Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

US politics outpaced by media/blogs combo?

Thu 4 September 2008, 12:41pm

A couple of months ago, I took part in a Spectator even that asked: Is our politics big enough for the net? (write-up here) It looks like we’re getting an early answer from the US. Last week the Republican party pulled a fast one on the US press and got a reaction it may not have been not expecting. Mickey Kaus posits three models in how the media has gone about the business of reporting politics. Local politicians, take serious note!Model one is simple. “There’s the press, and the public. The press only prints “facts” that are checked and verified. That’s all the public ever finds out about. The press functions as “gatekeeper.” Okay, even in Ireland, we’re past that stage.

Model two should also be familiar. “It’s contingent on “the rise of blogs, which (along with tabloids and cable) often discuss rumors that are not “verified.” The public finds out about these rumors, as rumors. And it turns out that blogging obsessively about rumors is a pretty good way to smoke out the truth (see, e.g., Dan Rather).”

But he notes that “Blogs and tabloids are a sort of intermediate nethersphere between public and the elite MSM that serves as a proving ground where the truth or falseness of the “undernews” gets hashed out. Stories that are true then graduate to the MSM.”

Here’s the decisive shift:

We are now, I think, making the next logical leap, to a model in which unverified rumors about public figures are discussed and assessed not just in the blogosphere or the unrespectable tabs but in the MSM itself. I say welcome! With NYT reporters and bloggers all openly discussing unverified reports,, whatever is true will become un-unverified that muhch faster. And the public is proving, by and large, to be quite capable of distinguishing between stories that are true and rumors that are still being investigated.

He goes on to note:

Once reporters start peppering campaigns with questions, after all, I suspect it will be impossible to keep a lid on whatever rumors the MSM is peppering the campaigns about. That’s particularly true in a “synergistic” world where a reporter like Howard Fineman not only writes for Newsweek but also appears on cable shows that have an imperative to discuss whatever is hot now. It’s particularly true in a Drudgian world where the activities of MSM reporters-what they’re working on, what questions they’re asking–is itself news for the Web. In that world, the line between “checking out” tips and open discussion of at least the non-actionable rumors can’t really be maintained and shouldn’t be, given the truth-divining virtues of widespread publicity (which functions as an APB to the citizenry to come up with evidence).

Refering to McCain’s senior press man and alumnus of Karl Rove’s 2004 ‘Breakfast Club’ complaints about the behaviour of the mainstream press:

It’s tempting to assume Steve Schmidt’s cries are cynical, reflecting a desire to gin up a war between his candidate and the intrusive, condescending elite media–a war in which voters will side with his candidate. doesn’t he just do his job, under Model 2, and answer the MSM’s questions? But it’s also likely Schmidt’s anguish is at least in part authentic shock at the looming inability of even Model 2 to keep a lid on unrestrained speculation. When even MSM reporters start behaving like bloggers–when candidates’ can’t squelch discussion of their rumored sins, but have to wade into a non-stop public debate about them–the job of a campaign strategist will get a whole lot harder.

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Comments (17)

  1. cynic@l says:

    When even MSM reporters start behaving like bloggers–when candidates’ can’t squelch discussion of their rumored sins, but have to wade into a non-stop public debate about them–the job of a campaign strategist will get a whole lot harder.
    Is that really true, though? Because McCain has so far played this extremely well. He did vet Palin, he knew about the pregnancy, he knows about Troopergate…there’s no such thing as bad publicity and strategically the McCain camp are milking this for all its worth. It used to be spinmeisters had to work hard to plant a story in the media or give it legs…now it appears all they have to do is whisper in the ear of a green blogger, and a star is born.

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  2. billie-Joe Remarkable says:

    “US Bloggers Fail To Get Over Themselves Shocka”

    “And it turns out that blogging obsessively about rumors is a pretty good way to smoke out the truth.” Hmmm. And if people’s lives are ruined in this process or people are thrown off track by tittle-tattle masquerading as news from ‘citizen journalists’ this is good, is it?

