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Blogging and blurting

Jeffrey Goldberg quotes a rabbi friend of his who worries that "the Internet puts a premium on speed. To blog is to blurt. Quick, you got an email, so respond. If you were responding in a letter, you might take time to think and think again. Speed is the friend of reaction and the enemy of thought."

I actually think this isn't such a problem so long as people are fairly generous about what they read. Writers make mistakes and, more often even than that, express themselves unclearly. But that's not much of a problem when it's on your blog as you can clarify and correct. When it travels to other blogs in order to advance their agenda, however, the follow-ups rarely, well, follow.

Which is why I was amused to read this particular concern on Goldberg's blog. A couple of days ago, Goldberg piled on with an ungenerous read of my post noting that Faisal Shahzad's home was in foreclosure. Goldberg's interpretation was that I'd argued "that the country's financial crisis, and not, say, jihadist ideology, is at the root of Shahzad's desire to commit murder in Times Square," which was odd given that I hadn't made any mention of the relative weight of jihadist ideology in Shahzad's motivations.

Actually, as I explained in a clarifying post that did not appear on Goldberg's blog (even as he posted another follow-up calling me "silly" for an argument I'd now publicly and clearly said I wasn't making), my point was that Shahzad's mental disturbances and personal problems will get a lot of attention, but there's this terrible economic tragedy that's wrecking lives all across the country even as the economy seems to be slowly recovering, and the unlikely connection between a radical Pakistani terrorist suspect and the foreclosure crisis is a reminder of how many people are caught up in it.

Instead, of course, I got caught up in Goldberg's agenda, and because a particular reading of a particular post fit a particular ideological hobbyhorse of his, that's how it was presented on his blog. Goldberg didn't write to ask me if I'd really meant to say what he thought I said, and he didn't check back to see if I'd said anything further.

And that's fine. It's all in the game, as they say. In fact, I'm sure I've done it myself. But the problem with blogging isn't that you blurt things out or write them incorrectly. A willingness to explain yourself and a decent relationship with your readers will always protect you against such slips. It's that other writers -- like, well, Jeffrey Goldberg -- will trumpet those slips when it serves their agenda. And so long as that's the norm, blurting really is dangerous. Though Goldberg might want to think harder about why.

Postscript: The argument I didn't mean to make later appeared in a New York Times story. "People who knew [Shahzad], both in Connecticut and in Pakistan, said he had changed in the past year or so, becoming more reserved and more religious as he faced what someone who knows the family well called 'their financial troubles.'"

But the issue with foreclosure-as-explanation isn't that money troubles can't drive someone to murder. It's that they're not sufficient to drive someone to murder. If the only way to stop terrorism is to stop bankruptcy, then you can't stop terrorism, as I'd think would be obvious.)

By Ezra Klein  |  May 7, 2010; 3:27 PM ET
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Ezra, your response to Goldberg is way off base. In his post, he quoted you in full. You wrote something that wasn't that smart; own it.

Most of the things you say he attributed to you were not in fact attributed to you. E.g., after quoting you in full, he wrote "Then there are those commentators on the left who are so eager to absolve Muslims of the sin of terrorism that they try to wish their innocence into reality . . ."

I imagine this is mostly personal. Just own the fact that you made a "silly" comment and move on.

Posted by: jms613 | May 7, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Gotta say Ezra, that Shahzad/Foreclosure post was one of the most puzzling of yours I've ever read. Having read this I think I can take a guess at what you were trying to say, but the original post was remarkably unclear and I have sympathy with Goldberg. Initially I read it the same way he did.

Posted by: bigmandave | May 7, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

The issue isn't just with blogging - it's how much political discourse is carried out - people talking past each other.

Posted by: jduptonma | May 7, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

sorry, jeffrey goldberg long ago lost the right to criticize others for lack of thought....

Posted by: howard16 | May 7, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I actually didn't think the original post was unclear, but obviously writers aren't always the best judge of their own work. As I said, though, that isn't a problem on a blog. You can just clarify. The more interesting question is when you're writing about a post on another blog that reads very weirdly, and you go after it without clarifying. I don't think you're under any obligation to do differently (Goldberg and I do different topics, and I don't think either of us reads the other regularly), but that's how the problem Goldberg is pointing out becomes a serious issue.

