Bloggers are First-hand Reporters for the Invisible Primary

Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in one of a series of dismissals of bloggers, summed up his opinion of their contribution to the information society by the following: “Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That’s not bad. But it’s not enough.”

I disagree. Many bloggers are creating new content, hunting and gathering news and information, not just digesting it. The presidential race–or pre-race creates many examples. The invisible primary is a time of severely reduced press attention to presidential hopefuls. Even bigfoot frontrunners like, say, Hillary Clinton, do not get much national media attention speaking to the Women’s Democratic Caucus in a rural county in Iowa. As Richard di Benedetto of USA Today once commented to me: “When I started in this business, I was taught that the job of a journalist was to go someplace that the public couldn’t get to and report what he saw and heard.”

But not many reporters are covering this fallow period for sensational news.

Bloggers, however, are there. When former North Carolina Senator and 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards spoke at the University of Texas in late October 2005, blogger Neal Sinhababu, a UT-Austin student and editor of “Ethical Werewolf,” recounted “the John Edwards experience.” I quote him at length to admire an insightful and useful bit of political reporting, though of course not in the “objective” style of the msm press.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed an incapacity to properly listen to political speeches. I generally approach them in some kind of meta way, analyzing how the speaker’s rhetorical moves and mannerisms contribute or detract from the effect he is trying to create, and considering how they play into a broader political context. It doesn’t usually matter whether I support the speaker or not — it happens as much with Democrats as with Republicans. That’s not what happened today. For most of John Edwards’ talk on poverty here on the UT campus, I was naively absorbed in what he said. This is partly because of my great Edwards enthusiasm, and partly because Edwards’ speech — the stated purpose of which was to encourage students to join a campus volunteer group — didn’t fit within a narrowly political context. It’s also because Edwards is an truly amazing speaker. Everything seemed completely natural, off-the-cuff, and conversational and yet it fit together — often uncannily — into a well-organized speech. (There’s a reason for this — much of the speech is here. Ezra linked to it a long time ago, but I never got around to reading the whole thing.) The following reflections are, almost without exception, ex post facto.

Edwards’ anecdotes about poverty didn’t fit the “here’s an example to obviously fit my point” rubric that disposes unsympathetic listeners to immediately think up counterarguments. In the aftermath of Katrina, Edwards met a man who had lived and worked for 23 years in New Orleans, but whose workplace had been destroyed by flooding and wouldn’t reopen. A truck came by the shelter he was staying at to pick up day laborers for work at 5 AM some mornings. He had stood there for 10 days trying to be among those chosen for work, without success. He told Edwards, “So far, it hasn’t happened, but I want to go to work.” The anecdote segued him from talking about Katrina to talking about general poverty issues, and I only realized later that it defused the stereotype of poor people as indolent and lazy. Some of the less tendentious Lakoff framing principles are operative here — when you want your audience to think “A”, and you know they have some degree of credence in “not-A”, don’t say “not not A”. Give them evidence for “A”, and give it in such a way that people won’t even remember that “not-A” has some appeal to them. One of the major roadblocks to antipoverty spending — the worry, primarily of middle-class whites, that they’ll be supporting lazy blacks — is thus neatly avoided. Does stable belief-change actually result? Perhaps not immediately. But I’m guessing that it would successfully push people towards liking policy proposals premised on “A”, even if “not-A” also has some grip on them. And once people get in the habit of nodding along to “A”, their attachment to “not-A” may fade away.

“Some of you might remember I’m the son of a mill worker” was successfully played for laughs, and that made me happy. Not only because it’s good to see that Edwards knows what he’s repeated ad nauseam, but because it’s good (even in a fairly tuned-in crowd) to see that he’s established his poor-boy upbringing enough that the joke works.

Edwards met with a number of other bloggers, including Phillip Martin of BurntOrangeReport and bloggers from PinkDome and InthePinkTexas. Martin then reprinted the text of the exchange, Edwards’s speech in a post and a question he asked Edwards.

(Note how reaching out to bloggers is not just done in cyberspace!)

That is original content–for all of us to chew on.

Originally posted November 16, 2005 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (17)

    Neal Sinhababu got it right when he said this: “a useful bit of political reporting, though of course not in the “objective” style of the msm press.”

    Bloggers are allowed to report on events and news that may otherwise be left out of the public sphere. But as Sinhababu realizes, these “reports” lack that objective quality that the press is supposed to strive for.

    I’m not naive, and I realize that an “objective” press is an ideal that the American media rarely upholds, but one of the main differences is that bloggers are allowed to be “un-objective” and that is what their readers want. They want a voice that confirms what they already think they know to be true.

