Some Blogs Just as Credible as Mainstream Media
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Some Blogs Just as Credible as Mainstream Media

When advertisers consider their media buying plans, they focus on reach and frequency. But when public relations professionals devise their earned media plans, they need to consider a third factor: credibility.

Paul Holmes

When advertisers consider their media buying plans, they focus on reach and frequency. But when public relations professionals devise their earned media plans, they need to consider a third factor: credibility.

The credibility of earned media is in some ways more important than its reach, because credibility is what differentiates public relations from the other disciplines at an organization’s disposal; credibility is the reason to spend more money on PR than on advertising, direct marketing, sales promotion. Companies can buy greater reach, but they cannot buy greater credibility.

So the fact that the traditional, mainstream media have been hemorrhaging credibility over the past few years ought to be a cause for concern within the public relations profession. The declining credibility of the mainstream media should force PR people to consider their role in that decline—and in any effort to reverse it—and to think about emerging alternative media, and ways in which non-traditional outlets for public relations might bridge the credibility gap.

It is quite possible that we are in the midst of a realignment of media influence, a shift that will see the power to shape opinion shift away from mainstream media and towards more personal communications channels such as blogs. For while surveys continue to show that blogs are a regular part of the media diet of only a small segment of the population, their influence is growing, and their readership is highest among opinion-formers and influentials.

The Much Maligned Mainstream Media

Today, 32 percent of Americans get their news regularly via the network news, a decline of about 50 percent over the past decade. In 1994, 58 percent of news consumers read daily newspapers; today, only about 42 percent do.  Meanwhile, the percentage of consumers getting their news from the Internet has risen to 29 percent. More than 22 million Americans now regularly read blogs, and 36 percent of young people now regularly go online for news, an increase from 30 percent in 2000.

According to a survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, 21 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 said they regularly turn to The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live for presidential campaign news, compared to just 23 percent of young people who listed daily newspapers and the nightly news broadcasts of NBC, ABC and CBS as sources.

So while mainstream media continue to dominate in terms of reach, there is some evidence to suggest that alternative media are gaining ground, particularly among younger consumers.

But the declining reach—or share of voice—of the mainstream media is not early as big a problem as its declining credibility. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, working with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, earlier this year produced a 600-page report on the State of the News Media 2005, and reached some disquieting conclusions. Half of the readers surveyed in 2004 by the Pew Research Center—a sponsor the program—ranked their newspaper as “believable,” a drop of nine percentage points from 2002 and 13 points since 1998.

Pew researchers concluded that “Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.”

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll released in December of last year ranked several professions on “honesty and ethical standards” and revealed that the public ranked reporters lower than bankers, auto mechanics, elected officials, and nursing-home operators—16th out of 21 professions included in the survey, ahead of lawyers, car salesmen, ad directors, business executives and congressmen.

Just 5 percent of respondents gave newspaper reporters very high marks, with an additional 16 percent giving high marks, compared to 28 percent who rated their ethics either low or very low.

It’s not surprising, then, that a recent study conducted by the University of Connecticut’s department of public policy confirmed significant differences of opinion between the public and journalists. For example, just 3 percent of the journalists surveyed said the U.S. media have too much freedom. But 43 percent of the public felt that way. And while 95 percent of the journalists strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed “to publish freely without governmental approval of a story,” only 55 percent of the public shared that enthusiasm. About one in five (22 percent) said the government should be allowed to censor the press.

When asked about a recent court ruling that required New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper to reveal confidential sources to a grand jury investigating leaks designed to discredit a government whistleblower, only 8 percent of journalists voiced approval for that decision. Yet a majority (57 percent) of the public said they agreed with the court.

According to Ken Dautrich, chairman of the department of public policy, the public’s views on the rights of the press are connected to doubts about the quality of the reporting. “If you look at the way the American public rates journalism, there’s a lot of skepticism,” he says. That skepticism is “based on the public’s lack of confidence in journalism today. Journalists, by feeding into that, are having a negative impact on general feelings about freedom of the press. The biggest divergence is on accuracy.”

While 72 percent of the journalists said their profession did a good or excellent job of reporting information accurately, only 39 percent of the public agreed. At the same time, 61 percent of the public respondents said they disagreed with the statement that “the news media tries to report the news without bias.” There’s particularly skepticism about stories that rely on unidentified sources. More than half (53 percent) of the public think stories with unnamed sources should not be published at all.

Meanwhile, as part of the Associated Press Managing Editors’ National Credibility Roundtables Project, national newspaper readers indicated a growing enthusiasm for blogs. About 20 percent of readers told the editors that they read blogs at least sometimes. They said online writers often discussed stories mainstream journalists ignored, and were eager to question the decisions news networks make. They understood the problems with blogs, but felt any drawbacks were balanced out by the greater openness and interactivity of blogs, which helps honest and accurate blogs gain credibility (and readers) while others are marginalized.