That said, it is clear that Goldberg was referring to Contessa Brewer on the quote about wanting this not to be about muslims. So I edited to reflect that.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | May 7, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

jeff goldberg is an asshat. seriously. he puts blinders on when it comes to things like israel and terrorism and it really doesn't matter what you say, he will twist it to serve his agenda because he's a dishonest hack who's blinded by his own ideology. of course, that's true of so many in the blogosphere but with goldberg it seems especially pernicious.

Posted by: freaktown | May 7, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

There's a reason your blog has a comments section and Goldberg's "blog" does not. You and Goldberg see the process and therefore the product differently. It's unsurprising that you would have different perspectives on this issue.

Personally, I won't read blogs without comment sections because I think it's a sign of serious weakness. Why can't these people trust their readers? If they're not developing and maintaining a community of interlocutors, they're not bloggers. They're something else.

Posted by: slag | May 7, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

A lot of blogging is like old fashioned oral conversation, but the great thing is with people all over the world. In economic/finance blogs, my primary area, I look at it as dinner conversation among colleagues to a large extent, especially in commenting -- and dinner conversation among colleagues has a lot of advantages. A lot of great ideas get out and get developed that never would have if you would have to spend the great time to polish, formalize, and publish them in an academic paper. They would just never get covered, never explored; the time wouldn't be there -- and formal papers aren't as interactive, and often the formality requirements make them less clear.

So there's a lot of very valuable learning and developing that can go on in dinner conversation among colleagues or any oral discussion. It serves a very valuable purpose that complements more formal writing. Both are valuable; you're better off with both, but, of course, it's important to do conversation well, to be civil (with rare exception). Mistakes are more likely in oral conversation, but that can be valuable, exposing the mistakes, learning why they are mistakes, in a quick back and forth, without long delays that lose train of thought, and getting them out of your system.

I consider commenting especially like dinner conversation, and that's why I comment a lot more than I blog. It helps me develop and put out ideas, analysis, and information quickly, which have good potential, that I wouldn't otherwise have time to.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | May 7, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

he said that many people are beset with economic problems, but only one planted a car bomb. this is a very circumscribed view of human behavior.
many people suffer infidelities, but not everyone murders their spouse.
and other angry and marginalized people, set fire to forests in california and set off catastrophes that endanger the lives of hundreds of people and their property and our precious land, and everything on it.
and others set fire to cars, or spray people who they dont know,in a public place with bullets, or hunt down women like animals.....
and oftentimes, these are disturbed people who have been put over the edge by a recent event.
and this particular case, is more enigmatic than others.

the fact that many people are beset by economic problems, and he is the one to have set off a car bomb,means little. everyone reacts differently.
maybe it would surprise goldberg to know how many people actually are calling suicide and crisis hotlines because of their economic problems. maybe he would be surprised to know the thoughts that cross people's minds, and the things people do, when they have lost jobs, are angry at employers, abused by a family member, feel they have lost their home, feel demeaned or estranged in a foreign culture.
a culture which now has become so xenophobic, so suspicious and inhospitable to people of middle-eastern origin, to latino people, who even hold the president of the united states suspect.....when faced with further loss of respectablility, of possessions, of dignity.....can do all sorts of things.
it is right to take every factor under consideration, in this particular situation.

Posted by: jkaren | May 7, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

"The more interesting question is when you're writing about a post on another blog that reads very weirdly, and you go after it without clarifying."

I see your point Ezra but, as much as Goldberg often deserves criticism, I don't think this one is fair. Goldberg didn't think your post was unclear, he initially came to the same conclusion I did: that you were clearly suggesting there may have been a causal connection between Shazhad's home being foreclosed and his subsequent attempted terror attack. This part:

"That said, you of course don't want to speculate on why someone "really" did something. The hearts of men are opaque, and motives are complex. But it's a reminder that foreclosures generate an enormous amount of misery and anxiety and depression that can tip people into all sorts of dangerous behaviors that don't make headlines but do ruin lives."

To me that (still) reads as if you're implying that foreclosures 'generate an enormous amount of misery' and perhaps that misery could have played a role in 'tipping' Shahzad into a 'dangerous behavior'. If that wasn't your point, as it clearly wasn't, it was very unclear. But Goldberg genuinely thought that was a clear point you were making and he scorned it. In that situation I don't think he has an obligation to check with you first before picking up on it, and I don't think good-faith interpretations involving long quotes are part of the "blogging and blurting" problem Goldberg is talking about.

