Blogging the Bloggers

Marc Abrams

Are blogs the new news source? Does the continuing pressure for immediacy at the potential expense of accuracy mean that what we have right here at Blue Oregon is part of the next wave of “journalism?”

This week's events – the issues surrounding Dan Rather and whether Sixty Minutes II jumped the gun in going public with a record of Bush’s national guard service the validity of which is now in question – has less to do with that old and tired canard about the “liberal” media (yeah, liberals like Newhouse, General Electric, Rupert Murdoch), and more to do with the nature of free speech and the nature of journalism.

Each wave of media ultimately reacts to the new technology that fosters more media. In freedom of speech terms this is good. But each wave also required more and more technology, more and more infrastructure and capital investment, meaning that speech was free once you paid for the megaphone, and the megaphone was prohibitively expensive to all but corporations.

Now comes the Internet, and for the first time, access to a volume of people is not limited to those with large checkbooks. Immediacy of result is available to almost anyone. But where are the journalistic ethics of a profession now open to anyone with a PC?

IS there any self-policing (and should there be)? How does the “truth” get sorted out when the new medium is a swarm of bits and bytes, not a trained organization? And if CBS, the New York Times and others lose market share, and have to trim back resources, should we be worried? Yes there may be more voices, and that may be good for speech, but one of the purposes of speech philosophically is to propose and expose government, and if we have no STRONG voices, will some stories not get out? Could bloggers have cracked Watergate? For all that we on the left usually decry huge corporations, is it perhaps worth considering that sometimes they too fulfill a useful purpose?

And who is to say that a multiplicity of smaller voices makes for qualitatively better debate than a few voices that can be heard. Mind you, I’m not defending the pasteurized voices of the alphabet networks, and certainly not the unfair and unbalanced crazy-like-a-Fox, but what if it turns out that the document given Rather was given by a source who is not a partisan Democrat, but a partisan conservative who knew the pressure to go public quickly would propel CBS to action, and created a document good enough to stand up under scrutiny long enough, then collapse? While Rush and O’Reilly and Tony Snow argue this is a Democratic plot, couldn’t it be precisely the reverse? I don’t know. And neither does Limbaugh. And that is the point. How much harm can be done by mass reproduction and forwarding of “news” of suspect credibility. Yes, it may turn out that Dan Rather screwed up. Yes, we have had our Steve Glasses and Janet Cookes. But as a percentage, they are minute. We don’t yet have studies on the accuracy of Internet blogs. But respected academics, at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, have studied gossip (which, to get tenure, they call “informal modes of news communication”). Their conclusion? As speed of communication goes up, and as professionalism goes down, accuracy goes down. Not particularly surprising, but worth considering before the Dan Rather pile up goes on any longer.

Which is why Blue Oregon, as an opinion journal, has a place and why we should think twice before assuming the Internet is a viable alternative to Rather or Brokaw and their, yes, corporate support.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    But where are the journalistic ethics of a profession now open to anyone with a PC? IS there any self-policing (and should there be)? How does the “truth” get sorted out when the new medium is a swarm of bits and bytes, not a trained organization?

    There are all directly related and intertwined questions, although the equally related and intertwined answer varies slightly depending upon what sorts of blogging one is talking about.

    But as a general precept, ethics, self-policing, and truth tend arise in the world of weblogs mainly through the interplay between and amongst weblogs themselves, because they don't only serve as a check on big media, but on each other. Ethics, self-policing, and truth emrge from the swarm.

  • john (unverified)
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    BLOGs generally consist or right-wing and left-wing opinion. This dispensible hot air does little more than reinforce the converted.

    Nearly every Oregonian story regarding my employer has been substantially incorrect. BLOGs will become competion for main stream media when insiders engage and offer first hand facts. I haven't seen much of that.

  • (Show?)

    An addendum, that I think is rather important.

    One of the things blogging and other forms of community and participatory media have done, in a sense, is to add journalism to sausage and legislation on the list of things you don't want to see being made.

    Much of what used to be (or, is still) done behind closed doors amongst reports and editors and sources, etc. now goes on out in the open in the world of weblogs. While much ado is made over what sorts of responsibilities weblogs have (an ado that is some right and some wrong), going ignored is the new responsibilities the citizen has in terms of their own media literacy.

    Now that weblogs are very much a part of the media diet, citizens/consumers of media need to be aware of how much the once-hidden process of media/journalism/reporting is taking place out in the open, and read their media accordingly taking this new context into account.

