Are some bloggers Rather biased?
Political blogging (particularly in the lead-up to the 2004 Federal elections in the United States) has come to the attention of both the general public, and the mainstream media. It is worth examining some of the events where the emerging medium has had a significant impact commanding public attention. These events - including the Jeff Guckert affair, and the rise of Howard Dean - have had very real implications for American society and politics. This leaves us questions about the motivations of the bloggers, and their future. Were their acts the work of enthusiastic amateurs? Should they be considered a new breed of journalist? Or has blogging become a new soapbox for partisan political hacks? This question of motivation is not merely theoretical; it has very real legal, political, and ethical implications. And beyond the implications of the bloggers motivations, how will technological advancement (at a pace which will no doubt render this essay out-of-date within minutes of printing) augment the medium in the future?
IMPACT OF POLITICAL BLOGGING
Certainly, the fact that political blogging has had an impact is undeniable. A recent study by Pew Internet and BuzzMetrics into the roll of blogs in the 2004 US Presidential campaign concluded that A blog is a remarkably suitable place for buzz to form. A blogger can spark conversation with choice comments on documents drawn from the internet, and the conversation can build through the tools which make the blogosphere possible.1 Its potential for impact has grown as its reader base has exploded: as recently as 2003 - just two years ago - an Ipsos-Reid study found that Only 17 percent fo adults are aware of blogs, and fewer than half of those (5 percent) say they have actually ever read a blog2 . In contrast to this, it is interesting to note that, according to Pew Research, there are more US adults reading blogs today than there were US adults even aware of blogs two years ago:
Two Pew surveys conducted in early 2005 show that 16% of U.S. adults (32 million) are blog readers. After a 58% jump in readership in 2004, this number marks a levelling off within the surveys margin of error. But the blogger audience now commands respect: it stands at 20% of the newspaper audience and 40% of the talk radio audience.3
Before progressing further, it is worthwhile to note that blogging, and its impact, does not exist in a vacuum. As the Pew researchers note ..the political blogosphere seems less an entity unto itself than a well integrated part of the national discourse4 , and that ...its not that [blogs] have a separate agenda, but that they have a distinct role to play on a topic of common interest.5 This is an interplay where an issue may gain traction in the blogosphere, and subsequently become an issue in the mainstream media, become a political issue, and become an issue of concern to the general public. The same is true in reverse: a story that has gained traction in another sphere may be furthered in the blogosphere. The interaction is similar to how a story may break in a newspaper, or on talkback radio, and similarly gain traction as a political, social, and media issue. Thus, when we talk about political blogging having an impact, what we are really talking about is the important role that blogs may have in placing an issue on the media, political, and public agenda, or contributing to issues which have already gained traction.
Garance Franke-Ruta provides some examples where such an impact has occurred (particularly at the behest of known political activists), one example being that of Eason Jordan. Row Abovitz, a Conservative blogger at the World Economic Forum, broke the story that Eason Jordan, the chief news executive for CNN, made controversial remarks... at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggesting that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in war zones.6 The resulting story - picked up by sections of the mainstream media after gaining traction in the conservative blogosphere - eventually led to Jordans resignation. On the opposite side of the political divide was the issue of Jeff Guckert, where:
Liberal bloggers forced... James D. Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, to resign after it was revealed that he was writing under a false name for a Republican activist group, that he was not really a journalist at all, and that he had posed nude on the Internet in an effort to solicit money for sex.7
Another commonly cited example of the impact that political blogs have had is the rise of Presidential candidate Howard Dean. This point has been noted by blogger Chris Lydon, who wrote that The Howard Dean campaign... has come to stand for the possibility of an Internet democracy. From the beginning there was no separating the political and media tracks of the Dean campaigns offensive.8 The genius of how Dean presented himself was not that he was a Trotskyite in his policy positions; political analyst Matt Bai noted that While Dean was a leftist, antiwar presidential candidate, he was also, as he never tired of reminding people, a defiantly centrist governor of Vermont (Early in the presidential race, Dean told me, I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator).9 Rather, the genius of how Dean presented himself was quite simple: DEAN IS ANGRY! ANGRY about the Iraq War, ANGRY about the lack of mainstream media criticism of the Iraq War, ANGRY at the power held by conservative Republicans, and ANGRY at Democrats for not being angry about the things Dean was angry about. There issues, and this feeling of anger, evidently already had traction with progressive bloggers (and blog readers), and subsequently Deans campaign gained traction with a section of the general public. The point is echoed by both Bai and Lyndon; in Lydons analysis He sounded an antiwar alarm that the institutional media had muffled. Millions of people knew intuitively that his warning was wise.10 Meanwhile, Bai explained in the New York Times Magazine that Lashing out at Washington Democrats as timid and feckless during the primaries, he vowed to take back our party and he did exactly that11 . While Dean's failure to win Democratic nomination could be interpreted as a failure (or a sign of the continuing strength of the mainstream media, depending on your perspective), Howard Dean was able - due in part to the constituency he found online - to secure the Democratic Chairmanship.
