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The role of bloggers

As the journalistic casualties mount, Internet Web logs are proving to be an important tool for holding the mainstream media accountable.

A Times Editorial
Published February 26, 2005


The proliferation of Internet Web logs - so-called "blogs" - has unsettled mainstream news organizations that have become a prime target for bloggers. On the whole, it's probably a healthy development. The news media have a credibility problem and bloggers, for all their excesses, have shown they have a role to play in holding mainstream journalists accountable.

For the first time, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz recently wrote, "millions of people with access to a wide audience (at least among the wired) are looking over the shoulders of journalists, or practicing journalism themselves . . . Many bloggers are careful and thought-provoking, others partisan or mean-spirited. But they are here to stay, and by and large they provide a healthy check on those who once monopolized the news agenda."

Meanwhile, the casualty list in the war of the "bloggers" keeps growing. Bloggers uncovered the identity and background of James Guckert, a writer for a Web site run by a Republican activist who obtained press credentials from the White House over two years under the pseudonym Jeff Gannon. Guckert/Gannon came to public prominence after asking President Bush this loaded question about Democratic criticism of the president's proposed overhaul of Social Security: "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

A field of mostly liberal bloggers soon piled on. Guckert had a history of asking Bush-friendly questions during press conferences. He had a habit of plucking long excerpts of White House press releases for his stories. His employer, the now-shuttered Talon News, mostly echoed GOP talking points and was edited by longtime Texas Republican Bobby Eberle Jr. As controversy over Guckert's assumed name grew, his real name was linked to the development of gay escort Web sites such as militaryescortsm4m.com. A Salon.com report noted another blogger has found explicit photos of Guckert online and evidence he offered services as an escort for $200 an hour.

Guckert resigned from Talon amid questions about why the Bush administration had repeatedly provided press access to someone with no journalism credentials and a questionable past. How Guckert avoided the more extensive Secret Service background check most journalists undergo for regular White House credentials remains unclear.

Another recent victim of the blogosphere was CNN news chief Eason Jordan. He ended a 23-year career by resigning as criticism grew over his suggestion that U.S. troops deliberately targeted journalists in Iraq. Delivered during an off-the-record forum in Switzerland, Jordan's comments drew immediate condemnation after they were revealed by a blogger who attended the meeting. Despite his attempts to backpedal, Jordan became a target for conservative bloggers and pundits as a symbol of CNN's supposedly liberal bias.

At a time when CNN news reports are including reaction from the blogosphere, Web logs have helped uncover the truth behind Dan Rather's questionable 60 Minutes reporting on the president's National Guard record. Increasingly, they have become valuable tools for holding the mainstream media - or MSM in online-speak - accountable. But the constant battle between liberal and conservative outlets threatens to turn the blogosphere into a high-tech snakepit, where bloggers try to prove their legitimacy by the number of journalistic scalps they harvest.

Mainstream journalists have nothing to fear from bloggers if they remain true to fundamental standards of accuracy and fairness. They must remain cautious before passing along information from blogs or reacting to their charges, while continuing to learn from a form of mass media that is evolving before our eyes. Blogging, if practiced responsibly, could boost old media's credibility by making it more accountable to the public.

[Last modified February 26, 2005, 01:14:15]


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