    It makes sense that editors of newspapers like NYTimes would look down on this style of reporting, especially with the emergence of certain media outlets that appear to be seizing this style of one-sided coverage. If readers search out content that only confirms their beliefs, what use is an outlet that claims to present all the news objectively?

    It is a scary thought not only for editors, but for all who believe in an objective media.
    January 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersmarin3
    As the post is titled, “Bloggers are First-hand Reporters for the Invisible Primary,” I believe those who communicate on blogs do play a role as a first-hand reporter during the period before the Primary. The world has many journalist, but there are not enough journalist to find all the facts that the world wants to know. The Web and blogs help bridge the gap where journalist fail to report information. Any citizen whose stories or facts that may provide relevant political information could play a role in deciding who will win the primary. I understand what Bill Keller is arguing when he stated that bloggers “recycle and chew on the news.” There are a lot of regurgitated news and story topics, but among all of these stories is raw and valuable information to be communicated to the public. Blogs allow democratic communication where everyone’s voice can be heard and make a difference.
    January 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNOLA7
    Early agenda-setting studies, conducted by mass comm theorists McCombs and Shaw at Chapel Hill, showed that people are more influenced by their neighbors and peers than by the mass media. If agenda-setting theory remains applicable today, then professional journalists ought to feel pressured and even threatened by Web blogs.
    Blogs are authored by average people; UT-Austin student Neal Sinhababu is a perfect example. Other students are likely to relate to his experience. Even if he communicates an openly biased slant in support of Edwards, at least his opinion is clear and can therefore be considered when a reader gleans facts from his report of the Edwards experience.
    Whereas some bloggers may be more informed than others, may have different writing styles, etc., what is unique to many bloggers is that they offer personal insight to events they may experience firsthand, and they aren’t influenced by an editor’s agenda.
    As the blogger population increases, and people realize the potential web blogs offer to share information and become informed, journalists’ contempt for web blogs may increase as well.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlittle34
    I agree that some blogs provide new information and not just a collection of recycled opinions. Some offer first-hand accounts of subjects that might not otherwise receive attention from the “legitimate” press. Community journalism is certainly something that has suffered a lack of attention in exchange for sensationalism and drama by the news media. Bloggers have the freedom to report on any subject they wish, without consideration for commercial sponsors.

    It is also true that bloggers are not held to any level of accountability as are “real” reporters. Of course, this does not mean that bloggers do not hold themselves accountable anyway. I think it is commendable that a private citizen would go to the trouble of reporting on a story for the sake of making the information they deem important available to the public, knowing that they will not be paid for their efforts.

    As I mentioned in my comment under “Are Blogs the New Iowa?”, I don’t believe that politicians are interested in acknowledging bloggers as yet another group deserving of attention. For that reason, it is interesting to read that John Edwards felt it necessary to speak to some bloggers. Perhaps blog tests really are the next logical step.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdiversgirl
    This post leads me to think about the difference between information delivered by msm media and that delivered by bloggers. Unsuspectedly, The former is produced professionally, with higher credibility and stricter standard; it is always the basis of the latter. In comparison, the latter sometimes offers a more private perspective about the news event. For example, the article of Neal Sinhababu cited in this post reads like a fan’s high praise and is rather far away from a subjective new story. However, it contains a lot of information and will affect people who have read it. Those who like Edwards may like him more; and those who hate Edwards may feel disgusting. In other words, articles posted in blogs that involve obvious passion and objective opinions will result in feedback with more passion than news that have been made with an ultimate intention to avoid objectivity. Those articles are also prone to rule out the readers with a different viewpoint.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commentereusuee
    I agree that bloggers do go beyond “recycling” news; however, I do not think this aspect of blogging is necessarily negative. The criticism against bloggers “chewing” on old news is like saying that editorial writing is an inferior activity compared to reporting because it is just about “recycling” old news. I think this is in fact a positive aspect of blogging: allowing citizens to be influential participants in the sphere of opinion making. Bloggers are important political actors because they constitute a new class of elite citizens – those with high political self-efficacy who also tend to be more educated and of a higher socioeconomic background – who could be influential in the “public sphere.” These are the virtual opinion leaders whose span and influence are not restricted by physical boundaries. Of course, Neil Sinhababu’s example shows that bloggers are reporters and editorial writers in their own right. I believe, traditional journalists should look at blogs and citizen journalism as complements to their profession and not as competitors.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersocial scientist to be
    The fact that bloggers do not “have to be” objective is irrelevant to the blogosphere. The msm may be where the researched facts are supposedly delivered with no bias, but what is the point of that objectivity? It is in order for the audience to make up its own mind based on raw reporting of events. So where does it say that audience has to make up its mind in a vacuum without interaction with others with shared or opposite opinions? The blogosphere can be that very arena where those facts reported by the objective media are volleyed back and forth, debated and dissected to help create public opinion. The greatest weakness of the blogosphere, though, is that it can be infiltrated by those who don’t give the careful thought necessary to make for responsible debate.
    January 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHog79
    Keller can call blogs anything he wants. It may or may not be true that bloggers generally chew on the news and spit out something colored, unfair and unbalanced. PBB/Editor’s argument that bloggers do in fact cover original news has convinced me that some bloggers function as actual reporters. Though I am inclined to think this is, in practice, more an untapped potential than a realized goal.

