The Expanding Blogosphere  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2004

The Expanding Blogosphere   

Political blogs--online journals featuring commentary, often highly opinionated--have rapidly become a presence in the campaign landscape. Now some established news organizations are hiring established bloggers or creating their own. How much impact does this instant punditry have on mainstream political reporting?

By Rachel Smolkin
     


When political bloggers bay in the blogosphere, do political reporters hear them?

The answer, I quickly learned, depends on four factors: how you define "political blog"; which political bloggers you mean; which political reporters you mean; and--not to go all Bill Clinton on you--what the meaning of "hear" is.

Blog, for the uninitiated, is shorthand for "Web log," online journals of thought and commentary. They feature a personal, distinctive voice, links to other sources and regular postings displayed in reverse chronological order with the newest entry first. Readers scroll down the screen to scan the blogs, which often include a place for reader input, archives of past entries and "blogrolls," lists of other blogs the author finds useful.

Political bloggers chew over the news of the day, frequently skewering journalists' coverage or spotlighting what they feel are undercovered stories. Objectivity is generally verboten in the blogosphere, although ideology tends to be less rigid than the partisan debates that play out so repetitiously in newspapers and on television. And bloggers are a clubby bunch, referencing and linking to each other even when ideologies clash.

A few hours into my research, I felt a rising sense of panic--there was SO MUCH OUT THERE.

There are the rock stars of political blogging--Glenn H. Reynolds (www.instapundit.com), Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com), Joshua Micah Marshall (www.talkingpointsmemo.com) and Mickey Kaus (www.kausfiles.com)--moody maestros who stroke their keyboards more quietly but no less fervently than Coldplay's Chris Martin.

There are amateurs and pros and semi-pros and group blogs and pure blogs and media blogs and bloglike-journals-that-aren't-really-blogs-or-kinda-are-depending-on-your-point-of-view. There are more blogs out there than any one person could reasonably hope to read or even find. After new software made blogging easy and free in 1999, the phenomenon took off. The September 11 attacks and their aftermath spawned another wave of political blogs.

"The people are now talking," says Jeff Jarvis, the blogger behind Buzzmachine.com and president of Advance.net, which runs online services for Newhouse Newspapers. "The people are blogging. Millions of them are blogging."

Yes, in these hardened, cynical times, amid angst over media conglomerates and homogenization of news, political junkies are using cyberspace to opine and whine, to preach and beseech.

And the news media are gingerly following the people's lead. The line between pure political bloggers and "Big Journalism," as Reynolds calls it, is fading.

"Big Journalism," the target of so much contempt and derision in the blogosphere, is borrowing elements of blogs, experimenting with them and sometimes even co-opting the bloggers themselves.

Kaus, a former writer for The New Republic and Newsweek, moved his once independent Kausfiles to Slate, a Microsoft-owned online magazine, in May 2002. The Washington Monthly, a small but influential politics and policy magazine, hired blogger Kevin Drum in March. Reynolds blogs for MSNBC.com in addition to writing his own InstaPundit blog.

The conservative magazine National Review hosts a group blog called The Corner; the liberal magazine The American Prospect countered with Tapped. In September, the Prospect hired blogger Matthew Yglesias as a writing fellow; he now blogs for Tapped in addition to his own site.

Some journalists' blogs favor reported tidbits and analysis over swashbuckling commentary. Daniel Weintraub, a public affairs columnist at the Sacramento Bee, helped set the tone for coverage during his state's recall race with his California Insider blog. The New Republic's Ryan Lizza blogs about the presidential race on the magazine's Campaign Journal site. Even the New York Times has launched an edited campaign blog of sorts, Times on the Trail, which is breezier than the paper but more straitlaced than most blogs.

Political blogs add to the cacophony of 24/7 information sources available to journalists and the public. While cable news endlessly repeats political headlines, Weblogs chatter over inside information that mesmerizes the junkies.

"What Weblogs do, both professional and amateur, is they help spread detailed political information all day long," says Jonathan Dube, managing producer for MSNBC.com and publisher of CyberJournalist.net, an American Press Institute site tracking online journalism.

Dube believes amateur blogs have fostered public involvement in politics and enhanced political dialogue. But he cautions, "It's hard for people to weed through and know what is opinion, what is fact. It may contribute to the spreading of misinformation and to misperceptions and to spin."

