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.

  • David

    Methinks you dost protest too much. I am a long term techie (20+ years) , new Blogaddict, and devoted discriminating reader. For all things, Blogs included, I read the entire thing before making up my mind. If I haven’t I keep my mouth shut or warn my audience. I did not react to this article in the same way you did. All-in-all, I found it complimentary and constructive. The idea of self-correction associated with blogs and blogging was clear and impressive. It was echoed in the new Forbes article. Perhaps you are the one with the axe? There must be better fights to pick with the NY Times than this one. Today has been a good day for Bloggers and I believe this NYT article ends up in the good column. Yes, you could be wrong.

  • David: Always a fair view. But I disagree. I read many blogs on the tsunami over the last week (in a role as a reporter of sorts for MSNBC, I might add, so I was in the same boat) and I did not see the crackpots bubble up to the surface. Thus, I do believe they went looking for them. Further, as the story itself says, those crackpots were shot down. I don’t mean to continue blog triumphalism like a bottomless cup of coffee, but I do feel a need to defend the fellow citizens who create the form — rather than the form itself — from what it, truly, an attack by a competitor. It needn’t be a competitor; how much better it would have been if the news section (and not just the WEek in Review) quoted from the amazing stories on blogs and highlighted this new way of gathering news, information, reporting, and eyewitness accounts… rather than ridiculing the form.

  • Pado

    well, i wasn’t sure how long it was going to take but I finally cancelled my WP subscription. I’ve held on for the past year even though 90% of my news comes from the web. It seemed that recently all that I cared about in the Post was the Metro section, the Redskinz converage, and the fact that i like to read over breakfast and coffee. Redskinz suck this year and the metro section no longer does anything for me, then I got a laptop. Plus, the whole thing is free online (not sure how they keep that up). So, no more papers at my house. I’ve held out for a while even though I wanted to cancel a year ago in protest. Think the laptop finally did it. Let just hope I don’t spill my coffee on it. Does anyone else see the MSM commenting on blogs as McDonalds commenting on Burger King?

  • LOL. Whenever I post something like this, my Mom writes to say I’m sounding paranoid. I agree there’s someone with the axe at the Times who pops up occassionally and takes a few vicious slashes and then disappears into a closet for a couple of weeks. Maybe a digruntled Howell Raines loyalist.
    Do you remember that “news” piece back in November that included this editorializing barrage about blogs: “all the twitchy cloak-and-dagger thrust of a Hollywood blockbuster” … “an online market of dark ideas” … “the swift propagation of faulty analyses”… “ground zero in the online rumor mill” … “a breathless cycle of hey-check-this-out”… “a round of Web log hysteria”… “second-guessing… has largely characterized the blog-to-e-mail-to-blog continuum. Some election officials have become frustrated by the rumor mill” … “the online fact-finding machine has come unmoored” … “‘a snowball of hearsay.'”
    Only the very last slam were NOT straight from the reporter’s keypad.
    Cking something… interesting, reporter John Schwartz had his fingers in both stories.

  • Could it be that the mainstream media is trying to scare audiences away from blogs and even the internet inorder to hold on to their power and starve off a huge power shift as open-source citizen journalism quickly rises in popularity? I found the scare tactics in this story from the Chicago Tribune very evident.
    “Like millions of casual computer users, Lipa has learned that the Internet has become a dangerous place. Worms, viruses, spyware, spam and an unending string of fraudulent traps lie in wait. One false click, or the failure to install and update security software, can lead to identity theft, bogus bills and crashed computers.”

    “There’s no question a backlash is coming,” said Peter Firstbrook, a communications analyst with MetaGroup. “The Internet is getting as dirty as the real world.”

  • Jeff, listen to David. The headline may have been a bit over the top, but the story wasn’t bad at all. You’re overreacting.
    To Pado: Your news doesn’t come from the web. It comes from the Washington Post. You just aren’t getting ink on your fingers anymore.
    To Brendan Watson: Just in the last two days, I’ve won three lotteries, been asked at least twice to help secure overseas riches, received multiple suspicious-looking attachments, received dozens of too-good-to-be-true sales offers and been advised to submit my Social Security number to E-Bay or risk losing my account (which I don’t have).
    Has there ever been a time in American history when criminals felt freer to scam, defraud and abuse fellow citizens with less fear of being caught or even having their conduct reported to authorities? I feel safer walking down dark streets at night than I do opening my e-mail.