MOTIVATION OF BLOGGERS: AMATEURS, ACTIVISTS, OR JOURNALISTS?
The impact of political blogging raises some interesting questions about the motivations of the people behind the blogs. A popular view - that bloggers are simply amateurs - is put forward by Reid Goldsborough, who begins by asking Are blogs sources of interesting or useful information, or are they exercises in narcissism by writers and voyeurism by readers?12 The implicit and explicit answer for Goldsborough is the latter: bloggers are indeed narcissistic amateurs, and for two key reasons. The first is a definition of journalists as people who are ...trained to distinguish news from rumour and self-promotion, to dig out relevant, interesting information, to make the complex clear and to minimise mistakes13 . The second reason being that Typically with blogs, whats most conspicuously missing is editorial oversight.14 Due to a number of reasons I will discuss later in this essay, such a view of blogging is problematic.
Garance Franke-Ruta also believes that bloggers are not journalists. But unlike Goldsborough, the motivation for some is more sinister than narcissism; for Not only are most bloggers not journalists; increasingly they are also partisan political operatives whose agendas are as ideological as they come.15 Such a view is premised on the fact that the Eason Jordan incident I discussed earlier, as well as several other examples where a scandal has gained traction as a result of conservative blogging, have more than one thing in common: Scratch the surface and the same names turn up in each scandal, revealing the events of mid-February to have been part of an ongoing and co-ordinated proxy war by Republican political operatives16 like Mike Krempasky; a similar phenomena is occurring with some bloggers on the left of the spectrum. Franke Ruta alerts us to a dangerous pitfall for Goldsborough (and those holding similar views): the false assumption that highly trained political activists are merely well-intentioned amateurs.
Certainly, Franke-Ruta puts out a well-researched case as to why political bloggers should be considered activists rather than journalists. In defence of bloggers as journalists, it is important to remember that - as Michael Schudson points out - many early newspapers (from the middle 18th - 19th centuries) were often partisan political organs:
...the American newspaper began its long career as the mouthpiece of political parties and factions. Patriots had no tolerance for the pro-British press, and the new states passed and enforced treason and sedition statutes in the 1770s and 1780s.17
And while now, at the dawn of the 21st century, newspapers are supposedly neutral and unbiased, perceptions about news media bias persist. It is not difficult to find someone who perceives, for instance, The Herald Sun as being populist, reactionary, or conservative; The Age is often perceived as being socially progressive or socialist (once infamously described as The Spencer Street Soviet by a conservative Victorian Premier), while economically neoliberal. Conservative groups have produced numerous studies suggesting journalists are generally (politically) left-of-centre, while many social-democrats echo Chomskys concerns that various factors (including advertising, self-censorship, and proprietor bias) as inherently putting a neoliberal or conservative slant on news. The veracity of either discourse is a topic for another day, suffice to say that it is against this background that claims that bloggers are self-edited journalists (in spite of bias) are made. Lydon eloquently states that such bias even acts as a counterbalance to media bias, and that ...if our politics is about more than one thing, then its next fight is about the voices in this democracy... The Internet invites a vast expansion of that expressive franchise18. Politics and media are indeed intertwined.
