Eric Engberg was a correspondent for CBS News in Washington prior to his retirement two years ago.
As the election campaign unfolded, operators of some of the internet's politics-oriented blogs, no doubt high on the perfume of many "hits" and their own developing sense of community, envisioned a future when they would diminish then replace the traditional media as the nation's primary source of political news and commentary.
One of the more self-important of these blog-ops, Andrew Sullivan, declared in a newspaper article in September that the internet upstarts had become, along with cable-TV, the new "powerbrokers in American politics and culture," primed to unseat "old media." In another piece he compared the new and old thusly: "Critics of blogs cite their lack of professionalism. Piffle. The dirty little secret of journalism is that it really isn't a profession, it's a craft. All you need is a telephone and a conscience and you're all set." That hubris was rampant through much of blogland as election night rolled round.
Big plans and big claims are to be expected from folks – pajama-clad or not – who are dabbling with new technology and new modalities of public expression. As a retired mainstream media ("MSM") journalist – and thus a double-dinosaur -- I don't begrudge these knights of the blog-table their grandiose dreams. But I worked on a school paper when I was a kid and I owned a CB radio when I lived in Texas. And what I saw in the blogosphere on Nov. 2 was more reminiscent of that school paper or a "Breaker, breaker 19" gabfest on CB than anything approaching journalism.
From early afternoon to very late in the evening, those who checked in with the leading political blogs like Drudge, Wonkette, Andrew Sullivan, evote, mydd.com, Daily Kos, and others were given the distinct impression that John Kerry would win the election. The website Slate.com, well-funded and generally a responsible voice, joined in the folly.
The bloggers, obtaining through leaks partial, in some cases suspect snippets of information from the early "cut" of data gathered by MSM through exit polls, were spreading a story that the network and wire service bosses knew to be incorrect because their own experts – and their journalistic experience -- had warned them of the weaknesses in such data.
Kerry was "in striking distance" in Florida and Ohio, said the Drudge Report. The popular and smutty Wonkette site claimed it had "information" from "little birdies" showing Kerry up 52-47 in Ohio and 50-49 in Florida. "The national number that's floating around right now: 51/49 K/B," wrote Wonkete, aka Ana Marie Cox. After repeating some of Wonkette's numbers, Sullivan mused, "A Kerry landslide? Could be. Could be." He cautioned the numbers could be misleading, even as he was publicizing them.
This is the kind of stuff we used to run in my aforementioned school paper, when the speculation surrounded who was going steady. The difference is that the bloggers aspire to being a force in our public life and claim to be at the forefront of a new political-media era. It was clear to me, from following their efforts that night, that, unlike journalists, some blog operators who are quick to trash the MSM not only don't care about the veracity of the stories they are spreading, they do not understand when there is a live hand grenade on their keyboard. They appear not to care. Their concern is for controversy and "hits."
The numbers they were bantering about election night were real enough, just not sufficient for responsible publication. They came from polling data obtained by the two companies organized and paid by the major networks and the Associated Press to interview voters at polling places in key states. About 13,000 voters are asked their choice and a series of questions explaining their decision. The networks get the information throughout the day, using it as one tool to make their "call" or estimate on who won the state. The key words here are "one tool."
Let me tell you a few things about "exit polls" as one who was there from the time they were invented and then watched them develop through the nine presidential campaigns I covered. Experienced journalists treat exit polls like hand grenades with the pin pulled; they are unstable and dangerous.
While out on the campaign trail covering candidates, my own network's political unit would not even give me exit poll information on election days because it was thought to be too tricky for a common reporter to comprehend. If you are standing in the main election night studio when your network's polling experts start discussing the significance of a particular state poll, you the reporter will hear about three words out of one hundred that you will understand. These polls occur in the realm of statistics and probability. They require PhD-style expertise to understand. The people who analyze them for news organizations, like the legendary Warren Mitofsky and Martin Plissner at CBS News -- have trade associations like doctors do to certify their work.
When you the humble reporter are writing a story based on the polls you need one of these gurus standing over your shoulder interpreting what they mean or you almost certainly will screw it up. There is a word for this kind of teamwork and expertise. It's called "journalism."
You did not see any of the networks or the AP put out misleading reports of a Kerry lead nationally – or in the battleground states of Florida or Ohio. The editors, producers and executives who run these MSM organizations, in typical responsible, dinosaur fashion, know it would be wrong to do so.
As professional journalists, they understand the limitations of this kind of polling. The polling results from early in the day will not necessarily conform to late afternoon and evening voting patterns. They also understand that even as they lumber toward the extinction predicted by so many blog warriors, providing a false early picture of the returns can be bad for democracy. Oh, those backward, self-serious dinosaurs.
Slate.com is deserving of special criticism in this matter. That website is not a blog; it's a well-established, well-funded and mostly responsible organization that qualifies as serious journalism. But, in what seemed to me to be a smarmy grab for election night circulation, Slate decided to go with leaked exit poll results, thus helping boost the amplitude of the bogus "Kerry leading" buzz on the web. Presumably, Microsoft, which owns Slate, has a few dollars jingling around in its budget which would have permitted its editors to join the official National Election Pool, which conducted and analyzed the exit polls. Many major newspapers did so. That would have given the Slate bosses access to the cautions being provided by the pool's experts to the networks and other members about the booby-traps in the early poll numbers. Then they wouldn't have put out a bunch of misleading figures.
The public is now assaulted by news and pretend-news from many directions, thanks to the now infamous "information superhighway." But the ability to transmit words, we learned during the Citizens Band radio fad of the 70's, does not mean that any knowledge is being passed along. One of the verdicts rendered by election night 2004 is that, given their lack of expertise, standards and, yes, humility, the chances of the bloggers replacing mainstream journalism are about as good as the parasite replacing the dog it fastens on.
By Eric Engberg