Photographers and supporters scale a snowbank to get a view of Senator John McCain as he answers questions from reporters after an event in Salem, New Hampshire. January 2008. Photo by Preston Gannaway/Concord Monitor.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama felt he was in safe harbor last April when he traveled to San Francisco to meet with admiring contributors in a Pacific Heights estate off limits to the media. Although the Pennsylvania primary loomed just ahead, the Illinois senator responded casually and bluntly when asked to describe that state's small-town voters. They have been neglected and demoralized by their leaders, Obama began, then added, "So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them …."
And so began "bittergate." Maybe, as Obama later explained, he was guilty only of clumsy wording. Or maybe he thought that if no campaign reporters were there to hear the words, nobody could call a foul. But Obama overlooked a different conduit to the outside world — a conduit in the person of Mayhill Fowler, who had been invited to attend the private fundraiser as a contributor and avowed Obama partisan, which she certainly was.
Fowler also happened to be a neophyte blogger for Off the Bus, a Web site birthed by The Huffington Post's founder Arianna Huffington and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen as an experiment in online citizen journalism. Fowler, despite her avowed partisanship for Obama, had been enlisted by the site to cover (without pay) the senator's campaign.
After four days of wrestling with her dual roles as citizen journalist and Obama partisan, Fowler, in one of her folksy blogs, decided to report the candidate's ill-chosen words, albeit tucked gently amid other campaign musings. Then she watched with a mixture of horror and pride as the words she'd recorded leapt from the Web and ignited a political firestorm that engulfed his campaign, labeled him an "elitist," and may have knocked the sheen of inevitability from his candidacy.
"I'm 61," Fowler told New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye later. "I can't believe I would be one of the people who's changing the world of media."
Indeed she is, for better or worse.
This episode illustrates just one of the myriad ways in which the so-called new media — the catch-all words for Internet communication — are upending the presidential campaign process and raising questions about journalism's place in it. Matt Bai, The New York Times Sunday Magazine's political writer, had it right when he said of the Internet's role in politics: "This changes everything."
Up for grabs, in fact, is the very definition of journalist. In campaigns as recent as a dozen years ago, Fowler — as an unpaid and admittedly partisan participant — couldn't find herself in the same sentence with that word, even with the adjective "citizen" in front of it.
But as "bittergate" shows, in 2008 you don't need a printing press or a broadcast license to dispatch an army of people under orders to report what they see. The foot soldiers in this army, like Fowler, don't need journalistic experience, ethical training, or even expense accounts. To become a blogger requires little more than access to a computer, an Internet connection, and a Web address.
There's something to be said for this. Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, presidential candidate and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, describes the Internet as "the most democratic invention since Gutenberg and the printing press. The Internet is Gutenberg on steroids." True enough; the Web creates a game in which everybody can play.
But this situation carries with it profound implications. Do Americans actually want their political information to be truly democratic in the nonpartisan meaning of the word, in which every participant's voice is to be treated as the equal of all others? Do they want a news item reported by the "old" media treated no differently from something found in a Weblog? Is there no longer something to be said for a filter of verification and neutrality?
Cameras encircle Senator John McCain, who looks for a cab after the car he was to take broke down following a press availability in Sacramento, California. November 2007. Photo by Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee.
Meshing Old With New
Fortunately, this is not an either-or paradigm where the consumer's choice of information is relegated to the "old" media with its limitations or to the "new" media with its many flaws. The blogosphere is increasingly populated by writers and readers who not only represent more mainstream — as opposed to extreme — opinions but who also subscribe to the values of traditional journalism.
Bai, who has specialized in the new media's impact on campaigns, likens the blogosphere to a teenager who is fast maturing as he approaches adulthood. As recently as 2003, Bai has said that online conversations were shaped by "early adapters, and they tended to come from the outer edges of society." Little wonder that the opinions batted about in the blogosphere of that time reflected the youthful exuberance of the bloggers.
But by the end of 2005 a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 60-something Americans went online to get their news in roughly the same percentages as those Americans between 21 and 40 years of age, the generation of their children. "In 2008 you have everybody on the Web," Bai says. "They've changed the nature of the Internet community. It has become more diverse, more representative of more constituencies. And the more mainstream the technology becomes, the more mainstream will be the sensibilities of those who use it."
Another factor is at work driving Internet news toward the centerline: "Old media" is rapidly occupying this new media's space and soaking up much of the audience. The news reports of newspapers, television networks, National Public Radio, local television and local radio stations, and other traditional producers are expanding on the Web, even as their historic operations have cut back. Between 2005 and 2006, the online audience for newspaper sites rocketed upward by 37 percent. And in a hopeful sign for these traditional media, 29 percent of the under-40 year olds visit newspaper sites "regularly."
Most of these old media sites also host blogs written by their staffers, which provide counterweight — and maybe role models — to the more extreme bloggers. In a typical week during the run-up to the 2008 presidential primary season, the number of visitors to The New York Times's political coverage and its blog, The Caucus, far outnumbered the hits on ultraliberal Daily Kos or the conservative RedState.com. Even the pioneering Drudge Report, which has evolved into an aggregator of story links from being a source of sensational scoops, devotes the vast majority of its space to mainstream newspaper and broadcast coverage barely distinguishable from Google News.