Ultimately, the debate over motivation appears to be about discourse and definition. In the terms of set theory, the question is whether the set of people x (political bloggers) is a subset of y (journalists)? And this question centres - in large measure - on how broadly we want to define journalism, and raises the issue of whether those excluding political bloggers from the ranks of journalists are defining journalism too narrowly. Phillips and Oakley remind us that ...verbal definitions, whether simple or contextual, specify the meaning of a word or sentence by giving another word, phrase or sentence which is synonymous with (i.e. has the same meaning as) the one to be defined19. In the theories of why bloggers are not journalists, we notice journalism defined by a list of characteristics synonymous with journalism (yet not shared by blogging).
In response to such verbal definitions, ...the simplest way of showing that they are straightforwardly wrong is to give a counterexample20,, and there are clear counterexamples to how sceptics of blogs have attempted to define journalism. As we have already seen, a sceptic of the journalistic merit of blogs, like Goldsborough, may suggest (for instance) that independent editorial oversight is critical in defining what a journalist is, and given that many bloggers are self-edited, they are by definition not journalists. But if we accept this, then bloggers would become eligible to become journalists by hiring an independent editor, while every self-edited piece ever published in any magazine or newspaper would - by definition - not be journalism. Similarly, Goldsborough raises the issue of journalistic training as defining journalism, but some bloggers (like Steve Gilliard of http://stevegilliard.blogspot.com) do have formal training in journalism; meanwhile the work of anyone not trained in journalism would by definition not be journalism. Another attempt at definition used by Franke-Ruta was to suggest that journalism and activism are mutually exclusive, but is this necessarily true? If this is the case, then the people in the employ of the early newspapers described by Schudson are, by definition, not journalists. This debate over the motivation of bloggers - and how broadly we should define journalism - is not merely a theoretical battle between academics attempting to grasp a new technology, but rather is increasingly becoming a very real legal, political, and ethical dilemma.
A legal dimension to the debate was created when Apple Computer (the company responsible for the Macintosh line of computers, as well as the iPod) launched legal action against two websites which published leaks about forthcoming Apple products. Technology journalist Dawn C. Chmielewski wrote that Apple maintains that disclosures about an unreleased product, code-named Asteroid, constituted a trade secret violation.21 The issue emerges because under Californian law, according to the BBC, Sources who give journalists details of corruption or wrongdoing are traditionally protected by law, if the story is in the publics interest.22 This case drew immense attention both in the blogosphere and the mainstream press, as it raised the possibility that bloggers should not be granted the same legal protections, and privileges, as legitimate mainstream journalists. Alternatively, as noted by the New York Times Jonothan Glater:
If the court, in Santa Clara County, rules that bloggers are journalists, the privilege of keeping news sources confidential will be applied to a large new group of people, perhaps to the point that it may be hard for courts in the future to countenance its extension to anyone.23
Apple Computer eventually won on the grounds that keeping trade-secrets represented sensible business practice, rather than corruption, or wrongdoing. Yet analysis of the case shows the broad legal implications (in some jurisdictions) of the inevitable test-case on the status of bloggers.
Another similar debate is being played out in the United States, where the status of blogs, in regards to fundraising, has become a political issue. Declan McCullagh (of technology website ZD-Net) explains that The US Federal Election Commission (FEC) has begun the perilous process of including political blogs and Web sites in campaign finance rules.24 This process ...is expected to end with a final set of Internet rules -- governing everything from whether bloggers are journalists to bulk political e-mail -- in place by the end of the year.25 Again, the pivotal issue here is whether bloggers are journalists, given that A section of current law known as the media exemption says that campaign related expenditures arent regulated if theyre made by certain types of journalistic outlets.26 One possible implication of deeming bloggers not to be journalists, as raised by McCullagh, is that ...bloggers that get paid by political campaigns should be required to disclose their involvement on a prominent notice on their website.27 Another important development here is that FEC commissioners on Thursday in the US said that they would make case by case decisions about who qualifies (as a journalist). This may mean a situation where some blogs are classified as journalistic, while others are categorised as pieces of partisan political or ideological activism. But this raises its own dilemmas: where do the boundaries lie, who decides and how?
