CJR Daily

A Paper Without a City

BATON ROUGE -- Walk through the front doors of the journalism building at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, make a sharp left, and you'll find a cramped, noisome roomful of New Orleans Times Picayune staffers, made homeless by hurricane Katrina, working the story of a lifetime.

It was to LSU that about 60 of the paper's staff fled after evacuating the city two Tuesdays ago and the university, to its credit, has provided them with laptops, phones and office space ever since. The ad hoc newsroom -- perhaps 15 feet wide by 30 feet long -- isn't much to look at, and with the paper's staff sitting around the outer walls and crowded together at a table in the middle, there is even less room to move. A stash of mouthwash, razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste sit on a cooler as you walk in. Around the tightly-packed rectangle of a room, you'll find at any one time about 20 staffers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, in front of their laptops, talking on their cellular phones. Whether they're talking to family members who have fled the state, working story angles, trying to rent hotel rooms or arrange with whom they're staying that night, they're all -- without exception -- still writing about a city that some of them haven't set foot in for almost two weeks.

And day in and day out, in this cramped and often stuffy environment, arguably some of the most urgent, and personal, journalism in the country is being written.

Weigh the complexities: How does a hometown newspaper write about a city that in effect, no longer exists? How long can a newspaper staff, effectively homeless and running on fumes, continue to hold up? Where does a newspaper turn for advertising revenue when the city it caters to all of a sudden has neither businesses nor subscribers? Can a 168-year old paper, whose initial cover price was a 6 1/4 cent Spanish coin, long survive after being reduced to what amounts to the country's most tragic metro section?

Answers will be a while coming. Managing editor for news operations Peter Kovacs says that at the moment his only concern is getting the paper out each day, in the face of every obstacle. Contrary to some reports last week that the paper's owner, Advance Publications, an arm of the Newhouse empire, was going to shut down the paper and just walk away from an untenable investment, the company says it is going to see the Times Picayune through this upheaveal and out the other side. Indeed, Kovacs says, everyone who was on the payroll before Katrina continues on it, at full pay.

Despite all this, to see the newsroom at LSU is to see the basic elements of journalism -- go, see, come back, tell -- being practiced at a high level of professionalism and dedication. While the staff looks weary and ragged, they're doing what reporters do -- digging out the facts, one by one by one, and painting a vivid daily picture of the ever-shifting scene. Sitting in the foyer of the journalism building, I watched them walk out of the hot, stuffy little newsroom to gobble a bag of chips, drink some water or conduct a cell phone interview a few feet away from a group of freshly-scrubbed returning students. Many of the staffers are staying with LSU professors or other local residents, and make it into the office when they can. When I left about 9 p.m. last Wednesday night, staffers who had been there all day were still making phone calls, taking dictation from reporters in New Orleans, flipping furiously through their scribbled notes and tapping away at their laptops. They may have a place to sleep, but they appeared in no hurry to get there.

Over lunch on Wednesday at a restaurant in the eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge (a city of 277,000 whose population has swelled by 250,000 since the hurricane), Kovacs recounted how he and his staff escaped their office on Howard Avenue in New Orleans Tuesday morning, after a harrowing night during which the water slowly crept up the front steps of the building. After deciding early in the morning that the water was going to keep coming and that to stay was to put everyone in danger, management wrangled up newspaper delivery trucks to ferry reporters and editors from the loading docks to safety.

Leaving didn't come without its own worries, according to Kovacs. He remembers thinking at the time that the decision to leave the city would "go down in history as either an act of genius or one of complete cowardice."

We can answer that question. Since the entire staff made it out alive, since they are daily turning out top-notch journalism that is the envy of editors and reporters for far larger news outlets, and since readership numbers for the paper's now-famous site, NOLA.com, have soared -- Editor & Publisher reported on Friday that the Web site has received over 200 million page views over the past week and a half, or about 15 million a day, up from the 800,000 per day pre-Katrina -- it seems safe to say that the decision to move to higher ground but keep publishing was indeed "an act of genius."

