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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Cyber-Cease Fire?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; 10:00 AM

In all the recent hoo-hah over Dan Rather, Eason Jordan and Jeff Gannon, the plot line has been clearly established: bloggers versus the mainstream media.

From one viewpoint, it's brave, tireless, iconoclastic citizen journalists using new technology to take on the big, arrogant, lazy and biased MSM.

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From the other side of the divide, it's partisan, opinionated, sometimes reckless and slightly crazy bloggers trying to lynch responsible journalists who, unlike their online tormentors, are at least trying to be fair.

But what if this good-versus-kinda evil template is wrong?

What if each side shouldn't view the other as the enemy?

A possible thaw in this cold war has emerged, courtesy of Bill Keller.

Keller edits what bloggers view as the biggest and baddest MSM property around, the New York Times. And it turns out he gets it. He reads bloggers, understands where they're coming from and doesn't lapse into the knee-jerk defensiveness that many other Old Media types display toward the new usurpers.

All of which came about when Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine wrote to Keller, asking that blogger types and Timesfolk get together for some kind of summit to exchange views instead of constantly sniping at each other.

Here's part of Keller's response:

"In your open letter you propose to lead a delegation from the citizen's media to a kind of summit meeting with editors and reporters of The Times, where we would all 'vent,' eat bagels, and then negotiate some kind of cooperation. I'm enthusiastically in favor of healthy dialogue among people engaged in a common pursuit. [Managing Editor] Jill Abramson's presence at the recent blog conference in Cambridge demonstrates, I think, that I'm not the only one here who feels that way. At the same time, I'm not sure what you see as the possible fruit of a blog-Times meeting. Why would anyone who has the infinite audience of the Internet at his disposal want to vent for a select audience of MSM dinosaurs? And, in any case, what's the point of negotiating a compact with an institution you -- or at least your more theological brethren in the blogosphere -- regard as irrelevant?

"And, finally, what, aside from a little creative friction, is wrong with the relationship we have? We can and do use blogs as a source of tips, course corrections, leads and insights without requiring a more formal collaboration along the lines you seem to be suggesting. In turn, our website is one of the, if not the, most linked news source for bloggers; we are a major supplier of news and conversation for the blog world, without anyone having to organize a meeting or negotiate a protocol. In other words, for all the talk of rendering us obsolete, and all your concern about MSM condescension (more perceived than real, I believe, but that's easy for me to say), The Times and the blog world have an extremely robust relationship. Seriously, what does a meeting get either of us?

"I'll tell you what. Let's dispense with the bagels and conference room (so Old Media) and organize a live chat on-line. I'll take an hour off from my evil left-wing (or is it right-wing?) conspiracy to bamboozle the world, and we'll swap thoughts. I'm bound to learn something.

"Can I just state something for the record? While we probably have our differences on the role of the MSM (btw, I personally favor 'elite media,' at least as it pertains to the NYT) I would like to make clear that I consider blogs relevant and important. I do not hold them in disdain, as you imply. I won't risk embarrassing my favorite bloggers by identifying them (except to say that buzzmachine is bookmarked in my office and at home) but I find the best of them to be a source of provocative insights, first-hand witness, original analysis, rollicking argument and occasional revelation. As I'm sure you will agree, you can also find bloggers who are paranoid, propagandistic, unreliable, hate-filled, self-indulgent, self-important and humorless. (Just like people! See above, 'people's media.')"

Not exactly the kind of haughty response that many bloggers might expect. Here's part of Jarvis's reply:

"I think this isn't about me. I'm already MSM (hell, I worked for People and EW and TV Guide. . . . I'm all too MS). I already fancy myself a citizen journalist, too. I'd suggest that this isn't about you, either. It's about the rank and file of both worlds understanding that they're colleagues, not enemies (as I fear each is too often portraying the other). If that quest is full of crap, then fine: nothing ventured, nothing lost. But if there's benefit in some smart folks who care about the same things from different vantage points having a bagel or coffee or cabernet or chat together, then I figured it couldn't hurt to try.

"So I'll obnoxiously throw the potato back in your lap: Want to do a chat? Great; count me in. Want me to propose a more representative blogger or bloggers to do it? Eager to help. Want to break bagel together? Wonderful. You name it.

"My goal is to get bloggers off their disdain for The Times as the poster parent for mainstream media and to get Times reporters, as the role models for all others, to get past their isolated though still sometimes evident disdain for bloggers. Or maybe I should just butt out and let nature take its course."

The Baltimore Sun's ombudsman, Paul Moore, says while it might be okay for online gossipers to spread unsubstantiated extramarital rumors involving Mayor Martin O'Malley (spread by a since-fired aide to Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich), the Sun won't publish rumors it can't confirm.