Debate over the status of bloggers is not merely confined to the courtroom. A non-legal privilege mainstream journalists receive is access to important individuals, documents, and press conferences - both private, and political. Yet there is an ethical dimension to such privileges, as shown in the case of a blogger named Jeff Guckert. Frank-Ruta notes that Guckert, using the pseudonym Jeff Gannon, ...in a question to the president in the White House press conference that morning, had falsely accused new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of talking soup lines and said Democrats seem to have divorced themselves from reality28 (unsurprisingly, Guckert was an example of an activist blogger used by Frank-Ruta). Extending to a blogger, like Guckert, an invitation to cover a press conference raises some ethical dilemmas for press conference organisers. For example, if bloggers, as activists, gain such non-legal journalistic privileges, should event organisers have an obligation to extend similar privileges to bloggers of opposing views? Should bloggers in such situations have to disclose their biases to the public, and to other journalists? And if bloggers are activists rather than journalists, should they gain such access at all?
FUTURE OF POLITICAL BLOGGING
The debate about the motivations and status of bloggers, and the legal outcomes of this debate, will undoubtedly shape the medium in the future. But this is not the only factor destined to shape the mediums future, as technological advancement also holds an enormous potential to do so also. The first is the emergence of pod-casting, which is a term for adding audio files to podcasting services (or blogs) for the purposes of downloading to phones or portable MP3 players. What podcasting represents is ...an on demand' radio service designed by the listener, free of charge or annoying advertisements (so far) and untouched by the puritanical paws of the FCC.29 Podcasting could be seen as an extension of blogging beyond text, into the sphere of audio.
And beyond blogging in text and audio, another new trend has emerged: vlogging, or video blogging. In a manner somewhat similar to podcasting, Broadly, creating a vlog involves storing video clips as compressed .mov files on a hosting service, such as .Mac; the blogging franchise, it seems, is moving into video. Perhaps more fascinating still, however, is the emergence of WikiNews ( http://en.wikinews.org ), where ...the team behind Wikipedia is attempting to apply its collaborative information-gathering model to journalism30 . WikiNews is a collaborative news service where anyone is free to either create (or contribute to) collaborative, open-source news stories in a manner similar to WikiPedia. While not technically a blog, it does exist in the same citizen journalist vein as the blogosphere.
The key factor driving these technological advances (beyond other socio-technological factors, such as the growth of broadband internet access, and increasingly sophisticated computers) is economics. More specifically, the economic driver is interest from media conglomerates, and big business. A good example of this is Rupert Murdoch who, in a recent address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, stated that we may want to experiment with the concept of using bloggers to supplement our daily coverage of news on the net.31 He added The digital native... goes online, and starts a blog. We need to be the destination for those bloggers.32 Should Murdoch choose to oursue this path, he would be entering the battleground between the Yahoo, MSN / NineMSN, and Google web portals. This competition has seen the launch of Yahoo 36033 and MSNs Spaces 34 in response to Googles popular Blogger35 and Orkut 36 services. Beyond hosting text blogs, while Yahoo recently acquired flickr.com37 and added video search 38 Google have added their own video search39 and has also begun hosting video40; as noted by Murdoch, Google and Yahoo already are testing video search while other established cable brands, including FOX News, are accompanying their text news stories with video clips.41 The motivating factor behind this interest is simple: highly targetted advertising. Murdoch admitted as much when he stated that Plainly, the internet allows us to be more granular in our advertising, targeting potential consumers based on where theyve surfed and what products theyve bought.42 It would be reasonable to suggest that the future of blogging, and the futher development of the blogging medium, will ultimately be fueled by the quest - undertaking by media companies and web portals - for advertising dollars.
