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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Journalism’s Backseat Drivers   

The ascendant blogosphere has rattled the news media with its tough critiques and nonstop scrutiny of their reporting. But the relationship between the two is more complex than it might seem. In fact, if they stay out of the defensive crouch, the battered mainstream media may profit from the often vexing encounters.

Related reading:   Wiki: Don’t Lose That Number
  Opening Up

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

"We see you behind the curtain..and we're not impressed by either your bluster or your insults. You aren't higher beings, and everybody out here has the right--and ability--to fact-check your asses, and call you on it when you screw up and/or say something stupid. You, and Eason Jordan, and Dan Rather, and anybody else in print or on television don't get free passes because you call yourself 'journalists.'"

– Vodkapundit blogger Will Collier responding to CJR Daily Managing Editor Steve Lovelady's characterization of bloggers as "salivating morons"

"Please join us in this conversation. It's where the future is."

– Greensboro News & Record Editor John Robinson, announcing a new "open source journalism" initiative at the paper


These are beleaguered times for news organizations. As if their problems with rampant ethical lapses and declining readership and viewership aren't enough, their competence and motives are being challenged by outsiders with the gall to call them out before a global audience.

Journalists are in the hot seat, their feet held to the flames by citizen bloggers who believe mainstream media are no more trustworthy than the politicians and corporations they cover, that journalists themselves have become too lazy, too cloistered, too self-righteous to be the watchdogs they once were. Or even to recognize what's news.

Some track the trend back to late 2002, when bloggers latched onto U.S. Sen. Trent Lott's bigoted birthday salute to Strom Thurmond while mainstream media dozed at the wheel (see "The Expanding Blogosphere," June/July 2004). Or even early 1998, when Matt Drudge jumped Newsweek's Monica Lewinsky scoop. But if Lott and Lewinsky were end-runs around mainstream media, this has been the year of the frontal assault.

The power of political bloggers to push mainstream media matured during the 2004 presidential campaign. That summer, blogs were credited with sustaining buzz about the Swift Boat Veterans' challenges to John Kerry's war record for several weeks, until the Kerry campaign and mainstream media responded. In the fall, bloggers won their defining victory by swarming over memos cited in CBS News' investigation of President Bush's National Guard service. Bloggers also badgered a senior news executive at CNN into resigning, forced the Associated Press to tell the back story of a Pulitzer Prize-winning picture and accused ABC News and the Washington Post of misreporting the source of a Republican talking points memo on Terri Schiavo. While bloggers were not the first to challenge Newsweek's report of Quran abuse at Guantánamo, they amplified the blast of blame that followed. In each case mainstream media bore a brutal lashing--and the more they stonewalled, the worse it got.

Bloggers' charges against journalism begin with gross negligence: omission, laziness, herd-think. (How else could the U.S. press have been so collectively lackadaisical in covering the Downing Street memos that suggested the Bush administration massaged evidence to make its case for the war in Iraq?) But it goes farther than that. The intensity of disdain from some quarters of the blogosphere "suggests a kind of underlying suspicion, anger, resentment that a lot of people hold for the media," says Bill Mitchell, director of publishing and online editor at the Poynter Institute and a former newspaper reporter and editor. "This question of bad journalism suddenly becomes biased journalism."

The media's credibility problems are well established. The most frequently cited of several studies is a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released in June 2004, which found that 53 percent of American adults often don't trust what news organizations are telling them. And a new First Amendment Center/AJR poll has found that just 33 percent think that "the news media tries to report the news without bias." Of the 64 percent who disagreed with that statement, 42 percent strongly disagreed. (See "A Source of Encouragement.")

It's tempting to compare the heyday of investigative journalism with political blogging today. But the scenario is hardly as simple as "journalists wrong, bloggers right." Bloggers do more than skewer journalists; journalists have come to depend on them as diggers and aggregators of information, conduits of public opinion and even media and policy pundits. At the same time, bloggers are wrong at least as often as mainstream media and prone to the same lapses of conduct--which explains why many professionals are less than gracious in receiving their jabs.

