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Monday, November 29, 2004

When Will MSM Learn? NYT Caught Using Dem Talking Points

First, it was Dan Rather's faked Bush National Guard memos, then The New York Times's lost munitions debacle. In both cases, the sloppy (or worse) reporting and researching by these MSM bastions was publicly exposed by the Blogosphere. Now it appears the Times has again tripped itself because somebody there thought nobody would notice their use of Senate Democratic Policy Committee talking points.

Wrong again, Fearless Fosdick! Check out Patterico's Pontifications here for the whole story. Suffice it to say in this space that whoever wrote the "Mr. Smith Goes Under the Gavel" editorial in the Sunday Times either had no idea a quote from Missouri Sen. Kit Bond was bogus or simply didn't care. The Bond quote appeared in an editorial defending Senate Democrats use of filibusters to block President Bush's judicial nominees. Here's the key graph from the Times:

"Judicial nominees have never been immune from filibusters. When Republicans opposed President Lyndon Johnson's choice for chief justice, Abe Fortas, they led a successful filibuster to stop him from getting the job. More recently, in the Clinton era, Republicans spoke out loudly in defense of their right to filibuster against the confirmation of cabinet members and judicial nominees. Republican senators, including Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine of Ohio, used a filibuster in 1995 to block President Bill Clinton's nominee for surgeon general. Bill Frist, now the Senate majority leader, supported a filibuster of a Clinton appeals court nomination. Senator Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican, was quoted in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1993 saying, 'On important issues, I will not hesitate to join a filibuster.'"

Patterico, a University of Texas law school grad who now works as a prosecutor in California, did a quick Google search on the quote and found that the Missouri Senator was actually talking about President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic recovery package and his willingness to filibuster that measure. Patterico's research also found the DPC document here that used the Bond quote as an example of alleged Senate GOP waffling on the filibuster issue. Patterico's blog is part of the Oh, That Liberal Media truth squad that specializes in causing heartburn in MSM newsrooms across the country.

How many more such MSM embarrassments will be exposed by the Blogosphere before traditional editors, producers and reporters get the message - the day of the News-as-Lecture-from-on-High is over because somebody is watching over your shoulder now. I suspect the answer is many because old habits die hard among those who grow accustomed to living the unexamined professional life.

By the way, OTLM may well be a model for applying the Blogosphere's unique fact-checking and information generation capabilities to influential public policy institutions like the media. OTLM numbers include 16 mischevious types - one of whom is my Heritage colleague Mary Katherine Ham - who each keep an eye on particular MSM outlets and publish their gleanings collectively and on their respective blogs. That's the genius of the Blogosphere: Round up a bunch of smart people with a common interest and focus their collective energies, skills and wit on a particular institution or issue, then step back and watch the accountability fur fly.

Just think what could be done about, for example, government waste if the pork-happy congressmen responsible for the 11,000+ special interest spending projects enacted in 2004 knew they will be held up to public scorn by a "FeedingthePig" media blog modelled on OTLM? And think how much influence the Under-30 crowd could have with an aggressive and well-focused "ReformSocialSecurityNow" blog devoted to a daily spotlighting of the heroes and goats in the coming congressional debate on fixing Social Security?

Folks, we are just scratching the surface of what the Internet in general and the Blogosphere in particular can do for and to the media and the public policy process.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The First Thanksgiving Proclamation

Thanksgiving is a big deal in my family. We have so much to be thankful for, beginning with our Savior's love and grace, as well as living in the freest and most blessed nation in the history of the world. It saddens me to see how in so many ways our contemporary culture has devalued this holiday and emptied Thanksgiving of its enduring meaning.

It is instructive to read the first Thanksgiving proclamation, issued June 20, 1676, by the Charlestown, Massachusetts, town council. It reminds us of much, but especially that America was literally wrested from a wilderness, first by a wandering people despised in their homeland for their faith and successively by other often despised people coming from all over the world seeking liberty, opportunity and a future for their kids.

What has been created in American history is nothing less than amazing, astounding. My continual prayer is that my conservative friends will never take America's future for granted and that my liberal friends will rediscover and cherish the beacon of hope that America truly is for the rest of the world.

Thanks to the good folks at Publius Press and The Federalist Patriot, you can read that Charlestown proclamation here. Have a wonderful holiday. I will return to blog anew next Monday, Nov. 29.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Can "Distributed Reporting" Save the MSM?