CONCLUSIONS, LIMITATIONS, AND FURTHER RESEARCH
We can conclude several things from this analysis of blogging. The impact of blogs has not occured in a vacuum. Rather the impact of blogging has occured as part of a complex interplay (in a manner somewhat similar to the opperation of the mainstream media) between blogs, the general public, the political sphere, and the general public. The genius of a politician like Howard Dean was to advance his career by tapping into this interplay. While many bloggers are undoubtedly political activists (and for this reason, considering them to be amateurs may be a mistake), whether or not they are still journalists depends on how broadly define journalism (but there is a good case for a broad definition). The debate - as shown in the Apple Computer lawsuit, the ethical dillema of Jeff Guckert, and the political dimension of the FECs hearings - has very real implications for the mediums future.
Please note that there are several topics discussed within this essay which, in themselves, could easily fill 3,500 words. Futher investigation of such topics would be a worthwhile future excercise. A second limitation impsed on this essay is a lack of crystal balls: as noted earlier, blogging (and related technologies, including podcasting and vlogging) are developing technologies experiencing rapid growth . Re-examining the issue of the impact of these emerging technologies (and other topics discussed in this essay) once they have matured also appears to be a worthwhile future reasearch project.
Bai, Matt, What Dean Means, New York Times Magazine; Feb. 27th, 2005; Academic Research Library, pp. 21-2.
Buckman, Brian, Invasion of the Podcasters: The Radio Revolution is Underway, in New City Chicago, http://www.newcitychicago.com/chicago/4267.html uploaded April 12th, 2005.
Chmielewski, Dawn C., Apple 1, Bloggers 0: Judge says Web Sites can be Forced to Reveal Secrets, Mercury News, http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/11049112.htm , Uploaded Friday, March 4th, 2005.
Cornfield, Michael; Carson, Jonathan; Kalis, Alison; and Simon, Emily; Buzz, Blogs, and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004, Preliminary Report; May 16, 2005; Pew Internet & American Life Project, and BuzzMetrics.
Frank-Ruta, Garance, Blog Rolled: That Most Bloggers are not Journalists is a Given. That Some are Trained Partisan Operatives Out to Take Scalps is Not, The American Prospect; April, 2005, v16 i4; American Prospect Inc., pp. 33-39.
Glasner, Joanna, Wikipedia Creators move into News, in Wired News, http://wired-vig.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,65819,00.html Uploaded 2 AM PT, November 24th, 2004.
Glater, Jonathan, At a Suits Core: Are Bloggers Reporters, Too?, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/07/technology/07/blog.html, Uploaded March 7th, 2005.
Goldsborough, Reid, Blogs: Latest Option in Raising Your Voice Online, in Black Issues in Higher Education; May 22, 2003; 20,7; Academic Research Library, p 40.
Lydon, Chris, When Old Media Confronted Howard Dean, Nieman Reports; Spring 2004; 58,1; ABI/INFORM Global, pp. 30-1.
McCullagh, Declan, US Bloggers get set for Election Rules, 28 March 2005,
http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/communications/0,2000061791,39186147,00.htm Downloaded April 7th, 2004.
Murdoch, Rupert, Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors , http://www.guidomedia.com/murdochonline0405.html Uploaded April 13th, 2005.
Phillips, Ross, and Oakley, Tim, Reason and Argument, Clayton, Victoria: Monash Philosophy, 1996.
Schudson, Michael, Where News Came From: The History of Journalism, in The Sociology of News, New York: Norton, 2003.
Unknown, Apple Bloggers get Press Support, BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4435809.stm Uploaded Tuesday, April 12th, 2005, 0:931 GMT.
