Blogs Readers a Force Multiplier in the Army of Davids

LAT has a very interesting profile of TPM’s Josh Marshall and the occasional ability of blogs to get ahead of the mainstream press.

In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM , posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas.

For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress. One senior Justice Department official has resigned, and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs.

This isn’t the first time Marshall and Talking Points have led coverage on national issues. In 2002, the site was the first to devote more than just passing mention to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s claim that the country would have been better off had the segregationist 1948 presidential campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond succeeded. The subsequent furor cost Lott his leadership position. Similarly, the TPM sites were leaders in chronicling the various scandals associated with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

All of this from an enterprise whose annual budget probably wouldn’t cover the janitorial costs incurred by a metropolitan daily newspaper. “Hundreds of people out there send clips and other tips,” Marshall said. “There is some real information out there, some real expertise. If you’re not in politics and you know something, you’re not going to call David Broder. With the blog, you develop an intimacy with people. Some of it is perceived, but some of it is real.”

Marshall’s use of his readers to gather information takes advantage of the interactivity that is at the heart of the Internet revolution. The amount of discourse between writers and readers on the Web makes traditional journalists look like hermetic monks.

[…]

“With Abramoff, I was getting a lot more tips than I could handle,” Marshall said. “I thought if I hire two people, pay them, marry them with these tips, what could we do then?” That led to the creation of TPM Muckraker, which has two full-time, salaried reporter-bloggers and is where many of the stories on the U.S. attorneys were originally published.

Few bloggers have the ability to do what Marshall has done at TPM. OTB is reasonably popular, I think it’s fair to say, but doesn’t generate anything like the comment level of major liberal blogs like TPM, Eschaton, and DailyKos.

What Marshall has created is particularly impressive. While DailyKos and MyDD have become major players in organizing young, disaffected liberals, Marshall has created a mini journalism empire, demonstrating the potential of blogging better than just about anyone out there.

He’s not alone, though. PowerLine and Little Green Footballs helped break open the RatherGate scandal, using the same techniques as Marshall–leveraging the archane expertise of an army of readers. Ed Morrissey became the linchpin of breaking open the Gromery kickback scandal in Canada in perhaps the best example of what a dogged one man operation can do.

With notable exceptions like Woodward and Bernstein’s obsession with the Watergate break-in, newspapers and broadcast outlets seldom devote the time and energy to pursue the trails of obscure stories. The advent of blogs have given individuals who become, for lack of a better word, obsessed about various stories to pursue them to the bitter end. More often than not, it turns out that there’s no there there. Sometimes, though, they catch lightning in a bottle.

The blogosphere harnesses the power of individuals in a way that wasn’t possible a decade ago. There are plenty of smart people out there with a lot of specialized expertise or with a particularly interesting way of looking at things that, for a variety of reasons, didn’t go into journalism. Blogs give them a voice.

Glenn Reynolds has dubbed this group an Army of Davids. As Marshall has shown, that army can sometimes use its readership as a tremendous force multiplier, getting additional leads and insights that no one man, no matter how smart and diligent, could ever come up with on his own.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Archives December 2006 August 2006 June 2006 May 2006 April 2006 March 2006 February 2006 [IMG Outside The Beltway | OTB] Blogs Readers a Force Multiplier in the Army of Davids Captain Ed Goes Pro North Korea to Shut Down Nuke Facility? Plame Sheds Little Light in Leak Case Why Oh Why Can’t Our Press Corps Adopt Permalinks? Beltway Traffic Jam Inflation Rose in February Source of Tainted Spinach Found

  2. Bithead says:

    I think it’s fair to say, but doesn’t generate anything like the comment level of major liberal blogs like TPM, Eschaton, and DailyKos.

    I think that a reflection of the amount of “look at me” going on on the left side of the political aisle, and not so much an indication of any talents possessed by the web masters. The left, by definition, while they have always been fewer in number, even prior to web sites and so on, has always been more activist, always been more outspoken, always been louder.

    The web sites you mention, merely continue that trend, and give such people a platform from which to scream.

    In light of that, it seems to me that Glenn Reynolds book stands as a warning, too.

  3. Remember your high school world history and the impact of the printing press. Blogs are just printing presses with much wider reach and lower cost.

  4. Bithead says:

    True, YAJ, and I’ve compared it in the past to Guutenburg. That does not automatically translate to an improvement in living conditions for all people, however. Where that aspect rests, comes down to what is written.