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March 12, 2005
Digital Age Debate Hits And Misses

Thomas Lipscomb and Alex Jones debated the blogosphere and the mass media on James Goodale's PBS show on Digital Age in a taped show streamed over the Internet. Lipscomb, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times (and, for full disclosure, he reads CQ and appeared twice on the Northern Alliance radio show) has long been a friend of the blogosphere, while Jones, who heads the Shorenstein Center for the Press at Harvard, has been more of a gentleman-skeptic. Goodale worked in executive management at the New York Times prior to his Digital Age show. I looked forward to a lively but professional and collegial debate, and they did not disappoint.

I felt that both men understand the blogosphere, which made me wonder when Jones claimed that he didn't read blogs as a rule. Jones did make the best point when he said that the blogosphere harnesses the disparate knowledge of millions of people and makes it instantly available, and Lipscomb underscored it perfectly when he clarified that it amounts to massively parallel processing. What would have taken weeks to research and develop into a coherent report now takes hours, sometimes less, with greater accuracy when performed correctly. Lipscomb didn't exactly draw this line overtly, but the failure of mainstream reporters to access and harness this power shows a failure to understand it, which results in a poorer product.

Jones insisted that bloggers don't report -- we commentate, we "kibitz", we criticize, and point out "stupidities", all of which is true but insufficient. This is where I think Jones' insulation fails him. Most of what we write is that, but we also act as journalists. Two of the big stories discussed, Rathergate and Eason's Fables, demonstrated this, although none of the three really had enough of the facts at hand to debate the point. And since I had some involvement in the first and a larger role in the second, I can explain why.

First off, what is journalism? It is going out and getting data for a story that will find interest for readers, researching the topic, communicating with the people involved, and then writing cogent and coherent articles explaining the facts for those readers. In both cases, bloggers performed that function, although in Rathergate the initial impetus was a published article. I watched as Powerline and Little Green Footballs gathered information from a series of well-informed readers with specific expertise in documents, typography, and military procedures and history, and then reported these findings to their readers in real time. INDC Journal and LGF hired independent document examiners to test their hypotheses and found that the documents were fake, for a number of reasons -- a finding that the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel's document examiner later echoed even as the panel report backed away from the conclusion. Others of us chimed in with links, commentary, and further clarifications from our own experience and expertise and made sure that the story stayed alive.

That process qualifies as journalism, at least on the part of the lead bloggers I mentioned.

For Eason's Fables, the journalism of one blogger, Rony Arbovitz, turned out to be the only such open publication of Jordan's remarks at Davos, besides a subscription-only e-mail to a small subset of Wall Street Journal readers and a blurb mention on Fox News. After I heard this story on Hugh Hewitt, I started researching Eason Jordan and posting my findings on this blog. Other bloggers, notably Slublog, joined me and discovered that Jordan had made similar remarks. Using Google and later Nexis, I discovered that Jordan had made similar allegations about the Israelis and substantially misrepresented what had happened to a CNN reporter in October 2000. I also found speeches where Jordan had used more subtle innuendo regarding journalists being targeted. Slublog found a direct quote from a conference three months earlier where Jordan had not only accused American soldiers of deliberate murder of journalists but torture as well. I also noted that Chris Cramer, who runs CNN International, has made similar statements but with less specificity, in similar forums, and always abroad.

I wrote articles which delivered this information to readers. Where my information was inaccurate regarding a WSJ editor, I published a retraction. Take a look through those posts in this category and decide for yourself whether I performed a journalistic function or simply "kibitzed".

Besides, don't sell kibitzing short. Bloggers aren't aliens from another planet, a point that all involved missed. We're the media's best customers! We read and view their product voraciously, we care about its quality, we get to know the people who provide it, and we direct people to those sources and stories we find credible and interesting. Why the executives of these sources fail to recognize this eludes me.

Getting back to the debate, the only part I found frustrating was how little of the details on Eason's Fables came out. Jones insisted over and over again that Jordan said something stupid one time, although he allowed that it may have been stupid enough to justify getting fired for it. For a man who should have his pulse on a story with the impact it had, he appears to lack any understanding of its nature. Lipscomb didn't provide any context for it either, but during this period of the debate, Goodale kept cutting both men off of discussing the details to instead ask for the lessons of the episode.

Other than that, I enjoyed the debate very much and found both men credible, engaging, and very insightful. Both men reached similar conclusions: mainstream media has to improve its performance to survive, and the blogosphere will force them to do that. Lipscomb makes that connection plain -- unless reporters start doing their job objectively and abandon "lazy sleepwalking", the mainstream media will never regain their credibility. If you missed this, I believe it can still be seen on their stream. I highly recommend it to all, if for no other reason than to see how issues should be debated between professionals and gentlemen.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 12, 2005 6:48 PM

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