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The People Formerly Known As the Audience

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There is an odd and rather confusing article up at the New York Times which tries to get its arms around the subject of the relationship between journalists, bloggers and their "sources," a topic that is still quite elusive to traditional media minds:

The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, calls "the people formerly known as the audience."

"In this new world, the audience and sources are publishers," Mr. Rosen said. "They are now saying to journalists, 'We are producers, too. So the interview lies midpoint between us. You produce things from it, and we do, too.' From now on, in a potentially hostile interview situation, this will be the norm."

All these developments have forced journalists to respond in a variety of ways, including becoming more open about their methods and techniques and perhaps more conscious of how they filter information.

The Kathleen Parkers of the world are irate because someone with no official journalistic imprimatur should be challenging them in the domain of news reporting, and she and her ilk are always shrieking about how bloggers have no editors and are basically just an unwashed horde who would be nothing without the big news bureaus to feed them raw data. Without going into all the keen misunderstandings in the realm of Kathleen Parker, let's just say she represents the mindset of many who don't comprehend what bloggers do or what the allure of a blog is to its readers.

I can only speak about my own experience, as a blogger who regularly converses with numerous main stream media journalists. And these are remarkably smart people, because I'm not going to waste my time talking to the dumb ones. But their job is to stay on the phone all day and cultivate sources and they will be the first to admit that their memories probably don't extend a whole lot further than the article they wrote yesterday.

They do not spend the hours and days sifting through raw data now available to average people on the internet. That is not what they do. If I wanted to know some obscure detail about something Judith Miller did or said in June of 2003 I would call blogger emptywheel who writes at The Next Hurrah. If I needed to know about journalists named in the subpoena sent to the White House in January 2003 who attended a particular banquet I would email attorney Jeralyn Merritt who blogs at Talk Left. I wouldn't expect that kind of depth of knowledge about details from the people whose job it is to pursue leads and dig up new details every day. They don't have that kind of information at their fingertips. They don't have the time.

In this light bloggers serve the function of analysts. Or re-analyzers, more aptly, who attempt to contextualize as they sort through available data and look for patterns, inconsistencies and greater truths. For my money if I was trying to marry a blog with a newsroom that's where I'd start -- I'm constantly amazed that with all the access to information now available the big news bureaus don't have a deeper pool of researchers to be the adjunct memories of people who spend their time in the development of external news sources.

Because as they are coming to slowly realize, the audience has a critical faculty and they are anxious for interactivity in a way that the MSM just aren't set up to handle. From the standpoint of bloggers, we're trying to come up with new ideas and theories as we try to sort through the available information and expose any systemic bias from which it might come. We're not afraid to be wrong in our speculations, nor are we afraid to interact with people who like to think along side us.

As blogger Digby notes, the Whitewater travesty happened largely because there was nobody around who served this function at the time:

If you followed the Whitewater scandal (or attempted to) you came to realize that the journalists who were writing about it were so caught up in day to day reporting that somewhere along the line they lost sight of both the big picture and the details. It became a daily exercise in futility trying to sort out what exactly was going on. Until Gene Lyons' articles in Harpers (that led to his book "Fools for Scandal") and then a couple of jury trials, I honestly couldn't figure out what was going on. And I read three or four papers a day at the time. It was a story in desperate need of context, research and command of detail, mostly because it was a story being dribbled out a daily basis by political operatives and Arkansas opportunists to journalists who, in the midst of daily reporting, couldn't see the larger story. (I have no idea where their editors were.)

I didn't know how that worked in those days, thinking that journalists would see through spin and report it if it was clearly partisan. But I was wrong. They did fall for that story and turned it into an unintelligible, meaningless scandal that harassed the president from almost his first day in office.

Today, certain bloggers would keep meticulous track of details, speculation and obvious spin and would report and discuss them in real time. Others would bring the whole story into historical perspective. Still others would try to tie all the disparate threads together to show larger patterns and trends. And many would speculate about the meaning of the scandal and the political ramifications. The scandal might happen anyway, but at least there would also be informed, engaged readers and easy access to those who have taken the time to analyze and contextualize the story as it unfolds. The alternative is to continue to allow the powerful triumverate of official sources, professional PR flacks and political operatives to lead the press (and, therefore, the country) around by the nose as they have so often in the last 15 years.

A bit of lightly spun chit-chat with Robert Luskin and a thin whitewash of John Harris's political slant just isn't going to cut it as "news" much longer. It simply will not stand up to the kind of scrutiny an increasingly knowledgeable and sophisticated audience will apply. But these are the habits of journalists that have been entrenched over the ages, and I don't see them crumbling without great reluctance.

Jane Hamsher blogs regularly at firedoglake.blogspot.com