Whelan, David, In a Fog About Blogs, American Demographics; Jul. / Aug. 2003; 25, 6; Academic Research Library, pp. 22-3.
The following websites were also cited as examples as recent examples of the technological advancement of blogs:
1 Cornfield, Michael; Carson, Jonathan; Kalis, Alison; and Simon, Emily; Buzz, Blogs, and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004, Preliminary Report; May 16, 2005; Pew Internet & American Life Project, and BuzzMetrics, pp. 3.
2Whelan, David, In a Fog About Blogs, American Demographics; Jul. / Aug. 2003; 25, 6; Academic Research Library, pp. 22-3.
3 Op. Cit., p. 30-1.
4 ibid., p. 19.
5 ibid., p.19.
6 Frank-Ruta, Garance, Blog Rolled: That Most Bloggers are not Journalists is a Given. That Some are Trained Partisan Operatives Out to Take Scalps is Not, The American Prospect; April, 2005, v16 i4; American Prospect Inc., pp. 33-39.
8 Lydon, Chris, When Old Media Confronted Howard Dean, Nieman Reports; Spring 2004; 58,1; ABI/INFORM Global, pp. 30-1.
9 Bai, Matt, What Dean Means, New York Times Magazine; Feb. 27th, 2005; Academic Research Library, pp. 21-2.
10 Lydon, Chris, Op. Cit.
11 Bai, Matt, Op. Cit.
12 Goldsborough, Reid, Blogs: Latest Option in Raising Your Voice Online, in Black Issues in Higher Education; May 22, 2003; 20,7; Academic Research Library, p. 40.
15 Frank-Ruta, Garance, Blog Rolled: That Most Bloggers are not Journalists is a Given. That Some are Trained Partisan Operatives Out to Take Scalps is Not, The American Prospect; April, 2005, v16 i4; American Prospect Inc., pp. 33-39.
17 Schudson, Michael, Where News Came From: The History of Journalism, in The Sociology of News, New York: Norton, 2003, p. 73.
18 Lydon, Chris, When Old Media Confronted Howard Dean, Nieman Reports; Spring 2004; 58,1; ABI/INFORM Global, pp. 30-1.
19 Phillips, Ross, and Oakley, Tim, Reason and Argument, Clayton, Victoria: Monash Philosophy, 1996, p. 70.
21 Chmielewski, Dawn C., Apple 1, Bloggers 0: Judge says Web Sites can be Forced to Reveal Secrets, Mercury News, http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/11049112.htm , Uploaded Friday, March 4th, 2005.
22 Unknown, Apple Bloggers get Press Support, BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4435809.stm Uploaded Tuesday, April 12th, 2005, 0:931 GMT.
23 Glater, Jonathan, At a Suits Core: Are Bloggers Reporters, Too?, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/07/technology/07/blog.html, Uploaded March 7th, 2005.
24 McCullagh, Declan, US Bloggers get set for Election Rules, 28 March 2005,
http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/communications/0,2000061791,39186147,00.htm Downloaded April 7th, 2004.
28 Frank-Ruta, Garance, Blog Rolled: That Most Bloggers are not Journalists is a Given. That Some are Trained Partisan Operatives Out to Take Scalps is Not, The American Prospect; April, 2005, v16 i4; American Prospect Inc., pp. 33-39.
29 Buckman, Brian, Invasion of the Podcasters: The Radio Revolution is Underway, in New City Chicago, http://www.newcitychicago.com/chicago/4267.html uploaded April 12th, 2005.
30 Glasner, Joanna, Wikipedia Creators move into News, in Wired News, http://wired-vig.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,65819,00.html Uploaded 2 AM PT, November 24th, 2004.
31 Murdoch, Rupert, Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors , in Guidomedia.com, http://www.guidomedia.com/murdochonline0405.html Uploaded April 13th, 2005.
41 Murdoch, Rupert, Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors , in Guidomedia.com, http://www.guidomedia.com/murdochonline0405.html Uploaded April 13th, 2005.