Bloggers and their defenders argue that their medium is ideally suited to fixing errors because corrections can be posted immediately rather than waiting until the next day's paper. But the blogosphere has dished up its share of misinformation and spin.

When Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge in February posted an unsubstantiated rumor of a John Kerry affair, it surfaced on Wonkette.com, The Corner and other blogs. The Drudge Report itself often is considered a blog or at least blog-like.

While the mainstream news media overplayed Gov. Howard Dean's scream, the blogosphere positively wallowed in it, setting it to music and boogeying to its beat.

And bloggers' predictions about the primaries were just as inaccurate, but less restrained, as those of newspaper and television pundits. Kaus held a "Kerry Withdrawal Contest" before the primaries to "help" Kerry drop out of the race, saying he "faces not just defeat but utter humiliation in the New Hampshire primary." That was, of course, before Kerry triumphed in New Hampshire and quickly wrapped up the Democratic nomination.

Kaus notes that he suspended his contest after Saddam Hussein was captured because he figured it gave candidates who voted for war a "fresh opening." And, as Kaus once wrote, bloggers get to "go off half-cocked," trust their instincts and change their minds later if they're wrong. He believes that this clash of "insta-takes" from many sources on the Web gets to the truth more quickly than the traditional, more contemplative method of analysis long employed by political journalists such as the Washington Post's David Broder.

If bloggers don't always get to the truth, they are at least banging out their beliefs with a pitch fevered enough to attract some attention.

Walter Shapiro, a political columnist for USA Today and a reader of blogs, says blogs collectively are "definitely having an impact" on political journalism, "but we haven't figured out what the impact is. About all these trends we get too gushy on the way up, and too dismissive on the way down. And we're sort of in the middle age on blogs, at least in Andy Warhol terms." As Warhol showed, all "forms of communication get modified in the marketplace," Shapiro observes. Some of the blogs' "original functions have been absorbed by Web sites or people far removed from the lonely law professor at the University of Tennessee."

That lonely Tennessee professor is Reynolds, who teaches constitutional and Internet law. He was inspired by early bloggers such as Kaus; Sullivan, a former editor of The New Republic; and Virginia Postrel, a New York Times economics columnist and former editor of Reason magazine.

In August 2001, Reynolds started InstaPundit, now among the most heavily visited political blogs. "Bloggers have very little power," says Reynolds. "What they have is influence. They have an ability to get ideas noticed that would otherwise be ignored and to shame people"--namely journalists--"into doing their jobs better."

Reynolds, who also started a paid blog for MSNBC.com in January 2003, notes "the blogosphere is pretty hard on big journalism, and I think rightly so. But most of the problems of big journalism is institutional... My experience with big-name journalists in general is that most of them are very supportive and encouraging."

Reynolds repeated an assertion that I heard often from bloggers and blogging enthusiasts: "There's not much doubt that most political journalists read a lot of the blogs."

Mark Halperin, ABC News political director and coauthor of The Note, reads political blogs and says many of his colleagues do as well. In April, on the morning of Bush's third prime-time news conference, The Note counseled readers: "Watch the blogs for insta-reaction."

But Halperin doesn't like hearing the popular online political trove he helps write called a blog, even though it shares some stylistic features. "A blog to me is opinion and observations from one brain," Halperin says. "We are producing news and analysis from a group of people across ABC News... We're not about opinions generating from one brain."

Some political reporters say they don't pay much attention to bloggers. "I must confess I don't track a whole lot of them," says Washington Post national political reporter Jim VandeHei, although readers do occasionally e-mail him about blogs trashing his work. "I would challenge someone to point to me where they've really had that much influence on the coverage." Noting the proliferation of sources for news commentary and roundup, VandeHei says Web surfing could easily consume all of a reporter's time, and "at some point, you really actually have to pick up the phone and do some reporting."

Ron Brownstein, a Los Angeles Times national political correspondent and CNN political analyst, reads campaign blogs, but that's about it. "There's just so much information out there," he says. "I feel like we're talking to ourselves with most of that stuff."

New York Times national political reporter Adam Nagourney says he's constantly surfing the Web, but he's doing Google searches or reading the online sites of newspapers or magazines. He does keep on eye on The New Republic's campaign blog and sometimes looks at Talking Points Memo or InstaPundit, but not regularly. "Otherwise I would spend all my day reading," Nagourney says, "and some of the stuff on the Web is so out there that it doesn't really help to read it."