Consider an excerpt from just one story from the Times Picayune front page of last Thursday. And admire the density and intimacy of detail, not to mention the felicity of the telling:

Makeshift militia patrols Algiers neighborhood Armed to the teeth, but they haven't fired a shot
By Susan Langenhennig

Keep reading... Show less

Defending Time

Editor's note: For background on the flap, start here and follow links. Eric Alterman's response to allegations below can be found here.

John Cloud is a staff writer for Time magazine, where he has worked since 1997. Before coming to Time, he was a senior writer at Washington City Paper. He wrote this week's much-discussed Time cover story about Ann Coulter.

Brian Montopoli: First things first: Why did you write the story? Did you pitch it, or did the editors come to you and say, "We want to do a cover on Ann Coulter?"

John Cloud: Last summer, you know, we put Michael Moore on the cover. And, by the way, at that time we didn't get quite the reaction, certainly not from the left, which seemed rather pleased with the cover we did on Michael Moore. You get it from both sides.

As for how the story got suggested, I suggested it after the election. Ann Coulter [it seemed to me] had epitomized the way politics was discussed last year during the election. It was slash-and-burn, on both sides. Her side won, rather decisively, and it seemed the right time to figure out who was this force behind the way our political dialogue was being conducted. Ann Coulter is the person who is shaping the tone of this dialogue in many ways, and I thought it was time to examine her.

One of the criticisms that people have made is that Time has bottom line considerations [that go into] who it puts on the cover, and choosing to put Coulter on the cover reflected either a pursuit of conservative readers or a desire to just put a hot woman on the cover, which is pretty much what the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz said. And let me read you something from Eric Alterman, and just ask you to respond: "Time's cover story/whitewash of Ann Coulter ... will make it impossible for serious people to accept what the magazine reports at face value ever again. It is as if Time had contracted a journalistic venereal disease from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and is now seeking to lower itself to their level in pursuit of their ideologically-obsessed audiences."

Well, this is just absurd. A few weeks ago, we put Jeffrey Sachs' book on how to end poverty on the cover. I mean, is that going to be a huge seller for conservatives? We did a piece on television indecency that basically concluded that the FCC had gone too far in regulating television. That was on the cover recently. I don't pick the covers, unfortunately -- I don't have that much power here -- but we did Michael Moore on the cover last summer, we've done, over the years, incredibly flattering covers on Hillary Clinton, on both of the Clintons, multiple times. We did Ann Coulter because she's an interesting figure. I could not care less what conservatives or liberals think of Time magazine's covers, and if people read my work over the years -- I've been a journalist for ten years -- and if you read that body of work I think you'll see that I'm not trying to kiss up to conservatives. And if you look at Time magazine, even over the last month, this idea that we're kissing up to conservatives is wrong.

Plus, who are their sources for this? Did Alterman do any reporting before he made this assertion? I think a pertinent thing about Alterman is that he has said publicly that he will not engage Ann Coulter in debate. He won't go on television with her. So his solution to Ann Coulter is to act as though she doesn't exist ... I don't agree with that approach to people that we don't necessarily like. I think you engage those people in open debate, you get those people to talk about their ideas, and then you weigh those ideas. And my story does that. My story is very fair about her.

I think maybe Eric and Ann are in the same bunch. They also, by the way, use the same language. He calls Ann Coulter a name-caller, but he doesn't do anything in that screed against me except use sort of fancy name-calling. He says [the piece] is a "moral, professional, intellectual abomination" without making an argument about the actual substance of the piece. Instead, he picks up something from David Brock's Web site [Media Matters] and reprints it on MSNBC's website. Now David Brock is a very famous hater of Ann Coulter. They used to be friends, they're not friends anymore. He is also a serial liar. David Brock wrote a whole book saying, 'Oh, my other books? They were lies.' So I don't think David Brock has a lot of credibility on the question of Ann Coulter. And what they are doing is a smear job. That's his other history -- David Brock has a history of smear jobs. And this is a smear job against me personally.

I realize you don't have a lot of faith in what the Media Matters people have been saying. But the one line [from the Time article] that seemed to upset a lot of people on the left was, "Coulter has a reputation for carelessness with facts, and if you Google the words 'Ann Coulter lies,' you will drown in results. But I didn't find many outright Coulter errors." I looked at the Media Matters stuff on Coulter. There were a lot of examples of what seem to me to be errors. Even if you don't think highly of David Brock, how do you respond to that?