The state of the blogosphere is also fluid and fast-developing. The first line of blog swarms pounded the national press, but bloggers are already growing more enmeshed in political causes and becoming more active at the local level. How bloggers are moderated in these activities--by an implicit and self-imposed code of conduct, government regulation or nothing at all--will influence their role in tomorrow's mass communication landscape. How the mainstream media react to bloggers and other challenging voices--by ignoring them, engaging them or attempting to co-opt them--will do the same.

To understand the behavior of journalism's backseat drivers, it's important to know who they are. And that's not always so easy--many bloggers defy classification. One post might contain lucid analysis of a news report, the next a wild accusation, the next a photo of the blogger's poodle. "There's no sorting of journalism blogs from academic blogs from partisan blogs from blogs that are one thing one day and another thing another," says Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. There's also a sea of blogs that have nothing to do with media or politics--technology blogs, celebrity blogs, pop culture blogs, hobby blogs and a depressing number of vapid personal blogs.

That said, certain bloggers have earned reputations for being consistently good at deftly filtering the Internet and providing sharp analysis of current events. The so-called "A-list" of political bloggers generally falls into two categories: partisans and pundits.

Each end of the political spectrum is represented by a cadre of bloggers. On the conservative side, the most read blogs, according to tracking sites Technorati and The Truth Laid Bare, include Instapundit (run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds); Power Line (run by a collective of three attorneys); and Michelle Malkin (run by the conservative columnist). Top liberal blogs include Daily Kos (run by communication technology consultant Markos Moulitsas Zúniga); Eschaton (run by Duncan Black, aka Atrios, now a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Media Matters for America); and Talking Points Memo (run by reporter and columnist Joshua Micah Marshall). These people are the warriors "who put on their armor and sit down at the typewriter to do battle, and judge their success by how many dragons they slay that day," says David D. Perlmutter, a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.

The other camp of A-List bloggers includes pundits whom Perlmutter describes as "sages who stand above the partisan fray and talk about bloggers as a philosophy, a phenomenon." The ubiquitous maestros of pundit blogging are New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, consultant to About.com and former president of online media publisher Advance.net. Their blogs, PressThink and BuzzMachine, abound with insight and commentary on the news media--how they're evolving, what's broken, why cultural and technological changes matter. Neither is soft on the press, especially when they detect arrogance and archaic thinking.

It's through these blogs and a dozen or so others that every bona fide blog swarm flows. Of course talking about the top bloggers neglects the vast infantry of unsung bloggers and readers who constantly supply feedback, ideas and tips that enrich their conversations. More often than not, blog swarms start with little blogs that feed bigger blogs.

For all their celebrity, blogs still haven't achieved the reach of other media. Pew reported this year that just 16 percent of adults in the United States read any type of blog. According to Gallup, only 2 percent of Americans read political blogs on a daily basis – compared with 39 percent who watch cable news, 36 percent who watch network news and 21 percent who listen to talk radio.

But blogs don't need a large audience if they have an influential one. What matters is blogs' readership among the traditional journalists who still mediate most of our news. According to a 2005 University of Connecticut study, 41 percent of journalists access blogs at least once a week and 55 percent say they read blogs as part of their work duties.

Operating through traditional media, bloggers appear to be influencing mass communication in three ways:

The least frequent but most dramatic way is policing the media. Rathergate was a perfect swarm because there was raw evidence, documents that could be dissected and evaluated by the blogosphere's collective expertise. The thrill was even more gratifying for bloggers, says Pew's Cornfield, because mainstream media caught on and joined the chase. Meanwhile CBS News fueled the fire by clinging to its disintegrating story and blaming the uproar on "partisan political operatives." (See Full Court Press, February/March.) Other times, it's a lack of documentation or unclear sourcing that sustains the swarm. After a rookie blogger reported CNN executive Eason Jordan's remarks at the World Economic Forum in January (Jordan allegedly claimed U.S. troops had deliberately targeted journalists in Iraq), it was the forum's refusal to release a tape and CNN's failure to try to get it to do so that incensed bloggers the most (see The Beat, April/May). In April, conservative bloggers charged that a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photo of Iraqi election workers being killed by insurgents was taken at such close range the photographer must have been tipped off by the terrorists. "The Pulitzer Prize for felony murder goes to the Associated Press," wrote Scott Johnson on Power Line. To answer the bloggers' extensive analysis of camera angles and lens characteristics, AP soon put out its own release detailing why the photographer was at the scene and how the shot was made. Shortly after AP's response, the bloggers moved on, though it's not clear whether they were appeased or just finished with the fight. Swarms frequently end in ambivalence rather than a decisive outcome.