You might think, since I am an aging ink-stained wretch, that applying the Internet's distibuted intelligence capabilities to the daily tasks of journalism would be a foreign concept to yours truly. I don't doubt that most traditional journalists in the MSM either know nothing at all about this concept or fear it, if they do. For me, though, hardly anything gets me more excited than thinking about how to harness the incredible reporting power available to journalists of all kinds using distributed reporting.

The idea is simple: Just as the distributed intelligence of a network of software engineers or automobile designers can bring to bear on a technical problem a vastly larger range of skills, experience and knowledge, distributed reporting can focus an incredible spectrum of "sources" or "stringers" on the news-gathering process.

Think of it this way - who is more likely to nail a complicated story, one intrepid MSM reporter backed up by a small staff of fact-checkers and a bevy of over-worked, underpaid, griping desk editors, or a network of thousands of individuals with varying levels of knowledge, experience and contacts and the ability to bring those assets to bear in cybertime?

You can find more detailed discussions of this concept here at The American Thinker and here with The Belmont Club, with both discussions being focused on the Blogosphere's role in the Dan Rather/Bush National Guard Memo scandal. Also, check out Dan Gillmor's superb book, "We the Media" here.

But how can we apply distributed reporting to the newsroom of a traditional daily or a broadcast news outlet? BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis has an interesting observation in this regard:

"Distributed reporting:
"Finally catching up with email and read a neat notion from Jay Rosen. He noted that Josh Marshall was getting his readers to call their representatives to see whether they had voted for the DeLay Rule since (a) the votes weren't recorded and (b) the reps would be more likely to level with voters than with reporters. "Great example of blogging doing journalism one better," says Jay. Right. It's distributed reporting: The people do the digging.
"I can imagine a score of stories where this would work: You ask your readers to call their congressmen to find out a stance and put together a chart (a wiki would work better for this than blog comments, by the way). You have your fellow bloggers each tell you whether the newspapers and TV and radio stations in their town covered a story you think is important and even have them all call the papers' editors to ask why not.
"I think a lot of our open-space tax dollars are wasted on space nobody'd want anyway, so I could ask people to take pictures of stupid open space purchases near them. But it's not restricted to bloggers alone: A smart reporter could start a blog and ask readers what's happening in the communities they cover."

A similar approach could work whenever Congress gives itself a pay hike without having a direct yes or no vote on the amount. The way the system is rigged now, an individual congressman only has to not vote to allow a pay hike to become law. How many Members of Congress would continue to go along with this charade knowing every one of them will be forced on the record one way or the other by a distributed reporting network in the Blogosphere?

Maybe I am naive, but I think this concept could be the salvation of the MSM and the key to a restoration of the kind of genuine independent watchdog journalism the Founders envisioned when they approved the First Amendment.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Is an Obsession with "Diversity in the Newsroom" Killing Daily Circulation?

It's buried in the Metro section, but there is a fascinating story in today's Washington Post that sheds much light on how the MSM is missing the mark in dealing with declining circulation and audiences in the Internet Age. Here are the key graphs:

"Downie told staffers that the paper has made strides to increase newsroom diversity in recent years, and said that of the paper's 30 to 40 top editors, 'white males are in the minority.' But he said the paper needs to hire more minorities and to improve its coverage of the area's increasingly diverse population.
"Downie and Bennett will hold a meeting to address diversity issues early next month.
"The Post just wrapped up its annual self-evaluation meeting, an offsite event that includes top editors and executives from the paper's business side. This year's meeting focused on the paper's declining circulation -- now at 709,500 daily copies, down 10 percent over the past two years -- and the results of an extensive readership survey taken last summer.
"In an effort to win new readers, Downie said Post reporters will be required to write shorter stories. The paper's design and copy editors will be given more authority to make room for more photographs and graphics.
The paper will undergo a redesign to make it easier for readers to find stories. It is considering filling the left-hand column of the front page with keys to stories elsewhere in the paper and other information readers say they want from the paper, which they often consider 'too often too dull,' Downie said. "

Two observations: First, circulation plunged 10 percent during the period when the newsroom's leadership focused so intently on diversifying that minorities became the majority. Could it be the newsroom leadership was focusing on the wrong problem during those two years in which circulation plunged? Nobody denies that minority journalists should get exactly the same consideration as anybody else in newsroom hiring. But where is the evidence that a quota-driven editorial structure is more likely to increase circulation than a structure governed solely by demonstrated talent and experience?

