Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

chapter 6 - a history of journalism leading up to blogs

July 2006

ncapewspapers are in trouble. At a May 2006 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, company chairman and financial seer Warren Buffett declared, “Certain newspaper executives are going out and investing in other newspapers. I don’t see it. It’s hard to make money buying a business that’s in permanent decline. If anything, the decline is accelerating.”

Television news is witnessing its own decline. The Project for Excellence in Journalism (stateofthenewsmedia.org) reports that while American network news programs remain profitable, evening news ratings have fallen 59 percent since their peak three decades ago and the average age for evening news audience members is nearly 60 years old.

Where are younger folks getting their news? Online. And it’s not just the kids. The Pew Internet & American Life Project (pewinternet.org) reports that more than 50 million Americans were choosing to get their news online each day.
Enter citizen journalists. This new breed of reporter takes advantage of the broad distribution of the Web to distribute news stories that traditional media ignore, misrepresent, or have no access to—eyewitness reports during Hurricane Katrina or daily journals uploaded by citizens in war-torn areas, for instance. Additionally, unlike print and broadcast journalism, which allow for very little feedback or open discussion, citizen journalists generally encourage others to comment on their reports; add and dispute facts; share viewpoints; and point to other related stories.

Critics of citizen journalism often question the credibility of bloggers’ reports. “How can we know when news reports on citizen blogs are accurate and fair?” they ask. It’s an honest query but begs a larger question. How can we ever be sure that a news story is accurate and fair, whatever the medium?
Journalism as a profession has evolved over the course of several centuries and, at its best, has come to be associated with the idea of free speech. The early architects of democracy realized that a populace needs access to relevant facts and ideas if they are to make informed electoral decisions and that a free press—one without fear of government control or reprisal—is integral to this process.

Repeated governmental abuses over those centuries have inspired many nations to enact formal guarantees for the free expression of ideas by their citizens, but once those assurances are in place, it has been up to the journalists and editors themselves to fashion news that adheres to codes of ethics and editorial guidelines that fulfill this promise of reporting that is fair, accountable, and transparent in its sources and intent.

Ideally, citizen journalist bloggers inherit both the privileges and the responsibilities of their professional forebears. Given the falling fortunes of mainstream media, they also inherit a growing distrust on the part of the citizenry. The frequency with which news media have been forced to report malfeasances within their own ranks is part of the problem. The shadow cast by dishonored journalists like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke darkens not only the efforts of fellow professional journalists, but of citizen journalists, as well.

And these few bad seeds with professional ranks are not the only problem. Driven by a perennial quest for ratings, most mainstream outlets beat a few high-profile stories to death, only to abandon them when newer, more lurid trial, Washington insider scandals, or sports’ drug exposés promise to plump lagging numbers. This homogenization of the news, combined with the demise or sale of most local newspapers and broadcast television and radio station to megacorporations means that many communities are left without regional news reporting. Little wonder the public is less engaged.

The best of the traditional news outlets are working hard to regain the trust of their audiences and one of the ways they’re doing this is by extending a hand to the better citizen journalist efforts. Besides incorporating blog materials, and sometimes even hiring bloggers who show the greatest promise, blogs and bloggers are increasingly featured as news stories themselves.

Which brings us to the responsibility half of the equation. If citizen journalism is going to mature and gain the trust and support of large audiences, its most visible practitioners are going to have to adopt the same general guidelines as professional journalists. They will need to check their facts, report without bias, and disclose any conflicts of interest. Perhaps most importantly, they need to decide whether they are going to objectively report on the news or whether they are going to engage in editorial commentary and advocacy stances (covered in the next chapter, “Blogs as Soapboxes.”

The history of journalism is rife with terror, conflict and lapses, but the overall vector is still promising. Those who choose to blog under the banner of citizen journalism are following in the steps of some giants. With open minds, generous spirits and keen editing, they stand a chance of making their own mark on history.

the dawn of journalism

News reports didn’t start out unbiased. In Chapter 2, we saw that the content of early news periodicals like the Roman Acta Diurna and Mixed News in China were dictated by those in power. There was little expectation that these official missives would reflect any views other than those held by the ruling parties.

Emperors, kings, and popes had little trouble controlling the news until the introduction of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. At first, severe penalties for publishing without royal or papal imprimaturs kept most of the early “newsbooks” in check and the few who dared publish without permission did so anonymously.
Still, despite the restrictions, a demand for more and better news started to grow up as an educated middle class took hold. By 1566, citizens of Venice were hungry enough for updates on the war going on with Turkey that they were willing to pay one copper gazeta for a one-page news sheet. The official name of the periodical was Notizie Scritte, but readers preferred calling it by the name of the coin used to purchase it, a habit that caught on across Europe.

