Picking Up the Flag

Picking Up the Flag 

            As the newspapers and newsmagazines shrink physically and cover less, they and the broadcast and cable news have also been doing it worse.  One media critic who’s been sounding the alarm particularly sharply is Eric Boehlert.   I’ve had occasion in these pages to cite his book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (2006), a detailed scolding of the mainstream media for consistently failing to challenge either disinformation from the conservative propaganda machine or the lies the White House used to sell the Iraq conflict to the American people. 

            It turns out, though, that someone has been doing journalism right.  That would be the netroots bloggers, heroes of Boehlert’s new book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (2009).  Boehlert focuses here on the few years leading up to the last election.  He shows how the netroots time after time successfully wrested control of the national narrative away from both conservative propaganda machine and the mainstream media, fiercely practicing what was proudly called reality-based journalism.  Through viral videos, rapid-fire exchanges on blogs where the stories were pieced together like mosaics, and old-fashioned reporting, the mostly left-leaning online community in effect picked up the flag that the mainstream media were in the process of dropping.  Then, through social media, the netroots organized much of the ground war that elected Barack Obama. 

            Some examples: 

•           Bruce Wilson, a blogger who covers the religious right, broke the story of a fecklessly anti-Semitic sermon by televangelist überpastor John Hagee, forcing John McCain to repudiate Hagee’s long-sought endorsement shortly after it was received; 

•           Mayhill Fowler, who reported on Obama’s remarks that some small-town voters were “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion,” and who also reported Bill Clinton’s attack on Vanity Fair reporter Todd Purdum, gave first Obama’s campaign, then Hillary Clinton’s, very bad news days; 

•           The netroots massively rebelled against Congressional efforts to grant telecoms retroactive immunity for their cooperation in NSA’s warrantless wiretaps of Americans, and long delayed its enactment;[Note 1] 

•           Impressive reportage by Alaskan bloggers broke “Troopergate,”exposed Sarah Palin’s claim to have rejected money for the “Bridge to Nowhere,” established Palin’s history with Alaskan secessionism, and, along with the disastrous Katie Couric interview, demolished Palin’s public image over the course of about a month. [Note 2]

            The netroots can accomplish much.  But hold the cheering.  Although the stories just mentioned were legitimate news reporting with legitimate impact, the three most important investigative news stories during the period covered by Bloggers on the Bus were Abu Ghraib, the hidden CIA prisons, and the NSA warrantless wiretap program, broken respectively by CBS News, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.  This was not an accident.  Bloggers are generally not paid at all for what they do; Fowler, for instance, was a volunteer.  Mainstream media all maintain paid news staffs with the time and resources, including legal counsel, to dig up and handle these more explosive and sensitive stories.  Sensitive news is often costly news. 

            But cost comes at a cost.  Large aggregations of capital are necessary to create a network or a major metropolitan daily.  And there are two problems with this.  First, as media critic Mark Crispin Miller and others have been warning us for some time, capital requires capitalists, who never find the priorities of true news consumers to generate adequate returns, and second, market logic impels consolidating media holdings, with the predictable and often intended effect of diminishing the diversity of viewpoints able to be heard.  News generation is fitted with blinders, then lashed to a waterlogged and sinking corporate ship. 

            In the contrasting galaxy of a million stars which is the blogosphere, we have witnessed the coalescence of really only one blog, The Huffington Post, which has news-gathering power equivalent to that of newspapers, and one blog, Politico, which does inside-the-Beltway reporting that renders it a sort of Washington equivalent of the Wall Street Journal.  News generation institutions within the blogosphere to rival those of newspapers and networks are still in their fragile beginnings. 

            The robustness one can see in the blogosphere lies elsewhere, in influencing public opinion and mobilizing public action.  If you want to see serious and informed commentary on news issues of all sorts, the blogs are the best place to go, not a last resort.  And if you want to get organized, the blogs and social networks are the places as well.  These are functions of great consequence – and consequences, as Boehlert’s book makes clear.  See his accounts of the way the netroots’ firestorm over Chris Matthews’ scornful and sexist remarks about Hillary Clinton after the Iowa caucuses tipped the New Hampshire primary her way, and of the brilliant ways in which the Obama campaign harnessed the joint power of social media like Facebook and MySpace to solicit contributions and to create environments where supporters could organize rallies and get-out-the-vote campaigns.  

            But reporting?  Not so much. 

            It is tempting to view the stories told in Boehlert’s two books, one chronicling the failure of the mainstream media to report the news and the other revealing the success of the blogs in doing so, as being parts of the same story.  Maybe the mainstream media would not be failing from a business perspective were they not, most of the time, failing from a news-reporting perspective as well.  Maybe the blogs would not be succeeding, albeit under their mostly profit-agnostic criteria, were they not beginning to seize the standard of bona fide reporting falling from the grasp of the mainstream media as they tumble lifeless upon the field of economic battle.  

            Either way, we could soon find ourselves with the blogs as our most important news source.  That could be bad.  Not only will the blogs have to find a way to succeed as true news-gatherers within what is for now a cash-starved business model, but the whole world of news might need to change. 

            If every blog is the press, for instance, and everyone can start a blog, then everyone potentially is a member of the press.  First Amendment protection will probably not be a big issue[Note 3], but access and ethics problems will most likely be formidable.  Who gets to sit in the limited seating of the White House press briefing room?  Will blog journalists respect the on-the-record/off-the-record distinctions that are meaningful with and observed by a better-defined press corps?  (Fowler’s scoops on Obama and Bill Clinton suggest otherwise.)  What happens to the law of defamation in a world where the boundaries between fact and opinion are so fluid, and speakers are so often anonymous?  Without conventional editors, who will oversee proper sourcing of stories?  Without the template of newspapers, how easily will readers be able to locate desired coverage?  We don’t know. 

            We may soon find out, though.




[Note 1] See generally Bloggers on the Bus, Chapter 11 at 179-206.

[Note 2] See Boehlert, Chapter 13 at 223-43.  Useful links here.

[Note 3] See, e.g. City of Los Angeles v. Preferred Communications, Inc., 476 U.S. 488 (1986) and Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S. 439 (1991) (cable provides news, information and entertainment, and hence is the press for First Amendment purposes).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn