15 September 2008

Blame The Bloggers

Troy Eid, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, husband of one of Colorado's most conservative state supreme court justices, and a high level GOP political operative ranted in Sunday's Denver Post on the evils of blogging. An examination of his arguments show them to be more hysterical than historically accurate.

His arguments:

1. Blogs create public pressure on public officials based upon misinformation.

Blog-driven "news" is tragically becoming the rule, not the exception. Much of it is misinformation, where some person or interest group "spins" some angle for an unknown purpose. You can tell this when calls and e-mails start flooding the office, reading from the identical script, accusing you of the moral equivalent of crimes against humanity.

On many days, my office spends more time dealing with anonymous and often outlandish Internet rumors than talking with professional flesh-and-blood journalists. Why? Because so many print, TV and radio journalists are getting their story leads directly from the blogs, or — thanks to the changing economics of the news business — are blogging themselves.

There are several problems with this analysis.

First, professional journalists often get things wrong more often than the subject matter professionals who blog, particularly in technical areas like coverage of legal matters. This isn't because they are bad people. I was a radio news reporter myself in college and have friends who work for daily newpspaers in Los Angeles and Denver, among other places. But, journalists are generalists, while many bloggers devote themselves to subject matter reporting in areas where they have expertise.

Second, "we didn't start the fire." Mass telephone calling predates the Internet. When I was a Congressional intern in the pre-Internet days, similar call storms surfaced every time my representative was on C-SPAN, and we routinely received letter and call campaigns that have changed only slightly since the advent of the Internet. The technology has changed, but the behavior hasn't.

Both inaccurate coverage and mass outrage orchestrated by it, has its roots in Colorado at least as far back as the Republican Publishing Company, as recounted by Frank Gibbard in his article, "Libel, Contempt, and the Republican Publishing Company," at page 85 of the September 2008 issue of the Colorado Lawyer. This paper, which among others, was eventually gobbled up by the Rocky Mountain News (which also acquired a less controversial Democratic paper), drove essentially the same behavior a century ago, and was behind a majority of Colorado's early defamation cases.

Indeed, blogs have been pivotal in exposing factual errors by the press, such as a mistake about the citizenship of the Democratic nominee for President recently made by the Rocky Mountain News for which the publisher eventually ate a great deal of crow, and mistakes by such journalistic icons as the Wall Street Journal. There are some blogs that devote themselves almost entirely to policing the accuracy of traditional media outlets, like Media Matters, and others like Daily Kos which routinely make a habit of identifying traditional media and punditry's disconnect from the facts.

Certainly, most well known bloggers at least attempt to accurately report stories in good faith, something not true of the vast majority of political advertising and many press releases from interested parties (including a large share of press releases from police departments). Moreover, most blogs, particularly those on the left of the political spectrum, allow for comment on posts, which provides a means for anyone to correct in close proximity to a post, any misstatements in the post.

Eid also greatly exaggerates the extent to which blog stories are picked up by the mainstream media, something I systemically monitored when I worked for CoCo, as blog story pickups by the traditional media were something we tracked closely in our editorial meetings. It happens, but only rarely. It is far more common for accurate and important stories covered in the blogosphere to escape traditional media attention, in part due to the more press release driven nature of traditional media reporting.

2. Blogs make newspapers expose witnesses by creating a fear of being scooped.

Eid also mysteriously blames bloggers for that fact that:

The Post has understandably written and editorialized about the need to protect the identity of witnesses in criminal investigations. Yet the full name of one such witness recently appeared on The Post's own website, and then in print.

The case itself involved violent gangs that have previously terrorized other witnesses. The danger to innocent people and the justice system is obvious. Not to be left behind, the Rocky Mountain News did the same thing within hours.

He complains about the good old days when journalists would keep information from the public because prosecutors wanted them to do so. Of course, prosecutors and law enforcements don't have to expose witness identities in the first place, and often go to great lengths to keep secret witness identities when they wish to do that. But, reporting on who testifies about what in criminal matters is a practice that goes back to the earliest reporting on court proceedings (and is the subject of two generations old legal privileges for this kind of reporting) because the public needs to be able to evaluate the credibility of witnesses in a legal system where criminal trials are made public as a matter of our constitutional order.

