Last year, when the Washington Post’s Michael Kelly was killed in Iraq, an anonymous contributor to the leftist web network Indymedia announced the sad news with the tasteless headline “WP Nazi columnist bites the Iraqi dust.”  Word spread quickly, especially after Glenn Reynolds, the hawkish proprietor of the widely read, declared that “the Indymedia folks” were calling the late reporter a Nazi.  Many angry comments soon appeared below the offending post, but Reynolds did not attribute them to “the Indymedia folks,” despite the fact that they, too, were published on and with just as much sanction from the site’s keepers.

The Independent Media Center, as Indymedia is officially known, is one of the most successful publishing projects online, a sprawling network of radical amateur journalists that is open to virtually anyone with a keyboard.  There are at least 135 local Independent Media Centers in over 40 countries; most are in the United States and Europe, but they have also appeared everywhere from Beirut to Bolivia, Nigeria to Jakarta, Chiapas to Thunder Bay.  (As I write, the lead story on the IMC’s main site announces that its African affiliates just met in Senegal.)  Its admirers often ignore its faults, while its enemies love to tar the whole network with the most galling activities on its fringes; whether you are an admirer or an enemy usually depends on whether you share the network’s leftist politics.

It is useful, however, to strip away the ideological baggage and set aside what you might think of the IMC’s content.  Indymedia offers a radically different model for producing and distributing journalism, with a very different hierarchy of standards from what you find at CBS or the New York Times.  It has changed the face of the alternative press; and, just as important, it is rapidly being superseded by newer, more promising models.  Its successes and failures should interest anyone who wants a more pluralistic media landscape.

It is widely believed that the IMC was formed just before the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.  In fact, its roots go back to 1996, when a contingent of Seattle’s lefty journalists attended a San Francisco gathering called the Media and Democracy Conference.  The delegation dubbed itself the Independent Media Coalition, giving the other attendees the impression that they were a bit more organized than they were, and they continued to hold meetings under the IMC moniker after they returned to the Puget Sound.  Sometimes the C stood for Coalition; sometimes it stood for Cabal.  By the time the WTO came to town, it stood for Center.  Members of the older IMC had opened a storefront in downtown Seattle, and, from there, a core of activists covered the demonstrations from the inside, broadcasting audio, video, and written coverage of the melee over a website and a pirate radio station.

Already, the two most commendable aspects of Indymedia were in place.  One is live, ground-level coverage of protests, giving the world a less mediated look at what is happening in the streets.  (This is especially useful when the “protests” graduate to “upheaval” status, as in the rebellion last fall in Bolivia.)  The other is a space where uncredentialed volunteers can make media of their own.  In the wake of Seattle, new IMC’s sprang up in other cities.  The best of them were essentially journalism co-ops—places where people who could not afford a camcorder could share the group’s equipment.

At first, those new IMC’s offered another benefit.  As a more or less open publisher, Indymedia generated a fair amount of trash (such as the declaration that Michael Kelly was a “Nazi”).  Each collective was autonomous, however, so each could choose what it wanted to repost from the other sites.  This was something new, especially when sound files or visual footage was involved: Suddenly, radio and video had the flexibility of e-mail.

In theory, the good could have driven out the bad, as different IMC’s selected the best material from around the globe and left the worst to rot.  More often, the bad drove out the good.  Indymedia was often among the first to report information that took much longer to reach the mainstream—or, in some cases, never reached it at all.  It was also home to stories that simply were not true or were only half-true: dubious anecdotes of political repression that served mostly to make people think twice about believing the tales that were accurate.  Video footage aside, Indymedia had a credibility problem.  During the Washington demonstrations in 2000 against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Indymedia published hair-raising accounts of arrested protestors being abused in the city jails.  Some of this was eventually corroborated; some of it was not.  As long as a story had appeared only on the IMC, it was basically regarded as hearsay.

Meanwhile, the open newswire, where nearly anyone could say anything, became a magnet for unhinged posts.  (At this moment, one of the top stories on the central site’s open wire is a peculiar announcement that militia favorite Bo Gritz is starting a shortwave radio show.  I say “peculiar,” because the post is mostly devoted to speculations that “the TRAITOR Bo Gritz” is part of a government mind-control conspiracy.)  Regular readers complained that they had to wade through bizarre allegations and bigoted rants before getting to the good stuff.  Not that everyone agreed what the good stuff was: Whenever someone raised the idea of imposing more rigorous editorial standards, it became obvious that there were different opinions as to just which posts qualified as pollution.