    “But he notes that “Blogs and tabloids are a sort of intermediate nethersphere between public and the elite MSM that serves as a proving ground where the truth or falseness of the “undernews” gets hashed out.” This is too delicious. Is there a “bollocksphere” where people can “wankify” the news?

    Sorry, my RealWorld boss wants me to do some “anti-dossing”. Will check later for some Un-news about Sarah Palin. FFS.

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  3. Brian Walker says:

    Mick, A great blog, excellent disco. My questions to you and myself.
    1. Does not our present use of technology fragment more than it coheres, focuses or unites?
    Brown is about to launch citizens’ juries about Britishness and the reform of the constitution. You can imagine what that’ll be like. Isn’t there a logic that the more focused on outcome, the more mediated, the less truly inquiring and democratic?

    2.Don’t the blogsphere, webcasts and other new platforms augment media choice, rather than transform the whole experience? Are all the claims justified? Media spin becomes a vortex (see thrashing around over who is Palin). More irreverent yes, but what was different from the National Inquirer, other than you pick the latter up in the shopping mall? Interaction powerfully helps campaigning and fund raising yes, but how is a campaigning website qualitatively different from the Daily Mail? And is Obama really a new type of candidate? He seems quite familiar to me.

    3. Yes, on- demand webcasts are great and expose the lumbering, topdown media. I want to see and hear the candidates at length, not endless punditry, three times more BBC commentators than the candidates. But this widens choice to more-or-the-same or slightly different; it is not transforming.

    4.Connectivity is great for the quantitative – for surveys and breadth of opinion generally. But how does it help data handling, crunching, original research, the essential qualitative work? Arguably, it can dangerously downgrade it through lack of quality control (the wikipedia thesis). And you say yourself it shortens attention spans. Are we becoming goldfish?

    5. Similarly re the mainstream media that some bloggers are starting to discount. Facts, evidence and analysis are essential not just opinion. Time and money is needed to gather them. If the mainstream media with all its faults is so reduced by competition from the blogsphere that it no longer has the money, how is the blogsphere going to attract the investment needed to replace that vital traditional media role? Isn’t the evidence so far, that blogs are so differentiated that there’s a real danger we lose the objective analysis we have? That we argue on the basis of less and less original information?

    6. You rightly deplore back and white (and I would add) vertical politics. 1% direct democracy is almost nothing. And yet there’s something in all of this if we could grasp it. The big question is: what is the dynamic of change for a locked down political system? ( That’ll set them buzzing in the Stormont members canteen I don’t think).

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  4. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Fair points lads. I’m not so convinced as Mickey that it is a good thing for the MSM to get so completely drawn off their hinges.

    For one thing, the news isn’t always about what’s ‘centre stage’. The real significance in what is happening can be in what’s not alluded to, rather than what is.

    BJ,

    Even in the States, the law is the final arbiter of what can and cannot be said. There is talk of potential action being taken against the National Inquirer for instance.

    As Kaus notes too, the fact that Palin is a Republican has made it all that much easier to bust out of it.

    But…

    Here’s the thing. The real problem here is that journalism has been slowly reduced to a commodity. Some of that is to do with commercial pressures, and some it to do with the kind of connective technologies that make Google News as reliable a way to get news stories as paying a foreign correspondent to produce good copy from abroad, for instance.

    The rush to the bottom started long before bloggers ever showed up to the game. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that some of the more salacious of the bloggers learned their trade good and proper from the activist tabloids they grew up with.

    I’m an optimist about these things. Good news and reliable reporting has to survive the deluge somehow. The days are gone when the MSM could claim a monopoly on that. But neither are the bloggers quite the practicising the pristine art themselves.

    Nothing beats the kind of full time aggregated resources a newspaper can bring to the affair of speaking ‘truth to power’. That so few of them do it, or are happy to acquiesce in the political sponsorship of one party or another (see Murdoch’s ‘admission’ of a ‘tentative truce’ between Fox and Obama) is a singular indictment of the degree to which journalism has degraded it’s own classical values.

    That the MSM so often fail in that duty, is one reason why people are dropping the ‘news’ in newspapers and going for the ‘un-news’ of the Bollocksphere, as you put it. Personally, I don’t think there is anything inevitable about that decline. What still fires the blogosphere is good news and thoughtful analysis. And it’s ultimately what will fire newspaper revenues.

