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Hollywood’s blog smog

New idiom presents conflict of interest

Andrew Sullivan observed recently that “blogging is writing out loud.” He continued: “A blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports is to athletics; more free-form, more accident-prone, more alive.”

Because of all this, the relationship between blogging and traditional journalism has become ever more precarious. This is especially true in politics and entertainment, where the appetite for an “exclusive” (albeit a 30-second exclusive) often obliterates the classical (if perhaps boring) obligation to truth.

In the entertainment field, many executives, agents and members of the creative community are intimidated by the proliferation of manipulative and quarrelsome bloggers. The level of competition among bloggers is reminiscent of the early days of tabloid journalism: Potential news sources are subject to veiled threats — to “cyber-bullying” — yet also tempted by the opportunity of payback for past slights.

And it’s working. An agent who resents his treatment by a network executive can retaliate by planting a derisive blog item, and it will run whether true or not. An executive who loses a power struggle can use blogdom for instant blowback.

It’s all great fun, but also downright nasty. And the nastiness is heightened by the incessant quarreling between the bloggers themselves. Some senior publicists liken it to the early wars between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons a generation ago, when rivals used to play the dangerous game of pitting one gossipist against the other.

The most incendiary column “plants” took place during the dark days of the blacklist when insinuations of Commie connections could spell instant unemployment. The casualty list was formidable.

The problem facing traditional news organizations today is that they want to continue being first without compromising veracity. This can lead to inevitable compromises: The New York Times admits it ran rumors online about the tax and nanny problems of Caroline Kennedy (then a senatorial candidate) that proved to be false, and were eventually corrected in print.

As Variety reminds us this week, the decision of the Motion Picture & Television Fund to reorganize its care facilities was distorted by some blogs and transformed into a phony controversy. Blogdom has also turned guild disputes into ideological us-vs.-them conflicts.

Having said all this, Andrew Sullivan argues that the tensions between print and online could create “a golden era for journalism.” He writes: “The blogosphere has added a whole new idiom to the act of writing and has introduced an entirely new generation to nonfiction.” Sullivan is a conservative columnist as well as being a blogger; he’s also a senior editor of that venerable magazine, the Atlantic.

I agree with him. Given the veritable avalanche of information as well as the cyclonic pace of news events, there is a discernible need and appetite for informed opinion, indeed for personal journalism.

It remains for the consumer to sort out the real from the unreal, the responsible from the irresponsible. And news sources, too, have the obligation to resist intimidation. Playing gotcha games with toxic bloggers, as many have discovered, can have ominous consequences. This week’s planter of a story can become next week’s victim.

Folks ask me from time to time to rate individual bloggers. Since I know many of them personally, and like them on a personal level, I resist those evaluations. Nikki Finke is a case in point: I admire her energy and dedication. She is a gifted news junkie. What I don’t like is her dissing of fellow news gatherers, her personal vendettas and her use of intimidation. She once attended Miss Hewitt’s classes in New York, which taught upscale girls how to be warm and cuddly. I’d like her to take a warm-and-cuddly refresher course.

To be sure, an aura of desperation surrounds blogdom, and its practitioners react accordingly. Despite all the noise and fervor, blogdom has yet to discover a workable business model. The words and barbs keep flowing, but the supportive ads are few and far between. A very few bloggers have found short-term big daddies, others are hungrily courting them. They can offer the opportunity of traffic, and the chance to become an adventurer in the land of the brave new media, but they can’t offer what venture capitalists most covet: a financial return.

Hence, the chorus becomes ever more shrill. This may be the start of Sullivan’s “golden era,” but, at the moment, it carries an ugly subtext.

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