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Giant media hobbled by Lilliputian blogs

Three journalists presented their darkening views of the future for established American news media in a panel discussion titled "New Roles for Old Media?" sponsored by the Communications Forum and the Technology and Culture Forum.

Panelists at the Oct. 28 event in Bartos Theatre were Alison Mitchell, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism; Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and Mark Jurkowitz, media columnist for the Boston Globe. Steven van Evera, professor of political science, served as moderator.

The trio collectively identified "old media" as the nation's most prestigious newspapers and television news programs, citing The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS-TV's "60 Minutes." These giants of the press are being increasingly distracted and sometimes, hobbled, by the growing power of blogs, the panelists agreed. While none referred explicitly to "Gulliver's Travels," the future they described invoked a massive Gulliver, immobilized by hundreds of tiny Lilliputians, each one representing a hostile e-mail, a credible but unverified document, a photo that might be real.

In today's media world, items emerging from the "blogosphere" can gain force and visibility enough to alter and even reverse what was once the traditional flow of news.

Jones, a former New York Times reporter, described the 2000 campaign as an example of an "antique" in terms of media coverage and news flow. Just four years ago, Jones said, news about the candidates and the campaign flowed from mainstream newspapers to network TV to cable TV to smaller outlets, eventually reaching talk radio and the nascent blogosphere.

By alarming contrast, Jones said, blogs and talk radio now form an expanding network of people who are "very informed, very opinionated, and journalists, especially cable people, now read them."

Jones cited the Swift Boat story, intended to besmirch John Kerry's Vietnam record, which was set in motion by people of "inherent believability, but whose facts didn't necessarily check out," said Jones. "The Swift Boat story became well-known, not on the basis of being true, but on the basis of being widely talked about. It took the Post and the Times 10 days to do the fact-checking. News organizations that still have the will to report can be manipulated by blogs and cable news," he said.

Thus, one new role for established media may be devoting reporters' time and costly resources to fact-checking items that rise up from the blogosphere, warned Jones.

Personality parade

Jones and Mitchell expressed grave doubts about whether American media had fulfilled its purpose in educating the citizen electorate.

According to new research published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, debate coverage across the media spectrum (ranging from the Times to the tiniest blog) had grown more limited and more personality-oriented in scope. Citing the project's figures, Mitchell said that debate coverage was mostly "political insider stuff focused on the elite, on politicians themselves" rather than on policy coverage and explication. "The stories we looked at during a two-week period in October put politics over policy and politicians over citizens" as their primary purpose, she said.

She acknowledged that cable TV news has the attraction of being less slick and packaged than network news. "It's not packaged, but it's also not fact-checked," she said.

The Globe's Jurkowitz discussed the "cafeteria-style news consumerism" resulting from more news media choices. Non-traditional media that now enjoy a new and powerful role in shaping opinions and, perhaps, elections, include blogs as well as "politicized documentaries," Jurkowitz said, citing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room" as examples.

"The days of Walter Cronkite bringing the tablets down from Mount Sinai are long gone. We've got not only red and blue states but also red and blue media. For us as a society, fewer and fewer shared truths mean everything will be up for debate," Jurkowitz said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 3, 2004 (download PDF).

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