    And those papers who cannot or will not invest in talent and online spaces, will simply go to the wall.

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  5. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Sorry Brian, I missed your last. Will get to it soon as I can…

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  6. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Brian,

    I’ll take some of those.

    The blogosphere is not a replacement for the mainstream. looking at the US blog scene for the first time seriously since 04 (I did follow the mid terms, but not seriously), what strikes me is the extent to which US journalists have taken to writing their own blogs, and joining in the conversation. That’s the only way to understand how it all works. My modest (possibly nieve) suggestion is that journalists should try to shrug off that age old imperative to get the story out first.

    The most problematic description of Matt Drudge I’ve come across is “Assignment Editor For The National Press Corps”. Editors currently cannot diversify sufficiently because the print business model won’t allow them. The net frees them and their regular and irregular writers up considerably. The problem is that ‘the national conversation’ (slung out in the states between online and new channels ‘debate’) creates its own hard-to-resist centripetal force.

    Kaus notes a particularly interesting crossover from this conversational space to the mainstream:

    Once reporters start peppering campaigns with questions, after all, I suspect it will be impossible to keep a lid on whatever rumors the MSM is peppering the campaigns about. That’s particularly true in a “synergistic” world where a reporter like Howard Fineman not only writes for Newsweek but also appears on cable shows that have an imperative to discuss whatever is hot now. It’s particularly true in a Drudgian world where the activities of MSM reporters-what they’re working on, what questions they’re asking–is itself news for the Web. In that world, the line between “checking out” tips and open discussion of at least the non-actionable rumors can’t really be maintained and shouldn’t be, given the truth-divining virtues of widespread publicity (which functions as an APB to the citizenry to come up with evidence).

    Here’s where the comparison with the States may be misleading. The potential for the citizenry to intermediate is vast compared to European party systems where vertical control is much tighter. Although that is breaking down with party membership dropping like a stone. It’s one reason why the Tories have been flirting with the idea of primaries: to give the local populace a larger stake in the process without having to be party members as such.

    The locked down nature of Stormont is a problem I think that some of the parties did not anticipate. It’s very hard to get a clean hit in against a rival who is also a colleague in the same ‘cabinet’. And subsequently tough to get people roused enough to continue to vote. It’s a classic case of politics becoming smaller just at the very moment when the citizen’s appetite and capacity to get involved is expanding.

    It’s a challenge directly to the political class.

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  7. jone says:

    I hear MLA x loves to indulge in it bit of discrete bum-fun, while his colleague MLA y occasional gives his wife a box.

    Is it OK for me hash these rumours out here in an attempt to smoke out the truth?

    And frankly experience tells us that it’s purest horseshit to suggest that “whatever is true will become un-unverified that much faster.”

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  8. billie-Joe Remarkable says:

    Jone. Well said. “Un-unverified” their jargon alone is laughable let alone what passses for analysis.

    “Citizen journalists” seems to be anyone with internet access. After work, I’m off to buy a sharp knife and set up shop as a “citizen surgeon”.

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  9. Brian Walker says:

    Just to add a point about Freedom of Information. Requests have been increasing fast since its introduction in in 2005, with complaints about delays in responding running at about 2700 p.a. Most are from journalists, would you believe.Fee charging, staved off last year, is likely to come back as an idea before long. Therefore only elites will be able to afford multiple requests. The paradox of FOI is that it only works well if not overloaded. This militates against the blogsphere. The way round it is to press for more e-enabled open government, that is, pro-active disclosure, thus obviating the need for FOI.

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  10. Greenflag says:

    ‘The locked down nature of Stormont is a problem I think that some of the parties did not anticipate. ‘

    I don’t think any of them anticipated it.

    ‘ It’s very hard to get a clean hit in against a rival who is also a colleague in the same ‘cabinet’.’

    Thank you D’Hondt .

    ‘It’s a classic case of politics becoming smaller just at the very moment when the citizen’s appetite and capacity to get involved is expanding.’