  • El Zonda (unverified)
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    This is a very strange rant, given that the Dan Rather case is an example of how bloggers can force greater accuracy on the part of the press by reviewing the latter's claims. Can it be a poorer world when more voices are out there to be evaluated by the consumer? Why lament inroads against big media's monopoly? Why rue more of a buyer's market in "the marketplace of ideas"?

    Bloggers themselves have reputations and are subject to being called on what they say by their peers -- meaning just about anybody. There is stiff competition for the attention of Internet surfers, so if a blogger is caught peddling falsehood as truth, he or she is likely to fade into obscurity. Bloggers succeed, therefore, by drawing clear lines between opinion and reporting, and therefore being cautious and modest in how they pass on information. Can the incautious and immodest succeed? Sure, but by their recklessness they limit their own access to readership.

    The relationship between bloggers and mainstream news-merchants is by no means necessarily primarily adversarial. The mainstream press will continue to have an important role to play, since bloggers have extremely limited resources. However, since bloggers can easily pool their resources (their intellectual ones, anyway), they can help keep the mainstream media honest. That way, bloggers can make some contribution as reporters, some as fact-checkers and expert spokespersons, in the event their individual skills and insights may be valuable.

    Bloggers may play different roles in the future. It should be borne in mind that the medium is very young. Many blogs appeared in reaction to the events of 9/11, and many more arose in reaction to those blogs. That is a major reason there is such polarization in the Blogosphere, as there is in the public at large. In the future, strong blog voices could play a bridge-making role,

  • Anthony (unverified)
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    My original post got cut off. Take II:

    This is a very strange rant, given that the Dan Rather case is an example of how bloggers can force greater accuracy on the part of the press by reviewing the latter's claims. Can it be a poorer world when more voices are out there to be evaluated by the consumer? Why lament inroads against big media's monopoly? Why rue more of a buyer's market in "the marketplace of ideas"?

    Bloggers themselves have reputations and are subject to being called on what they say by their peers -- meaning just about anybody. There is stiff competition for the attention of Internet surfers, so if a blogger is caught peddling falsehood as truth, he or she is likely to fade into obscurity. Bloggers succeed, therefore, by drawing clear lines between opinion and reporting, and therefore being cautious and modest in how they pass on information. Can the incautious and immodest succeed? Sure, but by their recklessness they limit their own access to readership.

    The relationship between bloggers and mainstream news-merchants is by no means necessarily primarily adversarial. The mainstream press will continue to have an important role to play, since bloggers have extremely limited resources. However, since bloggers can easily pool their resources (their intellectual ones, anyway), they can help keep the mainstream media honest. That way, bloggers can make some contribution as reporters, some as fact-checkers and expert spokespersons, in the event their individual skills and insights may be valuable.

    Bloggers may play different roles in the future. It should be borne in mind that the medium is very young. Many blogs appeared in reaction to the events of 9/11, and many more arose in reaction to those blogs. That is a major reason there is such polarization in the Blogosphere, as there is in the public at large. In the future, strong blog voices could play a bridge-making role, seeking rapprochement between divergent voices. No doubt there will always be some polarization, driven by the political party system if nothing else.

    Regarding the RatherGate situation: What would it matter "if it turns out that the document given Rather was given by a source who is not a partisan Democrat"? Whoever may have given CBS/Rather the forged documents, CBS/Rather showed astonishing incompetence in accepting them.

    Some people can't help suspecting Carl Rove of every misfortune that befalls them, but Carl Rove would have to have been stupid to think that such obvious forgeries could have gotten past the gate. Even the "pressure" of Dan Rather's desire to make Bush look bad could have been no assurance that such shabby fakes would be accepted. How anyone in his right mind can, at this point, say that Dan Rather MAY have screwed up is explicable only by either that person's bias or their insufficient acquaintance with the facts of the case.

    It also requires bias to regard the expression "the liberal media" as simply a "tired old canard," and to take the position that that bias itself isn't an important issue in this case. Would the author have been so non-chalant had Brit Hume of "crazy-like-a-Fox" run an expose on John Kerry's service using such badly forged documents? Would he have been moved by subsequent events to muse upon the dangers posed by the new freedom of the Internet? Let's be honest.

  • Randy (unverified)
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    Being relatively new to blogs -- what I have seen that keeps me coming back are the questions which can be immediately placed to the poster of any particular thing.

    In the end a news story -- whether it is in the Oregonian or on 60 Minutes -- depends on the work (including intellectual) of a finite number of people.

    In settings as public and immediate as, say, BlueOregon, everyone's comments and opinions are immediately subject to analysis and ultimately question.

