Marginalizing your own public

Marginalizing your own public

: I smell an editor with a grudge at work in The New York Times’ wrong-headed story on blogs today.

The headline and lead are not all all backed up by the rest of the story.

“Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate,” says the headline — but then the guts of the story show that they did not run wild at all. Myths were propagated by one crackpot site and knocked down immediately by the citizens of the internet.

“Myths Shot Down Better Than In Old Media,” might have been a better head.

The lead continues the sin:

As the horror of the South Asian tsunami spread and people gathered online to discuss the disaster on sites known as Web logs, or blogs, those of a political bent naturally turned the discussion to their favorite topics.

To some in the blogosphere, it simply had to be the government’s fault.

On Democratic Underground, a blog for open discussion and an online gathering place for people who hate the Bush administration (, a participant asked, “Since we know that the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants, etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the ‘bones’ of our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been affected?”

The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the writer said, could be the war in Iraq. “You know, we’ve exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor planet,” the writer said. “All that ‘shock and awe’ stuff we’ve just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth – could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt.”

The ridicule began immediately. Online insults, referred to colloquially as flames, rose high on other sites.

This is the equivalent of The Times getting a crackpot letter and declaring that the citizenry has gone nuts en masse. No, The Times uses its judgment and doesn’t print that crackpot letter — just as weblogs use the judgment of citizens to shoot down the crackpots… if they are even noticed at all.

The reporter gets in one sop to blogs:

In many ways, Web logs shone after the tsunami struck: bloggers in the regions posted compelling descriptions of the devastation, sometimes by text messages sent from their cellphones as they roamed the countryside looking for friends and family members. And blogs were quick to create links to charities so that people could help online.

But that’s not enough. I read a great number of blogs covering the tsunami and I found more compelling stories than I heard on TV or read in The Times; I found a faster response to the news with more information and more first-hand reporting; I found caring people who came together to share information that could save lives; I found quality and no crackpots. But you can always find crackpots … when you go looking for them.

In this, The Times is trying to marginalize blogs — making them look like the domain of nuts — without realizing that they are only marginalizing their own readers. See this weekend’s Pew study: The people are reading blogs. And I’ll just bet that Times readers read blogs disproportionately.

I could be wrong, but I smell the fine hand of a grizzled, old, grouchy, change-hating editor in this. When a story is mangled in such a way, when the facts in the story don’t back up the spin of the headline and lead, that’s often the case, from my experience: An editor sent a reporter out to create a story with a prefab spin and didn’t want to be bothered with the actual reporting that came back.

Looks like a case for Sherlock Okrent to me.