This one sentence in a 5,500-word piece has been worried over more than any other. Which is fine, I'm happy to defend it. My piece does not say that there are no Ann Coulter errors. In fact, I offer some Ann Coulter errors that we haven't seen before, and I quote people like Ronald Radosh at some length on the problems with the more recent book of hers, which is Treason. David Brock, who knew Ann Coulter from years ago, goes to a book that's years old, and prints some mistakes from that book, and of course [there are] mistakes. And a lot of them are corrected. If you go out and you buy a copy of Slander now, you won't find those mistakes in it, because the publisher has corrected them.

Now, I had a choice of, do I want to, in my article, list every single Ann Coulter mistake ever made, even ones that have been corrected by the publisher -- which is, by the way, what almost every other journalist who has written about her has done -- or do I want to say something fresh and interesting about her? Do I want to engage her on issues and try to figure out what makes her tick and whether this is all an act? That was what my story was about. My story was not primarily about picking apart ... all 1,000 of Ann Coulter's columns or the hundreds and hundreds of pages that she's written in her books. My job in this story was not to be a fact-checker. I don't say in this story that she's never made a mistake. In fact, I point out some mistakes. This is a story that calls some of her writing highly amateurish. I say I want to shut her up occasionally. I quote a friend of hers calling her a fascist [and] another friend of hers calling her a polemicist. I quote Eric Alterman, Salon, James Wolcott, Andrew Sullivan, and Jerry Falwell all criticizing her. The idea that this is a puff piece is just absurd. And it's part of this left-wing attack machine that David Brock has invented for himself in his shame.

Ann Coulter has obviously said, as you well know, some pretty offensive things. There have been a lot of things on the blogs about why people are so upset. One blogger wrote ...

Are these conservatives or liberals who are upset? Because both sides are very upset with this piece.

I've been seeing the conservatives complaining about the cover picture and the liberals complaining about the content. One thing I read on a blog that maybe gets to why this is bothering people so much is, as you know, Ann Coulter said at one point that her "only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building." And one blogger wrote, "I reserve the right to be slightly upset about Time glorifying a woman who once expressed dismay that one of my parents wasn't murdered in a terrorist bombing. So please, with no due respect, fuck the fuck off." It obviously gets a little coarse. But, you know, Time has put on the cover a woman who a lot of people feel is sort of beneath contempt.

Brian, Brian, we have put Josef Stalin on the cover. We have made Adolf Hitler the person of the year. We are a news magazine. The cover of our magazine is not glorification. It is news. This whole idea is bizarre to me. If the New York Times did a front-page story on Ann Coulter, would it be glorifying her or would it be covering her? And, by the way, the picture that we used on the cover is apparently such a horrible image for conservatives that they can't even read the story.

As to The New York Times quote, our package has a whole list of outrageous quotes from Ann Coulter. It's called "What Did She Say?" and we have a whole list of them. The New York Times quote she said to another reporter, George Gurley. She said at the time that it was a joke. You can say it was a despicable joke or that it's not a very funny joke. But if she's kidding around with another reporter, and says something to him that he puts at the end of his article, am I then obligated to print that in my article? I mean, we've already seen that quote. Again, this is about trying to get a fresh look at Ann Coulter. I didn't reprint every outrageous quote, but, by the way, she told me outrageous quotes that are in my story. We don't need to go to the New York Observer to find outrageous quotes from Ann Coulter. They are in Time magazine.

We're obviously in a very different world journalism-wise than we were even five years ago, because you've got all these people with the instant analysis on the internet, and some of it is pretty vitriolic. I'm just curious if it's bothering you.

What I'll say is that I think Eric Alterman and Ann Coulter engage in the same kind of debate. They don't often make actual arguments. Instead, they throw names around. This is the point of my article. This is the way politics is engaged in debate now. And I think that his response to my article proves our point that this kind of dialogue, which is the Ann Coulter kind of dialogue, now holds sway.

No Life Support for You

For honest reporters, the Terri Schiavo case is something of a nightmare. Not so for ratings-obsessed cable news directors, of course, who must be delighted with the timing: they can now shift from the lives and deaths of Scott and Laci Peterson to the life and death of Terri Schiavo without missing a beat.

