MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
This summer, more than ever, some of the biggest news stories have been driven by new media players.
And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, a lot of old school news executives are being forced to play catch-up.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: On Election Day 2008, reporters fanned out seeking stories. Stephen Robert Morse says he went out looking for trouble.
STEPHEN ROBERT MORSE: Fraud and other improprieties because Philadelphia politics are dirty. So that's what it comes down to.
FOLKENFLIK: Morse graduated in 2007 from the University of Pennsylvania. On that day, he was an election monitor for the Philadelphia Republicans. He was bored for much of the day until one particular call arrived at the party's city headquarters.
ROBERT MORSE: The person said, hey, I just tried to vote at my polling station at 1221 Fairmount Street, and there are two guys there dressed in paramilitary garb and they're not letting me vote.
FOLKENFLIK: They were from a tiny hate group called the New Black Panthers. One carried a nightstick.
ROBERT MORSE: When I stepped out of the car, I pulled out the flip video camera and just started rolling right away and figured, wow, this has to be a story. This is something I never thought I would see in the year 2008.
FOLKENFLIK: Morse is not particularly conservative, but he loves a good flap. Once he posted his video on a Republican elections blog, the incident became an ongoing story, inspiring a federal inquiry and criminal charges, some of which were dropped.
When a Republican former Justice Department lawyer attacked the Obama administration over the case, the blogosphere exploded and the New Black Panthers were suddenly cable news gold, putting editors at such papers as the Washington Post on the defensive, acknowledging they should have covered the story more.
TUCKER CARLSON: One thing new media do fairly effectively is remind places like the Post and The Times and these venerable institutions that I, by the way, don't hate, remind them that there are stories outside the conventional purview of what they consider news.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Tucker Carlson, the conservative libertarian writer and pundit who's the force behind the news site Daily Caller. It's written a different scandal to prominence in recent weeks involving the wonky liberal listserv JournoList.
CARLSON: We came into possession of some of the emails from journalists and learned the following things; that there was coordination among liberal journalists on behalf of Barack Obama as a candidate at critical points during the last campaign. Not continuously, but when it mattered, there was.
FOLKENFLIK: Several hundred journalists, academics and policy experts were members and the emails were supposed to be off the record. Carlson thought, nothing doing.
CARLSON: That's not journalism. And the people who engaged in those conversations were - those actions are not journalists. They're political activists.
FOLKENFLIK: One casualty was a Washington Post reporter who covered conservatives but had privately attacked some conservative figures.
The funny thing about the JournoList story is that Mickey Kaus of Slate has written critically about it for several years. He's a Democrat who loves to torment liberals. But the story got no traction. Once The Daily Caller printed the emails, other sympathetic sites and radio talk show hosts picked up the story, as did, of course, Fox News, where Carlson is a contributing commentator.
That's a familiar cycle, but it was upended during the saga of former U.S. Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod. Conservative activist and blog entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, whose sites pushed both the New Black Panther and JournoList controversies, posted the now infamous video clip in which Sherrod seemed to tell an NAACP conference that she had discriminated against a white farmer.
Breitbart called it reverse discrimination by Sherrod and the NAACP. Bloggers and commentators angrily weighed in. And within a day, her job was stripped away and the media was consumed by the story. But then, a twist.
BART FEDER: Ah, reporting. That's a good word.
FOLKENFLIK: Bart Feder is senior vice president for current programming at CNN. He says producers chased Sherrod for hours, finally succeeding the next morning where she said her remarks had been terribly distorted.
FEDER: And the fact that no one at that point had seen the full tape suggested that that would be essential to understand really what she had said, what the context was and why she had resigned.
FOLKENFLIK: As CNN and others revealed, her remarks indeed explained how she learned to see past race, to help that white farmer who came on TV to vouch for her honesty and friendship.
Bart Feder says CNN is proud of its reporting, but that this is the way journalism should always work.
FEDER: The noise has increased and the speed has increased. But I honestly believe that the fundamentals are the same. You have to be prepared to look wherever the story takes you, and not just where you have a hypothesis that says, oh, you know, I really believe this, so I'm going to go prove my point of view, but really take the story wherever it goes. I think we just have to be even more vigilant now about that.
FOLKENFLIK: In that case, older established outlets wrested the story back from their brasher challengers. But this summer, they've been forced to acknowledge they don't get to define what's newsworthy anymore.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.