Fear & Loathing In The Blogosphere

Hunter S. Thompson gestures during his part of the Great Vote Hunt 95 on Sept. 23, 1995, in Aspen, Colo. Thompson, the acerbic counterculture writer who popularized a new form of fictional journalism in books like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," fatally shot himself Sunday night, Feb. 20, 2005, at his Aspen-area home, his son said. He was 67. (AP Photo/Aspen Daily News, Michael R. Brands, File)
Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

Several obits of the late Hunter S. Thompson described him as a precursor of today's bloggers. As The New York Times viewed it "his early work presaged some of the fundamental changes that have rocked journalism today. Mr. Thompson's approach in many ways mirrors the style of modern-day bloggers, those self-styled social commentators who blend news, opinion and personal experience on Internet postings. Like bloggers, Mr. Thompson built his case for the state of America around the framework of his personal views and opinions."

Having spent the better part of the past two weeks in the blogosphere working on a column on Jeff Gannon and Talon "News," the comparison leaped out at me. Although many of the stories about Thompson described his behavior as outmoded and stuck in the '60s and '70s while Aspen and the rest of the world had moved on, he in fact made the conversion to the Web quite well. He wrote a column for ESPN.com and in 2002, Shift, a Canadian digital-culture magazine, named him, along with Matt Drudge, two of the top 25 Web personalities.

Gonzo journalism rules cyberspace. And, as Martha Stewart used to say, that's a good thing.

The passion, energy, anger, paranoia, obsessive focus, innovation and sophistication of the blogs on the left, right and in between are shaking up the MSM. Frank Mankiewicz has referred to "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," Thompson's book on the McGovern-Nixon presidential race, as "the most accurate and least factual" account of the campaign." That insight also applies, for good and ill, to many of today's blogs.

There has been lots of babble in journalism circles about the war between bloggers and journalists, but what is clear is that change is in the air. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote a paper for a Harvard conference on "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility" in January declaring the war over and suggesting five interesting points for discussion, which I've summarized here:

  • 1. "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one and blogging means that practically anyone can own one. That's why bloggers matter."
  • 2. The issue of trust is paramount in journalism. Credibility and ethics emanate from there. As trust in the msm declines (Pew found the number who said there was "no bias in political reporting" dropping from 58 percent in 1988 to 38 percent in 2004) bloggers are building their reputations from the ground up.
  • 3. "Bloggers partake in a resurgent sprit of amateurism now showing in many fields earlier colonized by professionals."
  • 4. "If news as 'lecture' could yield to news as 'conversation'… it might transform the credibility puzzle and enhance the trust."
  • 5. Blogging isn't just about conveying information – it is about communication. Stand-alone bloggers may be easier to trust than corporate providers.
Political research I've done via the blogs during the 2004 campaign and for the Gannon column has convinced me of the validity of a lot of these points. There is information on the blogs that is extremely helpful to advancing a story and journalists who ignore blogs are overlooking a huge resource. Media Matters, Americablog, Kos and their contributors plucked information about Gannon, Eberle, Rove, et al, quickly and disseminated it before Talon News and GOPUSA decided to remove it from their sites. The guerilla warfare continued last week when a conservative site, The American Spectator, put up a controversial ad attacking the AARP, which was then captured and circulated on the liberal sites, eventually making it to the MSM. By the time the MSM discovered the story, the Spectator had taken down the ad.

But, as Rosen says, bloggers are more than information providers. Their anger toward and distrust of the traditional media and the political establishment are palpable. After the Gannon column ran, I received hundreds of e-mails demanding to know why the msm was ignoring the story. One of the ways the mainstream has dissed the blogs has been to label them as having agendas and not being "objective." But that doesn't make their information wrong or their points of view irrelevant. Many bloggers are people who care passionately about public issues and who are frustrated that their viewpoints aren't expressed in public debate. The frustration became so great on the right that The Washington Times and Fox News were created and found a readymade audience.

Some blogs are run by citizens "standing alone," but some of them, some of the time, have become adjuncts of the political parties and are vehicles for getting information "out there" without fingerprints. As Chris Suellentrop reported on NPR, "political campaigns and consultants are becoming increasingly skillful at manipulating the mainstream press by planting stories in the blogosphere. Despite this, the mainstream press remains credulous about blogging."

This is apparently what the John Thune campaign did in South Dakota against Tom Daschle. Democrats, too, have started to use Drudge. The Dean campaign and its allies used blogs to generate buzz and tickle the national media. According to Dean Internet guru Zephyr Teachout, they even hired two of the leading liberal bloggers, Marcos Moulitsas of DailyKos.com and MyDD.com's Jerome Armstrong, as consultants in hopes of generating good blog and keeping them from supporting a Dean opponent; although Teachout says they didn't tell them that was why they were on the payroll. The bloggers say they were already backing Dean, that Kos disclosed the fact that he was working for the campaign on his Web site and that Armstrong even took his site down when he was employed by the campaign. During the race for DNC chair, Dean supporters sent reporters to Hamster.com, which had some nasty things to say about Dean opponent Martin Frost.

To understand modern campaigns, monitoring the Web and bloggers has become a mandatory beat. Web-based organizations and blogs are being used by both Republicans and Democrats to float stories, generate buzz and put out talking points for political activists. There will be much more of that in 2006 and beyond.

By Dotty Lynch