Nagourney's colleague Jodi Wilgoren, the Times' Chicago bureau chief who also is covering the presidential campaign, was the subject of The Wilgoren Watch, a blog dedicated to "deconstructing" her coverage of Howard Dean.

"I'm not a journalist and never pretended to be," the unnamed blogger wrote on January 11. "I'm just a guy (veterinarian by trade) living in Northern Virginia who supports Gov. Howard Dean in his run for the White House and happens to know a little about HTML... I'm a lifelong Democrat who--like many of us--was caught off guard by the degree to which Al Gore was mistreated by the media in 2000. I just want to do my little part to mount a little 'pre-emption' in case the same treatment is applied to Gov. Dean this time around."

Dean's supporters, the self-proclaimed "Dean Defense Forces," launched what they dubbed an "Adopt-a-Journalist" effort, and blogs also targeted Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler, who covered Dean. But media accounts have tended to focus on the Wilgoren Watch. "I think mine got more attention because of the alliteration. I know that sounds ridiculous," says Wilgoren, who signed up to receive e-mail notification of new postings. "If people were writing about my work and talking about my work, I wanted to know what they were saying." Wilgoren's fiancé and father were angered by what were sometimes very personal attacks against her. But she suggested they suppress their urges to defend her and warned of "Lemon-Lyman" syndrome--a reference to an episode of NBC's "The West Wing" in which Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman writes to correct a Web site and becomes the target of a cyber frenzy. "Beware of writing back," Wilgoren counseled. "No good can come of it."

The reader feedback she received through Wilgoren Watch as well as other blogs and e-mails "typically did not reflect much knowledge about or understanding of mainstream journalism," Wilgoren says, and often came from passionate Dean supporters. "I got many, many letters accusing me of being a tool of the Republican administration or trying to destroy Howard Dean."

She tracked Dean's Blog For America, has glanced at the Kerry blog, "although it seems not to have much bite to it," and has seen the liberal blog Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com). But asked about InstaPundit, that blogging giant, Wilgoren replies, "I've never been on InstaPundit. I don't even know what that is."

One newspaper fan of InstaPundit is USA Today columnist Shapiro. "Any time John Ashcroft is in the news, I'm checking Glenn Reynolds three times a day," says Shapiro, who enjoys the right-leaning blogger's "libertarian skepticism of the conduct of the war on terror." And Shapiro reads the blog of Kaus, a longtime friend, "religiously."

Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent and an analyst for NBC, also looks at Kausfiles--Kaus is a friend and former Newsweek colleague--as well as at Sullivan's and Marshall's blogs.

Fineman says blogs give him a "feel for the conversation going on in the country about politics" and he reads them for the "same reason I try not to sit on my tush inside the Beltway, and get outside the Beltway as much as possible. Cyberspace is a place you need to go."

Karen Tumulty, Time magazine's national political correspondent, last October asked Dean's chief blogger, Mathew Gross, to recommend some blogs. She bookmarked some of them, including InstaPundit, Talking Points Memo and Daily Kos.

Tumulty's "absolute, total guilty pleasure is Wonkette," a biting politics and D.C. social scene blog authored by Ana Marie Cox. (The New York Times on April 18 described the blog by Cox, a self-proclaimed "failed journalist," as "gossipy, raunchy, potty-mouthed," a review Cox proudly posted on her site.)

Blogs are a "good indicator of what's in the political bloodstream at any given moment," says Tumulty, who adds that a turning point in blogs' impact came when National Journal's influential political newsletter Hotline began citing them. Tumulty likens reading blogs to "sitting around with a bunch of political reporters and having a beer--without the buzz."

Ryan Lizza, a reporter for The New Republic covering the presidential campaign, says he reads blogs "pretty religiously. I have a list of 10 or 15 blogs that I check in with at least once a day." Lizza thinks "one really smart blog that deserves to get more attention" is The Decembrist (markschmitt.typepad.com), which "tends to be more thoughtful, more of an essay style." But he cautions that "you don't want to get too wrapped up in what some parts of the blogosphere are obsessing about, because it can sometimes be this self-contained world."

