Demosthenes and Locke

Dave Weigel's unfortunate departure from the Washington Post, and the furious, revealing, and I think healthy debate about the future of journalism that's followed it lead me to pick up Ender's Game again over the weekend. For anyone not familiar with Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel, it's the story both of a boy trained to fight an alien invasion at a singularly vicious military academy, and of his two siblings who are left behind on Earth. It's also an eerily accurate prediction of how blogging, and the way people read blogs, work today.

The kids who stay at home, Peter and Valentine, decide to venture into online forums using fake identities after Peter, a genius and sociopath, tracks troop movements that suggest the Soviet Union is preparing for war:

Of course they were not invited to take part in the great national and international political forums--they could only be audiences there until they were invited or elected to take part... And in the lesser conferences... they began to insert their comments. ...They were not bland, and people answered. The responses they got posted on the public nets were vinegar; the responses that were sent as mail, for Peter and Valentine to read privately, were poisonous. But they did learn what attributes of their writing were seized on as childish and immature. And they got better...."It's a long way between writing a newsnet column and ruling the world," Valentine reminded him. "It's such a long way that no one has ever done it." "They have though. Or the moral equivalent."

None of which is meant to imply, of course, influential political bloggers are secretly extremely gifted pre-teenagers with intent on manipulating world events through the internet.

But I do think that this section of the book outlines the risk and opportunity blogging presents for bloggers, readers, and traditional media. Peter and Valentine are able to be successful--and more importantly--plausible in their guise as adult policy experts and demagogues because their online personas provide something that reading audiences want. Valentine, the kindest of the children, wins acclaim first as a militaristic, anti-Russian writer who even guides the opinions  of her unknowing father. She sets up the conditions for Peter, who tortured and threatened to kill his siblings, to step in and propose a plan for peace, and to become a world leader. Their age and identities end up mattering not in the slightest because their readers want to believe in them.

Obviously, what happened to Weigel last week was different. Unlike Peter and Valentine, his identity, and his personal opinions about what he was writing and reporting about have always been clear to anyone who bothered to look for them. But it does seem that part of the furor that surrounds his exit from the Post comes from the fact that people wanted to see him in different ways, and so they did. Whether they saw him as a conservative voice hired to counterbalance Ezra Klein, a tough, diligent reporter exposing the excesses of parts of the conservative movement, or a clever blogger-reporter who wrote with voice and energy, lots of folks were invested in their conceptions of Dave Weigel.

That's a lot of pressure to subject your real self to, instead of putting a false self out there to act as both target and idol. The ability to attract that kind of devotion and dedicated readership is what made Demosthenes and Locke powerful in Ender's Game, and it's what makes brand-name bloggers valuable to old-media properties like the Post today. But if those outlets are going to reap the benefits bloggers bring them, they have to make peace with a fundamental part of the bargain they sign in bringing these writer-reporters on board: that the personalities and perspectives of those bloggers are an inherent part of what make them valuable, not simply elements that newspapers can keep on as long as those lenses on the world are convenient.