Not that long ago, you had to be a professional reporter to publish defective copy. Not any more. Thanks to blogs, the journalist monopoly on the wide-scale propagation of blunders, boo-boos, and bloopers has vanished. Now, complete amateurs can embarrass themselves before huge audiences.
Bloggers demonstrated their skill at botching a story last month when a swarm of them accused the Washington Postand ABC News of journalistic malpractice. The two news organizations had reported on the existence of a GOP talking-points memo about Terri Schiavo. The bloggers asserted it was a Ratherian fake. As Eric Boehlert details in Salon, the nay-saying blogs consumed terabytes of bandwidth denouncing the Post and ABC. Powerline, Michelle Malkin, the American Spectator’s Prowler, PoliPundit, and Accuracy in Media led the charge.
After the Postand others proved the legitimacy of the document on April 7, bloggers proved themselves the equals of their mainstream media colleagues once more by ignoring or glossing over their goof. Boehlert writes, “scanning the blogs involved in the memo story, readers found few corrections or references to lessons learned.”
The Rathergate episode, in which the blogs were right, and the Schiavogate story, in which they were wrong, indicate that the blogs have reached a sort of parity with their mainstream colleagues. This development poses a question: What can the mainstream media do that the blogs can’t? And vice versa.
I ask this as both a fan of the mainstream media, which I love to torture, and of blogs, whose passion and doggedness remind me of why I became a journalist and a press critic in the first place. I started writing press criticism at Washington City Paper back in 1986, because as editor I couldn’t get anybody else to do it. Writers were frightened that if they penned something scathing about the Washington Post or the New York Times they’d screw themselves out of a future job. Today, the sort of dagger and epee work I used to perform on big media gets done by hundreds of bloggers before I can rise and read the morning paper. Thanks to blogs, we’ve gone from a culture where few criticized the press to one where it’s the new national pastime.
When it comes to opinion pieces, bloggers have an edge over the pros. I’m not saying that bloggers are necessarily better writers than full-time members of the commentariat, but Daily Kos, Joshua Marshall, Daniel Drezner, Daily Howler, Volokh Conspiracy, Brad DeLong, et al., produce more immediate and succinct copy than their mainstream colleagues. To stretch a manufacturing analogy, unsalaried bloggers represent low-cost Chinese laborers, professional journalists the well-paid-with-benefits American workers. Given the right tools and infrastructure, low-cost Chinese labor can produce work that is every bit the equal of the high-price kind. What the Web has done is remove the barriers to entry from opinion journalism, much to the benefit of readers. If told that I had to forgo the editorial and op-ed pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times or lose my blog bookmarks, I’d say hands off my browser!
Professional journalists have it all over bloggers when it comes to reporting. The first generation of bloggers tends to resist taking off their PJs and donning hip-waders to report the news from the swamp. Reporting is a learned skill, and experience counts for something. Also, professional news organizations pay for airplane tickets, hotel accommodations, car rentals, libel insurance, editing, and other resources to make reporting happen. How many unpaid bloggers will cover a war from the shrapneled front? A handful. Maybe.
Yet the pros don’t have a complete lock on reporting. Energetic bloggers, such as activist Michael Petrelis, have learned to work the FOIA machinery and the FEC database as well as the best professionals. Captain Ed at Captain’s Quarters kicked up an international incident just this week by publishing banned-in-Canada material about the Canadian Liberal Party. Russ Kick of the Memory Hole does heroic work in retrieving banned information and uncovering government secrets. If they wanted to, bloggers could poach the local news beat away from the professional media by covering city council and school-board activity that goes undocumented by the mainstream. Greensboro 101, in Greensboro, N.C., has those sorts of ambitions. Likewise, Mark Potts’ “hyperlocal” backfence.com hopes to take “reporting” down to the pixel level of neighborhood T-ball games, PTA meetings, and development issues.
As many critics have remarked, blogs will never replace the mainstream media because without the mainstream media to feed on they can’t exist. Blogs are parasites, they say. Oddly, when the mainstreamers sup from the trough set out for them by the National Security Archive, the Center for Public Integrity, the GAO, and other institutions, nobody calls them parasites.
Writer for writer, mainstream journalists possess more talent than bloggers, and talent matters when you’re competing for an audience. It’s no accident the several of the best bloggers, Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, James Wolcott, and Joshua Marshall, honed their interpretive, narrative, and reportorial skills in mainstream media. It sounds flip, but one thing mainstream journalists could teach bloggers is that there is more to the craft of writing than typing “Atrios nails it!” and linking to Eschaton.
Professional journalists enjoy better reputations than bloggers, but that’s mostly a function of the propaganda put out by some pros that bloggers fill every sentence with mistakes. (Bloggers return the insult, of course.) When David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times threw a brick from his glass house late last month, I threw it back. While not five nines reliable, the better blogs that I read are as accurate as your average daily newspaper (which might not be saying that much). As I’ve argued before, journalists have the right to get it wrong occasionally, and this right should be extended to bloggers. If we refrain from publishing until we’re 1,000 percent certain, the only thing we’ll end up reading is Ph.D. dissertations.
What can bloggers do that professional journalists can’t? Because bloggers answer to no one, they need not worry if their dispatches cause the chairman of the board of General Motors to stop talking to the publisher—or placing ads. Their independence gives them a subversive strength, one that undermines the cozy relationship the press has with its corporate cousins and government. The unmediated nature of blogs, which frightens so many professional journalists, is really a plus. With so many bloggers writing outside the bounds of authority, they’ve become impossible to silence or censor, and their provocations help keep the national debate going at full tilt. Too bad constructive recklessness can’t be taught.
I owe one of the ideas in this piece to Reason’s Nick Gillespie. He owes me a drink. Send drink vouchers and non-refundable ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)