In addition to writing for The New Republic, Lizza started a blog just before the primaries as an outlet for tidbits and other material that might not hold for a week until the print edition (www.tnr.com/blog/campaignjournal). "It's a little different," he says. "It's not a blog in the sense that it's a list of things that Ryan Lizza has read out there on the Internet. I'm trying to keep it more reportorial and not just a list of random thoughts."

Lizza has used his blog to break news. On April 2 he happened to be on the phone with Jim Margolis, Kerry's admaker, when Margolis said he was leaving the Kerry campaign and read Lizza a prepared statement. "It was a very inside story, but kind of cool because you could break it and put it on the blog," says Lizza, who posted the news at 12:22 p.m. that day, beating the Associated Press with the scooplet by 11 minutes.

At the New York Times, Wilgoren learned about Margolis' departure when a colleague e-mailed her Lizza's post. "My guess is that everybody who wrote about this heard about it" from there, Wilgoren says. "It seemed that everybody I called about Margolis had read Ryan's thing. So he broke news on the blog."

But in the annals of bloggers' impact on political journalism, one story stands above the rest. It sired breathless newspaper articles about the burgeoning influence of bloggers and even inspired a Harvard University case study.

On December 5, 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, remarked at a birthday party for retiring Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina that the nation "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" had Thurmond triumphed in his 1948 segregationist bid for the presidency.

Initially, the media largely ignored Lott's shocking faux pas. But ABC News aired a brief story at 4:30 a.m. on December 6 and described the incident on The Note, which other Internet sites then referenced, according to a study by Esther Scott, a case writer for Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The blogosphere seized on Lott's comments, howling with outrage and sleuthing for similar outrageous statements from Lott's past. "Oh, what could have been!!!" opined a sarcastic Josh Marshall on December 6, 2002. "Just another example of the hubris now reigning among Capitol Hill Republicans."

Bloggers on the right also were enraged. "Trent Lott Must Go," declared a December 9, 2002, posting by Andrew Sullivan that called on the Republican Party to "get rid" of Lott as majority leader or "come out formally as a party that regrets desegregation and civil rights for African-Americans."

During the Lott post-mortem, the media paid homage to bloggers for refusing to let the story fade. "The papers did not make note of his comments until days after he had made them," observed a December 23, 2002, Time magazine cover story by Dan Goodgame and Tumulty. "But the stillness was broken by the hum of Internet 'bloggers' who were posting their outrage and compiling rap sheets of Lott's earlier comments."

New York Post columnist John Podhoretz wrote on December 13, 2002, that, "There's nothing more exciting than watching a new medium mature before your eyes... The drumbeat that turned this story into a major calamity for Lott, and led directly to President Bush's welcome disavowal of Lott's views yesterday, was entirely driven by the Internet blogosphere."

Scott's study was somewhat more circumspect, concluding it was difficult to determine how "much of the story made its way from the blogs--as opposed to other Internet sources, such as The Note--into the mainstream." But she found "anecdotal evidence" that some reporters and columnists picked up the story from a blog.

"The mainstream media had sort of a blind spot on that story, and it was really left to a number of blogs to keep the story going," says Marshall, a former Washington editor for The American Prospect whose thoughtful site won praise from several journalists interviewed for this article. But he cautions that it's easy to exaggerate bloggers' impact and describes them as "part of an ecosystem of news sources. They have a niche."

Media companies are experimenting with their own place in this expanding ecosystem. Leonard M. Apcar, editor in chief of NYTimes.com, doesn't describe his online roundup of campaign news, Times on the Trail, as a blog. But he says he was influenced by blogs and tried to borrow some elements to create "our own special space" about the campaign, which debuted in January (www.nytimes.com/onthetrail).

"If you define blogs as unedited opinion and sometimes just passing on rumors, that's not what Times on the Trail is," Apcar says. "We are edited; we're not opinion as much as we are analysis, and we don't report rumors... Blog purists would say this is not a blog. Call it a blog. Call it a flog. I don't care. We call it Times on the Trail."

When the Sacramento Bee's Daniel Weintraub started his California Insider blog in April 2003, the serendipitous (for him) recall contest soon offered a rare opportunity to showcase his new medium. (See Free Press, December/January.) His blog has provided an additional venue for communicating with sources. People Weintraub knows through his reporting read his blog and send him unsolicited ideas and responses. "You can't put out 100 telephone calls a day, but you can put something on the Web that people can read and either take the time to e-mail or call," he says.

