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The New Pamphleteers

April 27, 2009

Throughout the entirety of Garrett Graff’s class in my first semester, we heard a common theme about how the blogosphere was revolutionary, in part, because it gave almost everyone a voice. That is something that has stuck with me throughout my life since then. But never did it hit as close to home as when working on this project. Consider: literally any person with a computer and internet access now has a voice in the world. Blogs give people a place to publish their thoughts, no matter how insightful or stupid, for the world to see. That is certainly a revolutionary idea.

Before I get too far ahead with why this is important, let me provide some background on this project. Having taken a class on blogs and been a blogger myself, I was aware of how rapidly the blogosphere is growing and how it provides a voice to everyone, regardless of the level of insight it may actually provide. But the media’s fascination with blogs was something that had always amused me. So when I heard Barbara talk about doing a blog as a capstone project, I realized just how much credibility they had in journalism circles. I began wondering just how much of that esteem and credibility blogs, as a whole, deserve. I knew that I wanted to do a general exploration of blogs as a project. So after some fine tuning, I narrowed down the scope of my project: what is the role of blogs in modern journalism.

To start the project, there were several blogs that I was familiar with from reading them every so often. The Huffington Post and DailyKos were among those that came immediately to mind. The liberal blogs are among the internet’s best known, and have the traffic to prove it. I also added the conservative Drudge Report to the list of blogs I was familiar with. To add to my list of conservative blogs, I found this list of top conservative blogs from Conservatism Today. I began monitoring these and whatever blogs they linked to. My goals were simple: to try to see if any original reporting done by these news-centric blogs made the mainstream media, as well as seeing the differences in how these sides of the blogosphere covered different events.

From the outset, I knew that the blogs I read in this survey would be divided among partisan lines. What I was not so sure about was the role that blogs took in actually breaking and reporting actual news, given their predisposition to think one way or another about events. I had heard about the role that liberal blog Talking Points Memo played in the U.S. Attorney firings, so I knew that it had happened before. My hope was that these blogs would be able to provide some sort of news of substantial value, even if it was along their partisan divides.

What I found was not terribly encouraging. By and large, many of the blogs I followed did nothing to break news in the traditional sense, and almost none of them did any original reporting. So what did they do? In most cases, they took a story from an established media source (for sake of an example, let’s say The Washington Post). They would link to the story and comment on it, spinning it one way or the other. The would also have one breakout quote, the “must-read” part of the story. Then, they would go on to either laud the author as a tremendous, well-respected journalist or a partisan hit man, out to get whoever they were writing about and it’s just more proof of why the Post’s circulation is dwindling. Then the comments section would be several vitriolic, poorly-written sentence fragments agreeing with the author. And although this is not every blog post, any neutral blog reader would likely agree that they mostly follow this format.

But one thing is for sure: the average news blog piggybacks on the traditional media MUCH more often than the other way around. If the mainstream media went away tomorrow the vast majority of blogs would follow suit since, because they don’t report and just comment on published reports themselves, they would have much less to write about. I can’t say the same thing about the traditional mainstream media if blogs went away tomorrow.

This is not to say that all blogs are follow that template. SCOTUSblog, reporting on the Supreme Court, is almost like a C-SPAN in blog form. They write, often in thick legalese, about what the court did that day, what affect it has and what is coming up. Traditional media outlets like the Washington Post also have several blogs each, dedicated to a whole range of topics. There are also news organizations like Politico, that are mainstream in their goals and funding, but actually encourage their journalists to use their blogs to break news, instead of typing up an inverted-pyramid-style story and sending it through the copy desk. However, these make up a very small percentage when considering all the blogs focusing on the news.

And there are instances of partisan blogs gathering and reporting original information. Even when not doing it themselves, some blogs like the Huffington Post publish reports by citizen journalists. However, every instance that I encountered of these original reports were reports that support these blogs’ points of view.

So what, then, IS the role that blogs play in modern journalism? That is certainly a tough question to answer. Although we hear them talked a lot about in the media, they do not seem to be breaking the news as much as makingthe news. But why are they making the news? Well, as we discussed earlier, blogs give virtually everyone in the world the power to make their thoughts known to the world. Sometimes these thoughts can gain enough momentum while more and more people read and pass them along, creating such a commotion that they can’t be ignored. The DailyKos post claiming that Sarah Palin’s youngest child, Trig, was actually that of her daughter and that the Alaska governor adopted the baby to avoid the family scrutiny is an example of this. It was a boneheaded report by some anonymous blogger that was so sensational it spread throughout the blogosphere and into the campaign trail. The McCain-Palin camp seized on it, making a big deal of it so the traditional media followed suit. In fairness to DailyKos, other posters and commenters didn’t buy into the hype, and a poster there actually helped debunk the rumors. But it did not come in time to stop the firestorm.

