Editor's Note: Due to a production error, the print version of this column contains a few typos. This online version is correct.
Blog swarms are causing widespread freak-out in the MSM.
Got that? MSM is shorthand in the blogosphere for "mainstream media." A blog swarm is an orgy of blogging on a specific issue that can reach such a pitch it breaks into the MSM. Freak-out is what happens when people who should know better start calling each other ugly names--and established journalists lose or leave their jobs.
In recent months, blog-born firestorms have taken out several respected news professionals and one poser. In September, bloggers were first to challenge the authenticity of documents in a CBS report on President Bush's military service and first to call for heads to roll. CBS eventually asked for the resignations of three executives and fired the producer of the piece; Dan Rather announced he would leave the anchor desk in March.
In February, CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan resigned following reports that he told the World Economic Forum that U.S. troops had deliberately targeted journalists in Iraq. The first published account of Jordan's remarks appeared in a blog set up by the forum (see The Beat, page 10), and the blogosphere seethed with outrage over the MSM's perceived reluctance to react. Conservative news outlets picked up the story, and soon Jordan's goose was cooked.
Finally, there's the woeful tale of James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, a former reporter for GOP-backed Talon News. Guckert successfully passed a fake name to White House press officials for two years--until he lobbed a ridiculous softball at a January 26 presidential news conference, prompting suspicious bloggers to unearth his true identity.
Rathergate, Easongate and Gannongate have the MSM in a defensive crouch. The too-common MSM response is to dismiss bloggers as "salivating morons" who sit in their pajamas in dank dens, jabbing journalism's soft spots with pointy sticks. It's not the scrutinizing of journalists' work that rankles mainstream journalists--at least, they don't admit to that--but the grave-dancing that follows each triumph. After Rather's and Jordan's announcements, many blogs buzzed with self-congratulation and warnings to "MSM scum" that their days of hegemony were numbered.
Bloggers are exuberant over their newfound influence. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, blog readership increased 58 percent in 2004, to 27 percent of the online population. From the bloggers' perspective, they're lancing journalism's boils by forcing truth and transparency. They interpret the denial reflex and shrill counterattacks from some quarters of the MSM as proof there's something rotten to hide.
That's a popular opinion. In June 2004, Pew reported that nearly two in five Americans believe little or nothing they see on TV news; nearly half felt that way about daily newspapers.
Add to this general mistrust the partisan hysteria that fueled the CBS, Jordan and Gannon scandals. Political blogs have contributed to our nation's cultural-political rancor in gallons--though they certainly don't have the market cornered.
The corporate media versus organic media and conservative versus liberal divides are gigantic, endemic problems that transcend our recent blog squabbles. But the bloggers could actually improve the MSM, if only journalists would better engage them:
The worst possible MSM response is to lump all bloggers into the same bucket. Some have better credentials and more "real" journalism experience than many professional reporters. In fact, some are professional reporters. Some care very much about the integrity of the media and want to fix it, not crush it. Don't demean their interest by saying they have too much time on their hands. If they expose corruption or shoddy reporting once in a while, it's time well spent.
Don't let controversy be a reason for ending a journalist's career or an excuse for a hasty--rather than thorough--response. When Jordan resigned, he said it was "to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy" over his remarks. That only appeased the bloggers who were in it for sport. Others found it a cop-out. They weren't calling for Jordan's head; they wanted the truth about what he said. News organizations need to face scrutiny without the hubris that came back to bite CBS, then respond according to the validity of the challenge rather than the level of bluster surrounding it.
Make sure bloggers have a real story before giving them a megaphone; fact-check bloggers as diligently as they fact-check journalists. But don't think you can freeze them out: If there is a story to tell, people will listen.
Finally, don't stoop to their level--good advice for both sides.
Bloggers, meanwhile, should learn from the best among them--those with an interest in healing rather than destroying journalism. Time will sort the blowhards and raving lunatics from the shrewd observers and fact-finders.
When everybody stops freaking out, the best hope is this: There will be a new dimension to journalism in which the consumer is also a contributor, ombudsman and fact-checker. The profession will become more self-aware, more trusted and more transparent. And we'll all live happily ever after, in our pajamas.