Monday, May 31, 2004

# Posted 11:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ARE THE JOURNALISTS LISTENING? When bloggers ask whether blogs matter, what they really mean is whether professional journalists respond to our questions and demands. We don't expect politicians to listen to us. We don't expect corporate executives to listen to us. But we see ourselves as journalists' next-of-kin and therefore deserve their attention.

While bloggers may argue about whether journalists listen, Rachel Smolkin actually went out there and asked a whole lot of actual journalists whether they make time for blogs. Most of the answers are pretty non-committal. The most interesting comes from NYT correspondent Jodi Wilgoren, who showed some interest in Wilgoren Watch. However, her critics
"typically did not reflect much knowledge about or understanding of mainstream journalism," Wilgoren says, and often came from passionate Dean supporters. "I got many, many letters accusing me of being a tool of the Republican administration or trying to destroy Howard Dean."
I think Wilgoren is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Certainly, some of her critics are mindless leftists. But even OxBlog thought that her coverage of Dean was harsh and unfair.

Now, the irony here is that Wilgoren is quite liberal herself, as one can tell from her efforts to whitewash the crimes of David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin. While Wilgoren deserves credit for at least looking at blogs, I think that her reaction may become typical for mainstream journalists, i.e. find a few online critics you can label as ignorant and use their prejudice to justify ignoring the blogosphere as a whole. According to NYT ombudsman Daniel Okrent,
"In some instances, some [blogs] are so partisan -- even though they're right in many instances -- they're immediately discredited within the newsroom because of their partisanship," [Okrent said]. "If the comment comes from someone who isn't identified as a partisan, they take it much more seriously."
This Okrent quote comes from an excellent column by Marc Glaser which addresses many of the same issues that Smolkin's essay does. Whereas Smolkin looks at the issue more broadly, Glaser focuses on a specific incident in which National Debate editor Robert Cox forced NYT editorial page editor Gail Collins to make an official policy change that imposed tougher standards on her columnists.

Now, it's hard to say whether Cox got a response from the Times because he was a blogger or because he was right. After all, non-blogging readers sometimes get responses as well if they're right. However, the fact that Cox got the Times' attention by posting a parody of their website -- thus provoking the threat of the lawsuit -- suggests that his medium played an important.

The Cox case provides an interesting contrast with the Trent Lott affair, which Rachel Smolkin covers quite nicely. As I see it, the difference between the two is that Cox was directly challenging the competence and authority of professional jouralists, while Josh Marshall and others helped bring down Trent Lott by converting journalists to the anti-Lott cause.

I think both sorts of influence are quite significant, although the Cox variety is somewhat more interesting because it demonstrates that when bloggers go head to head with the pros, they can still come out on top.

Now, last but not least, we come to Dan Drezner and Henry Farrell's effort to conduct a systematic survey of which blogs journalists actually read. I think that their approach is important since Smolkin's essay is rather anecdotal and Glaser's focuses only bloggers' success.

The results of Dan and Henry's survey aren't exactly a surprise. Journalists read the same blogs that bloggers read: Sullivan, Reynolds, Marshall, etc. But that is still a very significant finding because it demonstrates that journalists have developed a surprisingly similar sense of who is worth reading in the blogosphere. (Sadly, OxBlog didn't make the Top 10. Oh well.)

If there is one thing I'd add to all of these worthwhile contributions, it's that we still need to develop a better idea, in our own minds at least, of what role(s) blogs are supposed to play. Smolkin tends to suggest that blogs set themselves up as an alternative to mainstream, reportorial journalism. But I like Jay Rosen's take better:
Almost all of the op-ed writing in America used to be on op-ed pages. That is no longer true. Weblogs have taken over part of that territory. And while the best of them may have 'opinion clout,' the simple fact that they have some territory alongside Big Media is significant.
Bloggers are never going to replace correspondents. But we may be able to knock off Maureen Dowd.
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