    Yes in the sense of the growing blogosphere but the appetite for involvement seems to stop at the laptop screen.

    ‘It’s a challenge directly to the political class. ‘

    And even more of one to the traditional media outlets that have for so long ‘reported’ the latest ‘news ‘.

    This new instantaneous information googly has upset the political world and the Republican Party USA selects a candidate who does not know how to use the internet ?

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  11. Mark Dowling says:

    Brian – the answer is not to implement fees under the existing system, but to digitise most information so that it can be accessed and analysed without the need for a formal request.

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  12. jone says:

    billie-Joe,

    Don’t get me wrong I’m not agin citizen journalism…the glory of the internet is that people with a deep interest in a subject have a chance to drill down and then publish in a way which was difficult in the past, for example the work of Nevin around the Paisley/ Sweeney story…that was exemplary in that it was thorough, well sourced work.

    What I am queasy about is the suggestion above that it’s A-OK for any old toot to be bandied about by on the wilder shores of the blogosphere and then seep into the MSM news cycles before even the most cursory attempts to stand the story up.

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  13. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    BJR,

    If you really think that then I just hope that you and your RealWorld boss don’t work in the business. :o)

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  14. Brian Walker says:

    Mick says: “My modest (possibly naive) suggestion is that journalists should try to shrug off that age old imperative to get the story out first.”

    Not likely I would say, as a slave to the age-old imperative. Though it could depend on what ” the news” is. An original researched story defines the debate, so bloggers depend on it. We inhabit a multimedia, multi platform world of convergence AND differentiation, where efficiency pressures demand mutilskilled journalists ( eg market leaders the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian). The pressure on a journalist to file with an original, researched story as soon as he can is irresistible ( competitive pressure and personal pride) But coverage of an event – a convention – everyone can see on TV? Yes, he could blog for a while as an ideal way to gauge reactions and help build up the considered piece. As we know, blogging through an live event is now a newish feature of newspaper coverage, almost like live TV commentary, a development approaching convergence. However the basic journalist’s problem now is that the pressure to file 24/7 so often is that s/he can have little time actually to do proper reporting. Blogging only adds to the pressure, although it adds choice.

    Demand for material is so great that citizen’s journalism is thrown into the pot – mobile pictures, eyewitness news the lot.It does need mediation for accuracy and context and labelling but all that’s being smoothly incorporated into the mix. No sign yet of it dethroning the national press. But the regional press? Very likely it will,as many of the regionals are slowly being killed off by the freesheets and websites.

    I suspect that two levels of output will co-exist indefinitely; the official, newspaper/hard copy/ web2 multimedia product still being developed; and the samizdat, maybe flakey, scurrilous, maybe super Private Eye at its best. sure, with some cross-over. Don’t people want both?

    Mark Dowling you say on FOI charging- “the answer is not to implement fees under the existing system, but to digitise most information so that it can be accessed and analysed without the need for a formal request”
    You’re nearly there, it’s slowly happening, called e-enabled open government. It should reduce the need for routine, formal FOI requests, reserving them for the more sensitive issues. Ideally!

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  15. Nevin (profile) says:

    Jone, the blogger and the MSM can make waves if they have a common purpose* ;)

    *Mick, are you familiar with this exotic creature?

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  16. Nevin (profile) says:

    “efficiency pressures demand mutilskilled journalists ( eg market leaders the Daily Telegraph”

    I presume these ‘pressures’ can also lead to inaccurate reporting and URLs that are obsolete/not checked.

    This example was brought to my attention by a reader of NALIL blog:

    Julia Hunt: Britain’s 50 greatest islands

    6. Rathlin Island

    With its dramatic basalt cliffs, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island is home to thousands of seabirds, which you can view from a RSPB bird colony. Daily passenger ferries from Ballycastle, six miles across the Sea of Moyle, with Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk/rathlin).

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  17. billie-Joe Remarkable says:

    “If you really think that then I just hope that you and your RealWorld boss don’t work in the business”

    Blogging? Media? Porn?! None of the above but I am interested to varying degrees* in them all. I exaggerate a little but the jargon does take me to the fair :o)

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