Real reporters and editors, by contrast, have to decide how much, or even whether, to anchor their reports in a larger context – a tricky decision when reporting about an issue that inflames cultural and political passions. And they know that media bias warriors are scrutinizing every sentence, ready to attack at the first sign of reporting that doesn't square with their worldview.

Example: Most everyone in Washington (and, for that matter, elsewhere) believes that grandstanding politicians are using the issue for political gain. But should that information be included in every story, or should news consumers be allowed to come to their own conclusions?

One option is to simply put forth incontrovertible facts – say, by including in each story quoting a Republican lawmaker, the fact that a one-page GOP memo leaked last week called the Schiavo case "a great political issue" that would appeal to the party's base and potentially result in the defeat of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

That's not to say that there are not genuine values at stake for congressional Republicans, many of whom truly believe that removing Schiavo's feeding tube would be a moral wrong. If their actions are cynical, they aren't completely so, and reporters would be doing a disservice by suggesting as much – just as they would be by ignoring the memo all together.

There is one bit of context, however, that seems particularly salient, and it involves a six-month old boy named Sun Hudson. On Thursday, Hudson died after a Texas hospital removed his feeding tube, despite his mother's pleas. He had a fatal congenital disease, but would have been kept alive had his mother been able to pay for his medical costs, or had she found another institution willing to take him. In a related Texas case, Spiro Nikolouzos, who is unable to speak and must be fed through a tube because of a shunt in his brain – but who his wife says can recognize family members and show emotion – may soon be removed from life support because health care providers believe his case is futile.

The Hudson and Nikolous cases fall under the Texas Futile Care Law, which was signed into law by then-governor George W. Bush.

Bush, however, flew from Texas to Washington early this week to sign legislation authorizing federal courts to review Schiavo's case. The president felt that the Florida courts, which had reviewed the case several times over the past seven years, had failed in their duty: "In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life."

As Mark Kleiman, who brought the Texas cases to our attention, points out, "An argument of some sort could be made for the Texas law, based on some combination of cost and the possibility that an impersonal institution will sometimes avoid mistakes that an emotionally-involved relative would make." But, he adds, "What I can't figure out is how someone could be genuinely outraged about the Schiavo case but not about the Hudson and Nikolouzos cases."

The specifics of each case are different, but the central issue remains the same: whether the state should be able to sanction the removal of a human being from life support.

The fact that President Bush signed into law in Texas a bill that gives health care providers the right to end human life is then certainly relevant, given his decision to sign the Schiavo legislation and his rhetoric concerning a "presumption in favor of life." But do Hudson and Nikolouzos show up in stories about Schiavo? Very, very rarely. A Google News search of "Sun Hudson" and "Schiavo" returns only ten results, mostly from small outlets, and "Nikolouzos" and "Schiavo" returns only five results.

That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since coverage of the Schiavo case has consistently skewed toward the emotional over the factual. And that has been to the advantage of those who want Schiavo kept alive. Most stories feature dueling quotes from Schiavo's media-savvy parents and her embattled husband, people whose anger over a difficult and emotional issue has been elevated to a national stage. More often than not, the tearful parents get top billing.

Then there are the dueling quotes from grandstanding lawmakers, with Republicans far more vocal and emotional in their appeals than skittish Democrats. (Typical is this comment by Tom DeLay: "Mrs. Schiavo's life is not slipping away – it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism.")

Then there's the heartbreaking photo of Schiavo that has graced many of the web stories on the case, including those of CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. It shows Schiavo seeming to smile as she receives a kiss from her mother. (According to Schiavo's doctors, it's unlikely that her facial expressions reflect actual feeling.) The choice by news organizations to focus on this one photo from among the many available speaks to their priorities. Those who side with Schiavo's husband and the Florida courts might blame political bias for the choice of photo and the prominence of Schivo's parents – but the harsh truth is that news organizations simply want eyeballs, and the best way to get them is to tug at the readers' and viewers' heartstrings.