Some see this convergence of old and new media as a win for both sides. Rosen, one of the early advocates of Web-based journalism, is among them. "The rise of blogs does not equal the death of professional journalism. The media world is not a zero-sum game," Rosen says. "Increasingly, in fact, the Internet is turning it into a symbiotic ecosystem — in which the different parts feed off one another and the whole thing grows."
That optimistic view of the future is gathering force, in part driven by the economic squeeze being felt by newspapers. Rosen has enlisted a half-dozen small newspapers in an experiment in which beat reporters are linked into online social networks that have grown up around that beat. A local government reporter for a small newspaper would enter an alliance of sorts with bloggers who write about that government. The idea, according to Rosen, is to create a "pro/am" relationship, since the old media can no longer act as gatekeeper of information. It is no longer "sovereign" in Rosen's phrase, yet he adds that "not sovereign" doesn't mean nonexistent or irrelevant.
Still, the change in the way news and information is delivered and received will be profound. The old-media model entailed a vertical flow of news, produced at the top by the mainstream journalists and then passed downward to passive consumers. The new-media model is horizontal, with the consumer in the middle of a flow of information coming from a variety of sources, each bit of information seemingly the equal of every other bit.
At first glance, this would seem to leave the consumer vulnerable to the vagaries of the mob, unable to distinguish credible information from garbage. But in his book "Everything is Miscellaneous," David Weinberger contends that this horizontal world will become self-regulating, and there will be little need for mediators — that is to say, editors — to screen information for credibility. In Weinberger's example, a consumer sits at the hub while information flows toward him in "packets." If two packets come together and are in agreement, Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, says they become the sum of the parts, twice as powerful and thus more credible. If the two packets arrive at the hub but disagree, they collide and cancel each other out. "That's how validation would work," Weinberger says.
Such scholars would have us believe that the way to snuff out misinformation on the Web is to overpower it with correct information. It's a reverse Gresham's Law, where the good eventually will drive out the bad. Of course there remains an obvious problem with this free-market solution: As John Seigenthaler, Sr. learned, a calumny can survive a long time before it "collides" with correcting information and is driven out. Even then, a percentage of people who read the initial bogus information may never catch the correction. Mark Twain famously observed that "a lie can get half-way round the world while the truth is still tying its shoelaces." On the Internet some lies will never be run down by the truth.
But the forces for good appear to be growing on the Web at a pace far faster than the other side. Many self-motivated bloggers, for example, are embracing restraint by joining such groups as the Media Bloggers Association (MBA), which is attempting to bring more professionalism to the new field. In return for getting access to major events — presidential campaigns, press conferences and conventions, for example — the MBA asks members to adhere to a statement of principles that could have been lifted from the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics. The MBA statement says, in part, "We accept the Wikipedia definition of journalism as 'a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people.'" It further encourages bloggers to meet such standards as "honesty, fairness and accuracy, [to] distinguish fact from rumor and speculation [and to] act responsibly and with personal integrity."
What does this mean in the political environment? Candidates have already learned that they can use the Internet to gain the recognition and resources needed to become viable without having to rely on such traditional institutions as parties and mainstream media — the old gatekeepers.
The Internet also opens new windows through which voters can view campaigns. Before YouTube, a candidate's gaffe — or, more rarely, a brilliant speech like Obama's on race in America — would enjoy a brief, ephemeral life on television before the news would move on and the moment would pass into history. But with the creation of YouTube, such moments can be replayed countless times at a viewer's convenience — something former Senator George Allen learned to his regret after being caught on video hurling the "macaca" insult. Such moments are then shared with others through Facebook or MySpace, creating ever widening ripples across the Web without passing through a gatekeeper's filter where they could be tested for truth or fairness.
What seems certain about all of this is that rumors and lies will travel farther and penetrate further into credulous corners of the electorate, despite the protestations of those who champion the self-correcting mechanisms they say are inherent to this new model of communicating news and information. No doubt, too, that as people deputize themselves as newsgatherers without understanding — or perhaps while ignoring — the conventions that journalists embrace, ethical corners will be cut. And the definition of "journalist" might, indeed, be rewritten, at least in the public's mind.
But thicker skin and citizen's code of caveat emptor might be the price we pay for a process that gets much closer to being democratic than the one that came before. Like it or not, the era is over when influence was reserved for the high clergy of the old press — and when Mayhill Fowler's musings wouldn't have traveled beyond her holiday card list.
Tom Fiedler is dean of Boston University's College of Communication. A former reporter, columnist and executive editor of The Miami Herald, he was a Shorenstein Center Fellow at Harvard in the fall of 2007, where he wrote a paper about political reporting entitled, "The Road to Wikipolitics: Life and Death of the Modern Presidential Primary b. 1968 — d. 2008." His coverage of the 1988 presidential election won him the top award from the Society of Professional Journalists.