This, although extreme, is a great illustration of what blogs are: pamphleteers for the 21st century. From the 18th through 20th centuries, pamphleteers were spreading ideas throughout the nation. They may be truths, spun truths or out-and-out lies. But the only restriction on pamphlets was that they were somewhat limited in who could produce or distribute them because you obviously need access to a printing press and paper. Although the cost to produce these things on a small scale may be relatively cheap, producing them on a large scale was not. But with blogs, the cost to spread truth, spin or lies on a global scale is much cheaper. And by “much cheaper” I mean “absolutely free.” While before, when a small group of people had access to the works of a small group of producers, the whole world now has access to each other’s work. This is a truly awesome power. And it comes with an awesome responsibility.

Just as you wouldn’t trust a random flier you were given on the street, you shouldn’t trust a random blog you stumble across. But what you can safely do is do what you would do if given a flier on the street: think about it. You certainly shouldn’t take it as gospel, but it wouldn’t do any harm to think about what was said any maybe do a little research on the topic. Hey, you’re already online, so why not? You might just find a new way of thinking about things. It could be like reading the opinion section of a newspaper.

And that, I think, is what the blogosphere is to modern journalism: a big, worldwide opinion page. Yes, there are some blogs that report news. But blogs are, at their most basic function, nothing more than an electronic system of publishing. There are bound that use this publishing system to get original information out there. But for the most part, when people refer to blogs (especially the blogosphere) they are referring to this giant system of columns, where everyone details their views on whatever is going on in the world. It’s where people try to convince others that their side is right while the other is wrong. People comment, argue and discuss all within the same electronic world. It is a truly remarkable idea.

So when people talk about how blogs affect journalism, know that they mostly affect it in the same way a stinging column or editorial might: it may not break news, but it may make it.


Roland Burris to be seated

January 7, 2009

The big news today is that Roland Burris, the man appointed to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat by semi-disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich, may be seated by Senate Democrats after his initial rejection yesterday. They initially did not want to seat Burris to avoid any potential trouble in accepting the choice of a man accused of selling that very seat.

The reaction online has actually been somewhat muted. The Drudge Report had the story as its lead item for most of the day, under the headline “BLAGO WINS: Senate Dems ‘plan to accept ‘ Roland Burris for Obama’s vacancy.’ The headline uses a bit of loaded language. By saying that “Blago wins” Drudge implies that there was a battle between an apparently corrupt governor and Senate Democrats. And the Senate Democrats lost. Drudge, whose site is a destination for mostly conservatives, certainly benefits by getting that shot in. Aside from this loaded language, he links to this story, a wire report from Chicago’s CBS affliliate’s Web site.

Also on the right, Michelle Malkin is relatively quiet, posting a single-line entry with a link to a wire story on Conservative-leaning news aggregator Breitbart.’s Ed Morrissey links to a wire story and offers some opinions on the situation.

Left-leaning blog The Huffington Post links to essentially the same wire story. The site also includes some video from MSNBC, in addition to some original reporting by Sam Stein saying that Obama is putting some of his weight behind Burris to get him seated.

Additionally, blogger Jane Hamsher (who also founded and blogs for left-leaning has an entry on the subject. He entry links back to several other places, including her own site and more traditional news sources like Politico, Reuters and The New York Times. Of interest to this blog, she also linked to two other blogs who often offer reporting as well as insight: Politico’s Glenn Thrush (whose original reporting is linked to) and’s Chriss Cillizza (who offers both analysis and original reporting in his link).

One thing that she be taken from today is how on this story, sites like Drudge, Malkin, Huffington Post did not offer as much reporting as they linked to the reporting of others and offered their own insights (and gave commenters a place to discuss their own opinions as well). This is not to say that there is anything wrong with that, but if we are looking to analyze the role of blogs in modern journalism, it must be said. Meanwhile, blogs at and Politico, to companies who use original reporting as a large part of their business model, are also referenced as sources for these other blogs’ opinions. It will be interesting to see if this is a theme throughout the semester.