For an illustration, turn to Chuck Munson’s “The Sad Decline of Indymedia,” an essay published on the anarchist website in December 2002.  More precisely, turn to the debate about the article that raged in the Infoshop comments section.  The main Indymedia website had just moved the open newswire off the front page, thus segregating its edited and unedited faces.  Munson endorsed the idea, arguing that the network had reached the point where “racist and anti-semitic views became normalized on Indymedia websites.  Sure, newswire moderators would remove the occasional racist rant or picture, but lots of stuff was left online.  This normalization of racist content showed the racists and right wingers that they could have their way with Indymedia.”

Munson was not upset just with the racist material, or he would not have added “and right wingers.”  (One of his complaints, it turned out, was that people had reposted articles from National Review.)  In the comments, one reader suggested that Marxist-Leninist posts should be restricted as well: If Indymedia plans to block the neo-Nazis, the argument went, it should not “want left-wing totalitarians cluttering up the newswire” either.  Another reader had a different complaint: Indymedia had published articles by “pro-capitalist libertarians,” some of whom—horrors!—had even joined local IMC’s.  A debate ensued over just what constituted antisemitism, with some posters worrying that a campaign against the obvious bilge (from an Indymedia site in New Zealand: “If you are Jewish can you tell us why it is OK for Dow to turn Jew Gas into weed killer here, for 50 years?  I’ll ask about the babies X 1300 in jars later”) would evolve into restrictions on criticisms of Israel.

No one raised another issue: When you make a point of taking material down, you might give the impression that you find everything you are not taking down to be unobjectionable.  If one antisemite is barred but another one slips through the cracks, what will readers conclude?

The great problem with the IMC is that it is trying to be two things at once: an open forum for do-it-yourself news and commentary (similar to, say, Usenet) and a network with a particular point of view (like, say, Fox News).  It ends up being the worst of both worlds: Since it is as unedited as Usenet, the valuable stories and commentary hide among inaccurate reports and distasteful opinions; and those who do not share its leftist perspective simply write it off.  There is no efficient sorting mechanism for distinguishing the credible from the crap, so you end up with some people dismissing solid stories because they have learned not to trust Indymedia, while other people swallow nonsense whole because they regard Indymedia as trustworthy.

Within the network, there is no shortage of proposals to create such a mechanism.  Some involve a greater centralization of authority, usually by giving editors and moderators a stronger hand.  Others would disperse authority still further, by adopting a rating system like those employed by Slashdot or kuro5hin.  Many IMC’s, for example, now ask readers to rate articles on a scale of -1 to 3; the results will not eliminate a piece entirely, but they will help determine where it appears on the page.  While this is a step in the right direction, it leaves the central paradox unaddressed.

The same problem has not afflicted another genre of online self-publishing.  Weblogs—regularly updated sites made up of diary-style entries and/or links to the rest of the web—existed long before Indymedia did, but they did not really explode until Pyra Labs made its Blogger software available for free.  Between Blogger and LiveJournal, another popular free system, it was suddenly possible to maintain a website without any money and with practically no investment in computer know-how.  Among the over four million blogs that have been launched (and often abandoned) since such services emerged are sites run by soldiers, housewives, children, and, in at least one case, a man who claimed to be homeless.  Some bloggers are rising stars in the punditocracy, but the typical blog, to quote a study last year by the Perseus Development Corp., “is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life.”  All in all, publishing is not as exclusive a club as it used to be.

Most blogs are of interest to only a few dozen friends and a few thousand future historians, and even those sites that try to focus on matters of more general import typically have an audience in the hundreds, not millions.  Blogistan includes outlets of many different ideologies and obsessions, the best of which offer fresh reporting as well as commentary and links; many are mobile “moblogs,” whose proprietors use cameraphones and handheld computers to post writing, photos, and video footage directly from the field.

Like the IMC’s, weblogs are tied together by a chain of links, each site constantly pointing readers to the others.  An ordinary blog might plod along with 60 or 600 readers most days, then see its numbers spike when it publishes a post interesting enough to earn a citation on a more widely trafficked page.  In essence, blogs have spontaneously joined themselves into a publishing model that is even more open than the Indymedia newswire, but with a much more effective sorting mechanism: Every blogger filters the rest of the online media, and readers can judge the trustworthiness of each filter rather than the trustworthiness of all blogdom.  A stupid, inaccurate, or offensive Indymedia post reflects poorly on Indymedia as a whole; a stupid, inaccurate, or offensive blog post merely reflects poorly on that one blogger and on any other blogger who gives his comments an approving link.  (That may be one reason why many who used to write for Indymedia have abandoned it to set up blogs.)

