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As they come, this judicial first wasn’t exactly front-page news � that is, if you are still in the habit of reading a quaint, old-fashioned newspaper. But in cyberspace the decision of the U.S. District Court to include bloggers as bona-fide members of the press pool during the recent “Scooter” Libby trial was big news. Bloggers were officially welcomed as equals with newspaper and broadcast reporters, albeit in a little room down the hall from the actual trial in Courtroom 16. It took the Media Bloggers Association two years of negotiations with court officials to win the right to join the media frenzy. Kim Pearson, a professor at the College of New Jersey, was among the vanguard who took a turn in the press pool. According to Pearson, Judge Reggie Walton’s decision to allow bloggers to participate in the trial opened “a new chapter in the debate over the legitimacy of bloggers as gatherers and disseminators of news.” True. But it may not be a debate favorable to blogging. The admission of bloggers into a press pool serves as a timely moment to examine the Achilles’ heel of this new-fangled form of journalism. Despite all its claims of whiz-bang newness and democracy-promoting attributes, blogging may turn out to be nothing more than a fresh version of an old journalistic gimmick. More important, it may not necessarily be such a wonderful thing for democracy. HOT OFF THE PRESSES First, while the technology is new, what bloggers are doing often isn’t. Reporting the latest from a courtroom at lightning speed is an old pursuit. Exactly a century ago, Irvin Cobb, a star reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World, was assigned to cover what was called the “Trial of the Century” (until O.J. Simpson walked into a California courtroom 87 years later). Harry K. Thaw was facing murder charges for having shot architect Stanford White at Madison Square Garden in a dispute over the affections of Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl of great beauty. The media attention was unlike any that America had seen before, and the crush of reporters and lawyers left no room for the general public. Telegraph cables poured down into the courthouse through its central skylight, and Western Union opened an office in the main hall. William Randolph Hearst assigned three women to cover the trial for the New York Journal. The court, unused to women, set up a special table for them in the front of the room. Cobb and his city editor, the infamous Charles Chapin, devised a system to beat the competition. Two copy boys were assigned to stand behind Cobb. One kept him supplied with freshly sharpened pencils. The other grabbed each completed sheet of Cobb’s copy and ran it downstairs to a basement corridor, where another reporter, Johnny Gavin, read it over a private telephone line to a stenographer in the Evening World city room. No more than a few minutes passed before Cobb’s words went into type, giving his paper the freshest copy in town for its hourly editions eagerly hawked by newsboys on the streets of Manhattan. Soon readers were hooked on Cobb’s voluminous daily accounts � a pre-cyberspace blog, if you wish � sometimes exceeding 12,000 words. Cobb’s tale is a reminder that the “wow” factor is so strong that it sometimes blinds bloggers and their advocates to the danger inherent in our love of technology’s new capabilities. By focusing on the lightning speed of unfettered Internet communication, bloggers are in danger of fulfilling Marshall McLuhan’s nightmare that the medium would become the message. In the end, content matters. All the high-tech bells and whistles should not distract us from that. BEWARE, HE’S GOT AN OPINION Bloggers are quick to claim that they bring something new to the public debate because they are untrained (read untainted) citizen journalists. That, however, is hardly a novelty in media history. Journalism schools, which are only a century old, have not yet become a required prerequisite to being a reporter. In fact, until a few years ago, not going to a journalism school was considered a badge of some merit in many media circles. Compared to lawyers and accountants, journalists can hardly claim professional training. Additionally, bloggers play up the fact that they mix in their opinions with their reporting. Bloggers challenge “the theory of objective journalism,” Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, told The New York Times. “They’re putting in a lot more opinion and lot more color than the traditional reporters.” A visit to any newspaper archive would prove that this advance is no more than a retreat to the golden age of newspapers, when reporters piled their copy high with inflammatory adjectives, personal conclusions, and conjectures as facts. Take, for instance, the Chicago Tribune‘s front-page reporting on an accused murderer sought by the police: “The blood-stained monster who crushed out their breath of life is free, with nothing to prevent him from committing another heinous crime.” After his capture, on the eve of his trial, the paper headlined its story, “Thou Art the Man!” The drive for objectivity is a modern journalism concept. While many may welcome the reintroduction of personal opinion into reporting, it can hardly be called a new approach. To their credit, the men and women who wield the pencils � oops, laptops � of today are doing