What bloggers bring to Boston

Published July 19, 2004 10:01PM (EDT)

Bloggers predicted mainstream journalists would take shots at them after it was announced the two major political parties would credential about three dozen bloggers to cover the nominating conventions alongside about 15,000 journalists. As Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, keeper of one of the most influential political blogs Daily Kos put it: "Of course, we'll face the journalism hacks who are offended that bloggers are being credentialed  You know the types  'I went to journalism school and worked hard to earn my living, so why should they let the riff raff in?' Yeah. I have a degree in journalism (among other things) and it was a freakin' joke."

Now that Boston is one week away, mainstream publications are featuring stories about bloggers in their run-up coverage to the convention, including some debate among establishment types about whether bloggers belong. In the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, called bloggers "witty, candid, irreverent, passionate, shrewd and outrageous Internet chroniclers," but then put them in their place. " Make no mistake," he wrote, "this moment of blogging legitimization -- and temporary press credentials -- doesn't turn bloggers into journalists." What makes them different, Jones said, is that "bloggers, with few exceptions, don't add reporting to the personal views they post online, and they see journalism as bound by norms and standards that they reject. That encourages these common attributes of the blogosphere: vulgarity, scorching insults, bitter denunciations, one-sided arguments, erroneous assertions and the array of qualities that might be expected from a blustering know-it-all in a bar."

The blogger Matt Welch (via TalkLeft) turned some of that trademark scorching blogger wit Jones' way, first mocking his byline before ripping his op-ed: "(Here's how you can tell bloggers aren't journalists -- they almost never include a pretentious and utterly gratuitous middle initial in their bylines!)"

That bloggers are different from journalists is not a terribly useful revelation in itself for judging their worth. Yes, they are different -- although some bloggers, like Josh Marshall, do actually gather original information as well as disseminate observations and opinions about what's in the news. The difference between most bloggers and journalists is usually what attracts readers to blogs in the first place. Bloggers, among other things, chronicle, archive, editorialize, provide community for the like-minded and forums for debate, and emphasize key points being lost in the din of the mainstream coverage. Blogs provide a helpful lens, even if a partisan one, for understanding mainstream media coverage. And since blog readers are usually voracious news junkies, blogs provide them a supplement to the daily consumption of mainstream news -- they don't necessarily supplant say, the Washington Post. As with all flavors of media outlets, there are good blogs and bad, prominent ones that have risen on their reputation and track record, and others you can probably do without.

Still, USA Today quoted a journalism prof miffed about bloggers getting credentials because, again, they aren't "real" journalists. "They're certainly not committed to being objective. They thrive on rumor and innuendo," said Tom McPhail, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. Bloggers "should be put in a different category, like 'pretend' journalists," McPhail said. (This observation prompted blogger Athenae to write a post on Eschaton titled: Well, Pardon Us For Living.)

In an age of "fair and balanced" news and round-the-clock punditry, as journalists struggle to maintain credibility, these "pretend" journalists wield serious influence -- aside from the most prominent bloggers, the "Daily Show" is another case in point -- and journalism professors should be striving to understand this development. Dismissing the phenomenon is not the answer. Even the Gray Lady recognizes the worth and power of bloggers, and unlike Prof. McPhail, finds a precedent for them in journalism's hisory -- more like an H.L. Mencken than an Adam Nagourney -- and cites an example of bloggers forcing the hand of mainstream journalists. "People who think the mushrooming world of wannabe polemicists and their Web logs, or blogs, is merely a high-tech amusement should talk to Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican. In Web lore, bloggers are credited with relentlessly drilling Senator Lott after he expressed segregation-tinged nostalgia for the Strom Thurmond presidential campaign, a story that the major news media initially missed. Mr. Lott was subsequently forced to quit as majority leader."

In an interesting piece looking at the possibilities for blogging the conventions, NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen says bloggers may just find meaning where traditional journalists see scripted non-events barely worthy of prominent play. "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing," he wrote. "The blogs come at this fresh. I'm going."

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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