True, there are those who try to dismiss the entire blogosphere on the basis of its most feeble parts.  Bill O’Reilly complained in a column last summer that internet writers “work for no one.  They put stuff up with no restraints.  This, of course, is dangerous, but it symbolizes what the Internet is becoming.”  In a subsequent episode of his television show, he whined that “the court system in this country does not protect anybody in the public arena.  You—look, with the rise of the Internet—you see the vile stuff on the Internet?  You could say anything you want about anybody.”

This last comment was in reference to the reemergence of then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1977 interview with Oui, in which he infamously described his drug use, his womanizing, and his fondness for the occasional orgy; the article had been dredged up and posted on The Smoking Gun, a site frequently cited in the blog world.  As my colleague Matt Welch wrote at the time, the interview that earned O’Reilly’s ire “actually took place, and was published in an actual print magazine.”  As such, it has a much greater claim to accuracy than a lot of what you might hear on The O’Reilly Factor.

I suspect that what really bothers people like O’Reilly is that the bloggers are treating them as equals rather than giving them the deference due to a member in good standing of the media guild.  (This is all the more aggravating when you recall that O’Reilly does not exactly fit the classic ideal of the working journalist.)  There is a saying you used to see on a lot of blogs, a cocky declaration that the old media feared the newcomers because “we can fact-check your ass.”  And indeed, a lot of the most fruitful blogging is spent exploding misinformation in the official press.

That line does not appear as much as it used to, perhaps because so many of the sites that trumpeted it have proved so prickly when fact-checked themselves.  Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News has written that blogs “constantly challenge each other’s facts and assumptions”; he failed to add that what can be challenged can also be reinforced.  Tremendous tracts of blogdom consist of networks devoted to propping up worldviews.  One group of readers can stick to such hawkish outlets as InstaPundit or USS Clueless; others can gravitate to such full-time Bush-haters as Atrios or Hesiod.  Such sites will sort the data with varying levels of selection bias, repeating allegations that fit their outlook with different degrees of discernment and heaping abuse on other views with different degrees of honest engagement.  At their worst, blogs become a device for taking in the latest information and massaging it to fit whatever you already believe.

It is no surprise that ideological tribes would spend their time confirming their own prejudices: That is what ideological tribes have always done.  What is gratifying about the blog ecology is that it actually allows more stray signals to enter those groups’ discussions than before.  The groupthink is simply more obvious now, which makes it also more fragile.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media are reduced to yet another tribe with its own myths, mores, and sacred cows.  This tribe does have the advantage of producing much more in the way of original reporting, and there is something to the criticism that many blogs consist of people who hate the New York Times but rely on the Times for all of their material.  On the other hand, the mainstream itself is coming to depend on nonprofessional journalists for a large portion of its material.  TV news frequently relies on amateur footage of accidents and other disasters, if only because a random tourist with a camera is much more likely to be taping when the unexpected occurs.

Bloggers and their Indymedia kin are not necessarily better writers, reporters, or editors than those of the mainstream media.  Just as they allow stray signals to cross into other ideological clans, however, they allow stray signals to enter the world of the old professional clan with its credentialist pretensions.  As other forms of groupthink grow more obvious and more fragile, the same thing happens to the groupthink encouraged by the dominant media.  The cartels grow less powerful; their ability to enforce a consensus shrinks.

That is why Indymedia should be of interest even to those who dislike everything the IMC stands for; that is why blogs should be of interest even to those who find the sites unreadable.  Just by being there, they are undermining the power of the gatekeeping class—not by taking over the old gates or by eliminating gatekeepers entirely, but by giving us a new assortment of gates to choose from.  You can view the world through the lens of Infoshop or InstaPundit or hundreds of other options, liberal or conservative or Trotskyist or libertarian or hawkish or dovish or apathetic; or you can combine a bunch of them to form your own media kaleidoscope.  And no matter how hard you might try to stick to your favorite intellectual tribe, it is more difficult than ever to ignore the conversations going on within the tribe next door.