A Catalog of Media Crises

In April of 2003, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair handed in a story that would run on the newspaper’s front page. Datelined Los Fresnos, Tex., the story was a purported portrait of the mother of a missing soldier who later died in Iraq. But long passages had been lifted from an earlier article in the San Antonio Express-News, and the mother later told reporters she had never met with or spoken to Blair.

Within days, it became apparent that the story was no an anomaly. With astonishing regularity, Blair had filed stories from places he never visited, packed with quotes from people he had never met. An earlier story, datelined Palestine, W. Va., focused on the father of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, whose “rescue” from an Iraqi hospital was one of the big stories of the second Iraq war. But her father said Blair “was never at my house and never spoke to me.”

In May, the Times ran a 14,000-word exposé—the work of five reporters and three editors who had spent a week digging into the articles Blair wrote in his last six months at the paper and finding serious problems with about half of them.

As the Times was investigating Blair, USA Today was launching its own investigation into the work of its own Jack Kelley, a 21-year veteran of the publication, with the paper since its very first issue, a onetime Pultizer prize finalist who had covered almost every major hotspot in the world and seen his byline on the front page hundreds of times.

There were questions about a story Kelley had filed from Belgrade in the late 90s, in which he claimed to have examined a notebook that contained a direct order from the Yugoslav army to “cleanse” a village in Kosovo. Kelley told investigators he had worked with a translator, who had helped him with his reporting, but the translator—and the only person who could corroborate Kelley’s version of the story—turned out to be a friend of the reporter, posing as a translator.

Like the Times, USA Today launched its own investigation, naming a team of three top reporters to look at Kelley’s entire body of work. The investigators found errors, lies, and plagiarism, and described Kelley’s journalistic sins as “sweeping and substantial.”

Those two episodes damaged the reputations of two of the largest print titles in the country, but they were dwarfed by the controversy that followed a 60 Minutes II investigation—aired at the climax of the presidential campaign last September—into allegations about President George W. Bush’s service (or lack of it) in the Texas Air National Guard.

During the segment, reporter Dan Rather claimed that the show had memos from Bush’s former commanding officer, now deceased, claiming he was being pressured to embellish the young pilot’s record. Allegations that the memos were forgeries surfaced almost immediately, but 60 Minutes II insisted that it would stand by its reporting—until the evidence that it had been duped was too overwhelming to ignore, at which point CBS admitted its mistake.

Several recent crises have involved the public relations industry more directly: the charges that video news releases produced by the Department of Health & Human Services were propaganda for the Bush administration; payments by the Education Department to conservative commentator in exchange for favorable editorial coverage of the president’s No Child Left Behind initiative; consulting contracts between the DHHS and columnists Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus, both of whom covered the department’s work.

And most recently of all, there’s the furor over Newsweek’s allegation—based on a single, unidentified source—that American troops at the Guantanamo Bay detention center desecrated the Koran in order to intimidate and humiliate Moslem prisoners. The news magazine’s charges, which were echoed last week in an FBI report into abuses at the camp, were blamed by administration officials for outbreaks of anti-American violence across the Moslem world.

It’s Not Just the Scandals

Those high-profile scandals have been damaging enough, but they are seen by many as symptomatic of a much deeper malaise that infects the entire Fourth Estate. There is a feeling that the mainstream media has abandoned its public service mission and instead is driven by crass commercial concerns. In order to drive sales or raise ratings, major media look to create confrontation, or pander to the lowest common denominator. At the same time, to cut costs and improve the bottom line, the same media have abandoned serious investigative journalism.

In short, they are feeding the American public the news equivalent of a steady diet of sweet-tasting, nutrition-free junk food.

Veteran CBS correspondent Tom Fenton makes the case in his new book, Bad News, that the recent rapid decline of public confidence in the media can be traced back to the events of 9-11. On that date, he says, “we finally collided with a brick wall that we should have seen coming. This moment, I knew at once, represented the failure of scores of entities—but for me it was the failure of my own profession that cut deepest…. As an industry our most important job is to see what is coming down the road and to alert the public to the risks we find there…. That’s where we failed.”

In the three months leading up to September 11, the phrase “al Qaeda” was not mentioned once on any of the three major network evening news broadcasts. On the eve of 9-11, CBS instead offered up stories on dangerous aerial stunts by military pilots (accompanied by strong visuals); a story about a serial killer in Sacramento (another story with strong visuals); and piece on dietary supplements.

“Stories that seek to explain the relevance of incremental developments in far-off countries rarely see the light of day,” says Fenton. “They get spiked by evening news producers preoccupied by ratings, because most people in our business are convinced—wrongly, I believe—that the public couldn’t care less about foreign news.”

