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Blogs: Notes in the Margin of the First Draft of History
Posted by: Jon Henke on Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Dr. Stephen D. Cooper of Marshall University has published a book entitled "Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers As the Fifth Estate" which has a fascinating perspective on bloggers...

The metaphor of watchdog has long been popular as shorthand for the structural role of the free press in a representative democracy. ... But what of that watchdog’s leash? If the people need a watchdog to make sure the institution of government does not abuse the power they have granted it, would there not be a need for a comparable check on the press, as a social institution with power in its own right? ... [W]e might now be seeing the emergence of a Fifth Estate in our social system, a watcher of the watchdog. In one sentence, the thesis of this little book is that the blogosphere is in the process of maturing into a full-fledged social institution, albeit a non-traditional one: emergent, self-organizing, and self-regulating.
"[W]e might now be seeing the emergence of a Fifth Estate in our social system, a watcher of the watchdog."
The notion of the blogosphere as an emergent system or a "shadow media" is not unique, but Dr Cooper delves into the way that the blogosphere is, itself, turning into an important institutional check on the media. Along the way, he includes references to quite a lot of actual blog posts. [disclosure: Dr Cooper cites this QandO post in his book]

All of which puts me in mind of a recent speech by Washington Post Reporter (and blogger) Michael Shear at the Virginia Blogger Conference. Daniel Glover at Beltway Blogroll got the text of the speech. The value of blogs, Shear says, is threefold.

Show/Hide

The problem with blogs, though — the distinction between bloggers and journalists — is something we ought to acknowledge. Shear's criticism (as excerpted by Glover)...
[W]e in the mainstream press attempt to make sure what we have written is true. I'm not sure the same can be said for bloggers. ... The code of conduct at the Society of Professional Journalists offers four main categories: "seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable." Bloggers — as we know from last year's debate at this very conference — do not subscribe to or abide by a similar code.

Your sites serve too often as clearinghouses for rumors, innuendo, political attacks, misunderstandings, half-truths and gossip.
Shear said bloggers need to "be honest about what you are — and what you are not. You are pundits. You are aggregators of other people's work. You are analysts. You are political activists. You are gossips. You are agitators. You are not journalists."
If journalism is the "first draft of history", then blogs are the Notes in the Margin of the First Draft of History.
I think it's important to view bloggers as 'people writing stuff' rather than as a professional class like "journalist". Bloggers may engage in the activity of journalism but that doesn't make them Journalists any more than publishing blogs makes us Publishers, rewriting sentences makes us Editors or taking out the garbage makes us Garbagemen. The activity is similar, but the differences are important.

Still, I think quibbling about classification and nomenclature does more to obscure than to enlighten. If journalism is the "first draft of history", then blogs are the Notes in the Margin of the First Draft of History.

If, by making those notes, blogs act as a "watcher of the watchdog" — a 5th Estate to check the power of the Press — then blogs can become an indespensible social institution. Until, of course, the blogs become a bit too institutionalized, and a 6th Estate becomes necessary...
 
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"The code of conduct at the Society of Professional Journalists offers four main categories: "seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable."

Snort. Oh, yeah. And when they are held accountable for lies, words taken out of context, biased reporting, etc., they scream like stuck pigs at someone not of their Holy Order daring to speak so to/of them.

There are honest reporters out there who follow those ideals; and they’re being dragged down by those who don’t.
 
Written By: Mark
URL: http://elmtreeforge.blogspot.com
Very interesting post. True, that blogging is maturing. It is now time for bloggers to adopts their own code of ethics, focusing, I would suggest, on those things that make the internet unique: openness, integrity, independence. I hope that bloggers who do abide by such ethical standards are those who will emerge as the most important voices in this (relatively) new medium. On the other hand, those who are co-opted by the mainstream media or by the political duopoly (or by some other established power center) should be relegated by their own subservience to a minor role.
 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://dsthinkingloud.blogspot.com/
The problem for professional journalists is that their "code" is a sham. "Seek truth"? Whose truth, based on what premises? Bloggers are playing on the same playing field as MSM journalists, they’re just not pretending that the playing field itself is something that it can never be: some kind of rarified Mount Olympus of objective truth.

