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A Landmark for Bloggers -- and the Future of Journalism

By winning a Polk award for its reporting, Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo signals the rise of online muckracking.
 
 
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The George Polk Awards are kind of like the Golden Globes of American journalism . Not as well known as those Oscars of the news business, the Pulitzer Prize, the Polk Awards are nevertheless probably a close second in terms of prestige, and this year I am especially blown away by the quality of the work they honor.

The winners include Leila Fadel, the Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, a 26-year-old woman who reports from some of the most dangerous regions of Iraq, as well as journalists who peeked under Vice President Cheney's veil of secrecy, toxic river pollution in China, unsafe cribs, infant mortality in Mississippi, the Blackwater scandal, human rights abuses in Burma, healthcare scams, and the courageous work of Oakland's Chauncey Bailey, who was slain as he investigated drug dealers in his hometown.

All these remarkable stories were produced in a year when the very ecomomic model for the news business was under assault, and as business pressures to scale back the kind of original reporting highlighted here continue to rise. These Polk Awards should be a powerful reminder of what society will lose if and when the business model of investigative journalism collapses completely.

But I want to highlight one Polk Award that shows there are emerging models for using the very tool at the root of the turmoil of the news business -- the Internet -- as a newfangled way to re-invent investigative reporting -- by using new techniques that emphasize collaboration over competition and by working with readers and through collective weight of many news sources to expose government misconduct.

It would have seemed incredible a couple of years ago, but a George Polk Award was given to a blogger this year.

Not just any blogger, of course. Josh Marshall (top, with his son Sam) of Talking Points Memo may have started back in 2000 as a kind of blogging stereotype, posting late at night from his small D.C. apartment and from the corner Starbucks and -- in just two years -- shining a light on the remarks that cost Sen. Trent Lott his GOP Senate leadership post, but he's turned his operation into much, much more.

Since 2002 Marshall has moved to New York and -- thanks to increasing ad revenue -- made Talking Points Memo into a new kind of journalistic enterprise for the 21st Century, hiring a staff of a half dozen talented young journalists and rewriting the rules with a mix of commentary and original muckraking while highlighting the work of other to focus like a laser on the big political questions.

Here's how and why Marshall and Talking Points Memo won a Polk Award:

"His site, www.talkingpointsmemo.com, led the news media coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country. Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall (with staff reporter-bloggers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood) connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush Administration's bidding."

Hopefully, this acknowledgment of what one savvy blogger and his team have accomplished is a milestone that will speed the day when mainstream journalists realize that the best kind of blogger like Marshall is truly one of our own kind, using new tools and a new way of thinking to break a news story that otherwise might have not been discovered.

How did Josh and his cohorts do it? Here's something I wrote last year during my media-reform period (kind of like Picasso's "Blue period," except much less impressive) that tells some of the story of how Talking Points Memo exposed the scandal -- the journalism they were honored for this morning. It's very long and is a little targeted toward the news geeks among us, so it comes after the jump:


One major accomplishment kicked off on Jan. 12, 2007, when a TPM blogger, Justin Rood, wrote of a surprising story in that day's San Diego newspaper: The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, Carol Lam, had been asked to step down. Rood knew, from TPM's heavy coverage previously of the scandalous bribery case of Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, that Lam had prosecuted that case. Wrote Rood: "According to this morning's San Diego Union-Tribune, the White House's reason for giving her the axe is that she 'failed to make smuggling and gun cases a top priority.' But most folks the paper talked to -- supporters and detractors -- said that sounded like a load of hooey."

In the pre-Internet era, such a story might well have died in the recycling bins of San Diego. But because of TPM's background knowledge in the Cunningham case and its skeptical stance, it was more aggressive in questioning whether there was a connection between Lam's ouster and her probe of powerful Republicans - and their friends in the defense contracting industry. So TPM did something that the San Diego paper wouldn't be much inclined to do -- Rood, Marshall and their readers scanned the Internet to see if any other U.S. attorneys had been fired lately, and conducted research to find out if mid-term firings of U.S. attorneys were common. (They weren't).

Within days, Rood had identified seven U.S. attorneys who were suddenly out of a job, "many under unusual circumstances." Like the Lam case, each ouster had been the subject of an isolated story in a local newspaper; Rood was the first one to connect the dots. That same day, Jan. 16, Sen. Diane Feinstein gave a speech on the Senate floor raising the same questions that first appeared on the blog. Paul Kiel, another TPM blogger, seized on a comment made by Feinstein and produced a bona fide scoop: Republicans had snuck a provision into the supposedly anti-terror USA Patriot Act to bypass the Senate on new U.S. attorney appointments. It seemed suspicious - prosecutors being fired for cracking down on Republican corruption, and provisions being slipped into a bill to bypass a Democrat-controlled Senate confirmation process. Soon the story snowballed, leading to congressional hearings, the resignation of a top official in the Justice Department, and calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to follow suit.

Of course, as we all know, Gonzales is now gone, and the scandal remains the focus of investigation. What does the Talking Points model tell us for the future of journalism? Here's a couple of key points:

No pride of ownership. When the Washington Post reported, in February 2007, on the shameful care that returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan were getting at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the investigative series forced the White House and the Defense Department to respond to the national scandal. But its scooped rival, The New York Times, didn't report a word about the story for a whole week. Meanwhile, most Americans were getting all the news that was fit to print about the scandal -- on blogs.