    What is true, regardless of whether bloggers recycle the news or don’t, is that bloggers provide something the Times generally does not – opinion, context and analysis.

    It may not be fair or balanced, but neither is the Times every day, nor is any other paper. One counter to this argument is that though objectivity may not be possible, it is worthwhile to chase after it and hope you get close enough to render a public service. And I’m not arguing this is a bad idea. What I would like to argue is that the public also can be served through a different kind of journalism in combination with traditional objective journalism.

    The American public needs the New York Times. No other newsgathering agency – I’d argue not even the AP – reports the kind news as extensively and from so many places as the New York Times. But sometimes the facts about far away lands (even those as far away as Washington, D.C.) are meaningless to those going about their daily lives. Blogs can help with that by chewing on the news and helping make sense of it. Through its own opinion pages, the Times implicitly acknowledges that there is a place in American journalism for what bloggers do. Sure, there is a difference between bloggers and Times columnists, but this difference holds the potential to offer more depth to the information stream flowing through American public opinion.

    Alongside Keller’s, “Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That’s not bad. But it’s not enough” I might add, “Mainstream newspapers report the facts from far and wide. That’s good. But it’s not good enough.”
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterrepublic3
    Although bloggers provide coverage of events that would otherwise go uncovered and they provide new information on a myriad of topics, they are not as much reporters as they are public relations spin doctors. Although perhaps not intentionally, the author of this post performs a slight-of-hand routine that is common to the blogosphere where information introduced to prove the author’s declared point is in fact the whole purpose of the post. For example, in an effort to prove his argument that bloggers are frontline, in-the-trenches reporters, the author uses Neal Sinhababu’s coverage of John Edwards’ October 2005 speech, which gives Edwards a decidedly positive spin. In much the same fashion as Sinhababu’s explanation of Edwards’ “A, not-A” treatment of the issues of poverty and stereotypes, the author of this posting allows the blogger to believe he is reading about blog coverage of the invisible primary. In fact, the blog coverage is Sinhababu’s “A,” and Edwards is the “not-A.”
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterweezy138
    While there is certainly a “recycling” of news, there is also the well-researched creation of ideas. The fact that bloggers may be, and often are, un-objective (in whatever way you choose to declare objectivity in mainstream media); brings up interest in areas that may have been overlooked by the media, because there may not be a large enough audience. Furthermore, blogs through opinions and special areas of interest can create an audience for their beliefs, and they have the benefit of never going out of business whether they create an audience or not. Subjectivity allows bloggers to create ideas and opinions that could be overlooked by the media, as well as the freedom to state biased opinions and create discussion.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15
    Earlier in another Blog speculating on whether Blogs are becoming new “invisible primaries,” I said that Blogs may be becoming minefields through which candidates must walk before actual primaries begin. I think this post from the Texas student is a great example of what I was talking about.

    While this particular Blog is speaks highly about John Edwards, it still demonstrates the fact that Bloggers are everywhere watching candidates’ every move. Therefore, the danger of making a misstep, that before never would have made news, may potentially be broadcast in seconds all across the web. Much of the Blog time candidates get may in fact be positive, but these positive posting are probably not what is going to make big news. Only when candidates blunder will what is posted on Blogs make big news.

    I guess this is somewhat like what Schudson (1997) and Zaller (2003) were talking about when they advocated a monitorial model of citizenship and a burglar alarm model for the press. A few interested individuals paying close attention to every move politicians make and sound the alarms when the rest of the public needs to wake up and take action.