In spite of its delcarative style and terse format, all mainstream journalism is utterly dependent on the worldview of the journalist writing it. for It is the individual journalist’s worldview that determines which questions are pertinent, which facts are meaningful, i.e., their narrative’s implicit framework of cause and effect.

When the mainstream press finally realizes that they really aren’t the determiners of reality and that they are all in fact merely professional "... pundits. ... aggregators of other people’s work... analysts. ... political activists.... are gossips...agitators," the MSM will be able to evolve to it’s next—and dare I say truthful, incarnation.

yours/
peter
 
Written By: Peter Jackson
URL: http://www.liberalcapitalist.com
I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds to me like Dr. Cooper is attempting to answer that perennial question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ("Who will guard the guardians?")
 
Written By: Rick Sincere
URL: http://ricksincerethoughts.blogspot.com
I tend to regard bloggers as modern day Publiuses; frequently (but hardly invariably) anonymous cyber-pamphleteers whose quality now, as in the 18th century, varies widely.

As a piece at The First Amendment Center puts it:
U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in ACLU v. Reno, a leading Internet free-speech case that later reached the U.S. Supreme Court and dealt with the regulation of online pornography, that the Internet was “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed” and “a far more speech-enhancing medium than print.”
....

The Supreme Court has made clear that anonymous speech deserves First Amendment protection. In Talley v. California, the Court wrote: “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind.” Several Founding Fathers published historic political articles anonymously. James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton wrote the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers under the pen name “Publius.”
 
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
I believe that journalism has been trying to operate on the wrong model.

Anyone who investigates any subject in depth, as a journalist, academic or any other kind of researcher, will inevitably form her own opinions on the topic. Also, if the subject is controversial, an honest researcher will understand that a good case can almost always be made for either side of the issue.

A journalist should be ENCOURAGED to present her own opinion on the topic, but should also be encouraged to give the reader the strongest arguments on the other side. There are two major advantages to this approach. First, the presentation is less dry when the writer is trying to engage the reader in the debate. Maybe such an approach would help the print media win back some of the younger readers they have lost to the internet. Second, and more importantly, if the reader knows the journalist’s bias up front, he will be better able to evaluate the judgements that the journalist is making about the information.

I have been reading the Los Angeles Times for many years. I consider it to be an excellent newspaper overall, and I rarely see blatant or overt partisan bias in its political coverage, but the weakness of the "objective" approach becomes evident when the writers find it necessary to "balance" something that is indisputably true with a bogus "on the other hand" argument, or when they quote thoughtful, reasonable-sounding people giving the strongest arguments for one side of the issue, and strident people giving cartoonish arguments for the other side. I think that if the journalist were required to explicitly state his or her bias and attempt to give the strongest arguments against his own case we would see much less of this.
 
Written By: Aldo
URL: http://
I tend to regard bloggers as modern day Publiuses; frequently (but hardly invariably) anonymous cyber-pamphleteers whose quality now, as in the 18th century, varies widely.
This is the wrong model for the internet. Perhaps anonymous pamphleteers and such could be effective in past times, when technology limited access and output. Today, however, the converse is true: If anything, there is too much information. It is those sources that cultivate reputations for reliablity, integrity and independence that will (I hope) emerge as the the voices of this new medium. Some form of identification is a prerequisite. Besides, my experience has been that anonymity and the internet is generally a nasty combination, one that seldom aspires to the level of Publius, and alomst never reaches it. Of course, there may be particular circumstances in which anonymity is necessary, but that is rare. In my opinion, internet discourse would be elevated substantially if people spoke as themselves, for themselves, identified as themselves. Besides, what are people afraid of? If you have something to say, identify yourself and say it.

Happy Fourth of July! GO AMERICA! Still the greatest hope for the world.
 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://dsthinkingloud.blogspot.com/
"I rarely see blatant or overt partisan bias in its [LAT]political coverage..."


Aldo, you illustrate the problem exactly. Being of the liberal persuasion, you have adopted the liberal narrative and so fail to discern the blatant bias of your newspaper. It is interesting to note that even you detect a bias when they are in open froth. Chuckle. Bet you don’t like the "blatant bias" of faux news much either, right?
 
