Monday, November 22, 2004

Sinclair is the latest to feel the power of blogs

Last Friday, television stations that were members of the Sinclair Media Group were scheduled to air an anti-John Kerry special called Stolen Honor. They were ordered to by executives of the company — the same execs who forbid the 62 TV stations the company controls from airing Ted Koppel's reading of the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq this spring.

The fact that Sinclair was doing this two weeks before the election was viewed, obviously, as a move based on politics, not news. It didn't help that the producer of Stolen Honor was Carlton Sherwood, who has ties to the Bush administration. Nor that Sinclair's Washington bureau chief, Jon Leiberman, was fired for criticizing the company's plans; he told the Baltimore Sun it was "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election."

Those stations were scheduled to air "Stolen Honor." That is, till the Internet kicked in. Thanks to the advance warning, bloggers spread the word (and e-mail spread it further). A well-orchestrated boycott and writing campaign began, aimed not at the stations, but at the advertisers. Spurred on by sites that appeared literally overnight such as Boycott Sinclair Broadcast Group and Badvertisers, people in Sinclair's 39 markets, armed with phone numbers and e-mail addresses, started contacting the local businesses that are the lifeblood of the company.

Sinclair's stock took a nosedive. Stockholders threatened a lawsuit, saying that the company's execs were making bad business decisions for political reasons. Allegations of insider trading surfaced.

And Sinclair blinked.

What aired instead was A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media, which was described by Sinclair as a news show that "focus[ed] in part on the use of documentaries and other media to influence voting, which emerged during the 2004 political campaigns."

People who saw it said it was pretty darned pro-Kerry. Right-wing blogs and Web sites were upset. But the folks who called for and organized the boycott were thrilled; Boycott Sinclair Broadcast Group called it "a poorly produced, last-minute effort aimed at placating shareholders and placing Sinclair in the best light."

(Naturally, Sinclair didn't want to admit that it had, as one site put it, "caved." A company press release said, "Contrary to numerous inaccurate political and press accounts, the Sinclair stations will not be airing the documentary Stolen Honor in its entirety. At no time did Sinclair ever publicly announce that it intended to do so." Bloggers were quick to point out that wasn't true — various TV guides had already published listings for that week that included Stolen Honor.)
With Part One complete, the anti-Sinclair sites are focusing on fighting the company's FCC license renewals. That, it seems, what Sinclair gets for poking the wasps' nest. It takes a while for them to settle down.

Blogger power

Bloggers and their fans are quick to pat themselves on the back for what happened to Sinclair. And they should. Weblogs — left, right, center, and nonpolitical — are having an incredible effect on business, politics, and life.

Blogs have this power for some simple reasons. (It has little to do with the quality of the writing or the research. The Net is pretty much self-correcting when it comes to the latter; bad sites lose viewers.) First, they're connected into what people call the "blogosphere." Second, they're doing what journalists used to do, and should still be doing: holding people accountable.

Bloggers write short pieces and long pieces. Sometimes an entry is just a link and a quip. Other times it's a lengthy and well-researched essay (with lots of links). But bloggers read one another and link to one another, creating that blogosphere — a giant spider web of connected sites. If a news item tickles any part of the web it's not long before it's felt far away.

The blogs are where you find the answer to "What are people on the Net saying?"

More importantly is that blogs have succeeded because we the people need them. We didn't know it, but we sense it. Bloggers are filling in where journalists miss.

Traditional news is based on what editors and producers think is important, and most of the time they get it right. But the blogs, as a whole, draw attention to what the people think is important. If a blogger reads a story about fender-bender, chances are he won't write about it. But if he reads one about a politician's disingenuous comments — maybe in a local paper, on page 6, towards the bottom — he might just say something. And if other blogs find it interesting, they'll also do that. Word spreads.

Thus a story that the bloggers — that is, the people — find interesting gets a lot of play, regardless of what editors and producers think. And that's what happened in what many bloggers consider the coming of age of the blogging world: Trent Lott's resignation.

It was at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that Lott said "When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." made brief mention of it, and the fact that Thurmond had run as a segregationist. But the bloggers — specifically Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit and Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo took notice. They posted his remarks as well as details of his historical support of segregation. Others took notice. It spread.

A few days later the mainstream media noticed the brouhaha and picked it up.

A lot of people fault the media for this — "You only picked it up after the bloggers did." That's not a fault. That's good reporting. That's recognizing that people cared about this stuff. Bad journalism would have been to ignore the blogs and ignore the story.

Lott, who was to become majority leader in the Senate in 2003, instead resigned from the position on Dec. 20, 2002.

Bloggers and traditional journalists feed off each other — it can be a terrific synergy. Newspapers and TV or radio reporters often provide the blogosphere with the initial information. Bloggers then either simply link to stories of interest, or comment on them at length, or use them as the basis for their own reporting — digging up records, memos, other stories, etc. Then it's back to the traditional media. Thanks to the blogs, a smart editor or producer can see what people are interested in.

Some people are quick to say that bloggers are journalists. Others are just as quick to say they aren't. The fact is, some are and some aren't. Some are simply linkers, others are so biased or uninformed that they're useless. Others are more like columnists. And others are excellent investigative reporters (or have readers who are).

Sounds a lot like newspapers in the early days, don't it?

Not that anyone should get all their news from blogs. But they'd be just as foolish, these days, to simply rely on traditional media.

Blogs are filling a role that used to be filled by that mass media: Digging deeper into the news and offering fact-checking, perspective, and doing more than simply reporting "he said, she said."

In what's become a famous appearance on Crossfire, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart took Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to task for "hurting America." His point (and Mr. Stewart, correct me if I'm wrong here) is that the last thing journalists should subscribe to is the "we report, you decide" philosophy.

Simply reporting that so-and-so said X, but such-and-such said Y — well, that's not journalism. That's not much better than offering a transcript of what the various spinners said. It doesn't tell us what's real, just what's said.

As he and The Daily Show team put it in American: The Book: "[The press] have violated a trust. 'Was the president successful in convincing the country?' Who gives a s**t? Why not tell us if what he said was true?

The journalism today that simply repeats what one side or the other says doesn't help. It hurts. Journalists need to do more than say "Smith said this. Jones said that." They need to say, "Smith said this, but a review of the documents indicates that it isn't the case."

Maybe today's mainstream news is afraid of taking a stand. But bloggers aren't.

Are the bloggers always right? Nope. Can they all be trusted? Nope. But the Internet has always been self-correcting. The popular political blogs — sites such as Talking Points Memo, Instapundit, Daily Kos and Wonkette for example — have gotten that way because people recognize the difference between a rumor-filled hack job and a well-reasoned investigation.

Sure, Matt Drudge and the National Enquirer occasionally get a 'hit' — Monica Lewinsky comes to mind. But by and large are these the places reasonable people get news? Nope; they're entertainment — a step or two above UFO abductions.

Many blogs are partisan and openly so. That's an anathema to most mainstream journalists. For blogs, though, it's sometimes part of their identity. Talking Points Memo does a terrific job of exposing the lies and misdirections of the Bush administration. He's blatantly pro-Kerry, and has made it his task to dig deeper and to question sources if he senses something from the White House isn't kosher. And there are pro-Bush blogs that do the same for the Kerry camp.

Together, they fulfill the all-but-abandoned role of the press: Report, question, and present the truth, not just the facts.

Source: USA Today


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