Outside Voices: Greg Sargent Says It's Time For The MSM To Acknowledge Bloggers' Legitimacy
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Greg Sargent, creator and writer of The Horse's Mouth, a media and politics blog being hosted by The American Prospect's Web site. He's also a contributing editor at New York magazine. Below, Sargent argues that while the mainstream media appreciates the buzz about their stories generated by blogs, it still does not acknowledge their legitimacy as news outlets. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Greg:
The big news organizations have a major, major problem on their hands right now. The problem is this: The blogosphere is slowly and painstakingly establishing its journalistic legitimacy -- and the news orgs are deeply unsure of how to handle it and are flummoxed over what to do about it.
This conundrum has surfaced with a vengeance in several high-profile journalistic episodes over the past few weeks. A few days ago, for instance, the blog Talking Points Memo reported on an internal email that went out to Associated Press employees lauding a series of stories done by reporter John Solomon. The AP stories, which made news across the country, had said that Senate minority leader Harry Reid attended a boxing match at the invitation of Nevada state officials who apparently were hoping to influence him. The internal AP memo about the stories read: "Dear Staffers: It was the most talked-about, blogged-about political story of the week -- twice ... The story ... won widespread play on the Web fronts and newspaper fronts, and stirred an enormous debate in the blogosphere... ."
But in complimenting the stories for their explosive blogospheric reaction, however, the AP memo writer left out a rather important detail: The overwhelming reaction on the blogs had been relentlessly, ferociously critical. In fact, the same blog that reported on the internal AP email, Talking Points Memo, had clearly shown -- with careful reporting -- that the stories were deeply misleading and unfair to Reid, a charge that was widely echoed on other blogs. You'd think that such a blogospheric reaction wouldn't be something AP brass would be proud of. Yet to AP, the actual substance of what the blogs said didn't matter. All that mattered was that it got widespread publicity on them.
The AP's bizarre internal lauding of the stories was indicative of a larger disconnect: Many high-level execs and editors at news organizations are more than happy to recognize the promotional value of the blogosphere and its ability to create buzz. But they're simply not prepared to acknowledge the legitimate substantive criticism of big news orgs the blogosphere is producing or the actual journalistic achievements that are happening there.
That mainstream media blind spot was also on display recently at The New York Times. The paper recently published a long and controversial piece about the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton that provoked a sustained and angry reaction from hundreds, if not thousands, of readers. Many blogs -- including my own, The Horse's Mouth -- found numerous problems with it. The sourcing was highly dubious, the story was riddled with innuendo, and the reporting fell far short of backing up its central thesis. Nevertheless, when Times public editor Byron Calame weighed in on the story, he essentially endorsed it, blithely dismissing all the criticism as "partisan." This was a willful refusal to see what was right in front of his nose: The truth was that the critiques of the story by bloggers were often thoughtful and backed up by careful, fact-based analyses. The criticism was anything but partisan mud-throwing.
This inability -- or unwillingness -- of mainstream media figures to acknowledge the actual substance of blogospheric criticism has popped up in countless other instances. What usually happens is that one revered media figure or another will profess himself or herself dismayed by the uncivil "tone" of the blogosphere. Such complaints have repeatedly been voiced by Time magazine's Joe Klein and the Washington Post's Jim Brady, among many others.
Of course, it's understandable that people like Klein and Brady -- who have in the past come under relentless criticism from the blogosphere -- would lash back in a self-protective manner. And it's unquestionably true that some elements of the blogosphere do rant, rage, curse and otherwise debase the medium. But the reality is that such blanket criticism of the blogosphere is symptomatic of a larger refusal of mainstream news organization figures to acknowledge the growing legitimacy of the whole medium. The focus on "incivility" is misleading, perhaps willfully so -- it tars the blogosphere with one brush, it blurs the differences between the bad and good bloggers, and focuses public attention on "tone" while, again, refusing to acknowledge the substantive achievements on display.
You see this effort to deny the legitimacy of the medium express itself in other ways, too. For instance, mainstream media outlets steadfastly refuse to credit bloggers when they've broken legitimate stories. Rather, the big news orgs frequently pick up stories and say that the news "first surfaced on the Internet" -- without naming the actual blogger or bloggers who did the work.
Is this blanket effort to deny the blogosphere's legitimacy conscious? Not always. I think it's frequently rooted in the fact that many establishment media figures are aging and schooled in an older tradition of journalism, and simply aren't yet mentally prepared to appreciate the growing journalistic professionalism of bloggers.
But it's high time for mainstream media commentators, reporters and executives to wake up and seriously recognize that very big changes are happening. Bloggers are beginning more and more to see themselves as journalists. They're getting more and more obsessed with accuracy. They're getting more and more skillful at backing up their opinions with reporting and research. Simply put, they're investing more and more in that ultimate of journalistic goals: Getting it right. Can bloggers compete with the sometimes top-notch investigative work or "flood the zone" reporting of big news orgs? Of course not. But the truth is that the news sense, reporting, analytical abilities, and criticism of the mainstream media one finds on blogs are getting more and more finely tuned -- professional, even. What's more, readers are recognizing it and responding. Establishment media figures may not yet appreciate the substantive journalistic achievements of bloggers, but guess what: Readers do.
In this superheated, rapidly-shifting environment, the big news orgs and their editors and execs have a lot of adjusting to do. It's going to be anything but easy. True, many of them are trying to keep in step by establishing robust Web presences and hiring in-house bloggers -- CBS's Public Eye being only one notable example. But the simple fact is this: Until mainstream commentators, editors and media executives fully and truly grasp that many bloggers are beginning to practice legitimate journalism, they're only hurting themselves and delaying the inevitable. Their blind spot makes them look hidebound and reactionary. It intensifies the determination of bloggers to work harder to poke holes in their work. It paradoxically makes blogospheric criticism of them look more valid, undercutting their credibility. And it vividly demonstrates just how out of step they are with many news consumers -- who, of course, just happen to be their customers.
The fact that real journalism is happening in the blogosphere is something that mainstream media figures simply are going to have to acknowledge sooner or later. And if they did it sooner, rather than later, they'd be doing themselves a very big favor indeed.