We'll be seeing some Swift tactics in the SS debate, says the New York Times:

"Taking its cues from the success of last year's Swift boat veterans' campaign in the presidential race, a conservative lobbying organization has hired some of the same consultants to orchestrate attacks on one of President Bush's toughest opponents in the battle to overhaul Social Security.

"The lobbying group, USA Next, which has poured millions of dollars into Republican policy battles, now says it plans to spend as much as $10 million on commercials and other tactics assailing AARP, the powerhouse lobby opposing the private investment accounts at the center of Mr. Bush's plan.

" 'They are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts,' said Charlie Jarvis, president of USA Next and former deputy under secretary of the interior in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. 'We will be the dynamite that removes them.' "

Quite an explosive quote, so to speak.

"Though it is not clear how much money USA Next has in hand for the campaign -- Mr. Jarvis will not say, and the group, which claims 1.5 million members, does not have to disclose its donors -- officials say that the group's annual budget was more than $28 million last year."

Says Josh Marshall, who has turned his blog in Social Security central:

"The main question that comes to mind about this is whether we will have to endure another round of media Kabuki theater over whether this is really a White House operation when it is so clearly a piece of Mr. Rove's handiwork. . . .

"Rove will resort to anything to scam Americans out of a program they support. But maybe he's not the only one willing to go to the mattresses in this fight."

The Wall Street Journal parses the politics of taxation:

"Cracks are appearing in Republicans' once-solid opposition to tax increases, as the White House and Congress confront budget pressures from President Bush's proposed Social Security overhaul and deficit-reduction goals.

"Mr. Bush's refusal last week to rule out lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes reflects the shifting tenor of debate within his party. In the Senate, where Republicans aim to gain enough Democratic votes to advance Mr. Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts, Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg of New Hampshire says that 'You are going to have to generate some revenues' to achieve that goal.

"House Republicans' continued opposition to talk of tax increases was evident in their barbs about Mr. Bush's trial balloon last week. But former Speaker Newt Gingrich says the administration's commitment to shoring up Social Security's solvency means that, 'at the end of the fight, there will be a tax increase on the core Republican base.' "

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru provides an honest assessment of the latest Bush move on SS:

"President Bush seemed to put tax increases on the table as part of a Social Security deal. The payroll tax currently applies only to the first $90,000 of wages. If you make more than that, payroll taxes are not taken out of your additional wages. Bush was asked whether he would support raising that 'cap' on payroll taxes. His answer: "The only thing I'm not opened-minded about is raising the payroll tax rate. And all other issues are on the table."

"So he is open to raising the cap. That's a tax increase, and potentially -- depending on how high the cap were lifted -- a massive one.

"It also puts Bush and other Republicans on a collision course with a pledge they have signed. Grover Norquist has gotten most Republican lawmakers (Bush, 222 members of the House, and 46 of the Senate) to pledge neither to raise marginal tax rates on income nor to eliminate any tax breaks without compensatory tax cuts. Norquist's pledge is one of the reasons that no Republican congressman has voted for a broad-based tax increase in 15 years.

"Raising the payroll tax cap would violate that pledge unless it was part of a bill that also tax cuts of the same size."

But Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay, who rarely challenge the president, seemed to shoot down the idea within nanoseconds.

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum is enjoying Bush's Social Security education:

"The LA Times reports that Democrats are resolutely opposed to George Bush's Social Security plans, conservatives are blowing their stacks over the possibility of raising the payroll tax cap, no one wants to talk about benefit cuts, and the public is slowly turning against private accounts. In other words, things aren't looking good for the prez.

"I guess they call it the third rail of American politics for a reason. I continue, though, to think that somewhere there's a Plan B in the background. Bush has gained a reputation for resoluteness based on his unbending dedication to upper crust tax breaks and military action in Iraq, but as Marshall Wittman points out, he's happily flip flopped on practically every other policy initiative he's been associated with. He's probably willing to do it this time too. . . .

"Democrats shouldn't let themselves get panicked into offering alternatives to Bush's plan too soon. After all, there's no particular crisis at hand and no particular reason to help Bush out of a dilemma of his own making. Let him twist for a while."

Here's a high-tech story made to order for the New York Post:

"An Internet rogue apparently hacked into T-Mobile's heavily used Web site to access Paris Hilton's cellphone data, enabling the thief to splash the heiress's racy phone snaps, celebrity numbers and notes-to-self across cyberspace, experts said yesterday."

The tabloid has the gory details.

If you took the weekend off, you might have missed my interview with Gannon/Guckert about the X-rated stuff and his relationship with the White House.

Hey, did you see this item in The Post's Politics column, where Bush whips George Washington among GOPers in a hypothetical match-up?

"Now this is party loyalty: Nearly two out of three Republicans say they would support President Bush even if his political opponent were the father of our country."

How soon they forget! G.W. needs an image consultant, a PAC and some 30-second ads about that crossing-the-Delaware thing. (Though would that produce a rival blitz by Delaware Veterans for Truth?)

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