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Commenting on Portions of Others' Writings:

Some people have recently faulted others for commenting on only a small part of a piece -- whether a blog post, a newspaper article, a book, or what have you. But it seems that such narrow commentary is often perfectly apt.

Say that you read an article or a post, and find something in it that's mistaken. There are several reasons why you might not want to comment on the article or post as a whole, but only on the mistaken item:

  1. You may agree with the rest of the piece, and have nothing much to add to it.

  2. You may not know enough to have an informed opinion about the rest of the piece.

  3. You may think that your criticisms of the rest of the piece would be banal, too long, or otherwise boring for you or your readers, while the criticism of the one particular item is helpful and interesting.

  4. You may think that this particular mistake is emblematic of a broader kind of error, and thus use it in a post that's about this error.

In such situations, it seems to me quite proper to focus only on the one mistaken item. If you're right in your criticisms, then you've helped correct a mistake, even if only a small mistake. If you're wrong in those criticisms, then you should be faulted for being wrong, not for choosing to criticize a small part of a post.

The author of the original item may soundly point out that some criticism goes only to a tangential part of the item. The argument wouldn't be "X is wrong to focus on only a small part of my post"; it would be "X argues that this part of my post is wrong, but readers should recognize that even if X were right, this wouldn't undermine my key point." But that just means that the comment on the small portion is of limited utility -- not that such commentary on small portions is improper.

carpundit (www):
I think your main point in defense of narrow commentary is a good one: it is appropriate sometimes. I find unpleasant, though, the tendency of many blogs (notably not yours) to reduce complex issues to sniping soundbites, if I may use that term for text. When that happens, everything tends toward the negative; it is like a civilized version of a flame war. On my own blog, I am guilty of this sometimes, though I try not to be.

Thus, though there are times for selective commentary, there are also times when nothing but the big picture will do and readers are cheated if they are not given it.
6.22.2005 2:27pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
You are entirely correct, though as a matter of policy when a person is commenting on a minor portion that doesn't undermine the entire work, they should state that before commenting so as to properly frame the criticism. This saves readers time and energy, and often (correctly) spares the feelings of the person being criticized.
6.22.2005 2:33pm
Eric Wilner (mail) (www):
One additional point...
When a newspaper article or TV story presents a small, out-of-context snippet, it's generally not convenient for the reader or viewer to see the original story, speech, or other source material.
When a blogger criticizes a snippet of an article, it is the custom, if the source material is online, to link to it, so the reader can easily read the whole thing and see if the criticism is appropriate. This also directs new readers to the target of the criticism.
So, blog-style sniping is likely to be fairer than traditional sniping as practiced in the non-hyperlinked world.
6.22.2005 3:09pm
BryanDB:
I think the disagreement with "partial commenting" often derives not from the initial author's feeling that the "partial comment" is improper, but from the feeling that a "partial comment" is, or may be, used to miscontrue the main point of an entire post. One need only notice every furor-du-jour over a comment in paper, audio, or blog to see that mischaracterization of an entire comment is often done on the basis of a passing reference, unfavorable comparison, or ill-considered phrase.
6.22.2005 3:21pm
Dave! (mail) (www):
I think, as many others have stated, the problem isn't on commenting on a small portion of a more substantial work. The problem arises when failing to either 1) note that you are only commenting on a small portion of the work or 2) qualify that the portion you are commenting on is not the major focus of the whole piece.
6.22.2005 3:48pm
Aultimer:
It's one of the things that makes the blogosphere a different kind of source than Newsweek or NPR, who have great substance thanks to their resources, but can't resist lapsing into innumeracy/fallacy/over-generalization to beat home a (view)point.

My favorite VC posts are primarily from Eugene and go something like:
1. I read an interesting thing
2. Disclaimer - the entire thing (a) is ouside my expertise, (b) makes a central point with which I generally agree or (c) isn't relevant to the point of the post
3. Check out THIS innumeracy/fallacy/over-generalization in the thing
6.22.2005 4:22pm
ed in texas (mail):
If the only acceptable way to respond in the future will be a full FISKing, this is going to become tedious real quick. Arguable points of discussion aren't integral mountains, they're brick walls, composed of smaller facts. Noting that there are occasional holes in the wall is a perfectly functional way to debate issues.
6.22.2005 5:57pm
Phillip Carter (mail) (www):
Eugene,

As a law professor who studies, among other things, intellectual property issues, I'm surprised that you wouldn't offer another really good reason why one should not copy the full text of an article:

Copyright law.

As I understand 17 USC 107, one has a much stronger "fair use" argument when one selectively copies a portion of a piece for comment and criticism. If I copy an entire Wall Street Journal article, for example, they're likely to be quite bad -- they may even sue me for copyright infringement.
6.22.2005 6:23pm
Chris Lansdown (mail) (www):
Phil,

While your point holds, copyright law doesn't offer any bar to addressing every point that an article raised if you don't copy any of the article to do so, and I believe that Eugene's post was more about addressing points in an argument than about copying the entire argument for readers to see.
6.22.2005 8:23pm
Northwestern Law Student (mail):
As to the last two comments, a fair-use defense will also succeed if the entire work is copied because it is all being commented on, in the style of a classic fisking. For a fairly extreme example, see Belmore v. City Pages, Inc., 880 F.Supp. 673 (D.Minn. 1995) (reprinting entire story with brief criticism and statement that it was "beyond description so I'll just reprint the whole thing" was fair use). Fiskers need not worry, as I'm sure Eugene will confirm if he wants to take the comment thread that far afield.
6.23.2005 1:19am
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Nice comments so far, everyone. I agree that forcing commentary into the anti-Fisk model is not a good way to improve commentary. I also agree that narrow responses to complicated events, speeches, and people are part of the reason we get so much shallow coverage.

In this case, my sympathies are shaped by the way the question arose. A conservative ignored what a liberal was doing, through the course of a lengthy and interesting post, dismissed all of it explicitly or implicitly, and cavilled about a brief line at the end. This isn't discourse. This is, as someone indicated already, nit-picking. We all rightly deride it when a conservative (say, the President) makes a lengthy and intelligent point along with a simple misstatement or verbal typo- and some lefty turns the error into the centerpiece of their analysis.

We owe no less to civilized discourse when it's the "obviously right" conservative and the "obviously insane leftist" in the reverse positions.

I will from time to time comment, I hope respectfully, on my blawg about a single line, or a single word from a longer article, post, or discussion. I wouldn't want to be seen as dismissing the rest; I link to the whole thing, and try not to mischaracterize a part for a whole.

There's a difference between narrow (and nearly valueless, particularly when erroneous) commentary, and serious disagreement and engagement with the merits.

Besides, who among us hasn't gotten angry enough to throw pottery or write an angry e-mail at something JNon-V has written? Is it just me and Brian? I don't think so.
6.23.2005 8:28am