That said though, keep up the good work. Big fan.

Posted by: bigmandave | May 7, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

First: Stop Whining.

Second: Suck it Up, and Learn to Write Better.

Third: Be Prepared to Face Criticism When You Link to Your LadyPal's Silly Arguments.

(You weren't thinking clearly, and your writing showed it. Now stop blaming readers for what you write. Just a tip.)

Posted by: Mary42 | May 7, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

"Gotta say Ezra, that Shahzad/Foreclosure post was one of the most puzzling of yours I've ever read. Having read this I think I can take a guess at what you were trying to say, but the original post was remarkably unclear and I have sympathy with Goldberg. Initially I read it the same way he did."

Hmm. Something about his girlfriend's "scoop" had him thinking unclearly that fine Spring day... Gee, I wonder if any other writer's have ever had similar personal conflicts, or if lil Ezzie's the first.

Posted by: Mary42 | May 7, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Goldberg's post can pretty much be attributed to professional jealousy.

The Atlantic has some very good writers, but it's still a niche publication. Goldberg's professional arc has gone as high as it's ever going to go -- and on some level he probably knows it.

Posted by: JPRS | May 7, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

The NY Times piece on Shahzad's upbringing was a disgrace. It was like Margaret Mead-era ethnographies in which the native's behavior is assumed to be dictated entirely by minor social customs. A disapproving glance at a shot of whiskey is taken as a sign that Shahzad is becoming a jihadi. If so, my wife is the Taliban.

A reader on a previous discussion of Ezra's post made the point the association between foreclosure and terrorism doesn't even occur to someone who doesn't have an underlying ideological agenda. We all have agendas of course. When you get called on it, the best thing is to own it and move on.

Posted by: bmull | May 7, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

I agree, it's best to move on. If readers think he is simply incapable of saying any thing silly, I suggest they google "Ezra Klein", "Tim Russert" and "acid". Next topic.

Posted by: Jenga918 | May 7, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

"Personally, I won't read blogs without comment sections because I think it's a sign of serious weakness. Why can't these people trust their readers?"

Well, Matthew Yglesias runs a blog with a comments section has no rules and no moderation. The result is that the comments frequently devolve into an high octane insult contest, featuring extreme vulgarity and racist hate speech, which certainly don't add value. For me, the so-called comments there actually detract from the experience of reading the blog, they are literally repellant.

The comments on articles and blogs at "The Hill" also seem like little more than a hyper-partisan food fight that add zero value to the main reading matter from the publication.

At the other end of the spectrum, Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish" at The Atlantic has no comments, although Sullivan welcomes direct email and sometimes publishes and reacts to the email that he receives. I think that format works well for a blogger like Sullivan, who comments on a wide variety of subjects ivolving philosophy, politics, religion, and arts and culture...somehow when it is just the blogger's voice at The Dish it feels like the blogger and the reader are better connected, without all the noise and chatter from third parties connected to every post.

Since Ezra's subject matter is more wonkish, I generally appreciate the comments here. Often there are contributions from the readers on some of the technicalities that are well-informed and enlightening (although there are no shortage of trolls and knee jerk partisan reactions mixed in as well).

Goldberg, however, is simply brainless, with or without comments attached.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 7, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein: Your two explanation posts are hilarious. Why can't you simply admit you screwed up and posted something unclear?

Claiming the rest of us are intellectually lazy and out to get you is so cheezy it's laughable!

Remember that comment about MacBeth's wife, you know, the woman whose hands were covered in blood: "The Lady doth protest too much!"

Posted by: ElmerStoup | May 8, 2010 12:46 AM | Report abuse

First, Klein > Goldberg in cogency.
Second, anyone who propagates violence loses their argument.
Now, economic distress is the core of most worldly protest, violent or legitimate. I don't see how Mr. Klein is wrong for pointing out an example to which most of us can relate.
Mr. Goldberg's amusement is the usual elite smugness and lack of concern for his "lessers." Mr. Klein's wonkiness is the opposite.
(IOW, Keep it real Ezra, and don't let the bastards get to you.)

Posted by: tggault | May 8, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Hope you read Joe Queenan's article in the Wall Street Journal about your remarks. I guess we all better be careful with thousands of foreclosed people walking around. Hummm ... can you link Barney Frank to the failed plot?

Posted by: gfhoward258 | May 8, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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