Unlike the moralists in Congress, we're not about to take a side on the question of what should happen to Terri Schiavo. It's an incredibly difficult issue for those close to her, and we feel for both her parents and her husband. But the behavior of politicians and the role of the press are another matter entirely. We don't think that newspaper reporters have an obligation to point out every day that federal intervention in a state court case flies in the face of traditional conservatism, or the fact that some of the same people voting for the Schiavo bill voted for Medicare cuts that may well have similar effects as the Texas Futile Care Law. Those points are best left to columnists and commentators speaking from a variety of platforms.

But journalists should at least make an effort to cut through the sensationalism surrounding the case and provide some context. We should hear more about the Futile Care Law, and news outlets should think twice before basing coverage on which side plucked the most heartstrings on any given day. With its performance to date in the Schiavo case, the press is displaying a tell-tale tendency for tabloid-style exploitation in the guise of serious reporting.

Ambush Politics

News consumers haven't heard much over the past couple of weeks about the economy, terrorism, health care, or Iraq. The talk has instead been focused on Vietnam, thanks to the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth.

The group has released two ads and a book denouncing John Kerry as a dishonorable man who lied to earn his medals, lied to Congress as an antiwar activist, and who ultimately betrayed his countrymen. Liberal commentators, not unjustifiably, are blaming the SBVFT for polluting campaign rhetoric with their loaded claims and harsh attacks.

The SBVFT may have a questionable grasp of the facts, but they have been extraordinarily sophisticated in their manipulation of the media. Their ads, after all, have appeared in just three states – and represent the kind of strident attack that might easily have quickly dropped off the national radar screen.

But the lion's share of the blame should not fall on their shoulders. To understand why this campaign has been hijacked by a small group of veterans bearing a thirty-year old grudge, it's worth examining the institutional susceptibilities of a campaign press corps that has allowed the SBVFT's accusations to take on a life of their own. The Swift Boat Vets may have put themselves in the game, but they were made stars by a flawed media.

Campaign Desk has written many times about the perils of "he said/she said" journalism, the practice of reporters parroting competing rhetoric instead of measuring it for veracity against known facts. In the wake of the first SBVFT spot early this month, cable news programs for the most part offered viewers two talking heads, one on each side of the issue, to debate the merits of the claims. Verifiable facts were rarely offered to viewers – despite the fact that military records supporting Kerry's version of events were readily available.

Instead of acting as filters for the truth, reporters nodded and attentively transcribed both sides of the story, invariably failing to provide context, background, or any sense of which claims held up and which were misleading. And sometimes even that was asking too much.

According to Media Matters, the Aug. 4th editions of FOX News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" and MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" both reported and aired the ad without mentioning (1) that despite the ad's claims, those featured in it did not serve on Kerry's boat, (2) that the SBVFT has extensive Republican ties, dating all the way back to former Nixon protege John O'Neill, or (3) the fact that the doctor who claims to have treated Kerry in the ad was not the medical official who signed his medical records.

Why was the press happy to keep afloat a story so easily debunked?

There were several factors at work here. To begin with, the initial ad by the Swift Boat Vets came out in August, which had shaped up to be a slow news month, politically speaking. Issues like Kerry's health-care plan weren't capturing viewers' imaginations, there hadn't been a terrorist attack or notable capture for months, and Iraq – continuing U.S. casualties notwithstanding – wasn't generating much new news. With its natural bias towards ratings-generating conflict, the media readily embraced the SBVFT story, which, with its harsh allegations and clearly demarcated opposing sides, had about it the smell of blood in the water.

As radio talk shows and cable shoutfests seized upon the "story," the few outlets that initially ignored it or gave it little play were forced to ratchet up their coverage – a classic example of the elements of the media lower down the professional food chain effectively setting the news agenda. Yesterday, Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor of the New York Times, confessed to Editor & Publisher magazine, "I'm not sure that in an era of no cable television we would even have looked into it." James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, fretted in the same article about feeling forced to follow a story that he might not otherwise bother with – just because it received so much air time from the carnival barkers who populate daytime cable and radio.

That sort of impetus could have been avoided had news organizations been more aggressive in exploring the SBVFT when it was first launched. In May, without much fanfare, SBVFT held a press conference announcing the group's formation and laid out its agenda. In an open letter to Sen. Kerry, the group wrote, "Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war." It also announced its intention to publicly examine Kerry's war record in a press release.

