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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Forecast: Overheated, Gusty and Increasingly Bloggy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page C01

Could this be the perfect storm of bad news for the news media?

Already hemorrhaging readers and viewers and losing public trust, the mainstream media are being battered hourly by the surging denizens of the blogosphere, accused of raw partisanship, rank incompetence and conspiratorial coverups.

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Newspapers, networks and magazines aren't likely to vanish anytime soon (and if they did, what would the bloggers talk about?), but their credibility is under assault as never before, and a series of self-inflicted wounds haven't helped.

In just two years, the fabrications of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley have led to the ouster of the top editors of the New York Times and USA Today; CBS News melted down in using apparently bogus documents for a story on President Bush; major outlets published mea culpas on their flawed reporting about the White House's march to war in Iraq; columnist Robert Novak revealed the name of a CIA operative, sparking a probe that could send two other reporters to jail; more journalists were fired for plagiarism; Sinclair Broadcast Group planned to air an anti-John Kerry film close to Election Day before backing off; Fox's chief political reporter ridiculed Kerry as a metrosexual, and Armstrong Williams and two other columnists acknowledged taking money from the Bush administration. Not to mention the usual array of biases and blunders (remember that New York Post cover on Kerry picking running mate Dick Gephardt?).

Even journalists aren't defending journalism these days. In one poll last year, nearly half said that reporting is increasingly sloppy and filled with errors, and that reporters often let their ideological views color their work.

So do the much-maligned media do anything right?

Maybe a few things. It's mighty expensive to cover wars and maintain bureaus around the world. Some news organizations do that.

The meat-and-potatoes of community news -- city council meetings, zoning changes, school boards -- are still blanketed by local papers.

Old-fashioned, shoe-leather investigative reporting -- from Bernard Kerik's business problems to the Abu Ghraib abuses -- is regularly executed by staffers at large organizations who specialize in developing sources and sifting through documents. (It was newspapers that revealed Blair and Kelley's lies and Williams's $240,000 Education Department contract.)

And television remains unsurpassed at covering breaking news (wars and tsunamis) and bringing the nation together at times of tragedy and sadness (9/11, space shuttle explosions, Ronald Reagan's death).

But now, for the first time, millions of people with access to a wide audience (at least among the wired) are looking over the shoulders of journalists, or practicing journalism themselves. They are Googling and Nexis-ing and dissecting video and transcripts. Many bloggers are careful and thought-provoking, others partisan or mean-spirited. But they are here to stay, and by and large they provide a healthy check on those who once monopolized the news agenda.

In the wake of CNN executive Eason Jordan's resignation under pressure following harsh online criticism over his remarks about the U.S. military, Steve Lovelady, who edits the online edition of Columbia Journalism Review, complained to another blogger about a "lynch mob" of "salivating morons," later writing that no one "can mediate the wrath when the headhunters smell blood."

This drew a rather pointed response from Will Collier at VodkaPundit: "We're not impressed by either your bluster or your insults. You aren't higher beings, and everybody out here has the right -- and ability -- to fact-check your [butts], and call you on it when you screw up and/or say something stupid. You, and Eason Jordan, and Dan Rather, and anybody else in print or on television don't get free passes because you call yourself 'journalists.' "

But Duncan Riley countered in the Blog Herald: "What is unique in the war on blogging is that the battles are not one based on politics, but one based on hatred of the blogosphere by the old media as it continues to lose readership and the revenues a large readership attracts."


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