Of course, the media’s performance in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks was no more distinguished. Its unquestioning acceptance of President Bush’s initial rationale for the war—the purported presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction—was compounded by a failure to correct the widespread misperception that Saddam Hussein was somehow complicit in the attacks on the World Trade Center—a misperception still shared by a majority of Americans.

Just as bad, the media failed to provide any serious examination of the roots of anti-American feeling in the Arab world. Any attempt to explain anti-American sentiment was seen as an apology for it, and consequently most Americans are still mystified by the depth of ill-will toward America or accept the president’s facile explanation that “they hate our freedom.”

One reason for the media’s failure is that it was swept up in patriotic fervor, or intimidated by an administration that equated dissent with treason. Said Dan Rather, one of the Bush administration’s most fervent cheerleaders during the run up to war: “When a president of the United States, any president, Republican or Democrat, says these are the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize.”

No surprise then that Rather’s CBS News broadcasts, during the 2003 invasion, featured the highest percentage of administration guests and sources (75 percent) and lowest percentage of anti-war guests (less than 1 percent, according to a study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Questioned about the apparent bias, Rather was unapologetic. “When my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ may be. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.”

Others were more contrite.

In mid-2004, The New York Times and Washington Post both admitted publicly that they had failed to properly scrutinize the Bush administration’s given reasons for the invasion of Iraq. Said the Times, “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper…. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”

But the media’s tendency to swallow—and then regurgitate for public consumption—political spin has not diminished.

A relatively minor example occurred earlier this year, after Republicans realized that their attempt to rewrite the rules of the Senate to prevent filibustering of President Bush’s nominees to the bench was surprisingly unpopular with the American people. One reason for the public’s hostility, according to GOP research, was language. The term “nuclear option,” coined by Republican Senator Trent Lott to describe the Republican strategy for “blowing up” the Senate rules, was deemed a liability.

So the GOP decided to distance itself from that nomenclature, rechristening its approach the “constitutional option” and suggesting variously that the term “nuclear option” was the Democrats’ characterization of the GOP plan, or perhaps the term that should be applied to the proposed Democratic response. They began to bombard reporters with complaints that the term “nuclear option” indicated an anti-Republican bias.

Mainstream reporters at supposedly liberal outlets including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio swallowed the Republican revisionism hook, line and sinker. Newsweek fell for the GOP spin too: “Now Republicans are considering what Democrats call ‘the nuclear option’—a parliamentary move that would end the filibusters and force a vote on the Senate floor,” the news magazine wrote in April. “In return, Democrats have vowed to grind Senate business to a halt.”

NBC News correspondent Chip Reid went a step further during an April 25 appearance on MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, first misattributing the term “nuclear option” to the Democrats, and then redefining it to mean the Democrats’ response to the Republicans’ threatened abolishment of the rule change. According to Reid, “Democrats are saying, ‘If you’re going to do that, then we’re going to pull the trigger on what we call the ‘nuclear option,’ meaning we’re going to shut this place [the Senate] down.’”

It was a relatively minor scuffle between the administration and the media, one that went almost unnoticed outside the blogosphere, but it is indicative of the mainstream media’s increasing reluctance to think for itself, and the ease with which charges of liberal bias can compel reporters to adapt the language and perspective of conservatives.

Liberal Bias, or a Bias for Sensation?

The unquestioning support given to the Bush administration in the run up to and early conduct of the war in Iraq, and the willingness of the mainstream media to accept the administration’s framing of issues like abortion (anti-choice forces are almost always presented as “pro-life”) and the filibuster would appear to make a nonsense of the oft-repeated charge of liberal bias in the mainstream media.

The evidence for liberal bias has historically been grounded in surveys showing that reporters themselves are considerably more liberal than the audience for which they write, but it has tended to ignore the fact that media owners—the people who have the ultimate power over what gets published—are for the most part big business.

Says Jason Miller, who writes for the online journal Selves and Others, “Twenty-nine multi-national conglomerates own the media sources that account for nearly the entire audience for mainstream news broadcasts, and over half of newspaper readers. To appreciate the absurdity of calling the mainstream media ‘liberal,’ simply consider the fact that powerful corporations control most of the mainstream media.  What are the motives of the corporate masters to whom the editors) answer?”

The answer is profit, and the quest for profit, he says, requires sensationalism. “Sensational stories draw viewers.  The higher the shock value, the bigger the draw….  If 300 children were to die in India due to chemical exposure caused by poor safety standards in a manufacturing facility, and Michael Jackson was found guilty of his alleged crimes on the same day, the mainstreamers would inundate us with the Jackson decision until we were drowning in it, while including the tragedy in India as a footnote.”

