A Blog Is a Little First Amendment Machine


When in the eighteenth century the press first appeared on the political stage the people on the other end of it were known as the public. Public opinion and the political press arose together. But in the age of the mass media the public got transformed into an audience.

This happened because the mass media were one way, one-to-many, and "read only." When journalism emerged as a profession it reflected these properties of its underlying platform. But now we have the Web, which is two-way (rather than one) many-to-many (rather than one-to-many) and "read-write" rather than "read only."

As it moves toward the Web, journalism will have to adjust to these conditions, but a professionalized press is having trouble with the shift because it still thinks of the people on the other end as an audience--an image very deeply ingrained in professional practice.

I'm going to tell you some stories that I think illustrate the disruptive effects that blogging has had, and the democratic potential it represents. But let me say at the outset that, though a blogger myself, I am not a triumphalist about blogging. I do not think that the age of fully democratic media is suddenly upon us because we have this new form. There is a long way to go if we are to make good on its potential.

Now to my five stories, which are I offer more as parables, even though they are, of course, true to the facts.

Chris Allbritton: independent war correspondent.

In March of 2003, Chris Allbritton, a former AP and New York Daily News reporter, became what Wired magazine called "the Web's first independent war correspondent." He did it by asking readers of his blog to send him to Iraq at their expense. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: that he would send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking, and patriotic hype.

He needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and found the war), a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, and enough cash to move around, keep fed, and buy his way out of trouble. While some reporters were embedded with the American military, Allbritton sent himself on assignment. No one gave him permission to be in country.

The Internet did the rest. On March 27, his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site, www.back-to-iraq.com. So here you have a journalist collecting his own mini-public, a few thousand people on the Web. They then send him to report on events of interest to the entire world, via a medium that reaches the entire world.

This is journalism without the media. I leave you to contemplate the implications of that. But it was one of the events that caused me to start my own blog.

Trent Lott Speaks; bloggers listen.

On Dec. 5, 2002, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, leader of the Republican party in the Senate and probably the third most powerful person in Washington at the time, spoke at former Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Capital Hill.

"I want to say this about my state," he said. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either." He was referring to Thurmond's 1948 third-party campaign for president, which was an explicitly racist campaign. So what was Trent Lott saying in 2002? That a segregationist president would have been good for America in 1948?

There were some reporters present, but they didn't see much significance in it. Except for one young producer from ABC News, Ed O'Keefe, who managed to get a brief story read on the air at 4:30 am, which in turn led to a small item the next day at ABCNews.com. This in turn gave it to the bloggers, who began discussing what Lott had said, and digging into Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign so as to reveal what his comments really meant.

It turned out that bloggers from the left as well as the right were puzzled and disgusted by Lott's comments, and they continued to discuss them. For three days the story was the talk of the blogosphere while the news cycle moved on to other things. But political reporters were reading the blogs, and by the fourth day they realized.... This was news! The story of what Lott had said re-broke in the major press--five days after it happened--and he began apologizing for it while major political figures reacted. Ten days later he resigned as majority leader; his power was gone.

Here's the part of the story I want you to focus on: the chances of a television producer from CBS or a style reporter from the Washington Post not knowing enough history to see any import in Trent Lott's comments were pretty high. But the chances of the interconnected blogosphere not knowing this background were zero. To this day professional journalists do not understand this fact, even though it was one of the things that helped sink Dan Rather when his badly flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service was attacked (and sunk) by bloggers and their readers.

FireDogLake Shines at the Libby Trial.

In Boston in 2004, I was part of the first class of bloggers admitted to cover a national political convention. That was where bloggers had their coming out party before the national press. Beyond celebrating that arrival, no one suggested the bloggers had a better product, not even the bloggers.

In January of 2007 there another first, similar in form: first class of bloggers accredited to cover a big Federal trial. This was the trial of Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney's top aide. A handful of bloggers got passes and joined the courthouse press. One blog, called Firedoglake, put more boots on the ground than the big commercial news operations--six people working in shifts. These writers brought more background, more savvy and more commitment to the case than any of the journalists covering the trial.