Second, why do all of the readership surveys done for declining circulation dailies always seem to conclude that circulation is falling because stories are too long and readers yearn for more colorful graphics? Is there a pre-packaged survey used by all dailies because they all want the same conclusions? And where do those 100,000 or so lost readers go for their news now anyway?

Maybe the problem isn't stories that aren't short enough or easy to find. Perhaps we might even learn something about the real problem facing the Post on its front page this very morning. There we find a front page dominated by a five-column photo above the fold on the Clinton library dedication and a story about how presidents Bush II, Clinton, Carter and Bush I made nicey-nice to each other. An inside-political-baseball story of primary interest to what is undoubtedly a tiny slice of the Post's remaining readership.

This on a day when The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times relegated the Clinton library dedication to an A1 photo with a reefer to an inside story. USA Today's front is dominated by a photo of NASCAR star Kurt Busch. In fairness to the Post, it should be noted that the Clinton library was similarly prominent on the front page of The Washington Times.

Here's the bottom line: The Post editors and anybody else seeking to understand why increasing diversity is not the major problem facing American journalism need only spend a few hours with Bill McGowan's "Coloring the News," from Encounter Books and available via Amazon.com for $11.53. A former Newsweek and BBC reporter, McGowan lays the issue out in blunt but instructive terms.

Then get your hands on Dan Gillmor's "We the Media," also available from Amazon.com, for $14.95. The biggest problem facing MSM giants like the Post is whether or not they can make themselves relevant in an age in which news is a conversation, not a lecture on diversity or anything else.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

What About the Feds with Agendas like NBC's 'Activist' Cameraman?

Kevin Sites, the NBC cameraman who incited a worldwide flap with his filming of a Marine administering a defensive coup de grace to a Fallujah insurgent, is being ripped here and defended here. Whatever one thinks about the propriety of Sites' ideological orientation or of his actions in filming the incident, there is another significant aspect to NBC's broadcast of the film.

Journalists' political affiliations are mostly kept in the background, but there is little doubt those affiliations do have some influence on their editing and reporting. The Blogosphere is probably in the process of making it impossible to conceal such affiliations much longer, just as OpenSecrets.org and other web sites that post campaign contribution data are making it impossible to hide journalists' donations to candidates.

But there is a similar situation in the federal government where thousands of members of the 1.8 million career federal civil service are devoted members of ideological advocacy groups and one has to wonder how many of them use their public employment to advance the agendas of those groups. I speak from experience in this area, as I was Assistant Director for Public Affairs at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in the early eighties when the decision was made to admit ideological advocacy groups to the Combined Federal Campaign, the federal government's annual in-house charitable appeal. As a result of that decision, a wide range of mostly liberal and fewer conservative ideological advocacy groups were admitted. Employee contributions are deducted from their paychecks by the government and sent to the recipient organizations. You can read the current list of CFC participants here.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with federal employees contributing to whatever charitable group they desire. Almost from the outset of their participation in the CFC, though, many of the ideological advocacy groups received and thereafter became dependent upon significant amounts of money contributed by federal civil servants. Among the questions thus raised by the NBC camerman flap is if, for example, the EPA employee who gives $1,000 to Earth Share is also advocating within the agency's regulatory processes on behalf of some or all of the agendas of the environmental groups included in that network. The same question could apply to the enthusiastic NRA backer in the Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms operation. Anybody with experience in federal regulatory compliance knows how critical such regs are to operation of the government and how an otherwise obscure change here or there can cost regulated industries hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Perhaps federal employees should be required to disclose donations to ideological advocacy groups that do business with their employing agencies. With or without such a requirement, the Blogosphere could be invaluable in surfacing such conflicts of interest when and if they exist.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Can the Blogosphere Transform Government? Maybe Not

Check out Andrew Grossman's insightful dissent on the Heritage Policy Weblog from my optimism about the capacity of the Blogosphere to force a new level of transparency in government. Andrew's basic point is that government and media operate as two entirely separate worlds. Public choice theory says government makes choices according to its own interest and, transparency not being in the interest of government, the Blogosphere can't force it on the bureaucrats. Actually, Andrew makes Andrew's point better than Mark does! Here he is:

"A major part of the problem is that the government doesn't play the same game as the media, which despite all manner of regulation still works for a paycheck. The government, however, operates without regard to public demand and often oblivious to public sentiment. Public choice theory explains a lot of how the government makes decisions that often go against the voting public's will, though the solutions it currently offers are often impracticable."

Definitely worth reading Andrew's argument in full.

