Blog of Fear
Last fall, Columbia Journalism Review ran a cover story hyping the impact of blogs on journalism. The author, Matt Welch, himself a blogger, argued that the very best blogs are an antidote to mainstream media and one of "the most exciting new trends the profession has seen in a while." Blogs are so exciting, he suggested, that no one should waste time holding their purveyors to journalistic standards.
How quickly things change. In January, CJR launched a blog of its own, a self-styled moral cowboy whose mission is to patrol the blogosphere on a daily basis. It's called campaigndesk.org, and the "responsible journalists" who work there offer "critique and analysis" of campaign coverage. Though the Blog Report cleverly piggybacks on the political blogs as it rounds up their daily output, managing editor Steve Lovelady has called the Campaign Desk "the anti-blog blog," and the site bills itself as a "nonpartisan" spin-off of "America's premier media monitor."
In other words, it's a reliable . . . edited . . . legitimate blog. Run for cover!
The anti-blogness of it all surfaced in early February when Campaign Desk's Zachary Roth, an ex-Washington Monthly intern, began taking shots at blogs for posting the results of early exit pollsthe theory being that journalists shouldn't post those polls because it discourages voter turnout and undermines the democratic process. It's a valid argument, but exit polls turned out to be a straw man for a bigger debate CJR wanted to launch: Should bloggers adopt journalistic ethics, and if not, why take them seriously?
Exit polls and blog ethics were the subject of exchanges posted by Campaign Desk on February 6 and February 10. The first pitted Lovelady against Slate's Jack Shafer, and the second pitted Roth against Markos Moulitsas, whose dailykos.com is said to be the second most popular political blog these days, next to Instapundit.
Shafer came out unscathed, partly due to Lovelady's strident tone ("The Moral Obligation of a Free Press" was the header on one of the latter's posts) and his thesis that because bloggers are popular, they must be accountable too. Roth joined the spanking on February 10, accusing Moulitsas of wanting respectability while flouting the rules. "Sooner or later," he chided, "you're going to have to choose between the rewards of being taken seriously and the rewards of behaving like a two-year-old who has just discovered he can break things. You don't get both."
Moulitsas took the criticism lightly, explaining that for bloggers, "the concept of 'ethics' doesn't really apply." In other words, he fell into the trap, inviting Roth to forever brand him irresponsible.
My friend Al Giordano of narconews.com isn't buying any of it. "Who the hell is CJR or its lame Campaign Desk to determine who gets taken seriously?" he e-mailed me last week. "No one takes them seriously. It's obvious that CJR's main mission . . . is to discredit bloggers and prop up the decaying cathedral where it once enjoyed priesthood."
If you don't believe that the mainstream media are plotting to co-opt the blogosphere, consider how The New York Times is hyping its new political blog, Times on the Trail. In a recent Q&A, nytimes.com editor Len Apcar described the product as "edited," "authoritative," and better than the rest. "I'm not calling it a blog," he said, "because I don't think it's a blog. It's an updated news service."
On Feburary 5, eager Times readers grabbed the Metro Section and flipped to page B2 for their daily fix of Public Lives and Boldface Names, only to find the two features missing and the page dominated by an ad.
The daily profile and gossip columns have made page B2 prime real estate at the Times. So it was fitting that their space was snapped up by developers who want to promote the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. But some readers were nauseated by how far the Times bent to accommodate an advertiser. The arrival of the glitzy mall not only displaced the literary features on B2; it also sucked up space on B3 in a "news" story about the opening party the night before.
The story, by Alex Kuczynski, segued from name-dropping to press-release recitation to a riff on the tradition of throwing a party to promote a new building ("In order to avoid the stigma of self-promotion and bestow the gloss of high-mindedness, the . . . christening of a building is often promoted as a benefit").
Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis denied any connection between the ad on page B2 and the news story on the facing page. She declined to discuss the cost of the ad.
Readers may have been startled, one might argue, but was any harm done? The stories scheduled for page B2 that day were simply relocated to page B4. Ironically, the Public Lives profile that got displaced was about Patti Hagan, a Prospect Heights intellectual who has formed a citizens' group in hopes of blocking Bruce Ratner's sports complex, which Hagan believes will lead to the eviction of hundreds of her neighbors.
Note to Ratner: Why not reserve B2 now, to celebrate the day the arena opens?
Times wags were buzzing about another ad last week, a full-page paean to the National Guard that appeared in the A section on February 11, the same day the media furor over Dubya's dubious National Guard service made page one.
The ad, which ran on page A23, goes by the name "Desert Boots." Juxtaposed on a photo of a soldier's boots runs the pitch: "They're on the front lines of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're answering the calls of the state and nation in Homeland Defense. They're keeping America safe at home and abroad."
Did the Times just happen to run an ad legitimizing National Guard duty on a day when the White House was fielding demands for Bush's National Guard records? Or was the ad a maneuver by political operatives, designed to drum up support for a "war president" who ducked out of military service in 1972, allowing his flight status to lapse and skipping training for six months?
Coincidence! According to National Guard spokesman Reginald Saville, the Times ad was placed on January 30, and is unconnected to the Bush controversy. "Desert Boots" is one in a long line of "community awareness ads," Saville says, the purpose of which is to "raise awareness of what we do . . . and to create a favorable environment and to find new members."
Despite the timing, the impetus for the ad was probably more practical than political: The Guard desperately needs new recruits. According to a recent survey, droves of Guard soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are getting ready to quit military service for good. Or maybe just transfer to Alabama.
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