Tuned In

Blogs 1, TV 0

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Evangelists for blogging, like those for any new media form, like to talk about how it will supersede the dinosaur formats that came before it. But let’s not kid ourselves. However au courant and webheaded online pundits may be, there is a part of us that dreams of the old-fashioned kind of fame—holding forth in front of a camera on a cable show—and thinks of it wistfully, like a teenager lip-syncing into her hairbrush in front of a mirror.

So it’s not surprising that two longtime online writers affiliated with Slate, Robert Wright (Nonzero) and Mickey Kaus (Kausfiles) have turned themselves and several wonk comrades into low-budget video stars with bloggingheads.tv. Wright, Kaus and guests chew over current events in pairs, for about an hour at a stretch, several times a week in split-screen dialogues by videoconference. The topics range from nuclear proliferation to campaign finance reform to the Plame investigation. It’s like Wayne’s World, except for people who scream "We’re not worthy!" when Francis Fukuyama walks into a room.

And in its own way, bloggingheads does prove that blogs are superior to TV. First of all, because blogs, unlike video, don’t force you to look at bloggers: to watch unmediagenic, non-camera-coached writers sputter out their unedited thoughts on camera. (The lucky half-dozen of you who’ve seen me stammer and facial-tic my way through a CNN appearance know that I know whereof I speak.)

Bloggingheads is charmingly cable-access. When Wright and Kaus debate foreign policy in split-screen, you can see their cluttered bookshelves in the background, and Kaus takes a swig of sludgy-looking coffee from a glass mug. When liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias questions conservative author Ross Douthat, Yglesias sniffs and wipes his nose on camera. (I’m fighting a cold right now, and believe me, you’re lucky I don’t have a webcam pointed at me.) Contrary to popular stereotype, none of the bloggers is wearing pajamas, but you will not see so many geeky guys in open-necked Oxfords and headsets until someone makes a reality show about the Dell customer-service department.

But substance-wise, this wonky vlog improves on what passes for political discussion on a lot of TV. Political TV is so determined to be exciting that it is almost never interesting. (Slog through any edition of CNN’s hyperactive The Situation Room.) It bleats for your attention, constantly changes topic, and sticks to the most reliable hot-button issues. Bloggingheads is more ruminative and takes its time, routinely spending 10 rambling minutes on a given topic. When Wright interviewed Fukuyama in the April 21 webcast, Wright said he mainly wanted to talk not about Fukuyama’s controversial split with the neoconservative movement—which is all a cable host would have bothered with—but about the overlooked sections of Fukuyama’s new book.

Indeed, the nicest thing about bloggingheads is seeing how civil pundits can be with each other when they’re not being goaded into a showdown by a blowdried ringmaster—or by their own posturing online personae. Part of this, probably, is that the guest list draws heavily on a Washington-centric, Slate/Atlantic/New Republic axis of writers who are familiar with each other and more than a little clubby. (Kicking off a discussion about teen-lit plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan, Douthat reminds Yglesias that she and they all hail from "our joint alma mater, Harvard.")

But another part of it, I suspect, is also the old-fashioned civilizing effect of actually having to talk to a person one on one, even by teleconferencing. When Kaus gamely admitted to Wright that a blog comment Kaus made about Iran had been wrong—"You got me!"—I almost thought I should hit rewind, the declaration was so unfamiliar. 

Genially admitting your mistakes, I’ll bet, doesn’t put you on the speed-dial of Bill O’Reilly’s booker. Fortunately, bloggingheads shows, it’s now possible to book yourself.