Sunday, May 08, 2005

ADAM COHEN at the New York Times lectures bloggers about accountability, journalistic standards, and reforming themselves. His piece infuriated me, but Kathy at Citizen's Rent has already written such a cogent rebuttal that I am just going to quote most of it here.

The blogging world doesn't need reform. Blogging isn't journalism. Blogs aren't media outlets. Some blogs are personal diaries. Others are sources to share expertise in fields of interest - science, technology, parenting, whatever. Some blogs are all about music or reality TV or movie review or books. Others track celebrities. A minority of blogs attend to the political world. Among those, a minority target the media. Calling for reform of the blogosphere because a subset of a minority subset of a minority of the blogosphere attacks the MSM is a bit much.

Are there legitimate issues here? Sure. I think that political bloggers taking money from politicians or non-profits should disclose that like Marcos of DailyKos did, like the bloggers paid by Republican John Thune did not. I think that blogging pundits should disclose their bias (as if it's not obvious) and make the effort to get their facts straight. I think that bloggers who consider themselves citizen-journalists should hold themselves to the same standards as the paid media. Sure, I think that bloggers who rage against the media and rely on it for their content should reconsider their rants and tone down their egocentric belief that they'll replace the MSM. But no, I don't think that bloggers need to disclose their identities. Mine isn't published here, though plenty of readers know who I am. My business relationships include lots and lots of Republicans and I'm quite sure that they wouldn't be thrilled with my political positions. I keep business and politics separate and part of the way I do that is by keeping my last name off this blog. That's not avoiding accountability - it's just smart.

I also think that Adam Cohen should give readers a little credit. We can tell the difference between a Josh Marshall and a bloviating blowhard. We know when we're reading a ranter who doesn't research. We know to check further when we read something that seems extreme, that a blog isn't a reliable sole source (unless it's a blogger like Marshall). We know when we're reading a site that reinforces what we believe and will never challenge our preconceptions. We aren't unthinking consumers of biased opinion and inaccuracy misled by the passion of the blogger. We can actually think for ourselves.

Cohen cites the standards of mainstream journalism as an example of common ethics that the blogosphere might consider. Those standards are well and good but the MSM might not be a target of such criticism if those standards went just a bit further and included a commitment to truly informing the consumer. I'm tired or watching news reports or reading stories that present both sides of an issue as though the positions of each side had equal merit. Take for example CNN's coverage of an anti-gay adoption bill in Texas that was so wonderfully skewered by John Stewart of the Daily Show. Here we have CNN interviewing a woman citing research that says children raised by gay parents are 11 times more likely to be sexually abused, saying "it's a proven fact." The reporters ask no questions regarding the source of the research, make no effort to ascertain whether it's legitimate (which it is not), provide no information telling the viewer that research on this issue overwhelmingly contradicts her position. Instead, they switch to an advocate of gay adoption who says he hasn't heard of that research but can cite credible research supporting his position. The reporters shake their heads and agree that it's an "interesting debate" and that they'll share their opinions off the air. The viewer is left with a false impression that there's research showing that children in gay homes are at much higher risk of being sexually abused, which is just wrong.

Unfortunately, this media commitment to balance that results in misinformation is common. It's a disservice to the consumer, who expects to be informed by the MSM. When they don't get that they go elsewhere. To places like the Daily Show or the blogosphere. Because the blogosphere doesn't live up to the standard of the paid media doesn't mean that it can't hold the media accountable. Someone has to.

The bottom line is that the political blogosphere doesn't need reform. It needs time to mature. Attempts to reform it, to impose ethical guidelines or rules of blogging won't work unless they're voluntary and organic to the community. The blogosphere is the wild west of cyberspace and it's finding its own way. The little corner of the blogosphere where political blogging takes place will find it's way towards common ethical standards in time. It will get there - but not because someone from on high declares that certain ethical standards must be followed. It will get there because it can't survive without being credible.

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