The second way blogs influence journalism is through their role as conduits between mainstream media and the online zeitgeist. Pew's May 2005 report, "Buzz, Blogs and Beyond," found that "journalists, activists, and political decision-makers have learned to consult political blogs as a guide to what is going on in the rest of the Internet."

"Mainstream media need bloggers as badly as bloggers need mainstream media," says Pew's Cornfield, who directed the study, "because the Internet is too voluminous for mainstream media to cover on its own." Cornfield says blogs have become especially important for 24-hour cable news channels, providing fodder to fill gaping programming holes. CNN's "Inside the Blog" segment, which debuted on the February 14 edition of "Inside Politics," is a case in point. (The concept has been lauded, but the format--coanchors reading from blogs on a computer screen--is yawn-inducing.)

Pew's preliminary findings also suggest that while blogs might help create and sustain buzz, they are buzz followers as often as leaders. "If bloggers, or media, or presidential campaigns were buzz makers..then there would be a recurring pattern in which one channel led and the others followed," the report said. "That was not what we detected."

Finally, bloggers may be influencing journalism by achieving credibility as media pundits. It's become common practice for mainstream media--particularly cable, talk radio and columnists--to interview bloggers or excerpt blog posts whenever a news organization flubs, even if the flub didn't involve blogs. When Newsweek's Quran story broke down, for example, bloggers' comments on the incident and the use of anonymous sources in general (guess what, they're against them) were part of mainstream media's coverage of the story.

Poynter's Mitchell says it makes sense to consider bloggers' perspectives on media issues. "Many bloggers probably consume news at least more aggressively, if not always more carefully, than a lot of other people," Mitchell says. "If you're writing a story about a new car, you don't want to just talk to people who are designers, engineers and mechanics; you want to talk to the consumer. [Bloggers] seem to me to be pretty qualified as news consumers."

The power of blog buzz has been far too effective to escape the notice of political strategists. After the 2004 campaign, a former aide to unsuccessful Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean said that Moulitsas (Daily Kos) and business partner Jerome Armstrong (MyDD) had been hired to work on Dean's Internet campaign, "largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean" on their blogs. "They never committed to supporting Dean for the payment," wrote the aide, Zephyr Teachout, on her own blog, "but it was very clearly, internally, our goal."

Moulitsas and Armstrong freely acknowledged their work as paid consultants, but fiercely denied that posting on their blogs was part of the deal. Moulitsas also took issue with the suggestion that his work for Dean, or any other candidate, would be unethical. "I never claimed to be free of bias," he wrote on his blog. "Ultimately, I trust you all to take what I write with the proper grain of salt, fully appraised of whatever conflicts of interest I may have... I have to make my living, and if I can do so helping Democrats win elections, I can't imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling." But Perlmutter questions the ability of a blogger to remain true to his or her own opinions while on the payroll of a campaign. "Will he be likely to say, 'Boy the campaign really screwed up?' Or [will] they start saying things they don't believe because it's the party line?"

While Moulitsas was widely defended in the blogosphere, the actions of two North Dakota bloggers were generally condemned. Following the 2004 election, it was revealed that two conservative bloggers--Jason van Beek and Jon Lauck--were paid a total of $35,000 by the campaign of South Dakota Republican John Thune, who unseated former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Throughout the campaign the two bloggers doggedly attacked Daschle and pummeled the state's largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, with charges of individual and institutional bias. Neither blogger disclosed his relationship to Thune on his blog. Because of the significance of the race, the bloggers' posts were picked up by top conservative blogs, including Instapundit, Power Line and the Drudge Report.