    Maybe Bloggers are simply showing up for duty and performing a valuable service to our democracy.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn444
    Because of the span of blogs, events and news taking place in one part of the world can be reported on and received in another part of the world (even if the reporter is not a “real” reporter but a blogger). But one problem with depending on information through this type of outlet: bloggers don’t necessarily report facts, but more often their personal analysis of information given to them therefore their credibility is virtually non-existent. Some previous comments have mentioned the idea that a possible weakness of blogs is bias, but this is also found in almost every other news source. One television station might lean to the conservative side while others may put a spin on things to show the more liberal side. Bias can be found everywhere, and since blogs are generally someone’s opinion it should be expected. Bloggers may provide the public with a broader range of information that is not mainstream, but I don’t know if I would consider them to be dependable reporters.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWBGirl
    Over the past decade, blogs have become a very popular form of expression. Many thousands of people over the world have used the free software of self-publishing to create personal journals on subjects as diverse as politics, biology and linguistics. To some extent, blogs are a new form of journalism, open to any individual who is willing to establish and maintain a web site.

    But it is a new type of journalism. In fact, bloggers do not have to abide by the same professional standards as traditional journalists do –the standards of fairness, accuracy, and balance. Thus, many journalists look down on bloggers, calling them unskilled amateurs. Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, is a good example to the above statement.

    I disagree with Mr.Keller, however, that “bloggers recycle and chew on the news.” I believe that bloggers do not compete with the work of professional journalists, but rather complement them. It’s true that there are a lot of journalists, but they can not be everywhere at all times. Thus, bloggers step in and report on events that may otherwise be left without any public attention. In other words, there are people and events around us that are meaningful enough but professional journalists do not report on them for one reason or another. In these cases, authors of personal web-based journals become the only source of information to the world.
    January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterfocus1
    Bloggers can be the first-hand reporters in many circumstances. I agree with Nola7, there are lots of journalists, but not enough everywhere to get all the stories. This is where the importance of the blogger enters the picture.
    It is not shocking for a media organization like the New York Times, that many times fuels liberal support and opposition against the current administration in the White House, not to have a positive outlook on the future of blogging. This would conflict with some of their products that do not tell the entire story. You see, I did not say this publication prints false information, I just pointed out that many times it does not present both sides of the story equally. Bloggers could help set the record straight on situations like this and on any other media favoritism titled toward either liberals or conservatives.

    Though probably unrealistic, maybe if only we could get more bloggers on the ground in Iraq, the American people as well as the rest of the world could finally see and understand the many successes and positive achievements being made there by the U.S. and Iraqi military instead of the constant spew of negative one-sided images and information.

    The problem, as diversgirl points out though, is bloggers are not held to the same standards and accountability as professional journalists. Also, every blog out there is different. Many maintain high standards while others do not even understand the meaning. Like the individual journalists, all bloggers do not operate in the same manner and the public must judge each separately.

    This makes you think, will bloggers help keep the “real” journalists in check if blogging continues to become more popular or will it expand the uncertainty of the truth. If this happens, the New York Times and those similar may get pushed to new levels of journalistic standards. So, there is no surprise that Mr. Keller does not maintain many positive comments on the subject of bloggers.
    January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBigAL1993
    If there is anything Bill Keller failed to acknowledge is that the media does not and cannot report on all things. If he took this into consideration, he will begin to grasp that blogging is in fact filling a void.

    What the author of the John Edwards post did was in fact to some degree, journalism. The blogger recounted the event, the major points of Edwards’ speech and the relevance of his speech to the issues at hand. A journalist covering the same event would report those details. The difference being in the style of the report, the blogger having more freedom to assess the job Edwards was doing in delivering the speech.

    Given the size and nature of the event, probably only a college newspaper would have covered it for a smaller audience. What the blog actually did was give a wider readership a glimpse of a politician aside from the theatrics of stumping for an election campaign.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commentertrinireporter
    I would say I completely disagree with the way the author describes bloggers, but I then make myself a hypocrite by admitting they play a role in reporting. The simple fact is people go to blogs to get information and they always will.
    The mention of agenda-setting theory is perfect, but you have to understand that the information is handed down from peers, who package it in their own way before spreading it to their masses. Also everytime it is passed to another group, it is again repackaged.
    Finally Keller can’t criticize blogging, when he is giving his opinion also. And no matter how much we want to push the issue, THE MEDIA IS HARDLY EVER OBJECTIVE. Every reporter has their own agenda. This should be common sense to any student who has been a reporter. Yes, ideally that’s what all journalists want AND are supposed to do, but it gets old real quick and the reality sets in.
    January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterharrison72
    Bill Keller’s comments concerning bloggers are absolutely absurd. Bloggers promote new thoughts and views on various topics. Blog sites are equal to ideal classroom settings in schools. The viewers of the site are new pupils anxious to learn and to submit their opinions. The blogger that established the site is like an educator, in the fact that he is teaching others about things that they may have never known before. He does not judge others’ views but rather welcomes them. There are no tests or papers to be graded. The only requirement is to just take part in the blogger’s site. With all the shared information among bloggers, new discussions are soon posted which carry out the cycle once more.
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQTPi1021

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