Smears in Cyberspace

Blogs and media ethics.


Sometimes in journalism, the medium is the story. So it is with the ongoing saga of The Blogs vs. The Mainstream Media, endlessly flogged and blogged in the old and new media alike. The story is always the same: Periodically, a mainstream newspaper or magazine will run a "barbarians at the gate" story about blogs as purveyors of misinformation, calumny, and digital mob rule, and the Web will respond by summoning the unquiet ghost of disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and scoffing at the mainstream media's obvious fear of competition.

A new chapter in the blog wars unfolded in October after a mysterious incident at the University of Oklahoma's campus in Norman, Oklahoma. On October 1 an engineering student, 21-year-old Joel Hinrichs, blew himself up with a homemade bomb while sitting on a bench 100 yards from the campus football stadium, during a game attended by 85,000 people. Within days there was rampant speculation in the local media and on the Internet that Hinrichs was a would-be terrorist who had originally planned to blow himself up inside the stadium.

The police had flagged Hinrichs earlier for trying to buy ammonium nitrate at a feed store, and this brought the FBI and the federal Counter-Terrorism Task Force into the investigation. But when the FBI almost immediately said that there was no evidence of terrorism, some hypervigilant observers concluded that something was being swept under the rug.

Rumors mushroomed: Hinrichs' bomb supposedly was studded with nails (not true); he supposedly had attended a mosque in Norman (unsubstantiated); "jihadist" literature and a one-way ticket to Algeria supposedly were found in his apartment (not true); he supposedly had tried to enter the football stadium twice but had run away when a security guard tried to search his backpack (the stadium's surveillance cameras showed no such thing). True but innocuous facts–that Hinrichs had a Pakistani roommate, for instance, or that he had lived a block away from the mosque–became more dots to connect.

For about two weeks, a small group of conservative bloggers led by Michelle Malkin pushed the "Jihad in Oklahoma" story and suggested that the national media weren't covering it for fear of touching the politically incorrect subject of Islamic terrorism. When the national media finally noticed, though, they debunked the rumors. On October 13, The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled "Student's Suicide Sets Off Explosion of Theories by Blogs," which dismissed claims of a terrorist angle as unfounded and portrayed the bloggers who wrote about the case as irresponsible rumor mongers. Naturally, the conservative bloggers' response was to accuse the Journal of peddling anti-blog bias and colluding in the cover-up.

The Wall Street Journal piece did have a whiff of blog bashing about it. For instance, it downplayed the role of local television channels in fanning the rumors: They were mentioned only as an afterthought, with the distinct suggestion that their main fault was to allow the blogs to drive their coverage. In fact, the local CBS affiliate–News 9 KWTV, which aired a report containing several of the later-refuted claims–insisted that it had not used blogs as sources.

Still, the Hinrichs case could and should have touched off a serious conversation about media ethics in the age of blogging. Instead there was a predictable circling of the wagons.

The same thing happened a couple of weeks later when Forbes published a lengthy attack under the title "Attack of the Blogs." The gist of the article was that because of the amorphousness, vastness, speed, and anonymity of the blogosphere, nasty and even slanderous attacks on individuals or companies can be very difficult to combat.

Forbes was guilty of several rather egregious journalistic sins, from overgeneralization (blogger Doc Searls noted that referring to "the blogs" is rather like referring to "the newspapers" as a catch-all term for both The Washington Post and the supermarket tabloids) to shockingly sloppy reasoning. As evidence of the dangerous power of the blogosphere, Forbes cited Microsoft's reversal of its decision not to endorse a Washington state gay rights bill after some gay bloggers threatened to oppose the company's planned campus expansion. Yet the article also noted, without further comment, Microsoft's assertion that "pressure from its own employees, not from bloggers, caused the change of heart." And even if it was the bloggers, how is that fundamentally different from pressure exerted by newspapers and magazines, talk radio, or an old-fashioned letter campaign?

Still, as Searls and a couple other bloggers acknowledged, the Forbes piece contained some important grains of truth. News gathering without gatekeepers surely has a dark side. Does the public's right to know extend to rumors and innuendo? Suppose the wife of a politician falls on the stairs inside her house and is seriously injured. Suppose anonymous sources then start insinuating that it was the husband who pushed her–or, better yet, that his mistress did it after the wife surprised them in bed. Suppose the blogs start badgering the mainstream media to pay attention. Even if "the truth wins out," a lot of damage will be done; and it's likely that even after the real facts are established, some readers will continue to believe that "where there's smoke, there's fire."

The discussion of blog ethics is complicated by the fact that different bloggers have very different concepts of their medium. David Weinberger of JoHo the Blog writes: "Blogs, to my way of thinking, are an extension of the conversations we've been having with our friends ever since humans starting having friends. That means we gossip, go wrong, speak without evidence, speculate wildly, leave typos uncorrected, and make tasteless jokes. The conversational nature of blogging–which necessarily includes its fallibility–is something, I believe, we need to encourage, not reform."

If Weinberger's description is correct (and I don't think it is), perhaps mainstream journalists are right to see danger in the rise of the blogs–at least if the blogs are taken seriously as a source of information. Are the bloggers simply gossips with a wider-than-ever reach, or are they "citizen journalists" who deserve respect, not to mention the same access to sources and the same legal protections as professionals?

This isn't an issue of "blogs bad, mainstream media good." Professional journalists can be obnoxiously smug about their claims to objectivity and superior wisdom. In yet another recent blog-spanking column, The New York Times' David Carr pompously remarked that bloggers don't have the experience of "leaving the computer screen to interview the mother of an eight-year-old who has been run over by a car." So an exercise most of the public views as the epitome of journalistic obtuseness–accosting a bereaved parent to inquire how she feels–is held up as the ultimate test of professionalism.

Furthermore, the mainstream press has its own long rap sheet of inglorious moments, from the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass scandals to the appalling coverage of Hurricane Katrina–and plenty that predate the new media, from covering up Soviet famine in the 1930s to hyping day care sex-abuse scandals in the 1980s. Sensationalism, lies, and smears are far more dangerous in the professional media than in blogs because established newspapers, magazines, and TV stations have more credibility.

Conversely, the blogocrats can be obnoxiously smug about the virtues of the blogs. A lie or distortion in the blogosphere has its own dangers: It can spread much faster and can be much harder to put down or even pin down.

The only answer, perhaps, is for bloggers to hold themselves and each other to higher standards. That's not easy, given the amorphous nature of the blogosphere, but at least the bloggers can make a good-faith effort to demand accountability, instead of making excuses for the lack of it.

"Blogging is free expression at its purest," the conservative blogger LaShawn Barber wrote in response to the Forbes article. "If we're willing to embrace this freedom, we ought to be willing to embrace its power." True enough. But it's also true that power without responsibility is a dangerous thing.?