When reports of the payments surfaced, the bloggers were criticized by their peers, suggesting an implicit code of conduct. "My instinct is that the bloggers' relationship with the Thune campaign should have been disclosed on the blogs," wrote Power Line blogger John Hinderaker. "No one reading the blogs could have failed to understand that Lauck and Van Beek were pro-Thune and anti-Daschle... But, rightly or wrongly, many people would view the blogs differently if they knew their authors were also Thune consultants."

Although bloggers currently have no obligation to reveal financial arrangements with campaigns, the Federal Election Commission is considering new rules this summer that might require them to do so. Bloggers are fighting hard for self-regulation, but the specter of more cases like the one involving the Thune campaign is fueling support for the rules. Perlmutter says modest disclosure guidelines wouldn't be a bad idea but predicts the self-correcting behavior of the blogosphere will kick in more effectively during the next election cycle. Payments to bloggers "hadn't been on the radar yet," says Perlmutter, "so that was a new thing at the time. More and more people are going to pay attention to that" during the next election. At the same time, Perlmutter predicts a flood of blogs backed by political action groups.

More often than being misleading, bloggers just get things wrong; it's the nature of the blogosphere to toss out hypotheses and wait for evidence to surface. In the case of Power Line's September 9, 2004, post, "The 61st Minute," bloggers' suspicions about CBS' report on Bush's National Guard service turned out to be right. Several months later, when ABC News and the Washington Post reported that a memo describing the Terri Schiavo case as "a great political issue" was distributed to Republican senators, a Power Line post asked, "Is This The Biggest Hoax Since The Sixty Minutes Story?" Blogger John Hinderaker noted that the memo was unsigned, without letterhead, and "does not sound like something written by a conservative." Turns out a Republican senator's aide had written the memo. But in the two weeks it took for the memo's author to come forward, groundless charges of fraud were repeated by several national news outlets, including CNN, NBC News, Fox News and the Washington Post.

ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider says it wasn't bloggers who compelled ABC News to eventually report the memo's source, but pressure from within the Senate for the author, who worked for U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., to come forward. "It was becoming increasingly obvious that there were senators who knew exactly who the sources were, and I think that was made clear to Sen. Martinez's office," Schneider says. "It was not my sense that pressure from the blogosphere made that person come forward and admit that they had drafted it. It was the pressure of decency that made them come forward."

Some may have expected an apology from Hinderaker, but they didn't get one. "We did not report as a fact that the memo was fake, and we did not purport to have any information that was not publicly available," Hinderaker wrote in an April 9 post. "Any reader could follow our logic and either agree or disagree with our opinion. But the Post was 'wrong' in a much different and more serious way. The Post..reported those statements as facts, without giving the reader any information about how the paper knew them to be true." It was Hinderaker's position that if the Post had adequately sourced its information, the hullabaloo wouldn't have happened in the first place.

While that's wacky logic to journalists who've been drilled to get the facts before publishing, Pew's Cornfield says the vetting process works differently on the Internet. Journalists and citizens need to learn a different way of approaching information on the Web.

"I don't think a blogger has any sort of responsibility to anybody, other than their own sense of what matters and then eventually to their audience," Cornfield says. "They can be irresponsible if they want. You the reader, the browser, have to be more diligent because you have the power of determining what's true and what's relevant and what's fair... While there are lots of mistakes on the Internet, there are lots of corrections – and corrections come really fast."

When it comes to rules of conduct and self-correction, Slate Editor at Large Jack Shafer suggests a distinction between the widely read "top 100" bloggers and the rest. Shafer, whose Press Box column frequently addresses skirmishes in blogland, says the top tier is likely to adopt self-imposed best practices, but the entire blogosphere is too vast and unruly to fall into line. "Remember, not all bloggers are created equal," Shafer wrote in an e-mail interview. "Some are smarter and more accurate than others (just like journalists). I trust the marketplace of ideas to sort out bad bloggers from good, just as it does bad journalists from good."