    The Socratic method of question is the ultimate boulevard to the "truth" as we collectively experience it. 60 Minutes -- the Oregonian -- or even Fox News -- will have to catch on to this populist interactive information source or see their public importance continue to wane.

  • (Show?)

    FYI, on the subject of CBS and the memos. They're about to cop to being duped.

  • Jack Bogdanski (unverified)
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    I did enjoy the curious line breaks contained in this post, as they reminded me of some sort of poetry that I must have studied in my sophomore year of college many years ago.

  • (Show?)

    I've spent some time considering the nature of blogging, and I have come to believe that it's an emergent medium. Clearly, it's not journalism, in the going-out-and-finding-stories sense. But it's also not pure commentary, either. In fact, I think it's really the first truly group medium ever created. Single blogs are valuable, but as with our linking to news stories and to other blogs here, it really becomes valuable when taken in combination with other blogs and news.

    Thus have I created a little list of characteristics that I think distinguish the medium:

    Immediacy - The virtue of blogs is that they respond more quickly than any medium (other than TV--which only covers 2% of news). Interconnectivity - Blogs are also unique because, instead of working only with the network of their own reporters and bureaus, bloggers sift through the entire blogosphere and news-o-sphere for news. Together, it forms a kind of "community brain" of information. Interactivity - Through this interconnectivity is a dialogue between bloggers; with comments, you include another dimension--readers and other bloggers. This is the thing that really drives traffic on the big blogs. It's also a central virtue and intention of BlueOregon. Individuality - In a completely standardized, corporatized world, the human voice has been lost. Blogs restore that with their own brand of individuality. You get this from posts and comments. (Who here doesn't delight at seeing the name "brett" come up, knowing that it's going to be a fun comment?) Advocacy - Some blogs have an advocacy component, and with Dean and MoveOn, I think this is a dimension we'll see a lot more of in the future. Blue Oregon can certainly play a roll here.

    These, I think, are what distinguish the form. It's also worth noting that in a world of as much diversity as the blogopshere, you do have blogs that look a lot more like news--the inimitable Portland Communique is a great example. I have hopes (but make no promises) that in the coming weeks and months BlueOregon will help push the envelope on blogging.

  • brett (unverified)
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    But where are the journalistic ethics of a profession now open to anyone with a PC?

    Of course. A major network news agency willfully or recklessly ignores obvious problems with the authentication of documents, the documents are exposed by bloggers as fakes, and it's the bloggers who lack journalistic ethics. How logical.

  • brett (unverified)
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    what if it turns out that the document given Rather was given by a source who is not a partisan Democrat, but a partisan conservative

    Oh, and it's too late for this bit of misdirection. Bill Burkett was the source -- an obviously partisan Democrat. See today's NYT and Post articles. Good effort, though.

  • The Prof (unverified)
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    Jeff,

    Just to play devil's advocate ...

    Immediacy: yes, this is the problem with blogs. Without the delay and reflection necessary in the traditional news cycle, news, rumor, gossip, and lies all get bound up in one big mass.
    The 24 news cycle has gotten news organizations in trouble (see "Warp Speed" by Kovach and Rosenstiel) so I'm not sure why immediacy is necessarily a good thing.

    Interconnectivity. You are claiming that bloggers are better than reporters because they "sift through the entire blogosphere" rather than relying on their "own network of reporters"? Well, I just don't believe that bloggers sift through the entire blogosphere. And reporters rely on far more pieces of information than their own reporters (informants, government documents, lexis nexis, the internet). Again, not sure how this makes Blogs particulary advantaged.

    Interactivity. Definitely the main advantage of blogs, allows the sort of feedback that traditional news organs do not.

    Individuality: some would say the main function of the media is precisely to homogenize a complex and noisy social reality, to create some sense of shared social meaning and understanding. Your post, and other commentaries on the internet and the media, always assume individualization is necessarily a good thing. Is it? Can it go too far?

    Advocacy. As long as blogs blur the line so much between news and advocacy, they'll limit their influence.

  • (Show?)

    Prof,

    I believe you've missed the point of my post. It wasn't to argue whether the qualities of the blogopshere are good or bad. I was first trying to define what the medium is. In your rebuttal, you say things like "You are claiming that bloggers are better than reporters ...." Wrong. Reread the post.

    As to whether these qualities are better or worse than existing media--I believe the answer is not yet available. More, I think it's the wrong question. If blogs do emerge as a distinct medium, a question isn't whether they serve the function of other media adequately, but if they serve their own, explicit function.

  • The Prof (unverified)
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    jeff, thanks, i did misread that.

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