By Stephen Baker Read the papers, and you'll think there's a menace growing in American society: the blogosphere. This fast-growing force consists of some 7 million people, all of them writing in online journals called Web logs, or blogs. When these bloggers latch onto a controversy, they can light up the Internet with angry rants -- and bring down powerful people.
Their latest victim: Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive. He resigned on Feb. 13 after conservative bloggers feasted on a controversial statement he made in late January at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, about the U.S. military. His allegation -- that coalition soldiers in Iraq mistook journalists for enemies and killed them -- brought down a storm of criticism on him and his network.
Even as Jordan struggled to clarify his statement and affirm his support for the U.S.-led military in Iraq, conservative bloggers labeled him a traitor. The upshot? One observation uttered by a public figure in Davos' supposedly closed setting, and within two weeks the guy was toast.
EVERYONE KNOWS EVERYTHING. It's all too easy to imagine that the spread of technology is chilling America's tradition of free speech. Just consider how huge the blogosphere is likely to become. It's growing by 40,000 new members a day, according to the blog search site Technorati.com.
In time, we'll be surrounded by Web publishers. The more there are, the greater the chance that scraps of anyone's private lives -- our office memos, ill-informed comments, perhaps a drunken party rant -- will find their way onto the Web. Forrester Research FORR
CEO George F. Colony foresees a world blanketed with vast information networks. "Everyone will know everything about me," he says.
Does this mean we'll all have to watch what we say? Could be. However, the danger to free speech comes not just from the technology, but far more from the angry, polarized society that puts it to use. Blogs are merely the latest powerful communication tool. In past centuries, people used handwritten screeds and whispering campaigns to bring down their enemies. The blog simply provides the masses with more publishing power.
SPAWNING DIALOGUE. But with all their clout and reach, bloggers alone can't bring down their enemies. In the end, it's up to society's traditional powers -- the corporate boards, politicians, CEOs -- to rule on these matters. Do they fire an executive for uttering one foolish sentence, ax a reporter for a wrongheaded story, exile a university president for offensive remarks? If the bloggers appear to be censorious, it's only because the rest of society plays along.
In truth, blogging represents an explosion of free speech. While blogs certainly empower lynch mobs, they can also lead to long and open conversations, virtual town meetings. These are the greatest antidote to censorship and secrecy. The Jordan case gave birth to loads of such discussions.
For a picture of the story as it developed in the blogosphere, surf through Forumblog.org, the blog that first posted Jordan's controversial comment. There you'll read the Jan. 28 observations of the original blogger, Rony Abovitz. He's puzzled and disturbed by Jordan's comment, but he tries to describe the scene fairly.
A CRUCIAL JUMP. After Abovitz' first posting, the blogosphere moves the story along. Conservative sites such as CaptainsQuartersBlog.com denounce Jordan and his network. Several accuse them of treason. Media sites, such as Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine.com, analyze the event as it moves through the blog world. Experts weigh in on the facts, as they're known, about coalition forces and journalist deaths. Meanwhile, Jordan responds to the criticism on forumblog.org, explaining that he meant to say that coalition soldiers "aimed and fired at [people], not knowing they were shooting at journalists."
It makes for lots of reading, much of it very interesting. And it's a story that the mainstream media ignored for a full week. Indeed, it's not until the story in early February made the jump from the blogs to the conservative press -- the editorial pages of The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal -- that Jordan and CNN parted ways.
Is there a way to ensure that the growing blogosphere embodies our highest ideals and not our worst fears? Jump in. The more people who add sensible voices to the ongoing debates, the less power the angry fringe will exert. Responsible bloggers on all sides should keep busier than ever policing other blogs, documenting untruths and exaggerations. The best way to gain a measure of control over this flood of information is to contribute to it.
Read a blog or two and post a response. Better yet, start your own. Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York