AJ. Liebling was an iconoclastic press critic for the New Yorker magazine decades ago. He once wrote that freedom of the press is limited to those that own one. His point, which was unassailable in the 1960s, is that the press is owned, buttressed and regulated by powerful media organizations that endow journalism chairs, provide credentials, train reporters to a certain mindset and, incidentally, make a train-load of money. Since then, broadcast and cable media organizations have arisen to serve the same purposes.
Technology has enabled traditional media organizations to reduce costs and increase profits, but this same technology has opened the door to others. The gatekeepers of the media have been outflanked. Technology has allowed the development of alternative newspapers in almost every city of any size. The Internet has created competition, which Liebling never dreamed could happen. Anyone with a computer and Internet access has an electronic version of the printing press.
The growth of weblogs and their growing audience has created a wild card in the arena of ideas, especially political ideas. The gatekeepers are still there, but the back door is open. The Tennessee elections of 2006 will be the first statewide elections in which critical mass has been achieved, so that established blogs, e-mail newsletters and websites will dominate political news. It has already begun, 16 months in advance of the Republican senatorial primary. It is apparent that cyberspace will be preoccupied with racing to post the latest in campaign news, poll results or signs of apostasy to conservative doctrine. There will also be Democrat-leaning blogs that will enjoy it all and gleefully call out their Republican counterparts.
If you are a political junkie, it's manna from heaven. News organizations give scant coverage of political races until the final weeks. The question of this campaign season is whether mainstream news organizations will cede blow-by-blow coverage to the blogs, the e-mail newsletters and the campaign websites. There is an argument to be made that, given the low interest of the greater population in political minutia, having these cyberspace alternatives is a perfect example of a niche market. But will news organizations be willing to allow any niche to get away these days? They are also conceding the pre-primary, when political activists, contributors and interest groups are making up their minds about candidates. It is among these people that blogs will have the most influence because they are there and because it's the only political news available.
But that's hardly the most pressing issue news organizations will face. In olden days (the 1990s), the gatekeepers could decide on which news was fit to print or broadcast. During hard-fought political campaigns, a lot of stuff gets thrown up in the air. Some of it wrong, some of it distorted, some of it true but unproveable. Some of it is just good gossip. Editors and news directors traditionally had the job of sorting through it and deciding what they were comfortable reporting. What happens in the brave new world of cyberspace?
Perhaps news organizations will report things they normally wouldn't report using the convenient fig leaf: We don't know if it's true, but a certain blog says this or some website has posted that. It's hardly an ethically defensible position, but do they sit there and say nothing when everyone with a computer is discussing what they read over at caswalker.com?
So do news organizations wait for a candidate to attack allegations on a blog, then use the candidate's protestations as an excuse to "report" baseless allegations? Will candidates be smart enough not to comment on blog allegations because they know how that will give news organizations the opportunity to get into the dirt? But can they ignore allegations when every place they go a reporter asks them if the allegations are true? These are some of the issues that news organizations will have to deal with in this and all future elections.
I do not mean to suggest that information on blogs is suspect. Very often it is produced by someone with more expertise than a general-assignment reporter. The check on traditional news organizations is that a concern for the institutional credibility that has accrued over decades makes them careful. Even in the age of Mary Mapes and Jason Blair, we still cede the media a lot of credibility. But blogs are like newspaper editorial pages. Over time you come to judge them as thoughtful, informative and reliable. Or you come to see them as hopeless, clueless foolishness. Regular reading helps you decide whether the source is sound, whether the source is a blog or a newspaper.
But the days when a few political reporters or editors could decide the news are over.