For the most part, however, until the mid-seventeenth century, royal and papal censorship continued to constrain news reporting all across Europe.

england experiences upheavals

When England abolished the dread Star Chamber in 1641, the nation witnessed a brief flowering of news periodicals. Many were conceived in the vibrant coffee houses of the day where patrons avidly argued religion and politics.

In particular, British royalists and parliamentarians vied in print, ridiculing and attempting to expose the wrongs and weaknesses of the other. One of the leading voices on the parliamentarian side was John Dillingham’s The Parliament Scout, which is often cited as the first investigative journal. Dillingham wrote that the Scout “suggested something new in journalism—the necessity of making an effort to search out and discover the news.” A similar publication was The Spie, which promised readers that its purpose was “discovering the usual cheats in the great game of the Kingdome. For that we would have to go undercover.”
Many more periodicals went undercover or disappeared altogether when the Commonwealth was declared in 1649. Almost immediately, a series of new licensing laws silenced the squall of voices.

Among the few permitted periodicals was the Oxford Gazette, the first regularly published English newspaper. The paper began in 1665 while the royal court sat at Oxford during a London plague. When the court returned to London, the publication dutifully followed, changing its name to the London Gazette; it is still published today.

The first British daily newspaper was The Daily Courant, founded in 1702 by Elizabeth Malet. The last of the Licensing Acts had just lapsed and a broad spectrum of news sheets and pamphlets once again begun circulating. In the initial issue of the Courant, Malet wrote that she had established the paper to “spare the public at least half the impertinences which the ordinary papers contain.”

During the thirty years that The Daily Courant survived, the Enlightenment bloomed across Europe and the American colonies. Authors like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Isaac Newton ignited an intellectual revolution, a revolution that redefined the dynamic between the individual and the state. For the first time, citizens began demanding broad freedoms, calling them inalienable rights. Chief among these rights was the free expression of ideas.

But social institutions are often slow to change. Although a fair number of periodicals appeared in England during this period, few lasted more than a few issues. Draconian licensing laws were no longer in place, but various other suppression tactics did come into play. In a few instances, government officials unhappy with a publication’s editorial stance went so far as to purchase the papers with public funds, relaunching them with content friendlier to those in power.

Samuel Johnson’s description of eighteenth century journalism echoes some of the current criticisms about both mainstream news and blogging. He wrote that the news periodicals of the day “afford sufficient information to elate vanity, and stiffen obstinacy, but too little to enlarge the mind.”
american journalism ignites a revolution

On American shores, newspaper publishing got off to a rocky start with the launch of Benjamin Harris’ Publick Occurences both Foreign and Domestick in 1690. British officials shut it down after one issue, partly because Harris had neglected to petition for a license and partly because the paper had daringly reported that the French king was having an affair with his son’s wife.

New York City’s first newspaper, the New York Gazette, launched in 1725 and shamelessly pandered to the will of the colonial governor William Cosby. A second paper, The New York Weekly Journal, challenged the governor and made publishing history. Begun in 1733 by John Peter Zenger, the paper published the writings of several anonymous authors, one of whom wrote of Governor Cosby, “… if such an over grown Criminal, or an impudent Monster in Iniquity, cannot immediately be come at by ordinary Justice, let him yet receive the lash of satire, let the glaring truth of his ill administration … render his actions odious to all minds.”

Cosby does seem to have been an odious official. A royal appointee, his first act upon arrival in the colonies was to demand an extortionist salary and when the New York State Supreme Court denied him, he removed the Chief Justice and replaced him with a lackey. It comes as little surprise that the governor had Zenger arrested for “inflaming Minds with Contempt of His Majesty.”

Zenger sat in a jail cell for eight months before his trial for seditious treason came before a jury, but his incarceration did little to stop the Journal’s contrary commentary since his wife, Anna, continued editing, writing, and publishing the paper during his absence. In addition, the case inspired increasingly supportive editorials up and down the Atlantic coast.

At the heart of the debate was the fact that, at the time, truth was not a defense against libel. In fact, when Zenger was finally tried in 1735, the judge instructed the jury that any criticism of the government constituted libel. Luckily for Zenger and legal precedent in America, an inspired lawyer named Andrew Hamilton came to the publisher’s defense. Hamilton’s arguments for free expression were so compelling that the jury ignored the judges instructions and found Zenger not guilty. By the time the verdict was announced, colonial sympathies were largely in support of a free press.

