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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Are Bloggers Journalists? Are MSMers No Longer Relevant?

Two significant conferences for traditional journalists and bloggers were held this past weekend and two of the major mainstream media voices at those events provided extensive and rather pointed critiques of the Blogosphere while arguing that bloggers cannot be real journalists.

In the process, Michael Shear of The Washington Post and Brant Houston of Investigative Reporters & Editors provided fresh evidence of the persistent blindness that is at the root of the mainstream media's continuing crisis and decline.

Let's start with Schear, the luncheon speaker at the Summit on Blogging and Democracy in the Commonwealth hosted by the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. But it was his comments before a prior panel on blogging and journalism, however, that made manifest Schear's blindness about bloggers and journalism.

Beltway Blogroll's Danny Glover has the full text of Schear's presentation here. You should also read Glover's reporting and analyses of the summit and the related issues here and here. In the interest of full disclosure, I count Glover a good friend and respected professional and blogging colleague. I have never met Schear and was not present during his presentation at UVA.

On the one hand, Schear contended that blogs provide a positive contribution in three ways: "First, in focusing attention on happenings to which the MSM pay too little attention; second, in offering analysis - almost always filtered through a particular political philosophy - that often goes far deeper than any mainstream media outlet has the time or resources to do; and third, in being effective political advocates for a cause or a candidate."

On the other hand, Schear found much more about blogs that is anything but positive: "... we in the mainstream press attempt to make sure what we have written is true. I'm not sure the same can be said for bloggers ... Your sites serve too often as clearinghouses for rumors, innuendo, political attacks, misunderstandings, half-truths and gossip."

Schear further noted with alarm that anybody can post anything on blogs, often anonymously, regardless of the truth and without consequence: "At a newspaper, people can lose their jobs if false accusations are printed. In blogs, there seems to be no accountability at all."

Schear's concluding graph brings home his basic point: "You are pundits. You are aggregators of other people's work. You are analysts. You are political activists. You are gossips. You are agitators. You are not journalists."

None of this is new, of course, being a restatement of the basic mainstream critique that bloggers are amatuers because they have no filtering process to insure factuality and who therefore at best can only offer partisan commentary that occasionally surfaces important stories missed or ignored by the real journalists.

I should note, too, that Schear offered several interesting and useful suggestions for bloggers, which, according to Glover, received a serious and respectful hearing from the bloggers in attendance and during post-event comments.

Now, let's take a look at Houston's "Saving the press" op-ed in the Sunday edition of The Dallas Morning News. He was in Dallas for the IRE National Conference, which attracted an estimated 1,000 attendees.

Again by way of full disclosure, I should note that I know Houston professionally and I've been a member of IRE for a long time, though I was not among the Dallas attendees. IRE is an immensely valuable organization that deserves a tremendous amount of credit for encouraging and aiding quality investigative journalism in the U.S. and around the world.

Houston is also author of what I consider the best textbook on computer-assisted reporting, which I have used since 2001 in the Database 101 CARR Boot Camps I teach on behalf of The Heritage Foundation and in coordination with the Erik Friedheim Library at the National Press Club. As a result, I think I may well have bought more copies of Houston's book than anybody else in the world!

In the course of arguing that the depth and public service value of investigative reporting may prove to be the mainstream media's saving grace, Houston offers the following assessment of the Blogosphere:

"Investigative reporting distinguishes journalists from agenda-pushing bloggers, from advocacy talk shows that parade as fair and balanced, and from the shallow reporting that happens when Wall Street pressures newsrooms to cut staffs.

"The worth of investigative reporting is not measured in constant bean-counting, but in how well it serves the public interest. Solid investigative reporting demonstrates the credibility of a vigilant press, as well as the need for one - a need that's greater than ever.

"With the advent of the Web and the blogosphere, rumors and misinformation have run rampant."

As with Schear in Virginia, in Texas we see Houston pushing the familiar mainstream media stereotype of bloggers as partisan-driven rumor-mongers in vivid contrast to a vigilant, truth-seeking media that protects the public interest.

So, how do we answer Schear and Houston? Actually, we don't have to because in stating their respective cases against bloggers Schear and Houston make it clear they either aren't aware of the impressively growing range of news reporting by bloggers or these two denizens of the mainstram media simply cannot or will not acknowledge it.

But it really doesn't make much difference anymore whether traditional journalists recognize bloggers as legitimate members of the news-gathering fraternity because folks like Schear and Houston are beng bypassed at an accelerating pace by the digital revolution. Glover details this with his roundup of recent milestones in the growing recognition of the legitimate news-gathering role of bloggers.

One of those milestones stands out. Glover quotes a California Appeals Court decision in the case upholding the application of that state's shield law for reporters to two bloggers who used inside sources in 2005 to report details of then-forthcoming Apple products.

Apple had argued successfully in California district court that the two bloggers weren't covered by the shield law and demanded to know their sources who had allegedly compromised employment agreements and commercial privileges.

The appeals court demurred, as Glover notes:

"'We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes 'legitimate journalis[m],' the court wrote on May 26. 'The shield law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what petitioners did here.' The court added that the Web postings were 'conceptually indistinguishable from publishing a newspaper, and we see no theoretical basis for treating it differently.'"

That gets to the essential point that Schear and Houston and so many of my colleagues in the mainstream media simply don't get - there are increasing numbers of bloggers who do the same thing traditional journalists do, which is gather information of interest to others and publish that information in an accessible form. The bloggers don't always do it the same way as mainstream journalists, but the end result is the same - news is gathered and published.

True, the news-gathering bloggers represent a tiny portion of the millons of blogs "out there," but when even The Washington Post features on its web site blogs produced by members of its news and editorial staffs, it is clear the blog is rapidly becoming an accepted news format and has moved way beyond simply being a handy forum for members of the Pajamadeen to vent partisan bile and politically lascivious rumors.

My guess is that had they been around when Luther did his thing in Wittenburg, folks like Schear and Houston would have been members of the Papal chorus chanting hymns in praise of the orderly and well-regulated dissemination of religious doctrine by the professional clergy to the ignorant masses.