Firedoglake got handed a golden opportunity by the reluctance of big news organizations to spend money on the information commons. At the Libby trial, there was no broadcast, no taping allowed. No posted transcript for anyone to consult. Thus the most basic kind of news there is--what was said in court today--was missing.

Converging on Washington, the team from Firedoglake felt they represented people back home who wanted to know everything. And so they decided to live blog the trial. Typing at fast as they could, they produced the only blow-by-blow account of the trial available to the public. They also provided expert interpretation because they knew more about the case than most of those being paid to cover it. In fact journalists covering the trial began to rely on Firedoglake's accounts because it had the most complete coverage.

The expenses were paid by contributions from the blog's readers, giving new meaning to the term "team coverage." I wrote about Firedoglake's achievement because it contradicted everything professional journalists believe about bloggers.

Bloggers do views, not news. They're like a giant op-ed page, but without decorum. Bloggers are parasitic on reporting that originates elsewhere. Bloggers have an ax to grind, so their reports aren't reliable. These ideas are "fixed" points for a lot of journalists. And the example of Firedoglake at the Libby trial disconfirms them all. It was the most basic kind of journalism imaginable. We're there, you're not, let us tell you about it.

TPM Muckraker Gets a Document Dump.

On March 20th of this year, the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of documents to the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating why a group of seven federal prosecutors were fired last year, a scandal that continues to make headlines today. Over at TPM Muckraker.com, a investigative site started by the political blogger Josh Marshall, the guys who work for Marshall were wondering how they were going to sort through those 3,000 pages to see if any clues turned up. And then they realized: "We don't have to. Our readers can help."

The Judiciary Committee had put the document dump online in the form of PDF files. And so Marshall's guys asked readers to pick a PDF and read through the documents. "If you find something interesting (or damning), then tell us about it in the comment thread below," they wrote. Readers finished in a day or two and made some intriguing finds.

The significance is obvious: potentially hundreds or thousands of hands available to work on a single story.

John Markoff Mocks Blogging.

In October of 2003 John Markoff, the lead technology reporter for the New York Times based here in San Francisco, who by that time had been reporting about the Internet for more than ten years, was interviewed by Online Journalism Review. One of the topics he was asked about was the very subject we are discussing here--the democratic potential of blogging. Markoff was openly dismissive. I want to read to you what he said. And remember, this is the man the Times counts on to understand these things.

"It sometimes seems we have a world full of bloggers and that blogging is the future of journalism, or at least that's what the bloggers argue, and to my mind, it's not clear yet whether blogging is anything more than CB radio.

"...Give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it. It's possible that in the end there may be some small subset of people who find a livelihood out of it and that the rest of the people will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time.

When I tell that to people they get very angry with me. ... I also like to tell them, when they (ask) when I'm going to start a blog, 'Oh, I already have a blog, it's www.nytimes.com, don't you read it?"

There's nothing wrong with waiting five years to see if the form develops. In the meantime, Markoff said, I'm (literally) not going to think about it.

By 2003 the press had started to shift social location. Much of it is still based in The Media and will be for some time, but some is in nonprofit hands, and some of the franchise is now in public hands because of the Web, the weblog and other forms of citizen media. Naturally our ideas about it are going to change. The franchise is being enlarged.

The most famous words ever written about freedom of the press are in the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law..." But the second most famous words come from the critic A.J. Liebling: "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." Well, freedom of the press still belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anyone can own one. That is the Number One reason why blogs--and this discussion--matter.

With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a free press franchise, the right to publish your thoughts to the world.
Wherever blogging spreads the dramas of free expression follow. A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.

This is the speech I gave at the International Communication Association annual conference in San Francisco, May 27, 2007. The conference panel was entitled, "News, Journalism And The Democratic Potential of Blogging." It is lightly revised from the remarks as delivered.

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