Bloggers at Scooter Libby Trial

WaPo fronts its Business section today with a discussion of what it means to have credentialed bloggers joining traditional reporters at the Scooter Libby trial. The principal focus is on the lack of institutional controls on blogs.

The new validation doesn’t necessarily clarify the blurry line between bloggers and traditional journalists at a time when millions of people are discovering that they can project their opinions and expertise around the world with just a few keystrokes. The debates over the traditional checks-and-balances process that journalists follow are continuing, and some bloggers are resisting efforts to be put under the umbrella of the traditional news media.

“The Internet today is like the American West in the 1880s. It’s wild, it’s crazy and everybody’s got a gun,” said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school. “There are no rules yet.”

The common journalistic practices of verifying facts, seeking both sides of a story and subjecting an article to editing are honored mostly in the breach. Innuendo and rumor ricochet around the Internet as blogs link from one to another, at times making defamatory voices indistinguishable from the many others involved in this experiment of free expression.

What utter rubbish. These journalistic standards have mostly been honored in the breach by the press throughout the ages. From the days of Yellow Journalism through today’s tabloid dailies, the business side of media has always trumped the theoretical professionalism. Innuendo and rumor from unattributed sources are front page news even at such august institutions as the Post and the New York Times. Since the advent of 24/7 cable news, editorial control and verification have gone by the wayside. And the Post even has blogs of its own these days.

To say that people can’t distinguish credible blogs from bad is to give too little credit. Can people not tell the New York Post or New York Daily News from the New York Times?

“Blogs are first and foremost a conversation, people talking,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalist-turned-blogger who created a forum called BuzzMachine. Blogs, he said, have a “different biorhythm” where postings that are initially inaccurate or unfair are corrected online through readers comments and updated blog entries. “This is a world,” he said, “where you publish first and edit later.”

Quite true. Then again, the same is true of journalism, period. Reporters and their firms are in competition with one another for “scoops,” causing the airing of first drafts, rumors, and guesses. During the live coverage of the aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, many mistakes were made, most notably the reported death of Jim Brady. With the advent of CNN and its competitors, that has become routine. And, as major newspapers went online, they followed suit, going with the first bits and pieces they have for a story and correcting and updating as they go.

Indeed, the principal difference in this regard between blogs and mainstream journalists is that the norm in blogging is to leave up the mistakes and follow up with annotated updates. By contrast, the mistakes the mainstream press make disappear into the ether, generally unacknowledged.

UPDATE: Jeralyn Merritt writes,

This is a pretty big deal. It’s hard to get a press pass for the actual courtroom in a high-profile case, as opposed to the overflow courtroom, where you only get to hear audio of what’s going on. It’s just not the same. You can’t see the jurors or watch the body language of the trial participants. Even major tv networks usually only get a few seats in the courtroom, with the rest of their reporters and pundits having to be in the overflow courtroom.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.