But a few weeks before the recall election, some of Weintraub's writings about candidate Cruz Bustamante stirred criticism among Latino politicians, and some of his newsroom colleagues objected to the double standard for editing.

Editorial Page Editor David Holwerk decided that an editor would clear blog entries, as with print columns, to preserve the newspaper's obligations to credibility and accuracy. The blogosphere greeted his decision with outrage.

Weintraub says he may subconsciously eschew more trivial items to avoid wasting his editors' time on something completely lighthearted or fluffy. "It's probably not as light and spontaneous," he says. "It's a little more formal... But it's not like I'm holding back on commentary or anything significant."

He also has noticed some friction between blogging and some of the "historical norms" of print journalism: Print journalists don't particularly like to acknowledge competitors' work, but bloggers do so regularly.

One amateur political blogger stumbled over stricter rules in another professional arena, that of politics. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, 32, author of the Daily Kos, majored in journalism at Northern Illinois University, edited the student newspaper and freelanced for the Chicago Tribune. He graduated from law school and headed to Silicon Valley to make millions in the dotcom world, a venture that "didn't go well at all." Moulitsas, who was raised in El Salvador and served in the U.S. Army, started the Daily Kos in May 2002--drawing from his Army nickname, which rhymes with "rose."

He and his business partner, Jerome Armstrong, worked as paid consultants to Dean's campaign; Moulitsas now consults for "a couple Democratic congressional campaigns and interest groups," though he declines to specify which ones.

His reluctance is perhaps understandable given an April controversy that Moulitsas touched off with a callous observation about four American contractors killed in Iraq. "I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries," he wrote. "Screw them."

Moulitsas later clarified his remarks but stopped short of an apology, and a cyberspace furor ensued. "Kos has been rather a weasel about first making the comments, then hiding them, then issuing a bogus pseudo-apology, and now--as if there were more to this than dumb statements on a blog that led to some angry commentary and e-mail--he's playing the victim," Reynolds declared on InstaPundit.

The Kerry campaign dropped its link to Daily Kos, and some candidates pulled their advertisements from his blog. The Washington Post mentioned the brouhaha in an April 18 story that described how some political candidates are turning to blogs as a new, cheap venue for ads.

Moulitsas asserts, "I can write about whatever I want without somebody telling me I can't talk about an issue. At the end of the day, I don't need advertisers."

He proudly proclaims himself an activist, not a journalist. "My God, if I was a journalist, I'd be breaking half the canon of journalistic ethics," Moulitsas says wryly. "I am one walking conflict of interest. I am the epitome of conflict of interest, but at least I don't pretend otherwise, like Cokie Roberts taking money from trade groups and talking before them." (ABC News' Roberts was criticized in the mid-1990s for accepting large fees for giving speeches to trade associations--see "Talk Is Expensive," May 1994 and "Take the Money and Talk," June 1995.)

Kevin Drum, a self-described "centrist liberal" and one of the more contemplative bloggers, spent two decades as a software-marketing executive before launching his blog in August 2002. In mid-March, he agreed to blog for The Washington Monthly (www.washingtonmonthly.com).

His unedited blog is a comfortable fit with the magazine's advocacy. But Drum notes that bloggers such as Reynolds and the anonymous Atrios (www.atrios.blogspot.com) are not nearly so sober, and that style "is part of what makes blogs a lot of fun." Drum worries "if you try to put the rules of mainstream journalism onto blogs, you end up sucking the life out of them."

While professional journalism has standards for sourcing and reporting, with blogs, the whole point "is that the standards are lower," Drum says. "They're able to toss stuff out that a reporter on a daily newspaper couldn't. They express opinions loudly and with fervor. It's not clear to me how those two things can intersect."

Drum, who holds a journalism degree from California State University, Long Beach, admits to "some doubt about whether blogging and professional journalism can go together... If it turns out at the end of the year that the five most popular blogs are associated with professional journalism, it would change the nature of blogging."

USA Today's Walter Shapiro also wonders whether blogs will change because of their success. "We don't know where this is going," Shapiro says. "But what we do know is there are not enough eyes and enough hours to support the entire blog world" at its current level.

"I have real affection for the underlying notion here of the original blogs, which were people sitting at their computers, reading the morning news and commenting on it," he adds. "And that lonely person element there, the one voice, is something that, however this all evolves, I hope will not be lost."


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