The blogosphere, with its lightning speed and rough-edged sense of justice, seems to be claiming more victims more quickly.
Three dramatic departures in recent days have highlighted the one-strike-and-you're-out nature of trial by Internet. Eason Jordan quit under pressure as CNN's chief news executive Friday night over his remarks on U.S. soldiers killing journalists in Iraq, following a relentless campaign by online critics but scant coverage in the mainstream press. In past episodes, journalists have been forced to resign, or news organizations to admit error, after Web commentators helped push a controversy into newspaper and television reports. In Jordan's case, the middle step was all but skipped.
CNN's Eason Jordan resigned Friday after relentless online criticism.
Critics blamed the halting nature of Jordan's and CNN's defense. "Blogs are unforgiving of that lack of speedy responsiveness," says veteran magazine editor Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at buzzmachine.com. "We used to be the gatekeepers," and would grapple with criticism "in our own sweet time. You'd think we would understand the speed of news better than anybody, and we don't. We used to control that speed."
Earlier in the week, a conservative online reporter who covered the White House under a pseudonym resigned after liberal bloggers dug up embarrassing information about his background. And an aide to Maryland's Republican governor who spread online gossip about a Democratic rival was fired after the Web rumors were revealed by The Washington Post.
In the case of Jordan, a 23-year CNN veteran, it was a single online posting by technology executive Rony Abovitz, after Jordan's ill-fated comments at an off-the-record forum Jan. 27 in Davos, Switzerland, that led to his downfall. The lesson, say media analysts: In the digital age, anyone can be a journalist.
After Jordan told the forum that the U.S. military had targeted journalists -- and then backed away from the charge, though to what degree is very much in dispute -- he granted an interview only to The Washington Post, and CNN tried to minimize the matter with a terse statement. Jordan maintained that he was talking about accidental and possibly careless attacks on journalists in Iraq, where three CNN employees have been killed. But he compounded the problem, critics say, by not insisting that the World Economic Forum release a videotape of the session.
Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit.com sees a parallel to Sen. Trent Lott's initial refusal to apologize for saying at a 2002 birthday party for Strom Thurmond that the country would have been better off if the onetime segregationist had won his bid for president. Many reporters present did not deem the remarks newsworthy, but news outlets jumped on the controversy after bloggers stirred things up, leading to Lott's resignation as majority leader.
"The parallel to Trent Lott seems quite strong here -- pandering remarks made before a crowd that get out and are unconvincingly denied," Reynolds says. In Jordan's case, "I think a straightforward 'I screwed up' response would have put this to bed quickly." Instead, bloggers ripped Jordan and the mainstream press for ignoring the dispute, while a site called Easongate.com quickly materialized.
Dan Kennedy, a reporter and blogger for the Boston Phoenix, questioned whether the Jordan controversy "would have been lifted out of the right-wing-bloggers-go-after-Eason Jordan paradigm if it hadn't been for Barney Frank and Chris Dodd," two Democratic members of Congress who were at the Davos forum and criticized Jordan's remarks. "You get bloggers bringing it to people's attention, but without some additional push from the mainstream, I don't know if you get over the top and actually push out people like Eason Jordan and Dan Rather."
In September, a handful of bloggers immediately pointed out flaws in the National Guard documents used by CBS's Dan Rather in making allegations about President Bush's military service. In that instance, however, major newspapers were on the case within a day. CBS News defended the story for 12 days before commissioning an outside probe that led to four high-level departures. Rather had already announced that he would leave the anchor chair next month.