Big, complex issues all too often take a back seat to simple, moral fables with a strong human interest hook.

The trend reached its apogee during the second Clinton administration, when stories about the president’s consensual affair with an intern generated far more media coverage than his war on terror. When the mainstream media did focus on the Clinton administration’s attempts to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, an important story was placed within the context of the entirely trivial Lewinsky scandal, with many reporters echoing the charges of Republicans who believed the president was targeting the terrorist leader to distract attention from the White House sex scandal.

The pattern continues today. American media outlets believe their audience is more interested in a runaway bride than about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Says Fenton, “Politicians and the media have conspired to infantilize, to dumb down, the American public. At heart, politicians don’t believe Americans can handle complex truths, and the news media, especially television news, agrees.”

If there are biases, they are more dangerous that political favoritism. They are biases toward sensationalism and stupidity, confrontation and commercialism.

“I think the problem of bias—liberal/conservative bias—is a red herring,” says David Javerbaum, head writer for The Daily Show, the satirical Comedy Central show that today attracts more viewers in the 18-to-34 age range than any of the real network news broadcasts. “The real bias is toward laziness, toward entertainment, toward confrontation, toward that which will drive the ratings. The real story is this incredible laziness. It seems like the whole institution has lost its way.”

In April of this year, Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, an advocacy group seeking to deny equal rights to homosexuals, appeared on CNN to debate a child-services bill that would make Texas the first state in the nation to prevent same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. During that debate, she told CNN anchor Kyra Phillips, “We also have got to look at research that does show that children in same-sex couple homes are 11 times more likely to be abused sexually.”

Phillips described that claim as a “bold statement,” and gave Adams’ opponent a chance to respond, something he found difficult to do because Adams had conjured the claim up out of hot air—or rather, had distorted the findings of an already-flawed piece of research to make a claim that was both sensational and unsupportable.

The claim was based on a study by the Family Research Institute, which found that 34 percent of sexual abuse cases in Illinois foster homes were same-sex in nature, which is to say they were committed by a male adult against a male child, or a female adult against a female child. There was no evidence that these incidents occurred in same-sex households, or that the abusers were homosexual; the study’s authors simply assumed that an incident of male-on-male abuse proved homosexuality, even though other studies have concluded that abuse is more often about power than sex.

The “11 times more likely” number was arrived at by the incredibly crude method of dividing the percentage of “gay” sex abuse cases—34 percent—by the estimated number of gays in the population (less than 3 percent) and coming up with 11.

Phillips did not ask Adams for the source of her “statistic,” nor did CNN see fit to dig further into the claim. Responding to a question by The Wall Street Journal’s invaluable Numbers Guy column, a spokesperson for CNN said that “the opposing guest was given an opportunity to respond to the guest’s statement in question,” as if that opportunity fulfilled the network’s obligation for fairness and balance.

So which “news” outlet (in addition to The Wall Street Journal) did take the time to check the claim and correct it? Comedy Central’s Daily Show showed the clip of Adams making her claim during a segment called “Gaywatch,” and then took the time to completely debunk it—something a respectable, mainstream media outlet never bothered to do.

The combination of laziness and hunger for sensationalism impact business coverage too.

The first reaction of any student of public relations, crisis management, or human behavior to the news that a woman in California had found a human finger in her Wendy’s chili was to assume that she had planted the digit herself and to wonder how much she hoped to extort from the restaurant chain. But remarkably, despite a long catalog of similar hoaxes (remember the epidemic of syringes supposedly found in cans of Pepsi) the initial media coverage contained almost no hint that things might not be what they seemed.

It wasn’t until police searched the supposed victim’s home that newspapers reported her history of filing dubious lawsuits, and by then the story had made national headlines (“Woman Bites Off More Than She Can Chew”), become a punch line on late night television (“Instead of a spoon, they serve it with nail clippers”), and cost Wendy’s a fortune in sales.

The company handled the crisis responsibly, providing information about its food processing safeguards, and offered $100,000 for any information about the origins of the finger. Unfortunately, the media—whether too lazy to investigate or too happy with a sensational headline to raise the obvious questions—was considerably less conscientious.

The Rise of News Management

If business is sometimes a victim of a sensationalistic media, it is also a significant contributor to its lack of credibility.

A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that 78 percent of the public believes that powerful people or institutions—including government and large corporations—can influence a newspaper to “spike or spin” a story. About half believe that advertisers’ interests influence decisions. Meanwhile, a 2003 survey by the American Society of Business Publication Editors found that 76 percent of editors had been pressured to management or by advertisers to alter or kill stories for commercial reasons. 

But the problem of “news management” begins in the political realm, where sophisticated operatives of both parties have learned how to manipulate mainstream media. The nation’s most powerful media outlets have become junkies, increasingly dependent on anonymous sources within the political establishment.

