary.

Because really, if we just wanted their opinions, we'd be reading the many magazines, newspapers and web sites that hire these folks as contributors. As T.S. Eliot (a poet to whom we always tip our borrowed yarmulkes) noted in his discussion of John Donne, for a poet a thought is an experience; an idea modifies sensibility. It doesn't really matter what the idea is; we just want to share in the excitement of that lightbulb moment. Where exactly was Marshall when he just knew the Bush tax cut was headed for trouble. Was he eating a banana? Reading the Kaus-Sullivan dialogue on Slate? Sitting on the hopper? (Come on, we're all friends here!) In the old days, memorabilia hunting was limited to true luminaries — the contents of Bob Dylan's trash, a bartender's IOU in the hand of William Faulkner. But the information age offers all of us the power to bore people with the details of our own existences. As the formats of celeblogs grow ever more inward-looking, they approach the ideal of all journalism: the fabled one-copy newspaper that supposedly is printed up each morning for the sole readership of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (a paper whose Letters and Kids' Korner sections we look forward to reading if we ever get to Heaven).

If a newspaper is the first draft of history, then the journalistic celeblog is something new: the blue-pencil editorial notes, maybe, or the pile of receipts awaiting reimbursement from the paper, or the post-deadline barroom chitchat that is steadily vanishing in the age of no free time. How much personal detail readers can take is of course a debatable point — we're not talking about Ernie Pyle-level reporters here. Instant position-taking on the day's news predates the web by at least a few decades. (On a related note, we should point out that though Suck has flung poo at Slate Chatterbox Timothy Noah on several occasions, he has always had a good word for us and remains a good friend). As more professional journalists follow the trail blazed by Jim Romanesko (or more accurately, Matt Drudge), the only value-add left is in the realm of the personal.

Sadly, even that will probably come too late. No less a personage than the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, citing several of the above as his sources, has pronounced web content dead again. That may be a relief for journalistic celeblogs, which have cost bases (and values) that are extremely low. But with dwindling readerships and vanishing opportunities to make money (pathetically, Sullivan's site constantly flags plans to get by on reader donations), it can only be hoped that the bloggers will start spilling more personal information — and maybe start dotting their i's with smiley faces — on the double. Sure, we never really cared what they had to say; but soon we won't even have to pretend.

courtesy of Magua

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