This helps to explain the vehemence of the colonial reaction to the Stamp Act. While not strictly speaking a licensing act that censored news, the Stamp Act of 1765 did impose a pricey tax stamp on all legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards. The intent of the law was to cover the costs of keeping British troops in the colonies. Not only was this the first direct tax imposed on the American colonies, it meant that a great number of colonists would not be able to afford the news periodicals of the day. Protests included the tarring and feathering of a few tax collectors, as well as hanging one or two in effigy. Finding tax collectors willing to continue with the job proved so difficult, Britain repealed the law the following year, but the harm had been done.

free press as a rallying cry

In the midst of the fury surrounding the law, a Stamp Act Congress made up of representatives from nine colonies, several of them publishers, had assembled to catalog their complaints. The resulting Declaration of Rights and Grievances did more than inform King George of the colonists’ complaints, copies of the document were instrumental in seeding the American Revolution.

For the most part, American newspapers of the day were overtly partisan and existed largely as vehicles for impassioned political rants. In the prelude to the war for independence, authors like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine parried with their counterparts at British loyalist publications. After the war, it was the Federalists and anti-Federalists who duked it out in print.
the bill of rights is born.

Few arguments in the new nation were as heated as the one revolving around explicit guarantees for a free press. The topic was so volatile that it threatened ratification of the Constitution by the thirteen colonies and was left out of the original document.

Alexander Hamilton (no relation to Andrew Hamilton above), was a founder of the Federalist Party and among those opposed to incorporating a Bill of Rights. He believed that such a document was not only unnecessary but dangerous. The rights were already implicit in the Constitution, he argued, and cataloguing a subset of rights could put other implicit rights in jeopardy.
James Madison at first agreed with Hamilton, but arguments by individuals like Thomas Jefferson finally convinced him to pen the first draft of a Bill of Rights. In 1791, after much internecine argument among the former colonies, the first ten amendments to the American Constitution were ratified and the right to free expression became explicit.

Madison’s initial reluctant support of the Bill of Rights switched to full-bore advocacy in the wake of the Sedition Act signed into law by Federalist President John Adams in 1798. The Sedition Act declared that “any false, scandalous and malicious writing … against the Government of the United States” would be subject to a fine or imprisonment. More than a dozen indictments against prominent publishers and even one opposition party Congressman followed in quick order.

Because the Supreme Court at the time supported the Federalists, Madison and Jefferson realized that a constitutional appeal would be of no use and so set their sites on unseating the Federalists in the election of 1800. Jefferson won the presidency and the Sedition Act expired without a challenge. In the wake of the Act, Madison declared that the role of journalists as watchdogs of government made them a “bulwark of liberty.”

newspapers bloom across america

As the nineteenth century dawned, government censorship still constrained publishing across most of the Continent. England’s long history of state suppression of publishing was lifting, but the newspapers of the day largely served as propaganda organs for the Whig and Tory parties. In America, the situation had grown a bit more chaotic.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political theorist, toured the new nation and in 1830 published Democracy in America, in which he wrote about the many and varied newspapers then publishing throughout the colonies. “It is a simple and easy matter to start a paper,” Tocqueville observed. “A few subscribers are enough to cover expenses and so the number of periodical or semi-periodical productions in the United States surpasses all belief. The most enlightened Americans attribute the slightness of the power of the press to this incredible dispersion; it is an axiom of political science that the only way to neutralize the effect of newspapers is to multiply their numbers.”

Tocqueville’s description of the political pamphlets of the time could easily be applied to today’s blogosphere: “In America, the parties do not publish books to refute each other, but pamphlets which circulate at an incredible rate, last a day, and die. By and large the literature of a democracy will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected or actually despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.”

consolidation of the news follows

In the end, chaos often distills into order—and a lessening of diversity. By the mid-nineteenth century, news that used to travel by carrier pigeon and Pony Express began being transported by railroads, steamships, and the telegraph and local newspapers began banding together to form shared news-gathering services while the larger papers formed wire services, guaranteeing almost instantaneous access to news reports. Further contributing to the consolidation, new printing presses that could produce thousands of copies per hour were replacing hand-cranked presses, driving many small printers out of business.

Between 1870 and 1890, the population of the United States doubled, while that of many cities more than tripled. Editorial staffs at newspapers and magazines catering to this hungry public grew more specialized. The roles of reporters, editors and publishers were becoming more distinct.

It was a splendid era for large newspapers. Fortunes were made and fame could be granted at the whim of an editor. In Chapter 2, the rise of the Bennett empire provided one window on the times. During the same period, William Randolph Hearst, Horace Greeley, and Joseph Pulitzer were busily founding their own news empires. All purported to be dedicated to defending the public against both government and corporate abuses, but it isn’t without cause that their papers became known as the “yellow press.” Hearst’s jingoistic rantings about the sinking of the warship Maine are often credited with starting the Spanish-American War, for instance.