Are Bloggers now the dominant media?

There is always a risk of exaggeration when evaluating the impact of a new technology. To see just how risky, spend a little time in the archives of Motley Fool or Tech Central Station scanning predictions about the Internet's impact during the late 90s stock market bubble.

Even so, in assessing its impact on the MSM and the 2004 presidential campaign we find within the hard numbers and the dynamic of the traditional newsroom solid reasons to conclude that the Blogosphere essentially has replaced the assignment editors at The New York Times and The Washington Post as the shapers of the nation's daily news agenda. Here's why:

First, as Edward Driscoll pointed out in a March Tech Central Station column (http://www.techcentralstation.com/031504B.html), more people are likely writing and visiting blogs on the Internet at any given time than are reading the Times or Post, or watching a network or cable news program. Just look at the numbers. Fox's Bill O'Reilly draws about two million viewers on a good night. Dan Rather pulls around 10 million. The Times' average daily circulation is about 1.5 million. Harris Poll estimates 146 million adults on the Internet and Driscoll pegs the number of bloggers among them at seven million or so. The best of the bloggers draw perhaps 100,000 daily hits.

Among those daily hits are undoubtedly repeat visits by broadcast and cable news producers and key editors at the top dailies. They know big stories are more likely to show up first on an influential blog like Instapundit.com or The Command Post. Thus, the bloggers drive the selection process of what is and is not news.

That's merely my speculation today - expect it to be borne out in an authoritative survey or study soon. Associated Press chief Tom Curley is not likely among those who would doubt the accuracy of my speculation. Curley told a recent OPA gathering that the Blogosphere sees 16,000 new posts per hour, or about what AP creates in an entire day. Read Curley's entire speech at http://journalist.org/2004conference/archives/000079.php.

But wait, there's more! The Center for Media Research cites a recent study for the Online Publishers Association that estimates among adults 18 to 54 the Internet is the first choice of 45.2 percent, compared to 34.6 percent choosing TV first. More important, three quarters of those queried in the OPA study say they use the internet for keeping up with topics that interest them. They use tv for entertainment. The growth portion of the news audience is the Internet and it is an audience that demands news on its own terms, not the terms of the editors and producers.

No wonder Curley told OPA: "That's a huge shift in the 'balance of power' in our world, from the content providers to the content consumers. 'Appointment-driven' news consumption is quickly giving way to 'on-demand' news consumption.

"And, as we've seen so clearly in the last year or so, consumers will want to use the two-way nature of the Internet to become active participants themselves in the exchange of news and ideas. The news, as 'lecture,' is giving way to the news as a 'conversation.'"

Another way to spell "conversation" is b-l-o-g.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Some signs the networks really get it

CBS News President Andrew Heyward is quoted by AP, saying this of the emerging media landscape:

"I think it's important to look at this as in increasingly sumptuous smorgasbord of choices, and Fox started that." Heyward said. "It's very different from the comfortable oligopoly that prevailed at the beginning of broadcast news, where you had networks with enormous market share. I think that's to the public benefit. It puts more pressure on us to be excellent."

That's easy to say, but actually changing an ingrained newsroom culture is one of the toughest challenges anybody can accept. Taking religion seriously as a legitimate newsbeat is a great place to start. When we see the networks addressing topics like the following, we will see genuine progress at ABC, CBS and NBC:

* On any given Sunday, the majority of Americans are in church or otherwise involved in a religious activity. Why do they keep going back? How does their faith and church affect the way they live the rest of the week? What kinds of ministries are they involved with? And how about an interview with Journalism Prof. Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas discussing how the Protestant Reformation made contemporary journalism possible?

* On any given day of the week, there are thousands of Americans living overseas as missionaries, oftentimes risking their lives to spread the Gospel and doing countless acts of service helping the poor, the oppressed and the sick in every virtually country of the world. Some, like "Prayer of Jabez" author Bruce Wilkinson, have given up property and position here to do things like minister to Africa's AIDS victims. Just for starters, let's see a "60 Minutes" segment that lets folks like Wilkinson explain what motivates them and a "Dateline" analysis of the incredible impact of the life and death of Jim Elliot.

* On any given issue involving science - like evolution vs creation - there are legions of profoundly inteligent and articulate men and women of faith who are also deeply involved in the most arcane and advanced branches of scientific inquiry. Real courage in this would be shown by airing the Discovery Institute's "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" and then allowing a debate among critics and advocates of that documentary's case for intelligent design based on proofs from bio-chemistry.

