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Monday, January 16, 2006

Are Bloggers "Kept Sources" When Blogging at GOP-Sanctioned Events?

Danny Glover at Beltway Blogroll was less than impressed with the performance of those bloggers who accepted the invitation of the Republican National Committee and the SXenate Republican Conference to cover the Alito hearings last week and attend a series of invitation-only briefings by various experts selected by the GOP committee.

Glover, who is among the most thoughtful and independent voices in the Blogosphere, suggested the invited bloggers compromised themselves by accepting the GOP's invitation, the access and the paid expenses that came with it. Not all of those who came under the RNC auspices accepted the expense reimbursement, notably Captain's Quarter's Ed Morrissey.

"The bloggers not only welcomed the lavish treatment and exclusive access bestowed upon them by the Republican National Committee and the Senate Republican Conference; they basked in it without reservation. They dropped names (White House adviser Karl Rove was the favorite), heaped praise on their news subjects and celebrated their chance to imbibe in the trappings of power."

Glover was also disappointed that the assembled bloggers didn't take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the situation to fire some tough questions about non-Alito topics at the parade of prominent GOP senators who came before them for face-time.

Even so, Glover did see some very positive results:

"The bloggers occasionally provided powerful commentary on the actual confirmation hearings. They also dedicated plenty of space to experts ignored by the mainstream media, which is among the praiseworthy functions of blogs.
"But the bloggers let pass a rare opportunity to grill senators and top officials about topics that matter to the bloggers. They let their sources set the agenda. Scott Johnson of Power Line did pursue
one personal mission - identifying who is responsible for delaying an unrelated judicial nomination - but he appears to have been the exception to the rule."

Being a mainstream media veteran himself, Glover well knows that the issues he raises are not new. In fact, most major mainstream media organizations have long had policies against allowing reporters and editors to accept anything from sources - meals, trips, gifts - that might create an appearance of editorial-for-sale.

I also wondered about the credibility issue with the Alito hearings invitation and not only because I spent so many years in the daily newspaper business. I also spent nearly two years as the RNC's publications director during the first two years of the Reagan administration and this very issue was prominent.

The RNC's flagship publication then was a montly four-color magazine, "Monday," that went to more than 1.2 million donors. As a way of enhancing Monday's credibility as something other than a mere spin machine, I started in 1981 a monthly "Newsmaker Interview" in which a prominent administration official sat down for an interview with three invited mainstream media reporters.

The ground rules were simple: Everything was on the record and Monday would publish the exact transcript of the interview. The interviewee would not see the interview transcript prior to publication in Monday. If he or she said something stupid, it got published.

After some early bumps in the road, the Newmaker Interview was established as a credible no-holds-barred interview opportunity for journalists covering the government. Even so, there were still some significant media organizations that declined to participate, citing fears they would be accused of compromising their objectivity.

The issue now for bloggers, as it was then and remains today for mainstream media journalists, is whether a particular situation creates an appearance of a conflict of interest or otherwise compromises the credibility of the published results.

There is one big difference between bloggers and mainstream media journalists. The former do not claim the mantle of objectivity so valued, at least in word if not always deed, by the latter. So what if a blogger's expenses are paid by a partisan committee if the blogger makes no bones about having a partisan perspective?

There is another consideration here and that is the simple fact that partisanship doesn't always preclude journalism that advances the public interest. The press of the Founders' era was instrinsically partisan and often horrendously so, yet the First Amendment was viewed by its author James Madison as essential to the nation's future.

The "cult of objectivity" is a relatively new invention, having first become a fixed principle in the commonly accepted ethics of journalism by the time Walter Lippman wrote "Public Opinion."

Here's the key passage from that work, which epitomized the application of the modernist "fact versus value" dichotomy to the news-gathering process:

"The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act ...
"... For the news, as we have seen, is precise in proportion to the precision with which the event is recorded. Unless the event is capable of being named, measured, given shape, made specific, it either fails to take on the character of news, or it is subject to the accidents and prejudices of observation."

Lippman's formulation of news being only that which can be verified through concrete measurement - i.e. a kind of scientific method for journalists - is the root from which sprang the present claims of credibility by the mainstream media stemming from their allegedly publishing only verifiable facts. Processes like those layers of fact-checking editors who are supposed to guarantee the credibility of the reporting process are simply extensions of that verification process.

Obviously, a blogger who accepts gifts from a partisan source gives up the right to claim he or she is merely recording an event because the gift makes their reporting "subject to the accidents and prejudices of observation."

Just as obviously, if one believes bloggers are incapable of separating out their prejudices from their observations, then they have no place as a source of verifiable, measured news defined in Lippman's terms.

The key issue, however, is no longer whether a blogger can function as a credible news gatherer. That concept assume the pre-Internet era when news was, as Dan Gillmor described it, essentially a lecture by the news-gatherers to the news-consumers.

With the coming of the internet, news is now a conversation and the key consideration is knowing, to again put it in Lippmanesque terms, what prejudices may be at work in the "reporting" by any particular participant in the conversation. Credibility is no longer a function of perceived objectivity but rather of perceived factuality.

Put otherwise, transparency is the key consideration in evaluating the credibility of a news voice. As long as the RNC-sanctioned bloggers disclosed the nature of their connection with the GOP, there is no reason to assume they ceased being able to talk about what they saw and heard in a maner that provides value to readers. Readers simply need to remember there are other voices, some of which may well possess greater credibility.

This issue is not going to go away anytime soon because the Blogosphere is at such an early stage in its development as an information and opinion source for vast numbers of people around the world. I expect Glover will have more to say and I know I will.

Stay tuned.