something different. But it’s not the technology or the lack of training or even the re-introduction of opinion into the news; it’s the dissemination of their work that makes blogging a new phase in journalism history. To be a blogger, one needs only access to a computer and a few dollars to pay for a Web site, and even the latter isn’t strictly necessary as some sites offer free blogging space. “By empowering individual writers, by reducing the costs of entry into publishing to close to zero, the blog revolution has only begun to transform the media world,” Andrew Sullivan heralded in an oft-quoted 2002 article in the Sunday Times of London, considered almost a manifesto of the blogosphere. In the old days, media critic A.J. Liebling quipped that “freedom of the press belongs to a man who owns one.” Today owning a press takes no more than a visit to a cybercaf� or the local public library. And that’s an empowering change. But it’s not an unadulterated good. By tossing out the old restrictions on disseminating news, we are also giving up some important protections. A SECOND PAIR OF EYES Everyone needs an editor. Good writing is a collaborative process in which the give-and-take strengthens the final product. This article, for instance, had its genesis in a lengthy e-mail. Then it morphed into a draft of an article that was reviewed by an editor, who found problems, weak points, and maybe potential mistakes. The final version, which you are now reading, was edited further [note to editor: should that be farther?]. If journalism is the first draft of history, unedited blogs are more like the first draft of journalism. This may make the copy fresh and exciting, and if it includes a few typos, so what? The socialite who is called a socialist will recover from the insult. But what happens when the error is more serious, such as the case of the blogger who erroneously reported that an employee died because the corporation blocked 911 calls on its phone system? How is the public or the truth served then? “Blog posting errors are rarely discussed in blogging circles. They are a bit of a dirty little secret, you might say,” Wayne Hurlbert, a Canadian blogger with a penchant for honesty, admits. His suggestion? “The best idea, of course, is to always proofread your posts before clicking the Publish button.” This still presumes that writers are their own best editors. Not only is this false, but it discounts the important public function of editors. One of the purposes of a professional news media is to act as a gatekeeper for actual facts and honest debate. Blogging, which revolves almost entirely around individuals rather than institutions, leaves readers with a bewildering array of unattributed sources of information. Granted, the gatekeepers do stumble, such as when the press chose to hide President Franklin Roosevelt’s failing health from the public. But the mainstream media has built a track record of reliability, and the public recognizes that. It is with good reason most of us are more likely to trust a report in The Washington Post than the latest scoop in the National Enquirer. Moreover, blogging may be more democratic, but it’s also likely to be less read. There is a point when there are simply too many blogs. With 30 million blogs today, we may well have reached that point. “That’s a lot of reading,” said David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society, who announced on National Public Radio that he would no longer be reading many of his friends’ blogs. Who has the time? “A salad bar that is five miles long is as useless to me as one that is 3,000 miles long because I am getting all the salad I can eat in the first 15 feet,” Weinberger said. Blogging furthers the ongoing fragmentation of the media. Families used to gather at evening time around the television to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the news. Today, cable and satellite offer dozens of alternatives. When Knopf brought out an unknown author such as Thomas Wolfe, readers across the nation rushed to the bookstore. Today, with a proliferation of publishers bringing out more than 175,000 titles a year, who would know if there were another Wolfe in the mix? Gone too are the general-interest magazines like Look and Life. When we gather at the office water cooler to talk, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that any two of us will have seen the same TV program, read the same book, or shared the same news account of an event. With the profusion of cell-phone photojournalism, we may not even have seen the same pictures. If blogging is the way of the future, then instead of a public who collectively shares major events, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller, isolated groups gaining vastly different takes on the day’s news. In the end, we may all be reading our own words. As beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, blogging’s fate rests in the eyes of readers. If it’s a mirror into which we stare all day, we’ll be in trouble.
James McGrath Morris is a Washington, D.C., author who writes about American journalism history. His last book, The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism , was selected as one of the best books of nonfiction in 2004 by The Washington Post . He is now completing a biography of Joseph Pulitzer to be published by HarperCollins.

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