With just a little thought and some serious face-time with people like FamilyLife's Dennis Rainey, Ron Blue of "Master Your Money" fame and "Purpose-Driven Life" author Rick Warren will yield an abundant harvest of additional story ideas.

Now, how about some suggestions from the Blogosphere for stories in other areas of public policy and life that would be signs the networks are getting it?

Can the Blogosphere do for government what it has done for the MSM?

My answer is an enthusiastic yes and my purpose with this blog is to do whatever I can to encourage this revolutionary process forward. Adding the collective wisdom of the Blogosphere to the operations of our various government agencies at all levels will do more to insure transparency, accountability, democratic responsiveness and just plain common sense than McCain-Feingold, the various "Ethics in Government" acts and regulations of the past 50 years and all of the Inspectors-Generals' reports combined. My most recent column for Knight Ridder Tribune News' Freedom of Information Series offers additional arguments and observations and I would love to hear comments from others in the Blogosphere:

Internet revolution is forcing transparency
November 15, 2004

"Debates about “red states” and “blue states” aside, the 2004 presidential campaign made one thing clear: The Internet is rapidly establishing real-time transparency in government and the media as the sine qua non of American public policy.
"That’s good news for the American voter, because for the most part government and the major media remain for now much as they have been for the past half-century -- too remote, restrictive and elitist.
"Revolutions aren’t won in a day and sometimes progress is slow, so friends of openness in government can take heart knowing they’re on the winning side. Here are three reasons why their victory is inevitable:
"First, the Blogosphere has ended Big Media’s monopoly on deciding what is news and how it should be covered. A relative handful of influential editors and producers at media outlets such as The New York Times and CBS News no longer shape the national agenda.
"Consider those exploding cigars of Dan Rather’s National Guard memos and the Times’ “lost munitions” story. Within hours of Rather’s Guard memos broadcast, Powerlineblog.com, LittleGreenFootballs.com and other bloggers exposed the memos as fakes. Within a week, Rather’s story was a major embarrassment for the once-respected Tiffany Network.
"The process was repeated with the Times story that suggested terrorists stole 380 tons of a powerful explosive from Saddam Hussein’s Al Qaqaa munitions depot because Bush failed to guard it properly during the U.S. military’s drive to Baghdad.
"As with the Rather National Guard memos, within hours bloggers such as FroggyRuminations.com and TruthLaidBear.com exposed huge holes in the lost munitions story. The bloggers charged the Times with inexcusably sloppy research and with excluding key details indicating the munitions were gone long before the first U.S. troops arrived at Al Qaqaa.
"These episodes demonstrate San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor’s maxim that people reading the news collectively often know more about a topic than the journalists reporting it. No media organization’s research staff can match the collective fact-checking power and speed of bloggers. Thus, Big Media is on notice: Report it straight or risk public humiliation.
"The second reason victory is inevitable concerns public officials. Bloggers forcing more media transparency today can force more transparency in government tomorrow, from the most obscure bureaucracy to the White House. It will be tougher to bring about in government because the light of accountability is anathema to so many bureaucrats and office-holders. But happen it will.
"Finally, the Internet is sparking an explosion of publicly available data from government at all levels and putting it in the hands of millions of citizens, journalists, political and community activists, academics and think-tank experts with the skills to make sense of the numbers. Government officials can no longer control the means of measuring the success or failure of public policies.
"For example, perhaps you are skeptical of claims taxes must be increased so more can be spent on local schools. Find out how much is really being spent and where those tax dollars come from on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data Web site at http://www.census.gov/govs/www/school.html.
"Or maybe you want to know how many problems health inspectors found in a facility you’re considering for your elderly parent. Go to the Department of Health and Human Services web site at http://www.medicare.gov/NHCompare.
"Like Agent Mulder’s truth that is “out there,” data on virtually every topic imaginable is becoming available at little or no cost. Millions of people across America know how to access and analyze such data, thanks to the availability of software programs such as Microsoft Excel.
"As public awareness of the utility and accessibility of such data grows, so will the demand for more access and more data. Pressure on government to put more of its internal processes on the Internet will grow. A logical starting place is the federal government’s Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS), which contains millions of internal reports on the performance of thousands of government contractors.
"How long before vast networks of Internet-savvy citizen analysts apply the same immense fact-checking power to pork-laden government programs as the emerging Blogosphere is now doing with Big Media? Then the Freedom of Information Act will have real muscle."