A CBS investigation of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example, was held for two weeks at the request of the Pentagon.

“I have never seen greater news management in 30-plus years in this business,” says Loren Jenkins, foreign editor for National Public Radio. That’s less a condemnation of the Bush administration—if previous presidents could have gotten away with manipulating and deceiving the media to the same extent, it’s hard to imagine they would have practiced self-restraint—than an indictment of the media. It’s the responsibility to reporters to see through and expose mendacity. “That’s what the Fourth Estate is all about,” says Jenkins, “poking holes in news management.”

Not any more.

Today’s mainstream media will buy whatever the White House designates as the official storyline of the day, no matter how inane. No one deviates from the prescribed angle, perhaps afraid that they might be thought to have missed the story or worse that they might be subject to the retaliation— the denial of all-important access, for example— of an angry administration.

“The traditional notion of journalists as members of the Fourth Estate is that they’re outside the power structure and are questioning and challenging the powerful elite on behalf of the disenfranchised,” says Timothy Karr, executive director of Mediachannel.org, a not-for-profit media issues group. “When journalists become celebrities with high salaries, they’re no longer outside that class.”

Take the recent fawning coverage of the First Lady’s performance at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. New York Times columnist Frank Rich described the media’s performance as “discomforting.” The dinner, he says, has become  “a pageant of obsequiousness and TV-Land glitz.

“Yes, Mrs. Bush was funny, but the mere sight of her ‘interrupting’ her husband in an obviously scripted routine prompted a ballroom full of reporters to leap to their feet and erupt in a roar of sycophancy like partisan hacks at a political convention. The same throng’s morning-after rave reviews acknowledged that the entire exercise was at some level PR but nonetheless bought into the artifice.”

So while many news outlets reported Laura Bush’s proclaimed affection for the TV hit Desperate Housewives, relatively few reported the admission by the First Lady’s press secretary that Mrs. Bush had never actually watched the show.

“Mrs. Bush’s act was a harmless piece of burlesque, but it paid political dividends, upstaging the ho-hum presidential news conference of two days earlier in which few of the same reporters successfully challenged administration spin on Social Security and other matters.”

“Our once noble calling,” wrote Philip Meyer in The Columbia Journalism Review last fall, “is increasingly difficult to distinguish from things that look like journalism but are primarily advertising, press agentry or entertainment.”

No wonder The Daily Show, which satirizes the cozy relationship between the mainstream media and the institutions they cover, is so popular with increasingly cynical young viewers.

Meanwhile, the business realm is going all it can to exercise its own control over the media.

A USA Today report in May of 2004 suggested that advertiser influence was one reason that TV news had provided less than comprehensive coverage of the occupation of Iraq. A General Motors spokesperson explained that her company “would not advertise on a TV program [just] about atrocities in Iraq,” while an ad exec offered the further explanation that “you don’t want to run a humorous commercial next to horrific images and stories.”

More recently, General Motors pulled its advertising from the Los Angeles Times (reportedly at the behest of dealers in southern California) after several negative articles about the company, while troubled financial services giant Morgan Stanley announced that it would require newspapers running negative stories to pull the company’s ads from the relevant editions—a move that could save the company millions in advertising revenues, given the volume of negative coverage recently.

Both political and corporate “news management” contributes to the growing perception that the media is not an independent watchdog but rather the lapdog of the rich and powerful, and undermines its credibility and value to consumers.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

One of the things that gives the blogging community increased credibility at a time when the credibility of mainstream media is in decline is that the blogosphere is almost impervious to management. Bloggers are independent in every sense: they are less dependent on official sources for information, so they don’t feel the need to cozy up to anonymous sources; they are less dependent on commercial revenues for their survival, so they don’t sit on stories that might offend the rich and powerful.

Bloggers, for example, were far less susceptible to the Republican Party’s spin over the filibuster. Joshua Micah Marshall, who writes the popular progressive blog Talking Points Memo, ran several items mocking the gullibility of the mainstream media.

Said Marshall, “If you’re conversant with the Republican national political debate taxonomy, you know that there is a point at roughly 15 to 16 days after the GOP starts losing a debate that crack teams of specially trained GOP spinmeisters are sent out to bamboozle gullible newspaper editors and TV producers into changing their vocabulary to make it conform to the latest findings of GOP focus groups….

“Republicans are now making a concerted push at a whole slew of news organizations, trying to convince them to stop using the term in their coverage, on the argument that it’s an attack phrase concocted by the Democrats. And it would seem the editors and producers are either too ignorant or too lily-livered not to let them have their way.”

