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April 9, 2005
Reaching Parity With The Exempt Media (Updated)

Jack Shafer pens an interesting look at the similarities and differences between blogs and the Exempt Media, and postulates that parity may be coming between the two. In his opinion, the Schiavo memo shows that both sides can get stories equally incorrect, and that both sides should have the latitude to do so -- as long as corrections are published in a quick manner:

Bloggers demonstrated their skill at botching a story last month when a swarm of them accused the Washington Post and ABC News of journalistic malpractice. The two news organizations had reported on the existence of a GOP talking-points memo about Terri Schiavo. The bloggers asserted it was a Ratherian fake. As Eric Boehlert details in Salon, the nay-saying blogs consumed terabytes of bandwidth denouncing the Post and ABC. Powerline, Michelle Malkin, the American Spectator's Prowler, PoliPundit, and Accuracy in Media led the charge.

After the Post and others proved the legitimacy of the document on April 7, bloggers proved themselves the equals of their mainstream media colleagues once more by ignoring or glossing over their goof. Boehlert writes, "scanning the blogs involved in the memo story, readers found few corrections or references to lessons learned."

Which, Shafer says, shows that bloggers have learned lessons from the Exempt Media that would have best been left unlearned. Shafer, long a fan of blogs, still supports the idea that bloggers should receive the same kind of treatment that so-called professional journalists receive. He insists that the quality of opinion journalism in the blogosphere outstrips that of the Exempt Media, and disputes the notion that no real reporting goes on in the blogosphere:

Professional journalists have it all over bloggers when it comes to reporting. The first generation of bloggers tends to resist taking off their PJs and donning hip-waders to report the news from the swamp. Reporting is a learned skill and experience counts for something. Also, professional news organizations pay for airplane tickets, hotel accommodations, car rentals, libel insurance, editing, and other resources to make reporting happen. How many unpaid bloggers will cover a war from the shrapneled front? A handful. Maybe.

Yet the pros don't have a complete lock on reporting. Energetic bloggers, such as activist Michael Petrelis, have learned to work the FOIA machinery and the FEC database as well as the best professionals. Captain Ed at Captain's Quarters kicked up an international incident just this week by publishing banned-in-Canada material about the Canadian Liberal Party. Russ Kick of the Memory Hole does heroic work in retrieving banned information and uncovering government secrets. If they wanted to, bloggers could poach the local news beat away from the professional media by covering city council and school board activity that goes undocumented by the mainstream. Greensboro 101, in Greensboro, N.C., has those sorts of ambitions. Likewise, Mark Potts' "hyperlocal" hopes to take "reporting" down to the pixel level of neighborhood T-ball games, PTA meetings, and development issues.

Shafer's correct, of course, that media outlets allow for greater financial resources and better access to information -- on a one-to-one comparison. The LA Times will always have more resources than CQ. But that, I think, misses the hive characteristics of the blogosphere. In many cases -- for instance, Eason Jordan -- CQ took the lead in reporting facts dug up by a number of bloggers, all of whom got credit and links back for their information but which aggregated at CQ. In that kind of structure, I acted as an editor with a field staff bring many disparate pieces of information. Not only did I choose what information should and should not get published (on CQ, anyway), but then I acted as a reporter in redrafting the narrative to fit all of the information.

In short, I assumed the natural editorial functions of a newspaper staff, along with the roles of publisher and journalist.

The blogosphere works in a hive format, one of the reasons that the term swarm resonates so well. The strength that we have, as opposed to the Exempt Media, is that hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of readers and other bloggers have little pieces of information that seem, in isolation, to have little value. Once they start reading about a breaking story, however, those little pieces start to add up, and when a major story breaks through that can pull those threads together into a coherent narrative, the effect can be devastating. I would say that the Exempt Media may have its paid staff, but its long history of clubby disdain for its own consumers as partners keeps it from really taking advantage of these kinds of networks.

In the end, I think the Exempt Media will embrace the blogosphere as a way to tap into that hive structure and get better sourcing and depth to their reporting. Before that happens, the powers that be at the top need to read more of Jack Shafer and start understanding his point of view, because as long as they see us as the enemy, they will continue to alienate their best consumers and a ready-made resource for reaching the truth.

UPDATE: I should make clear that I disagree with Shafer's assertion that Power Line and Michelle Malkin got the Schiavo memo story incorrect. First off, Michelle never drew any conclusions from the memo story except that the initial reporting from ABC and the Washington Post left much to be desired, which is still the case. Both media outlets pushed the memo as having come from GOP party "leaders" and treated it as a smoking gun for hypocrisy, neither of which held up when the true story came out. Power Line postulated that the memo could have come from Democratic staffers as a dirty trick -- but as only one of a number of possible explanations, and clearly stated that as speculation. All of us were surprised that a Republican staffer for a freshman Senator would be stupid enough to create something this illiterate and foolish memo ... but it turned out it was.

It's too easy to ignore the credible and justified criticism of Mike Allen and ABC that Malkin, Power Line, and others provided as a winner-take-all, zero-sum win or loss. If the more speculative possiblilities did not pan out, it is without a doubt that the characterization of this memo by ABC and the Post didn't either. Quite frankly, if Power Line hadn't stepped up and held ABC and the Post's feet to the fire, we'd still be hearing that this memo came from Frist and the other GOP leaders in the Senate.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 9, 2005 2:00 PM

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» Last Word on Memo Story from Musing Minds
Here's my last word on the issue: those on the left acting all outraged at us conservative bloggers for speculating that the media used forged memos, is sort of like chastising a woman for accusing her cheating boyfriend of having another affair when... [Read More]

Tracked on April 9, 2005 9:01 PM

» Shafer Nails It from Riehl World View
In Reaching Parity With The Exempt Media, Captains Quarters quotes:Jack Shafer pens an interesting look at the similarities and differences between blogs and the Exempt Media, and postulates that parity may be coming between the two. In his opinion, the [Read More]

Tracked on April 10, 2005 1:05 PM

» What Can Bloggers Do That Reporters Can't? from Don Singleton
The memo did turn out to be written by a low level staffer on the Republican side, but I still have not seen any evidence that the MSM was right in saying it came from the Republican leadership or that all Republicans had seen it (in fact I have seen... [Read More]

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» Strengths and weaknesses of blogs vs MSM from New Media Journal
Jack Shafer of Slate has a well-considered article on the relative strengths and weaknesses of blogs and MSM. Bottom line: Reporting: Advantage MSM. Opinion: Advantage Blogs. Hat tip: Captain's Quarters [Read More]

Tracked on April 12, 2005 1:01 PM

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