Written By: Robert Fulton
URL: http://
Well, it has become very clear over the past few years that journalists of the MSM can not be trusted to be objective. Pinch Sulzberger spoke at a meeting recently and indicated that it is his duty as a member of his generation to see to it that Bush did not have the power to continue the war. Dan Rather, well, I don’t need to even explain. And then there was the guy from CNN who accused out troops of targeting journalists, when he had no evidence whatsoever. There is CNN’s coverage of the Jenin "Massacre", wherein Andrea Mitchell said it was the worst fighting she had ever seen, even worse than Sierra Leone. There is the recent coverage of the Palestinian "Prisoner’s Agreement" wherein the media claims Hamas has "implicityly" recognized Israel, even when Hamas clearly says they have done no such thing.

I could go on and on and on and on.

If this is the standard of objectivity and fairness for the MSM, then bloggers can not be less objective.

I am impressed with your website, but I am not at all impressed with your analysis of Mr. Cooper’s analysis.
 
Written By: Pastorius
URL: http://cuanas.blogspot.com
It is those sources that cultivate reputations for reliablity, integrity and independence that will (I hope) emerge as the the voices of this new medium. Some form of identification is a prerequisite.

That’s already happening. Many are the blogs I’ve read once or twice and never gone back, and few are those that are regular, much less daily, reads. I select based on quality.

Anonymity doesn’t bother me, not Digby’s, Anonymoys Liberal’s or Hume’s Ghost’s. Their content is what interests me, and much of theirs is very good (tho I’ve had issues with some of what Digby posts.)

No analogy is perfect, but the founding era was one of strife and bitter partisan attacks, including among the pamphleteers. But that was the political medium of the common man then, and so is the Internet now.
 
Written By: Mona
URL: http://
Aldo, you illustrate the problem exactly. Being of the liberal persuasion, you have adopted the liberal narrative and so fail to discern the blatant bias of your newspaper.



I am not of the liberal persuasion. I consider myself a "small L libertarian", which is essentially what Dale Franks calls a neolibertarian.
 
Written By: Aldo
URL: http://
I rather doubt the "common man" blogs or, for that matter, uses the internet much at all, porno and e-mail aside, but I’m inclined to agree with Aldo at least to the extent that modern journalism has embraced a false and misleading notion of objectivity. I have no objection to overt political bias, or any other sort for that matter, in the various media outlets; I object only to the covert sort, whether the journalist in question believes in his own "objectivity" or asserts it only pretextually.

For that matter, I don’t quite agree with Mr. Henke’s distinction between journalists and bloggers, if only because (1) most professional news sources rely heavily on second-hand reports of the news and (2) amateurs differ from professionals only in that the former are not paid. Thus, I do agree with him that quibbling over nomenclature is not particularly enlightening.

All reporting, indeed all history, is editorial in nature — it omits this, stresses that, describes one way versus another, involves background assumptions (both factual and normative) which may or may not themselves be true, etc. The very notion of objectivity is meaningful only in contradistinction to the notion of subjectivity, and vice versa. We are all, at some level or other, fools and knaves, and we might just as well admit the fact and get on with the business at hand.
 
Written By: D.A. Ridgely
URL: http://
Anonymity doesn’t bother me, not Digby’s, Anonymoys Liberal’s or Hume’s Ghost’s. Their content is what interests me, and much of theirs is very good (tho I’ve had issues with some of what Digby posts.)
That is not anonymity; it is pseudoanonymity. And it is a distinct improvement over anonymity, as it allows for a degree of identification and commands a commensurate level of responsibility. Further, merely by establishing a public blog one does indeed make oneself accountable.


Perhaps I was unclear, but I included those who post at blogsites, not just the bloggers themselves in the scope of my previous comment. Many of them post without any moniker whatever. Those are the true anonymouses; and they are the most venomous. There is little to be appreciated in such commentary because it is impossible to assess the consistency and reliability of the poster (or even to know who is posting what). Ideas as such are vital; but they do not float in a vaccuum. They inhabit human beings and are built upon a foundation of integrity. If one cannot assess the integrity of the person presenting the idea, the idea is unlikley to commend much respect. Again, that is in part because today, in contrast to Colonial times, there is an overabundance of information (including ideas and opinions). The main problem is separating the wheat from the chaff.
 
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://dsthinkingloud.blogspot.com/

 
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