How the Blogs Saved CBS... and NPR

The CBS mea culpa comes at a time when media scrutiny has never been more intense. CBS admits that it was duped by airing forged documents that claimed that, in 1972 a young George W. Bush did not fulfill his military obligations and was helped by his powerful family and political connections.

Anchor Dan Rather has apologized for airing documents that CBS could not verify as accurate.

How could this happen to CBS, the once vaunted "Tiffany Network," so named for its glittering array of journalistic and programming gems?

Among the suggested reasons for the failure include a heightened competitive environment for scoops — any scoops — during an election campaign and the mindset of the "gotcha" school of journalism. There have also been allegations of liberal bias.

But there are other reasons too.

Blogs: The Ghost in the Machine

I agree with listener David Wharton who thinks that NPR's reporting on this story (mostly by NPR's Neda Ulaby) may have underplayed the most important reason for CBS' come-uppance

Talented amateurs, using ad-hoc networks (the "blogosphere") broke this story and largely determined its direction in the print and broadcast media. Established media will no longer be able to ignore the fact-checking power of talented amateurs armed with popular weblogs... I'm dumbfounded that the journalism professor… interviewed had "no clue" about the significance of this, since it is THE most significant media story of this election.

"Blog" — the short form for "Web logs" — is a frequently updated Web site consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first. Typically, Web logs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal, according to Dr. Jill Walker who has written the definition for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. (See link at bottom of page.)

In Denial

NPR interviewed a number of academics and journalists about this story. The academics seemed to be in denial, tending to pooh-pooh the importance of this story for American journalism overall.

But others such as Bob Steele from The Poynter Institute and Tom Rosenstiel from the Project for Excellence in Journalism took the opposite view: that CBS’ mistake will have consequences for all news organizations and for some time to come.

After other recent scandals involving the BBC, The New York Times and USA Today, it is sometimes hard to believe that journalistic ethics are being given more than lip service these days. Yet, there are reasons to be optimistic.

Rays of Hope?

First, we must acknowledge that the blogs have truly arrived. It is hard for journalists who have led a sheltered life without public accountability to acknowledge that those days are over.

Second, it will be tough for ombudsmen and women to admit that their unique role as overseers on behalf of the public is also changing. We need to make room on the bench and give the bloggers a place at the dinner table. The question remains: who's for dinner?

NPR listeners have always been quick to point out our errors and lapses, and in a non-partisan way. The blogs are different because many are explicitly political. It will be interesting to see if the "blogosphere" still has as much impact on mainstream journalism once the election is over.

Third, while the bloggers will make life uncomfortable for the media, ultimately, it is a sign of a healthy democratic give-and take. A question for the bloggers is, "what are your standards? How can the rest of us know that your sources are reliable?"

Making the rich and powerful squirm is a short-lived measure of journalistic success — both for the mainstream media and presumably, for the blogs.

Bloggers must be as accountable to the public as they demand the rest of us must be. That means there should be some consequence for spreading false or partial information. Any thoughts on what those consequences might be would be a useful discussion.

More, Not Less Investigative Journalism

CBS' failure will create a climate of timidity inside some organizations when it comes to investigative journalism. It may be understandable, but it would also be a mistake. There are still a number of unanswered questions about this story.

Ethics for Investigative Journalists

Finally, CBS' problems should remind us of the ethical obligations of investigative journalism. Aly Colón from the Poynter Institute has reissued the guidelines for those organizations (like NPR) that want to enter into this area. (See link at bottom of page.)

They are worth posting in every cubicle. I especially like Aly's idea that every investigative unit should appoint a "contrarian" whose role is to question everything.

In my experience, the failure of investigative units occurs exactly because expressing doubts is seen as not being "on board." Skepticism inside the news organization is also a valuable journalistic tool.

In that spirit, NPR needs to do some clearing up of one of its own sources.

Morning Edition's 'Swing Voter'

On Morning Edition last week, John Ridley, the screenwriter and occasional essayist on NPR, was introduced as a "swing voter"... someone who has not yet made up his or her mind who to vote for. Ridley would be interviewed weekly on Morning Edition about his vote, which candidate he was leaning toward, and what had most influenced his thinking over the past week.

Within minutes of the story airing, the e-mail onslaught began from readers of a number of blogs especially from opensecrets.org.

All claimed that there was a John Ridley listed in the Federal Elections Commission Web site. That is where the list of donors to the candidates and their donations are posted.

It listed one John Ridley claiming that he donated $500 to Sen. Kerry and $500 to Gen. Wesley Clark. This turned out to be the same John Ridley, as he belatedly admitted to Renée Montagne on Morning Edition on Friday of this week.

As a result, the blogs say that Ridley is not a true "swing-voter," just another Democrat-in-disguise, claiming neutrality.

Swing Voter or Political Essayist?

"Not so," says Susan Feeney, Morning Edition senior editor. "John Ridley is a smart and funny political observer who really hasn’t made up his mind. John has also given money to the Republican National Committee and carries around an RNC card to prove it.

"We should have known about his political contributions and we should have been tougher when we set out to do this story. We'll ask him those questions on the air when he comes on the program this week." Feeney adds that they quizzed Ridley intensively prior to the first interview. He was open about his previous voting record (he has voted for both parties) and that he is now a registered independent. The donations, it seems, never came up.

Part of the problem is describing Ridley as a "swing-voter" — a term that means someone who is waiting to be persuaded, according to NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. Ridley has made up his mind enough to give money to political causes in the past. Perhaps a more accurate term (Morning Edition's gadfly? fence-sitter? wry observer?) might have been coined for the occasion.

Call In The Contrarians!

Morning Edition might also thank the blogs for their help. A designated in-house "contrarian" would have been useful as well.

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