June 5, 2003

The Blogosphere at Work

Bloggers everywhere are gloating just a little bit tonight after hearing the news that Howell Raines has "resigned" as executive editor of The New York Times. In some significant way, the blogosphere can take credit for, at a minimum, speeding up the process that eventually brought enough pressure to bear on company ownership to make this move. Things are different now in the world of Big Media. Not only does the blogosphere act as a watchdog of the mainstream media, but it is immediate, interactive, and increasingly influential.

Corrections and clarifications that used to take weeks to be published, if they were ever published, are now done overnight, owing to the immediacy of the Internet and the activism of the blogosphere. Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan are perhaps the best known of the NYT watchdogs, but it's much bigger than that. Kaus, in fact, credits internal opposition to Raines as a bigger factor in his resignation than pressure from bloggers. But the truth is that thousands of people are regularly reading those blogs and others, and are getting a different perspective. They are then acting on what they perceive to be the bias, the unfairness and the distortion with emails, phone calls, and comments posted to web sites that get read by decision makers. The Times still "shapes" the news. It's just no longer the only shape that people get to see and react to.

Despite Kaus' contention, Sullivan thinks that Raines' dismissal wouldn't have happened in a pre-blogosphere world:

a few years ago, they would have been able to ride out the storm, using the Times' enormous media power to protect themselves. But the Internet has changed things. It means that the errors and biases of the new NYT could be exposed not just once but dozens and dozens of times. It means that huge and powerful institutions such as the New York Times cannot get away with anything any more. The deference is over; and the truth will out.

Most newspapers are now available online as a competitive necessity. It's hard to say how many new readers this means for any given paper. I just know I never read London's Guardian, or anything from the L.A. Times or other U.S. dailies before about 1996. The heavily left-slanted Guardian published two egregious distortions of comments by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz this past week, taking his statements grossly out of context to make it appear as if he had admitted deceiving the American public about the U.S. motives for the Iraqi invasion. They certainly weren't the only ones to pick up on a deceptive "teaser" from a Vanity Fair interview as a vehicle to criticize George Bush, but they were perhaps the most blatantly biased.

The reaction of the "alternative media" was swift and effective, as Daniel Drezner notes. Today the Guardian posted a "correction" that admits the distortion, among other things. Anyone who thinks that this kind of backpedaling would have occurred in the days before the Internet is kidding himself:

A report which was posted on our website on June 4 under the heading "Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil" misconstrued remarks made by the US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, making it appear that he had said that oil was the main reason for going to war in Iraq. He did not say that. He said, according to the department of defence website, "The . . . difference between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil. In the case of North Korea, the country is teetering on the edge of economic collapse and that I believe is a major point of leverage whereas the military picture with North Korea is very different from that with Iraq." The sense was clearly that the US had no economic options by means of which to achieve its objectives, not that the economic value of the oil motivated the war. The report appeared only on the website and has now been removed.

Nobody has any illusions about the Times left-liberal slant changing under the stewardship of a new Editor. They will be what they will be. But notice has been served. Big Media doesn't have a monopoly on news-gathering and journalism anymore. The sooner they adjust to that notion, the better the quality and credibility of their product can become.

UPDATE:
More from Sullivan:

Only, say, five years ago, the editors of the New York Times had much more power than they have today. If they screwed up, no one would notice much. A small correction would be buried days, sometimes weeks, later. They could spin stories with gentle liberal bias and only a few eyes would roll. Certainly no critical mass of protest could manage to foment reform at the paper. And the kind of deference that always existed toward the Times, and the secretive, Vatican-like mystique of its inner working kept criticism at bay. But the Internet changed all that. Suddenly, criticism could be voiced in a way that the editors of the Times simply couldn't ignore. Blogs - originally smartertimes.com, then this blog, kausfiles.com and then Timeswatch.com and dozens and dozens of others - began noting errors and bias on a daily, even hourly basis. The blogosphere in general created a growing chorus of criticism that helped create public awareness of exactly what Raines was up to. We forced transparency on one of the most secretive and self-protective of institutions. We pulled the curtain back on the man behind the curtain. We did what journalists are supposed to do - and we did it to journalism itself.

Read the whole Daily Dish for 6/6. Come to think of it, read it every day.

UPDATE: A long correction/apology column from The Guardian, crediting the many emails "mostly from the U.S." for pointing out their distortion on the Paul Wolfowitz matter. Noting other recent embarrassments, they admitted, "it has not been the best of weeks".

UPDATE 6/9:
More comment on the effect of the blogosphere on the Howell Raines resignation from David Warren , and from Samizdata. An excerpt from Warren:

A revolution is happening in journalism, right now; a revolution with huge political implications. Blogs are the cause. And the fall of Howell Raines this last week is like the first brick in a Berlin Wall. It will not stop tumbling.

Posted by dan at June 5, 2003 10:55 PM