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Think Again: Blogosphere to Mainstream Media: Get Off the Bus (and Walk a Mile in Our Shoes)

SOURCE: AP/Brian Kersey

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd lifted text in a recent column from the blog Talking Points Memo. The mainstream media is increasingly taking cues from the blogosphere.

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When word got out that the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd accidentally published part of Josh Marshall’s blog under her own name in a column in the New York Times, more than one blogger reacted with unconcealed glee. It was an understandable and obviously inadvertent error, but for some, a satisfying one nevertheless. After all, aren’t bloggers supposed to be the mainstream media parasites?

No—Dowd’s accident is yet another sign of how traditional media outlets are increasingly (and to their credit) taking cues from the reporters and commentators that populate the blogosphere. And contrary to popular mythology, not everyone in the mainstream media has been loath to admit this.

This symbiosis has been a long time coming. But it’s increasingly evident every day as Internet-based reporters are increasingly setting priorities for the national news agenda. Greg Sargent, then at the American Prospect, lauded Murray Waas , an independent web reporter, for unearthing the truth about the outing of Valerie Plame and prodding the mainstream media onward in 2006. Jay Rosen crowned Waas the “Woodward of now,” explaining that the actual “Woodward of now,” Bob Woodward, had somehow missed the story.

Howard Kurtz described in 2007 how Marshall’s TPM “acted as a catalyst” in pushing forward the story about the Bush administration’s U.S. attorney firing scandal. And let’s not forget that Salon scooped The Washington Post in uncovering the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where soldiers had been receiving inadequate care for brain injuries. The Post, which thereafter launched a full-fledged in-depth investigation of the military medical center, went on to win a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for its groundbreaking effort.

Scott Shane of the New York Times explained in a 2007 article called “For Bloggers, Libby Trial is Fun and Fodder,” that journalists in the mainstream were turning to Jane Hamsher and her Libby live-blog at FireDogLake (which rotated six contributors of “crusaders,” “class clowns,” “satirists and scolds”) to get the “fullest, fastest public” legal analysis available.

Shane more recently credited Emptywheel’s Marcy Wheeler with revealing that waterboarding had been used 183 times on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. She discovered this information, much in the style of the great I. F. Stone, in a May 30, 2005 memo publicly released by the Obama administration (and posted online by a number of websites, including Propublica and the Huffington Post, to encourage members of the public to “commit acts of journalism.”)

FireDogLake, winner of a recent Sidney Hillman award for Wheeler’s work, is now raising money to hire Wheeler as a full-time reporter. Recognition of her excellence and importance among her audience is such that the effort is showing real fruit.

Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert focuses on the myriad changes in the mainstream media’s standard operating procedure inspired by the blogosphere in his welcome new book, Bloggers on the Bus. Alaskan blogger and professor Phil Munger recounts the nation’s first brush with a certain Tina Fey lookalike in “Saradise Lost,” which also happens to be a headline from his blog. The non-Alaskans among us with no idea who governed that far-off, freezing land came to rely on a group of little-known Wasillian bloggers when John McCain rolled the dice on an hitherto unknown politician named Sarah Palin to be his running mate. On the morning of McCain’s announcement, “liberal bloggers all over Alaska tapped away on their keyboards,” warning the uninformed (i.e. most of America) about the “Bridge to Nowhere,Troopergate, Palin’s unorthodox religious beliefs, her former love affair with federal earmarks, her antiscience beliefs, and her dubious claim to being “commander-in-chief” of the Alaskan National Guard.

As Boehlert explained, these bloggers, including Progressive Alaska , AKMuckraker, Celtic Diva’s Blue Oasis, Kodiak Konfidential, Mudflats, Own the Sidewalk, AndrewHalcro, What Do I Know?, Alaska Real, Immoral Minority, and Just a Girl from Homer, already “owned the story.” Meanwhile the mainstream media were scrambling to “even get reporters to Alaska to start their background reporting.” He adds:

“They didn’t realize it then, but within just a matter of days Alaskan bloggers would emerge as one of the most important local newsgathering sources of the entire election season. Collectively, they wrote a new chapter in campaign journalism. In the right place—4,300 miles and 74 hours by car from the Beltway — and at the right time and boasting unmatched knowledge about Palin and Alaska politics, the bloggers served an invaluable function.”

Josh Marshall, a trailblazer for bloggers who respect the craft and importance of reporting, recently spoke to graduates of the Columbia University School of Journalism about the relationship between bloggers and major news outlets. Eschewing the hoopla about the alleged plagiarism flap, he emphasized the importance of a “heathly ecosystem” of news outlets, large and small and ever innovative.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported, “The good news is that ‘the more balkanized and diverse period that we’re going into,’ Marshall said, fosters… honesty. While media consolidation encouraged the notion of balance—large news organizations, he noted, ‘had to be appealing to everybody, all the time’—the web’s toppling of barriers means that ‘you can have a much more healthy ecosystem of different news organizations.’ And those organizations, in turn, can feel liberated to turn the equation around: to emphasize accuracy—which is to say, honesty—over balance.’”

We can at least credit Maureen Dowd with good taste—this once.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.

This column was recently named as a finalist in the category of “Best Commentary—Digital” for the Mirror Awards. The series of columns judged can be found here.

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