Blogger and Greensboro News & Record columnist Ed Cone offers this piece of advice: "You have to be a careful consumer of news is the lesson that blogs are trying to teach you by their criticism. Sometimes they teach you by their example."

According to many bloggers and pundits, the "blogs vs. mainstream media" meme is passé--almost as uncool as debating whether bloggers are journalists. The enlightened way to regard the advent of the bloggers would be to accept them as part of an evolving media scene rather than treat them as an invading force. But if the dichotomy is false, many bloggers and journalists are still operating as though it were real.

Those who feel most threatened, Cone says, are the ones who insist on drawing a hard line between bloggers and journalists. The whole notion that bloggers should be pitched in opposition to journalists, he says, is phony and antiquated. "To focus on those differences is a defense mechanism on the part of corporate media that maybe doesn't want to admit--maybe doesn't realize--that the game is over, the game has changed," Cone says. "When blogs jump on a story or an event, are they really a different thing? Where is the divide? I'm not sure it's there even now. I think the media landscape is a lot richer, and there's a lot more analysis and independent thought out there."

Poynter's Mitchell says the light bulb is on for many journalists. "A lot of journalists recognize that on a lot of stories, readers necessarily know more about it than they do," Mitchell says. They are "coming to grips with the futility of being too defensive. There used to be a kind of defense to getting things wrong – and that was just pretending it was right. The idea is not to cave in to critics, [it's] figuring out how the audience generally – forget about bloggers in particular – can actually improve the journalism."

As soon as accusations of misreporting surfaced in the Schiavo memo affair, ABC Vice President Schneider says he started contacting bloggers directly. "It's important to get your two cents into those stories as early as possible, but being careful not to fuel those stories," Schneider says. "There were bloggers that I personally dealt with who I thought were really interested in getting at the truth. There were others who simply made up their minds without a whole lot of thought or investigation, and they were intent on proving that ABC News had somehow taken a big misstep."

Internally, many newsrooms are reviewing and revising their reporting guidelines. The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today have all recently adopted more stringent policies regarding unidentified sources; NBC News and CBS News are also reviewing their practices. However, efforts in two-way dialogue are less apparent. (In one right-minded but ill-fated experiment, the Los Angeles Times invited readers to modify the paper's editorials via its Web site in June. Three days later the initiative was suspended after it became flooded with obscenity.) Many newsrooms have started blogs, but most of those are set up as storytelling devices for journalists rather than conversations with viewers and readers about the reporting process. Even after Rathergate and the Eason Jordan melee, mainstream media don't often stoop to engage their critics promptly and directly--or "speak from someplace other than the mountaintop," as Cone puts it.

Cone has firsthand experience with that kind of engagement. At the Greensboro News & Record, Editor John Robinson maintains a blog called The Editor's Log. "When people question something, he writes about it in his blog," says Cone. "He's in the game. He's not just waiting for his column to come out next week to answer a challenge made yesterday."

Pew's Cornfield senses the same need. "Every time I open the Sunday New York Times and look at the ombud, I think, 'Oh my God, this is so restricted and stilted.' Ombuds should move to the Net. Anything involving direct evidence should migrate to the Net."

The first step toward greater transparency for many news organizations may be establishing an ombudsman or ethics board. (About 40 American news organizations have ombudsmen--see "The Ombudsman Puzzle," February/March.) "You wouldn't have a company that says 'advertising is very important to us but we don't have anybody who does that,'" Perlmutter says. "If you don't have an ombudsman, you're saying, 'Screw you, we're not interested in your opinion.' There are many things that traditional media can learn from the public engagement and excitement that blogs generate, but they're more interested in being hip and techie than understanding the true lessons of blogs."

Of course transparency and interaction take time. News & Record Editor Robinson wrote in an e-mail interview that some of his colleagues in resource-strapped newsrooms may be scared to take that plunge. "Who can blame them? Newsroom staffs are being cut beyond where they should," Robinson says. "Now the editors are thinking about adding on additional duties to already overworked and underpaid reporters?.. Maintaining a blog is time-consuming. You're putting yourself out there. You're acknowledging mistakes... And there are many people lurking in the blogosphere who routinely use that as an opportunity to smack you from the blind side. So you have to have a thick skin to deal with those folks who prefer to criticize you personally rather than add to the civic discussion."

