Right-wing bloggers love authority. They live to repeat slavishly the talking points of the Bush administration, bowing down like a pack of authoritarian cargo cultists before the words and images of the Jeep-in-Chief. Left-wing bloggers, on the other hand, are a notoriously unruly bunch, and they spend much of their energy in a steel-cage death match with corporate media journalists they consider compromised and conscripted by the GOP. It is not a relationship fused with an abundance of mutual affection.
Liberal bloggers consider themselves media watchdogs. The journalists they cover consider them ankle-biting amateurs. But as paper gives way to pixels, the two groups are being forced into ever-closer proximity. This two-way street often scares mainstream journalists accustomed to one-way, we-speak-you-listen communication, and the fractious relationship between traditional journalists and the folks whom New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience” is becoming the stuff of headlines.
Bill O'Reilly nearly came unglued earlier this year at the specter of what he called online terrorists funded by liberal billionaires attacking The Washington Post. Here on planet Earth, however, the actual incident involved a bit of misinformation printed by the Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, who made the claim that Jack Abramoff gave money to both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, he never gave money to Democrats, and bloggers were only too happy to point this out. Rather than make a correction, the Post chose a “hang-tough” strategy that might have worked for them only a few years ago. The paper's online editor, Jim Brady, took to smelling salts and the fainting couch, calling the Post's online critics uncivilized barbarians full of hate speech. The bloggers were remarkably unfazed and held fast. A week later, the Post was forced to retract.
Brady got his digs in two months later, however, with the hiring of Ben Domenech, a right-wing blogger from RedState.org who thought even less of liberal bloggers than Brady did. Since this was something the Bush administration had been pushing for, it must have seemed puzzling to the Post when liberal bloggers started dancing around and singing “Oh Happy Day.” But they knew something Brady didn't, and soon produced the proof -- Domenech had a history of making racist statements on RedState; he called Coretta Scott King a “Communist” on the day of her funeral and said it was inappropriate for George Bush to attend. Within 48 hours of his hiring, liberal bloggers had also uncovered numerous instances of plagiarism by Domenech in The National Review and other publications. This time, the “hang-tough” posture only lasted a day. Brady was forced to fire Domenech and publicly thank the bloggers (no doubt through gritted teeth) for doing his job for him.
What are the larger implications for the world of journalism? Well, aside from being insufferable pains in the ass, these modern-day I.F. Stones would probably make certain right-wing scams very difficult to pull off today. Take Whitewater. This “scandal” consumed the headlines from day one of the Clinton administration, as the press, seeking to fill column inches each day and get their stories on page A1, accepted the fabricated assertions of political operatives with little or no skepticism. Such a hijacking would be impossible now -- it's much harder for the press to accept the wholesale whoppers of political operatives knowing that a bunch of itchy, trigger-fingered keyboardists are connected via the Internet and willing to sift through enormous amounts of data for documentation with which to counter spin and disinformation.
The bias of the media has lurched horrifically to the right. Mention the word “liberal” to journalists, and watch their eyes bug out and their hair stand on end like Lou Dobbs contemplating the mongrel horde rushing over the border. It's understandable that they now feel themselves wedged into a tight spot as they experience liberal online pushback.
But bloggers and their readers are much more than just liberal battering rams. They act as analysts as they help to shape the dominant narratives and sort through ever-accumulating piles of information. They search for patterns, inconsistencies, and bias. Their narratives increasingly feed back out into corporate news media and help determine the shape of future reporting. With their budgets decimated by consolidation and corporatization, you'd think professional journalists would be grateful for the free help.
Funnily enough, they're not quite there yet. But we're working on them.
Jane Hamsher is an author, producer, and blogger at firedoglake.com.