Onetime software entrepreneur and occasional online essayist Paul Graham says “the weak point of the top reporters is not laziness, but vanity. You don’t pitch stories to them. You have to approach them as if you were a specimen under their all-seeing microscope, and make it seem as if the story you want them to run is something they thought of themselves.”

Bloggers, he says are a different breed. “Online, the answer tends to be a lot simpler. Most people who publish online write what they write for the simple reason that they want to. You can’t see the fingerprints of PR firms all over the articles, as you can in so many print publications—which is one of the reasons, though they may not consciously realize it, that readers trust bloggers more than Business Week.”

So bloggers are not only taking over the media’s watchdog role; they are also taking on a new role as watchdogs of the media.

That role was most impressively illustrated in the weeks before the presidential election of 2004, when four bloggers helped discredit a report by CBS anchor Dan Rather about President Bush’s Air National Guard service. Rather’s report had cited documents supposedly written by Bush’s former commanding officer. But the bloggers—John Hinderaker, William Ardolino, Charles Johnson and the pseudonymous “Allah”—led a real-time, open-source investigation that challenged the authenticity of the documents.

Hinderaker, co-author of the conservative Powerline says several of his readers had e-mailed him with questions about the typographical appearance and tone of the alleged documents. “We had ex and current military types writing in, saying the language in the memo was wrong,” he told reporters. “We had computer and typewriter hobbyists writing in saying that there was no way 1973-era typewriters were capable of those fonts.”

Ardolino, who runs the INDC Journal blog, picked up the Powerline story and followed the link provided to CBS News’s Web site and downloaded the documents. He sought the opinion of a document forgery expert, Dr. Phillip Bouffard, who designed the database program of old fonts that is widely used by academic and law enforcement organizations worldwide to determine the authenticity of documents. Bouffard says he was more than 90 percent certain the CBS documents were fakes. Ardolino posted his interview with Bouffard, generating more than 25,000 hits to his eight-month-old site.

Meanwhile, Allah—owner of a heavily trafficked news analysis site called Allahpundit.com—posted his first links to the developing controversy. Later that evening, he received a lengthy e-mail from an Air National Guard officer who claimed that the documents contained “egregious formatting and terminology errors.”

Johnson, whose Little Green Footballs site—which attracts about 25,000 visitors a day—focuses on national security issues, posted the first of what would be almost a dozen tests on the CBS documents, all of which showed remarkable similarities between the allegedly typewritten documents and documents produced by Microsoft Word.

In pursuing the fake documents story, the bloggers had a couple of advantages over their mainstream media counterparts.

The bloggers were practicing a new kind of journalism. They felt no kinship with the professional reporters at 60 Minutes II who had put the National Guard report together, no inclination to give veteran reporter Rather the benefit of the doubt. Nor were they constrained by the need for “objectivity.” At least a couple of these bloggers were openly pursuing a partisan political agenda.

But more important, the new journalistic model was participatory. Not only did the four bloggers share information—linking to each others sites, citing each others work—but they also drew on the real-time input of their readers. Much of that input was little more than speculation, but some of it came from people with specialized knowledge—from military experts to typewriter hobbyists—who provided valuable information.

They Break Stories Don’t They

While the mainstream media remain focused on the potential “watchdog” role of bloggers, the best blogs have moved on. They are breaking stories the mainstream media either missed or ignored.

Liberal blogs, for example, were the first to reveal that Jeff Gannon, White House correspondent for conservative news site Talon News, was in fact an Internet porn entrepreneur (HotMilitaryStud.com was one of his more respectable sites) and occasional male escort whose real name was James Guckert. It was blogs like DailyKos, Eschaton and Media Matters that first identified Gannon as Guckert, and revealed that Talon News was an instrument of a Texas GOP activist. Guckert, they said, was called on by the White House whenever it wanted a friendly, softball question.

 Mainstream media either ignored the story or decried the bloggers’ focus on Guckert’s bizarre sexual history, but for the most part the blogging community had already moved on, raising questions about why an otherwise puritanical administration had bent over backwards to accommodate a gay pornographer,  why so many of his visits to the White House occurred at times when there were no press briefings scheduled, and why he was able to obtain a press pass in February of 2003, even though the organization for which he worked did not come into existence until a month or so later.

Dana Milbank, the former White House correspondent for The Washington Post, was one of the few mainstream reporters to give credit where it was due. The scandal of the whole episode, said Milbank, was that the blogs—not the mainstream media, and certainly not the White House—brought the story to the nation’s attention.

In an interview with DailyKos, Milbank—who works, lest we forget, for one of the most respected media outlets in America—even sounded a little jealous of the resources of the blogosphere. “Proliferating blogs make it more unlikely that an important story will be missed or slip through the cracks,” he admitted. “Even a large news organization like the Post has only 40 or 50 national reporters; there are zillions of bloggers.”

