Blogs and investigative journalism, Part 2

So the Washington Post hiring of a RedState blogger, Ben Domenech has played itself out as of 1:17pm today. As was becoming obvious as soon as the plagiarism charges came out, Domenech has had to resign.

In case you've been under a rock this week, here is a brief timeline:

Tuesday March 21, 4:01pm: WaPo hires Domenech
Friday March 24, 1:17pm, WaPo announces Domenech resignation

What happened in between? I'd call it investigative journalism which turned up the fact that Domenech repeatedly committed plagiarism (passing someone else's work off as your own) in college and afterwards. This was a serious embarrassment because Domenech, beside gaining the imprimatur of the Washington Post, was a well-connected Republican, who had edited Michelle Malkin's book (she issued a pre-resignation distancing post), was an editor at Regnery Publishing, and had founded RedState, . The investigation was carried out by the blogosphere however, not by the paper, whose credibility is now somewhat tarnished, especially considering the Deborah Howell flap not too long ago.

As someone put it, why couldn't the Post have done the checking that half a dozen bloggers in their pajamas could do with Google?

The Post's credibility is also damaged because they issued mixed messages about why they hired Domenech; with the Washingtonpost.com's Opinions Editor saying he wasn't hired because of his political beliefs, and then Jim Brady Executive Editor saying he was hired to overcome an underrepresentation of conservative voices (sort of a political quota?).

What can we learn from this?

1. The blogosphere is more capable and more willing to use investigative tools such as Google and Lexis-Nexis, not just to find articles but to compare them. I mentioned this factor in my earlier post when I talked about comparing how people's statements change over time and holding people accountable for what they said earlier when they want to rewrite history.

2. The old media still hasn't grasped what blogs are and can be

3. One example of IJ does not mean it's all over for the MSM or that all bloggers do good investigative journalism. What it shows to me, coupled with the decline in readership of hard-copy newspapers (WaPo down 4% from last year), is that a shift may be going on. Chomsky pointed out ages ago in his book Manufacturing Consent that it was dangerous for news media to be owned by so few companies because it narrows the range of political speech, and I think certainly today we see that the USA's major newspapers have abrogated their role as independent voices (the WaPo and NYT in particular are basically conservative small-c establishment voices).

4. Papers are still capable of the week-long series of stories into an issue, usually aimed at garnering the Pulitzer (the traditional meaning of IJ), but I'm talking about the day-in and day-out critical attitiude that doesn't just swallow talking points and White House spin (whoever's in there). Whether it's due to inside the Beltway received wisdom, laziness, lack of resources (WaPo just reduced its newsroom by 80 staff) I don't know. But newspapers are no longer "critical" whereas political blogs are increasingly so.


derek said...

Just a couple of things in response. I don't think that we totally disagree on some of the larger points, but the idea that the Post has abrogated its role as an independent voice is demonstrably false. For example, the Abramoff reporting that the paper has done is hardly the sort of thing that a paper that has surrendered its role would do. Is the reporting of Dana Priest, Walter Pincus and Josh White on national security and intelligence issues an example of a flagging independent voice?

I would match our daily political coverage against any blogger's in terms of original reporting, depth and context. If you are saying that bloggers do better daily political reporting of all sides than the Post, then fine, but I'd like a side-by-side comparison for, say, a year to judge such an assertion. I'm not guaranteeing anything; I'm just saying that I think the Post would do pretty well in such a scenario. I think if you read our coverage consistently (you might, but you also said previously that you don't subscribe to a newspaper) that you'd find our reporters exercise that critical judgment.

Finally, I think it's great that people are there to hold our feet to the fire, and I hope they continue to do so. But I would also hope that the same folks recognize that the papers like the Post can and do good work on a daily basis.

ubikcan said...


Thanks for taking the time to comment. Perhaps we do agree on some things. For example, the reason I cite the Post and the NYT is that I used to read (and subscribe) to them and see them as the country's leading newspapers. So it is a particular disappointment to me that they have made significant mis-steps lately, especially the Post which I see as a major player in political coverage.

You point to technorati links to good Post stories and that's fine, so allow me to point to the technorati CEO's own blog "Sifry's Alerts". In that post (and a series last year) he reports on the state of the blogosphere and compares the "MSM" with blogs. It turns out it is a classic power curve (or "long tail," "80-20" rule). While CNN, the WaPo and NYT can hold up against any single blog, the effect of the long tail--the vast majority of other political blogs--completely swamps them.

As Sifry points out, many links to your work does not necessarily imply quality (he cites the Drudge Report). However--and this is what I've been trying to get at by talking about a shift in political discussions--we can see that the MSM no longer hold a monopoly of influential political discourse.

That's the first point. Second, papers like WaPo seem to have committed a number of misteps that indicate both that they don't understand the blogosphere (not very keen on that term but anyway) eg., the recent Ben Domenech debacle, AND as has long been occurring (see Chomsky) they are dominated by corporate, establishment viewpoints that are reluctant to criticize a wildly unpopular president.