ABC and NBC ignored the development entirely on their nightly news broadcasts on that day, while CBS provided a short report. On Fox News, political correspondent Carl Cameron delivered a report remarkable for its similarity to those seen on TV in recent weeks. He recapped comments from veterans both in support and critical of John Kerry, adding that some of the veterans who are now critical of Kerry previously supported him in 1996. According to Cameron, the Bush campaign denied any involvement in the attacks. Kerry, he said, was doing his best to stay out of the fray. And with that (after a few brief debates on "Hannity & Colmes"), the story was laid to bed.

In June and July, the press hardly moved the story an inch. By the time the SBVFT resurfaced in early August with its first ad, the story had lain fallow for three months. So the news reports that came out in the wake of the ad elaborated little on Cameron's original story. No news organization, it seems, had seen fit to launch a more thorough investigation into the veterans, despite their coming-out party months before.

The "fog of war" can cloud newsrooms just as much as it does battlefields, of course. But given the SBVFT's open letter and virtual declaration of war on Kerry in the spring, such investigations should have been conducted as a matter of course.

Throughout August, even as the Swift Boat Vets' book hit bookstores and a second ad rolled out, the campaign press mostly continued to frame the story as a "he said/she said" battle – at least until last week, when what had been an oddly quiescent press corps lurched awake and began to subject the story to closer scrutiny. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles highly critical of the SBVFT earlier this week, and the Times today meticulously laid out the connections between the Swift Boat Vets on the one hand, and lawyers, political strategists and donors to the Bush campaign on the other.

After countless unchallenged segments on the cable news shows and print articles repeating a variety of erroneous SBVFT claims, the mainstream press has belatedly awakened from its summer dormancy and measured spurious claims against known facts. But it has come far too late.

Reporters can, and do, argue that it is not their job to ascertain the veracity of such claims unless and until the Kerry campaign itself raises its voice in protest. But even if you buy that antiquated job description of a good reporter – and we don't – there's another ball that most of the press dropped in its coverage of the imbroglio. Once the Kerry campaign itself began to hit back by questioning the credibility of the Swift Boat Veterans' claims – and arguing that the group was doing the president's "dirty work" – the press failed to adequately scrutinize the competing arguments at hand. When Kerry called on Bush to condemn the Swift Boat ads, the White House pointed out that the president had himself been the target of harsh attack ads run by independent "527" groups supporting Kerry, and repeated its months-old contention that all such outside advertising should be banned.

The press dutifully reported this argument. But rarely if ever did reporters see fit to assess the validity of the comparison being made by the Bush campaign. The anti-Bush ad most often cited by the White House as comparable to the Swift Boat spot was a MoveOn spot questioning the president's service in the National Guard. But each one of the claims made in the MoveOn ad – that Bush used family connections to get into the Guard, that he was grounded after failing to show up for a physical, that he wasn't seen at a guard meeting for months, and that he was released eight months early to attend Harvard Business School – is not in dispute. The overall tenor of the ad is harsh, to be sure – so harsh, in fact, that Kerry quickly called it "irresponsible" – but there has been no real argument that any of its assertions are untrue.

Compare that to the Swift Boat ads. Given that military records support Kerry's version of events, and that the credibility of many of Kerry's accusers is now in doubt, it would seem that if anyone should be on the defensive for lacking corroboration and documentation, it's those defending Bush's service record, not that of Kerry. No anti-Bush ad from MoveOn flies in the face of the preponderance of evidence in the way that the Swift Boat ad does. The press, then, should have pointed out the illogic of grouping the two spots as one and the same.

In the end, as always, the information that voters receive depends entirely on the way in which the press frames the story. The problem is that once an easy storyline is entrenched – that the issue is essentially a disagreement between Kerry and his detractors – too many reporters fail to press on. In this case, they neglected either to test the veracity of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or to compare their ads with those financed by other 527s like MoveOn.

There have been dozens of press failures during this presidential campaign. But this one, even given the Times' and the Post's belated efforts to get to the bottom of things, has to rank as a low point.

