As a blogger, I have been curious about the evolving role of blogs in public discourse, especially with regard to politics. Its role in broadening the range of perspectives and analysis that is available is quite obvious. Readers are no longer limited to the stale and vapid choices of the editorial page editors of their newspapers for commentary. But what about the role of blogs in actual reporting? Do they add anything there?
The flap over the firing of US attorneys has revealed the special role that blogs can play in creating actual news. Although the mainstream media have only brought the story into public consciousness the last two weeks, those of us who read blogs, especially Talking Points Memo (TPM), have known that this was brewing for a long time.
Josh Marshall, founder of TPM, back in December first flagged the fact that the US attorney in Arkansas had been fired and replaced by a Karl Rove crony, and he suspected that political patronage was at play. Then on January 13, 2007 he noted the firing of Carol Lam, the US attorney in California who had successfully prosecuted and sent to jail Republican congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham for bribery, and was in the middle of prosecuting another lobbyist/briber Brent Wilkes and was investigating the role of the former number two person at the CIA Kyle “Dusty” Foggo.
It turned out that other attorneys around the country were being similarly fired around the same time but since each event was considered local news it did not garner attention outside each region. But Marshall’s readers, alerted by his posts in these two cases, sent in information about local firings from all over, making it clear that there was a pattern. TPM thus became a kind of clearing house for information on this story.
Although these firings looked suspicious, the story was not picked up by the major news outlets. In fact the mainstream media actually dismissed this as conspiracy theorizing. Jay Carney who is the Washington bureau chief of Time magazine initially dismissed the charges coming from TPM that there was a coordinated plan to fire US attorneys and replace them with appointees who did not have to undergo Senate confirmation. It was only on March 13, 2007 that he acknowledged that there was a major story that had been unfolding right under their noses.
But what is interesting about the story is that it shows the strength of the blogs, which can unleash the power of thousands of passionate individuals to go out and do some research. While each person has a day job and can do little, the collective result can be quite significant. We saw this happen before in somewhat less significant stories like the Kaloogian photo episode and the Ben Domenech plagiarism expose. In both those cases, swarms of amateur investigators built on one another’s information to rapidly expose the truth.
These volunteers are not trained journalists and thus may miss some things or get things wrong, but they have other advantages. For one, there exist a large number of them. Since they are around the world in different time zones, you have effectively a 24/7 news analysis operation going on. They also have a passion for the issues (often aided by a partisan mindset) and are willing to expend the time to dig up information and not care about getting any recognition or credit. They constitute a new breed of citizen-journalists.
I have written before that the notion of an unbiased, non-partisan reporter is a myth. The best journalism is done by passionate but reality-based people and as long as you have a multiplicity of people pursuing stories from a variety of perspectives, we are more likely to get at the truth, or at least useful information. For each TPM reader anxious to find some nugget of information that is harmful to Alberto Gonzalez, there are others who are equally anxious to find exculpatory evidence. That leaves things as it should be, with the evidence out in the open for us to judge and the professional investigators to pore over.
Legendary muckraking reporter I. F. Stone pointed out that much of the news is in open view (if you know where and how to look for it) or in publicly available documents (if you have the time and energy to rummage through them). But that information is often buried in voluminous documents. There are only a few ways to cut through that dense brush and get at the few real pieces of news buried. You either need readers who are expert in that area and know where to look, or you need a tip, or you need lots of time. But modern newspapers are cutting back on reporters and thus do not have the ability or the desire to pore over such document dumps. Instead they practice ‘access journalism’ where they are dependent on sources feeding them information, or they need high-level politicians to be out in front of the story.
Josh Marshall at TPM has tried to find a way to meld the two models. He has a background in traditional journalism and has three full-time reporters who do traditional investigative work like cultivating sources and making calls. But his readers are the ones who give him tips and provide a lot of analyses and insights.
Right now, Josh Marshall has asked his readers to look at the over 3,000 pages of emails that have been released by the Justice Department in several document dumps, and has provided links to them and guidance on what to look for and how to report it. Since his readers have been following the story from back in December, they are much better informed about what is relevant and important than the reporters in the mainstream media who are scrambling to catch up. Given the large number of readers TPM has, this may be the most efficient investigation underway, better than the reporters and the congressional investigative staff. One TPM reader already was the first to note an 18-day gap in the emails in the crucial period November 15-December 4, just before the firings.
Of course, blogs and their readers can never match the full resources that major news outlets can bring to bear to advance the story once it makes it into the spotlight. But blogs and their readers are increasingly able to make sure that important stories do not go unnoticed. And more importantly, they are much more willing to take a publicly skeptical attitude towards what politicians say, because bloggers tend to have stronger relationships with their readers than with politicians, while the opposite is true for the journalists in the mainstream media.
The role of TPM in breaking this story is now receiving greater attention with an article written in the Los Angeles Times and featured on NPR.
In the new evolving world of internet news, TPM may be providing a model for how to use the distributed power of readers to create actual news.
POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins interview on BBC
Another good interview of Dawkins. It is interesting how these interviews grapple with serious questions, with the interviewers asking probing and challenging questions with little of the shouting or the ‘gotcha’ style. As a result, one can really learn something from them.