Blogs have also broken stories with serious implications for corporate America.

Last year, most of the major employers in the Pacific Northwest—Microsoft, Boeing, Nike, Washington Mutual, Qwest, even Coors Brewing—endorsed Washington state’s House Bill 1515, designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, banking, and insurance, extending a law that already bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or marital status.

But in April, just as the bill was coming to a vote, Microsoft announced that it was no longer supporting the anti-discrimination measure; it had changed its position to “neutral.” Within days of that announcement, the bill was defeated by a single vote, 25-24.

Microsoft’s about-face received little attention in the mainstream media, even in Washington. But it was big news in the alternative media. The Stranger, a Seattle-based alternative newspaper, was the first to question the motivation behind the company’s

And when the company was forced to explain its reversal—“We made a decision before this legislative session, as we do each year, that we would focus our energy on a limited number of issues that are directly related to our business,” said a spokesperson—it was bloggers who were first to point out the absurdity of that explanation.

Bloggers revealed that senior executives from Microsoft had met with Ken Hutcherson, pastor of a “mega-church” close to the company’s Redmond headquarters, shortly before it changed its position, and while Microsoft officials denied that Hutcherson’s boycott threat had caused their sudden spinelessness, the pastor himself was all too willing to take credit for forcing one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations to back down.

And as they typically do, some bloggers went beyond reporting, urging organizations that had honored Microsoft for its commitment to diversity to withdraw those awards. One reason corporations need to take blogs seriously is that they are advocates—with the power to mobilize more advocates—and not just reporters.

Ultimately, coverage of the Microsoft debacle crossed over into the mainstream media—The New York Times ran a large front-page story. Microsoft executives admitted they were surprised by the furor created by the company’s betrayal of its gay and lesbian employees, and eventually chief executive Steve Ballmer promised that the company would support equal rights in the future.

Said Ballmer, “I’ve concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda” came just a little too late to help gays and lesbians in Washington state who were denied equal protection under the law by state legislators.
 
Mainstream Media: Eyes Wide Shut

Sadly, many in the mainstream media are less interested in addressing their own credibility problems than they are in attacking bloggers for their supposed lack of integrity.

A recent survey by the University of Connecticut found that 83 percent of journalists reported using blogs, with four out of 10 saying they use them at least once a week. And 85 percent believe bloggers should enjoy First Amendment protections, although 75 percent believe bloggers are not real journalists because they do not adhere to “commonly held ethical standards.”

Many argue that bloggers don’t deserve either the protection of shield laws or the attention paid to them by mainstream reporters. “By responding to bloggers, we are giving them credibility that they don’t deserve,” says Bob Furnad, a former executive vice president at CNN who now teaches at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. “I wouldn’t respond to them until they are held to the same standard that we are, beyond giving their own opinion.”

In March, meanwhile, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw launched into a rant against the blogosphere—a “solipsistic, self-aggrandizing journalist-wannabe genre”—in a column that asked, Do Bloggers Deserve Basic Journalistic Protection?

According to Shaw, “Many bloggers—not all, perhaps not even most—don’t seem to worry much about being accurate. Or fair. They just want to get their opinions—and their “scoops”—out there as fast as they pop into their brains.”

Bloggers don’t deserve the “same constitutional protections as traditional print and broadcast journalists,” Shaw says, arguing that bloggers should not be able to use state shield laws to protect their confidential sources when subpoenaed. Bloggers “require no journalistic experience,” he complains. “All they need is computer access and the desire to blog.”

(There are those who would argue that the First Amendment guarantees the freedom to express opinions, but Shaw presumably would like to see its protections limited to those who work for “legitimate” (state recognized?) publications.)

Mainstream journalism, meanwhile, goes “through several filters before a reader sees it.” Shaw’s own columns benefit from the attention of at “least four experienced Times editors,” who check them for “accuracy, fairness, grammar, taste and libel.” Moreover, mainstream reporters are constrained by the threat of legal action. “If I’m careless—if I am guilty of what the courts call a ‘reckless disregard for the truth’—The Times could be sued for libel … and could lose a lot of money.”

Of course, Shaw is risking his employers’ money. Bloggers, who can be sued just as easily as any mainstream journalist, have their own skin in the game.

Shaw’s conclusion: “If the courts allow every Tom, Dick and Matt who wants to call himself a journalist to invoke the privilege to protect confidential sources, the public will become even less trusting than it already is of all journalists.”

But as numerous bloggers pointed out in response to Shaw’s column, the Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights precisely to protect Tom, Dick, and Matt—the wide-eyed pamphleteers and the partisan press of the time. The professional press, which Shaw believes is some sort of privileged class, did not even exist until the late 19th century.