And it certainly did nothing to help the mainstream press' credibility with what is an increasingly dubious audience. The most telling comment on that front may well have come from the unlikely duo of Jon Stewart and Ted Koppel, who shared a telecast during the Democratic convention. Koppel, by way of introducing his own viewers to Stewart, complained that "a lot of television viewers – more, quite frankly, than I'm comfortable with" – get their news from Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

Stewart, seemingly trying to reassure Koppel, responded that what his fans were watching for was not news per se, but rather a "comedic interpretation" of the news. Koppel was unmoved. Stewart's audience watches him "to be informed," Koppel insisted. "They actually think they're coming closer to the truth with your show."

With that, Stewart pounced. "Now that's a different thing, that's credibility; that's a different animal."

Yes, it is.

Blogger Planet

Forty or so bloggers, clad in everything from coats and ties to jeans and t-shirts, gathered for breakfast at the Hilton Boston Back Bay this morning, and they got a taste of what it's like to be an object of curiosity.

There were more reporters present than there were bloggers, and they swarmed around their startled quarry, interrupting conversations to ask the same question – how do you plan to cover the convention? – and to get, for the most part, the same fuzzy answer: "We're going to try to do something traditional reporters don't. We want to bring a different perspective."

Organizers brought out the big guns to speak to the assembled crowd, including Howard Dean, Barack Obama, legendary Associated Press reporter Walter Mears. But the real story was the bloggers themselves, who were treated like a cross between contest winners, celebrities, and caged animals. As Dean spoke onstage, photographers ignored the near-nominee to take pictures of the dazed-looking bloggers listening to him. One cameraman zoomed in on the fingers of blogger Jesse Taylor, of Pandagon, who was taking notes on Dean's speech. He wasn't even blogging – the conference room, after all, did not have a wireless connection.

With 15,000 media representatives in attendance, the Democratic Convention is, almost assuredly, the most overcovered event of the campaign to date. Everyone knows what's going to happen – there hasn't been more than one ballot for the nomination since Adlai Stevenson won it in 1952. So reporters, desperate for copy, have been forced to squeeze yet more stories out of the bloggers, who have faced so many media inquiries that they complain of being tired of doing press.

The politicians also seem taken with the significance of the bloggers. The presence of keynote speaker and rising star Barack Obama at the blogger breakfast spoke volumes. But, like reporters, the pols don't know quite what to make of it all. Hearing mainstream journalists and party lifers talk about blogging is a lot like hearing John Kerry talk about rap music – he knows that "street poetry" is significant in some as yet undefined way, but you can't quite see him getting his groove on.

At one point, Mears, who started a blog yesterday for the AP, said that by the end of the week he hoped to be accepted as a blogger himself. At the table in front of me, a blogger laughed, shook his head, and mouthed to the man next to him, "No, you won't."

Seeing the bloggers at the convention brings to mind all sorts of unlikely (and uncomfortable) meetings between establishment and ostensible outsider – Steven King getting a national book award, Mick Jagger being knighted, the Sex Pistols finding their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The bloggers, happy for the attention and a little taken aback by it, are still trying to maintain their anti-establishment cred, however awkward it may be.

As such, the laughter that greeted Mears' assertion that he is "objective" seemed a little heartier than really necessary. It was a subtle message, in case anyone missed it, that bloggers weren't here to be pale imitations of the journalists around them. Dean brought the house down when he told one blogger that she shouldn't take it as an insult that she wasn't considered a "real journalist," since real journalists simply weren't getting the job done – a message that reverberates daily around the blogosphere. Bloggers, he and the others suggested, were on the forefront of a journalistic revolution.

There's just one problem: They don't seem terribly sure what the hell to do at the convention. Having finally been given the proverbial seat at the table, bloggers here are finding that their plates, if not empty, certainly aren't overflowing. There are a lot of reporters in Boston, but not, however, a lot of stories. Bloggers are having their big moment at last, but with the deck stacked slightly against them. Had they been invited to an event with a bit more substance, they might have had an easier time taking advantage of their access.

Nonetheless, the bloggers, with their defiantly subjective perspectives and unwillingness to conform to the tired conventions of the mainstream media, could have something significant to add to the circus here in Boston. Of course, now that they are being toasted as the saviors of journalism, it's going to be hard to live up to the hype .

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