  • Gary B.

    Well then David Crisp, what are you doing online? Sell you computer and go back to the safe dark streets.

  • jeremy in NYC

    Thanks to Wi-Fi, he can open his e-mail while walking down dark streets at night. Oooooohhhhhh…..scary…….

  • Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. I know John Schwartz, the guy who wrote that story. He’s been covering tech for the Times for several years, has been on-line longer than the most of the tech people you know, and was even a classmate of Mike “Godwin’s Law” Godwin at Texas back in the day when Usenet was the Internet. So he has a unique historical perspective on the blogs, many of which are in fact written by nutcases.
    Now here you are slamming Schwartz while you’re fixing to go on Hugh Hewitt’s show, and linking to Hewitt’s attack on Old Media, and generally carrying on like Hewitt’s a good all around guy, when we learned a few days ago that Hewitt’s a Creationist, an anti-Darwinist who don’t want none of that evolutionary monkey talk in the schools, and he’s willing to attack the character and history of any “Old Media” types who report on the work of angry fundamentalists of his ilk to put the book of Genesis front and center in biology class.
    Dude, please re-calibrate your reality meter until Air America, DU, and Hewitt register in the Nutcase Zone and John Schwartz doesn’t.

  • Richard: Yes, John does good work. That’s why I smell the work of an editor with an agenda. I’ve argued with Hewitt and AA characters and I can dislike this particular Schwartz story, too. Take away the byline and read the story again, Richard: It damns the medium for its least. This is like saying that all movies suck because Ben Affleck makes them. Or all TV sucks because there’s Married by America. It’s neither good reporting nor good criticism.

  • Jeff, the way I read it, Schwartz highlights the two elements of the blogosphere that we’re all most acutely aware of: the echo chamber effect and the fact-checking function, and actually showing how the fact-checking function, at least in this case, is stronger. Of course, I’m inclined to like the story because it ridicules DU, which isn’t technically a blog but is certainly an echo chamber on a par with the comments on Daily Kos.
    There was one odd turn of phrase that I took to be a typo, namely where he said blogs correct their mistakes faster than “new media”. I assume, because blogs are “new media”, he meant to say “old media”. If I were to complain to Okrent, it would be on that point and that point only.

  • Andy

    I was actually a little surprised to see the example used of distortion on the left, when the much more prevelent distortion has been the widespread misreporting and outrage on the right over the trumped-up issue of the US being supposedly singled out and called “selfish” by the UN official when no such thing actually happened. Yet that story and faux-outrage has been all over the right side of the blogosphere by those with an anti-UN axe to grind. The writer could have been a bit more balanced or based his article upon postings written by the bloggers themselves rather than focussing solely on weird oddball “comments” postings – but then the NYT would have pissed off the right wing, wouldn’t it?

  • Pado

    My Redskins and Metro coverage still come from the Post, who else can match it? However, for general national/world news, I look elsewhere.

  • jukeboxgrad

    A lot has been said about how blogs are allegedly self-correcting. Not enough has been said about instances of this process utterly failing.
    Here’s one overlooked example that I think carries a lot of irony. Powerline was recently named Time Blog of the Year, in large part because of the work they did on Rathergate. According to Time, Powerline “challenged a network news legend and won.” Time ignores the hypocrisy, that while pointing fingers at CBS for ostensibly not being careful with the truth, Powerline is quite willing to trample on it themselves. Further detail in a comment I posted here.

  • BTW Jeff, I’ll betcha five bucks Schwartz reads your blog, and likes it.

  • Richard:
    And I like Schwartz’s reporting.
    The problem here, which I should have made clearer, is that this story came as another straw on this camel’s back with many stories in The Times trying to diminish and marginalize us folks out here in citizens’ media. He is by no means guilty of the trend. But the paper is. Thus, I smell an editor’s agenda.

  • Well, the Times is Liberal/Capitalist/Old Media, so you could be right, but never attribute to malice that which can be explained by space.

  • Jeff: I agree that Schwartz’s story was pretty useless, and I even agree that the Times doesn’t mind airing the silly side of the Internet. But that includes his first tsunami-blog story on December 28th, which served up some blog triumphalism. See my analysis of the reactions to the Tsunami of 25 noteworthy online political writers/bloggers.