Such is the "competitive" nature of the mainstream media -- it is limited by the unwillingness to credit or even acknowledge important news reported in other newspapers. The truth is that newspaper reporters sometimes waste some of our increasingly valuable time, in our new downsized world, making a phone call simply to re-confirm what's already been confirmed and printed somewhere else. Conversely, information that a reader would find interesting or informative is kept out of the paper -- just so a rival newspaper or TV station doesn't have to be credited.

Newspapers, victims to decades of tradition, operate under the delusion that readers out there are making choices about which paper to buy based upon silly stuff -- "Wow, I'm going to start buying the Sun Times because they tracked down the accident victim's sister who said she was really sad about her brother's death, and the Tribune couldn't find her." Newspapers are too often self-absorbed - losing sight of their larger role of reporting news so we have an informed citizenry.

Blogs have no such hang-ups. In fact, the U.S. attorney's scandal story was the result of a blog's willingness to use and give full credit to a number of newspapers -- all of which had picked up one piece of a coast-to-coast puzzle. TalkingPointsMemo took the excellent, yet narrowly focused, work of daily papers like the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Albuquerque Journal, and -- augmented with its own digging -- fashioned it into a compelling story for its readers. TPM did that because it is driven by a desire to nail down the story by any means necessary, not by institutional loyalty.

220 heads are better than one. Jay Rosen, a press critic and a journalism professor at New York University (NYU), famously called the passionate blog readers "the people formerly known as the audience." That's because they are not just passive readers - they react, they mobilize, they comment and write "diaries," and they make their voices heard. Sometimes they help do the research and reporting. For weeks, coverage of the U.S. attorney firings on TPM was propelled by tips from readers, some of them emailed to the bloggers and some posted as comments on TPM sites.

That came to a head in the darkness of a wintery Monday night, March 19, when the Justice Department sent over 3,000 pages to Congress - of emails, internal memos and other documents related to the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys. It was the kind of information that, in the pre-Internet days, a handful of newspaper reporters might have either skimmed for a quick headline or examined in-depth for a week, leading up to a long Sunday article.

Instead, the Marshall-founded TPMMuckraker blog went to work, asking readers for help in scrutinizing the PDF files of the documents that were being scanned onto the Internet in 50-page batches all through the night. Here's what TPM blogger Paul Kiel posted at 12:51 AM that night:

Josh and I were just discussing how in the world we are ever going to make our way through 3,000 pages when it hit us: we don't have to. Our readers can help.

So here's what we're going to do. This comment thread will be our HQ for sorting through tonight's document dump. So pick a pdf, any pdf, and give it a look. If you find something interesting (or damning), then tell us about it in the comment thread below.

Please begin your comment with the pdf number and please provide the page number of the pdf.

As later recounted by Josh Gerstein in the New York Sun, by 4:30 AM, some 220 people had made observations. Most of the citizen postings went to the core of investigative journalism. These interested readers pulled out some good new detail about one of the other attorney firings, involving ex-prosecutor Margaret Chiara of Grand Rapids, Mich., and found other emails that pointed to much greater involvement by President Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove, than had previously been known.

Say what you will about the utility of experienced and highly trained professional journalists, but it would have taken one -- and that's all that most newspapers would free up for such a story, if that many -- several days to achieve the same result.

Passion and drive. The Internet hasn't improved everything but it sure has done wonders for the cause of investigative reporting. Good muckraking, after all, is driven by the thing that is missing from so much of today's "fair and balanced" objective newspapers, and that is passion -- the passion of people who can reach more readers more quickly and more cheaply on the Web, the passion that is fueled by interaction with readers, and the passion of journalists or bloggers who want to work harder and faster because there are readers gobbling up their reporting as fast as they can dish it out.

That means that both the bloggers and their audience can revisit the issue throughout the day. I have worked the investigative beat at a big-city daily, and I know that a breaking scandal story can have a lot of incremental developments, when small nuggets of information slip out in a new document or in public testimony. These don't lend themselves easily to newspaper articles -- sometimes they only merit a few paragraphs. But nuggets are ideal for a blog, which is the perfect format for a steady flow of information 24/7, so to speak.

In following and then becoming a part of the blogosphere over the last four years, I've seen this passion expressed in a lot of different ways -- for blatantly partisan motives such as electing more Democrats or Republicans, or for ideas, or simply for an un-objective kind of truth. But at newspapers, the only kind of passion usually found is driven by winning journalism awards - or maybe wanting one's story placed on the front page and not Page 23. Unlike blogging, journalism is by and large a solo enterprise.

The beautiful thing about investigative reporting on blogs is narrowcasting, because a site like TalkingPointsMemo isn't expected to be all-inclusive like the Washington Post or Time magazine. In the spring of 2007, Josh Marshall and Justin Rood and Paul Kiel and David Kurtz weren't under any kind of moral obligation to cover all the news that's fit to print about the French elections, the Virginia Tech massacre or even the mounting death toll in Iraq. Such issues were mentioned in short posts on occasion, but the bloggers knew that their readers -- and, frankly, the public record and ensuing debates -- were better served by running with the U.S. attorney's scandal 24 hours a day. And why not? In a world of search engines and infinite cyberspace, any interested Web surfer can find the latest news from Paris or Blacksburg or Ramadi within a matter of seconds.

And now, some of the leading traditional journalists in America have acknowledged this. That's why it's a landmark day -- not just for bloggers, but for the news business.

Will Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the blog Attytood.

 
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