But, Robinson says, "Doing nothing was not an option, given all the readership trends and research."

As for the journalists who feel besieged by hotheaded and often uninformed hecklers, Robinson says he understands their exasperation and resentment. "Yes, I empathize," Robinson says. "I have been there. Hell, I am there. Just visit my blog. But the fact is that the toothpaste is out of the tube. Ignoring or belittling them will not make it all go away. As everyone knows, people have been criticizing newspapers for one reason or another for years before there were blogs. Now they can make their criticism read around the world. So the world has changed. Our responsibility, our challenge, is to explain why we do what we do. It's hard and it's intimidating and it's frustrating. But none of those things are excuses for not rising to the challenge."

Where will all of this lead, and how long will bloggers' glory days last? One scenario is that the blogosphere (or its essential behavior, since the technology may change) is an emerging Fifth Estate, a vast and vigilant sector of citizen watchdogs over a wide range of media, government and corporate institutions. In order to sustain that role, however, bloggers must survive numerous threats to their independence.

One is the possibility that today's impassioned amateur bloggers will be co-opted or crowded out. In Cornfield's view that could happen if the most prominent media and policy blogs are swallowed up by big media, recruited by political campaigns or subsumed by "official versions" such as ABC News' The Note. Cornfield says amateur bloggers won't be eliminated, but they could find themselves competing with the superior marketing and promotional clout of media giants.

Slate's Shafer doesn't regard the demise of the amateur blogger as a serious possibility. "The MSM could hire the top 100 bloggers right now, and I predict 100 equally smart and talented people would replace them," he says.

The tone of the blogosphere--particularly in the realm of political activism--could also depend on whether online speech becomes government-regulated. In that respect the FEC's decision on blog regulation could open the door to other controls. "This decision will send a big signal about whether the government intends to mess around with the Internet or not," Cornfield says. "Up until now, [the government has] largely left the Internet alone and even gone to the point of trying to stay out of its way."

In the near term, bloggers will continue to monitor the national media--and have just begun to make their presence felt on the local scene. The Thune campaign was one example. This spring, a blog run by an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico drew attention from Congress and then the national media for its harsh complaints about operational problems at the facility. In Greensboro, Cone recounts an incident in which the city council killed an incentive plan for Wal-Mart after two council members who opposed the measure discussed it frequently in their blogs. "The News & Record was all over" the story, Cone says. "Was some of the coverage because of the blogs? Probably. It's not reducible to 'blogging killed the incentives,' but the conversation is richer because of the blogs." Of those examples, only the Thune episode involved criticism of the mainstream media, but news organizations played a role in each. As local bloggers become better organized and more widely read by their neighbors and the local press--which is already happening in places like Greensboro--blog swarms will likely hit home.

It could be coincidence that the blogosphere emerged around the same time trust in the media was falling and political rancor was intensifying--or perhaps those factors helped shape the blogosphere. In any case, blogs have proven an extremely effective vehicle for mobilizing individuals to influence journalism, public discourse and policy. We've also learned that bloggers don't need the blessing of the establishment in order to flourish; they will continue to check, correct and challenge the reporting of the New York Times and your local paper. Sometimes they'll be right, sometimes they'll be wrong, sometimes they'll be vindictive.

"It will take a tough hide, a tougher one than journalists maybe are used to, as they sort out their new relationship with a more interactive audience," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But journalism has no value, nor any claim to authority, except in the name of citizens... I think many news organizations have already found it remarkable how much the tone of an angry audience member can change if you simply listen attentively and respond fairly."

Says Perlmutter, "Traditional journalists look at bloggers like Major League Baseball players look at some guy in the cheap seats yelling advice."

In some ways, that's exactly what they are--angry, rowdy and out of control. That doesn't mean we can't learn from them.