At today's YearlyKos panel on the Valerie Plame case, we happened to find ourselves sharing a table with a member of the Washington press corps. He's a terrific reporter and a genuinely good guy, but we watched the color rise in his face as members of the panel discussed the ways in which mainstream reporters protected Plamegate leakers and then failed to investigate the case once it broke open.
By the time panelist Dan Froomkin, who writes his White House Briefing column from home, speculated that reporters may avoid stories like Plamegate in an effort to "bend over backwards" not to be seen as liberals, our reporter had had enough. He turned to us and complained: "If he spends no time with the Washington press corps, how the fuck can he talk about the Washington press corps?"
While YearlyKos has put a lot of bloggers and mainstream political reporters in the same room here, there's still a huge distance between them. The reporters have come to Las Vegas to report on bloggers as a political phenomenon. It's much harder to get them to acknowledge that they're a journalistic one, too. There's an almost willful refusal to understand that people who aren't out conducting interviews can add value to a news story anyway. We've never really understood it. If George Will and Frank Rich and Paul Krugman contribute to our understanding of the news -- a proposition that most mainstream reporters wouldn't have trouble understanding -- how is it that Josh Marshall or the folks at the Next Hurrah don't?
The answer is, they do. As one panelist said today, the blogs can "level the playing field" by giving play to stories, like those Murray Waas writes for the National Journal, that otherwise wouldn't reach a broad audience. More important, though, the best of the bloggers can fact-check and contextualize the news in a way that a 900-word A-section story doesn't. Yes, blogs are sometimes stuffed with comments from true believers who won't let facts get in the way of what they "know." And yes, spending time with some of the more over-the-edge blog readers at YearlyKos can leave you with a sense of what it must feel like to be William Shatner at a Star Trek convention. But when it comes to a complicated, ongoing story like Plamegate, blogs often pull together the strings in ways that the MSM either can't or won't. As one panelist said today, people who read Firedoglake every day probably have a much better grasp of Plamegate than do the readers of The Note -- and that's saying nothing of people who get their news each day from whatever happens to land on their front porch in the morning.
Of course, the disconnect goes both ways. For some bloggers and blog-readers here, the mainstream media is monolithic, evil or obsolete, its members little more than dishonest dinosaurs worthy of sneering derision. We're the first to say that some of it's deserved. If the media had covered the catastrophes of the Bush administration the same way it did Bill Clinton's sex life, impeachment would be more than outside-the-mainstream talk from the never-going-to-happen universe. But there's a difference between genuine criticism and snarky attack, and that distinction isn't always observed. From the dais this morning, the Washington Post's Susan Schmidt was described as "Steno Sue," and the National Review's Byron York -- who had the courage to sit in the audience -- took so much abuse that we felt like apologizing to him ourselves. If our reporter colleague was frustrated with Froomkin's comments, we're betting it's only because he'd heard worse -- and a lot of it -- over the last two days. A few minutes after Froomkin spoke, Waas wondered if newspapers aren't steering clear of Plamegate because they feel "so conflicted, so compromised, so embarrassed" about their own roles in the case "that they hope it goes away."
But for all of the reporters' skepticism and the bloggers' contempt, YearlyKos might look to an outsider like a convention for people who write about politics. Some of them do it for newspapers, others do it for Web sites or blogs, but it's what they all do. It's a continuum -- maybe a slippery slope -- that starts somewhere over there with the Washington Post's Dan Balz, runs through Maureen Dowd and Froomkin and the Hotline and Raw Story, then winds up at a place like AMERICAblog. People fall off the edges at either end; the Associated Press and DailyKos are probably more different than they are alike. But where do you draw the line? Where do you put York, who is a reporter and a columnist and a blog contributor all at once? Is Josh Marshall a journalist or an activist? What are we to make of newspaper reporters who blog or a blogger who becomes a columnist? And where do we fit in, anyway?
Maybe it's because we find ourselves in between the two camps, but we can't help getting a little Rodney King about the whole blogger-reporter divide. The most optimistic of the YearlyKos attendees see this conference as some sort of modern Woodstock, a coming-together from which progressives will go forth to spread the good word in their hometowns. But the readers of political blogs tend to be a pretty self-selective lot, and we're not sure how much mind-changing rather than worldview-reinforcing blogs can do -- at least until a blog-generated story or concern begins to shape coverage by the mainstream media. That's another way of saying that we doubt that a wave of enthusiasm washing out of Las Vegas is going to change the minds of a lot of conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents in the states the Democrats need to swing in 2006 and beyond.
A more modest goal for this event? Perhaps the political writers here -- the reporters and the columnists and the aggregators and the bloggers and all the rest -- can begin to find a middle ground that will inform all of their work going forward. That doesn't mean that bloggers have to accept the verdicts of the mainstream media as truth, nor does it mean that news reporters have to start reporting rumors and conspiracy theories as breaking news. But after the Plamegate panel, Froomkin and the reporter who took offense at his comments got together and agreed to have lunch to discuss the questions Froomkin had raised. If they can do that, maybe other reporters, having bonded with the bloggers over a beer at the casino bar or a vegan sandwich in the conference hall, can leave here knowing that not all bloggers are pajama-wearing, know-nothing America haters. Maybe the bloggers can leave knowing that not all reporters are Judy Miller. That's the hope, anyway. The cynical old newspaper reporter in us suspects that it won't be as good as all that. It's true what they say, you know: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.