Fortunately, Shaw’s attack on the blogosphere was followed just a couple of days later by an L.A. Times story that ran under the headline, “Hazing Death Highlights Chico’s Greek Life.” The report said a pledge at Butte Community College had died of alcohol poisoning. In fact he did not die, but was hospitalized. The article also said Chico has a population of 35,000; according to the city, the population is 71,317. And while the article characterized the school as being well-known for its basketball program, its winning baseball program may be best known outside campus.

That prompted blogger Mickey Kaus to ask, not unreasonably, “So where were the four experienced editors who swirl, sniff, sip, swish, and spit every Times article” when staff writer Eric Slater filed that story.

As for the shield laws that Shaw does not want to see extended to include bloggers, there is evidence that the public would like to see them withdrawn for mainstream reporters too. New York Times reporter Judith Miller is just one of those found in contempt of court for refusing to identify her sources to a grand jury investigating a government attempt to smear former ambassador and whistleblower Joseph Wilson, which also disclosed the fact that his wife was a CIA operative.

The Times and other prominent media outlets have defended the traditional right of reporters to protect their sources, but many observers see this case as fundamentally different from most instances in which that right has previously been invoked. Shield laws have been used historically to protect whistleblowers from retribution from powerful institutions; in this case it is being used to protect agents of a powerful institution who set out to intimidate a whistleblower.

In any event, the distinction between mainstream reporters and bloggers is increasingly irrelevant. The biggest difference is no longer quality, or credibility, or integrity, or professionalism but the fact that one draws a salary from a media conglomerate while the other is either an entrepreneur or an amateur.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen makes the point that bloggers are in fact held to increasingly high standards—by their readers. “The more popular blogs would have to be factually correct” or the bloggers’ own readers would notice and complain, says Rosen, who writes the blog Pressthink. He believes journalists ignore the bloggers at their peril.

“If you care whether your reporting is right or wrong, what you should care about is the quality of the question, not where it comes from,” Rosen says. “A journalist knows there’s always someone who knows more about your subject than you do. So it’s not surprising that a blogger may be out there who has information that you need.”

The influence of blogs on the mainstream media is already evident.

According to Steve Outing, senior editor at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, blogs “are influencing mainstream media to become more interactive, to treat news more as a conversation and a bit less as a lecture.” In that respect, mainstream media can learn from blogs, which actively seek dialogue with their readers. “That’s not a new lesson in journalism, but it’s one that in my view still hasn’t been absorbed adequately by many mainstream journalists.”

Rosen advises mainstream media outlets to “take three intelligent, open-minded newsroom people from different generations: closer to retirement, prime of career, young. Give them two hours a day to read blogs, separating the wheat from the chaff and concentrating on those of most use to their colleagues, and let them form attachments to weblogs they like. Continue for a month. Then have them advise their colleagues on what is and is not important about blogs.”

And consumers too are taking blogs more seriously. A recent poll, commissioned by global Web-hosting and managed services provider Hostway, found that consumers are beginning to see the benefits of using blogs to assist with their purchasing decisions. Nearly one out of four respondents said they referred to blogs for information on the products and services they were looking to purchase. Of that percentage, an impressive 94 percent felt those blogs were helpful in their purchasing decision.

“We’re beginning to see blogs starting to take their place among other media for businesses to get their word out,” said John Lee, vice president of marketing, Hostway. “With the right strategy, blogs can be a huge asset to organizations large and small. They are cost-effective, attract a well-targeted audience and, in some cases, are able to put a human voice to a company.”
 
Public relations people too, ignore the rise of blogs—and the decline of mainstream media—at their peril.

Credibility is the public relations profession’s stock in trade, and public relations people have a responsibility to themselves and to their clients to seek out the most credible channels of communication available. In some case that is still traditional media, in other cases it may be alternative media (including blogs) or even individuals, online or offline, whose word-of-mouth endorsement can carry more weight than a newspaper report.

This does not mean that mainstream media are no longer relevant, or that they will ultimately be replaced by personal media. Nor does it mean that all blogs are credible or influential in a way that is useful to public relations people.

But in the future, consumers will turn to a more personalized array of media, drawing on information from a variety of sources.

When I fire up my computer in the morning, my first two stops are still The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But then it’s on to The Financial Times and The Guardian, both of which provide an international perspective that’s almost always an enlightening contrast to the spin of the U.S. media. Then it’s Slate and Salon, ESPN.com, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and (for balance) Glenn Reynolds’ right-wing Instapundit blog. A couple of blogs that cover the New York Mets with far more insight than any of the New York newspapers. If I have time, I’ll visit a handful of additional political blogs, a couple of business blogs, a couple of PR blogs.

I consider all those media credible, to one degree or another. If you wanted to reach me with a credible message, you’d do well to target them all.

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