Eid claims that witnesses are identified because of "the fear of being scooped," which he argues in turn is a consequence of the rise of blogging. The fear is, of course, as old as mass market journalism itself, which first responded to this fear with the virtually extinct concept of the "extra" edition. He also fails to explain why rape victims are far less often exposed in this way, than other criminal witnesses.

In fact, the fear of being scooped got so bad in New York City, long before there were online editions, that there was a gentleman's agreement between the major papers their to exchange early editions voluntarily to prevent anyone from being embarrassed too badly.

3. Bloggers are faceless and amoral.

Too many journalists I know and respect, pressured by their employers, seem to be running scared. They try to play catch-up with faceless bloggers, who observe no known code of ethics.

In fact, many newspaper stories are written by anonymous "staff" sometimes from an unidentified outpost at the Associated Press. Meanwhile, bloggers, like myself include pictures that can identify them more often than print journalists do, and even those who do not almost always use a consistent blogging handle that identifies them to the public for purpose of allowing the public to judge the source based upon its prior track record.

Even short lived secrets, like the identification of Jason Bane with Colorado Pols, are often open secrets, widely known by regular blog readers, long before they are officially acknowledged.

Markos at Daily Kos has likewise, repeatedly illustrated cases where it is the traditional media, and not the bloggers, who act amorally. In reality, blogs have some rather well established ethical standards in practice, including the ethical standrads of (1) disclosing sources through hyperlinks, (2) not suppressing meritorious comments that disagree with the author, (3) rallying around efforts of interested parties to suppress blog reporting, and (4) not accepting uncritically false or misleading statements of fact made by interested parties as mere opinions.

Indeed, some blogs, particularly those associated on the right with the "vast left wing conspiracy" like the Colorado Independent (formerly known as Colorado Confidential), expressly adhere to a written code of journalistic ethics and some are recognized members of journalistic associations. I know. I lived those ethical standards when I worked for CoCo.

Certainly, blogging adheres to different stylistic conventions than print journalism. Print journalist favors "eye of God" third person writing with only implicit opinion, while blogging is more often written as personal narrative with expressly stated biases. Print journalists place a much higher premium on copy editing, in part because they can't correct typographical errors later. Print journalism insists upon quoting third party authority, even when ads little to the story and denies the obvious knowledge of the person writing the story, and abhores paraphrasing, but rarely provides source materials. Bloggers, in contrast, routinely link to original source materials, but often paraphrase or summarize materials that they link. Print journalists wnat to tell all facts in the story (the five Ws and an H), while bloggers tend to note the interesting facts and refer to others for the whole story, in the interest of brevity.

The fact that Eid doesn't know the ethical standards that apply in the blogosphere, as a man who came of age in the pre-blog era, does not mean that they don't exist.

Bottom Line

There is nothing new under the sun. Blogs have had an impact, but certainly not a pernicious one with the biases suggested. Instead, Eid's latest rant is simply the effort of a senior Republican operative to carry out one of his party's core politic tactics -- to discredit the messenger delivering information conservatives don't like, in an effort to encourage voters to act in dishonest advertising, instead of more reliable information sources.

Hippies may have invented culture jamming, but the Republican perfected it as a way to undermine an honest rational discourse for cynical self-interested ends.

1 comment:

Vill Robinson said...

By providing good, specific examples from the real world of the blogosphere you've hit on a critical problem with Eid's attack: He's literally tarring an entire communications medium with a single brush but providing no substantiation for his claims.

Nowhere does Eid provide any specific examples of blogs that engaged in the type of behavior he claims influenced media coverage. Neither does Eid provide a scintilla of evidence that the media in fact engaged in the type of behavior he attributes to them. No quotes, no "smoking gun" e-mails, nada. In short, he's engaging in exactly the same type of behavior he attributes to "blogs."

What's most troubling is the idea that the U.S. Attorney essentially is railing against the democratization of mass communications. In claiming that all blogs engage in the unsavory practices that some blogs might, Eid literally is calling for the muzzling of speech that is specific to one particular medium. It's the same as arguing that nobody on talk radio should be allowed to talk about politics because Mike Rosen and Dan Caplis are such liars when they talk about politics.