On Forumblog.org, the World Economic Forum weblog, there is a link to a site called Ohmynews, “where every citizen is a reporter.” Rony Abovitz is one of those citizens. The 34-year-old co-founder of Z-KAT, a medical technology company in Hollywood, Fla., had never written a story in the mainstream press when Forumblog asked him to write his first-ever blog from Davos, Switzerland. And now a story he posted online two weeks ago has claimed one of the most senior scalps in U.S. journalism, prompting praise from right-wing bloggers and sparking a debate about the power of the blogosphere over the mainstream media.
Abovitz attended an off-the-record panel in Davos on Jan. 28 addressed by, among others, CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, that was filmed. During the discussion, Jordan reportedly claimed that he knew of 12 journalists in Iraq whom the U.S. military had deliberately targeted and killed. The Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, who was also on the panel, asked him if CNN had reported this. Jordan said no. Abovitz asked him if he had any objective and clear evidence to back up these claims because “if what he said was true, it would make Abu Ghraib look like a walk in the park.” Jordan appeared to backtrack. The debate continued and then moved on.
Left to the mainstream media, also in attendance, the story would have ended there. Abovitz told the New York Times that he asked some of the journalists if they planned to write about it, and they said no, the discussion was off the record. But Abovitz surmised that the journalists were also eager to “protect their own,” so he took matters into his own hands, posting a write-up of the conference at 2:21 a.m. local time with the headline: “Do U.S. Troops Target Journalists in Iraq?”
The story accelerated around the blogosphere, where right-wing commentators seized on Jordan’s comments as evidence of a self-hating American head of what is regarded in the United States as a liberal network playing to the gallery. “This ordinary American citizen raised his voice at an international forum of media and political heavyweights — also attended by Europe’s most influential America-haters — and demanded that Eason Jordan back up his poisonous assertion about the American military targeting journalists,” writes Michelle Malkin in a recent blog.
But Jordan’s demise may be much more significant than it first appears. In particular, it has been hailed as a victory of new technology over old. “The moral of the story,” writes Captain’s Quarters on his blog, is that “the media can’t just cover up the truth and expect to get away with it — and journalists can’t just toss around allegations without substantiation and expect people to believe them anymore.”
Jordan’s claims cannot be proved and appear, in their details, to be incorrect. According to Ann Cooper, executive director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, 54 journalists and their translators have been killed in Iraq since 2003 — at least nine slain by the U.S. military. “From our standpoint, journalists are not being targeted by the U.S. military, but there certainly are cases where an atmosphere of what, at best, you can call indifference has led to deaths and other problems for journalists.”
But Jordan’s remarks are far from unsubstantiated. In April 2003, American troops bombed the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, where journalists were known to be staying. Al-Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad, the location of which was known to the U.S. military, were also hit by a laser-guided missile, killing one journalist, as were its offices in Kabul, which the U.S. claimed was a “legitimate target” of “military significance.”
In a chapter of a book, “Dying to Tell the Story,” about journalists killed in Iraq, the BBC’s Nik Gowing writes: “There is evidence that media activity in the midst of real-time fighting is now regarded by commanders as having ‘military significance,’ which justifies a firm military response to remove or at least neutralize it.”
But the issues concerning the veracity of Jordan’s message have been almost entirely dwarfed by the voraciousness of the medium by which he was targeted. “We [the mainstream media] used to be the gatekeepers,” Jeff Jarvis, a veteran magazine journalist who now blogs for Buzzmachine.com, told the Washington Post. “[We used to react to criticism] “in our own sweet time. You’d think we would understand the speed of news better than anybody, and we don’t. We used to control the speed.”
On Monday evening, Abovitz appeared on the right-wing Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News. Writing of his experience on his blog, Fixtheworld, he said: “The machinery of Fox, CNN, NBC — much of mainstream media, is the same. Going on O’Reilly is like going to visit an iron factory, or a paper mill. They produce news. It’s a product. Tonight, I was a product. A one-time-use, disposable product, like tissue paper.”
Some believe that Jordan’s resignation simply shows that the Internet has given a few dedicated individuals a license to hound and destroy the careers of the prominent. “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail,” Steve Lovelady, the editor of CJR Daily, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Web site, told the New York Times. But when it comes to bloggers forcing high- profile resignations, liberals have proved at least as effective as conservatives. In 2002, Republican Senate leader Trent Lott was forced to resign after claiming the country would have been better off if a segregationist had won the presidency in 1948. When his comments failed to make news in the mainstream media, it was left to the bloggers to raise the issue. And last week, a conservative online reporter credited to the White House had to resign when liberal bloggers exposed that he was writing under a false name.
“This is not a left- or right-wing phenomenon,” wrote Abovitz Tuesday. “The story is much, much bigger than Eason Jordan. This is John Lennon’s Power to the People, but turbo-charged and amplified. The people want a voice, and now they really have it. Their own voice, unedited, and unfiltered. It is not pretty. The people are quite irritated, mad, and upset.”
Where the Internet was once regarded as providing a potential check on the mainstream media, it has now, in some cases, usurped it — being free from the restraints of editorial meetings, ethical codes, deadlines, schedules and production costs. In the words of one blogger: “Mr. Jordan, I’d like you to meet my friend the Internet. Mr. Internet, this is Mr. Jordan. I’ll leave you to chat for a while. Have fun, and be careful. Internet remembers everything, and he’s a real blabbermouth.”