This is not to say that all reporting and all news organizations were equally slanted. While the New York Times was not without its shameless stories, it had been founded on the principle of balanced reporting. When Tammany Hall’s William Marcy “Boss” Tweed offered George Jones, the Times publisher, a five million dollar bribe in 1873, the newspaper not only turned down the money, it printed the full details of the story. Boss Tweed was unseated and subscription numbers for the Times soared. The other major dailies couldn’t help but take notice. A journalistic conscience was dawning.

investigative reporting gains a foothold

During the 1890s, a new school of reporters, among them, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair, began exposing corruption at all levels of government and business. For the most part, these authors were published in smaller periodicals, but the public responded, demanding change and the impact of investigative journalism became increasingly apparent.

News reporting on both sides of the Atlantic became more deferential during the period surrounding World War I. Among the critics of this more subdued era was Walter Lippman, who castigated the New York Times, which had declared the Russian Revolution “nothing short of a disaster.”

This was wishful thinking on the part of the editors, said Lippman, who wrote that the coverage not only cheated the public of real information, it “was about as useful as that of an astrologer or alchemist.” He recommended that any journalist “remain clear and free of his irrational, his unexamined, his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing, understanding and presenting the news.”

journalistic ethics take hold

During the 1920s, Universities began tackling journalism as a realm of study. Textbooks appeared that explored concepts of accuracy, fairness, conflict of interest, transparency, and the protection of privacy. For the first time, objective reporting became an imperative within professional journalistic circles.
Additionally, newspapers were no longer the only source for news. Filmed newsreels began appearing in movie theaters and radio was becoming increasingly popular. The first radio station, KDKA, launched in Pittsburgh in 1920. By 1922, there were 576 radio stations broadcasting across the United States. By 1925, there were more than five million receivers in homes.

A major difference between print publishing and broadcasting in the United States is that broadcast radio and network television are subject to government licensing and, in some cases, censorship. The original rationale for licensing was based on the scarce number of frequencies available for broadcasting. Winning and retaining a license requires adhering to sometimes vague guidelines ostensibly aimed at supporting the “public good.” New technologies mitigate the scarcity argument, and indeed, satellite radio and cable television are not bound by the same strictures, but violations of the Federal Broadcast Indecency Statute by those still bound can lead to large fines and revocation of license.

Through the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II during the 1940s, news media continued a process of consolidation, with ever fewer outlets controlling more and more news. This gave rise to a new suite of media critics, among them A.J. Liebling, who penned the now famous line, “Freedom of the press is for those who own one.”

It wasn’t until the Red Scare of the 1950s that television assumed prominence among news audiences. Anti-Communist rhetoric was fast convincing many citizens that national security required censure of any who dared voice alternate views. Many journalists followed in lockstep, particularly after the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee began issuing its subpoenas, but a few brave souls, like Ed Murrow of CBS, refused to be intimidated. Murrow used his airtime to appeal to the public’s higher principles. His thorough and well-reasoned reports were instrumental in the downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy and in tempering American sentiment.

At odds with his bosses over his editorial stance, Murrow found much still lacking in modern journalism. In a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958, he said, “During the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: Look Now. Pay Later.”

modern news takes shape

By the 1960s, the youth of America, along with a growing number of older sympathizers, were adamantly opposed to the racial divides at home and the Vietnam War abroad. The unrest was fueled by an explosion of photocopied posters, pamphlets and periodicals, as well as unlicensed, low-power, radio transmissions. The I.F. Stone Weekly, distinguished by the rigor and fearlessness of its eponymous founder, served as a bellwether for many early “citizen journalist” periodicals, among them the Berkeley Barb, Ramparts, the Seed in Chicago, the East Village Other and The Village Voice in New York, and the Los Angeles Free Press. Rolling Stone made its mark on popular culture by managing to publish investigative pieces while still attracting mainstream advertisers.

The Watergate scandals and the release of the Pentagon Papers during the 1970s, along with the Iran-Contra affair during the 1980s, deepened a distrust of government while giving rise to a few mainstream media stars, chief among them the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The New York Times, determined to not let a competing paper dominate future stories, responded by creating a formal team of investigative reporters. CBS television launched 60 Minutes, which quickly rose to the top of network news rankings.

The 1980s witnessed a further consolidation within media, with four press associations—Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and Agence France-Press providing more than 90 percent of all international news. By the 1990s, a handful of newspaper groups owned most daily newspapers in the United States. All were struggling as advertising revenues declined, with further mergers and coalitions blurring the lines between print and broadcast media.

Adding to traditional media’s woes was the emergence of the Internet. By 1997, when the Dallas Morning News decided to break its story about Timothy McVeigh’s confession to the Oklahoma City bombing on its website rather than waiting for the morning paper, the Web had become a formidable platform for distribution of news.

blogs gain momentum

With the introduction of simple-to-use blogging software in 1998, the barn doors opened wide. By the time the Katrina hurricane hit, major news outlets were taking advantage of cell phone images and reports from citizens on the ground. Bloggers were instrumental in generating the first public lists of survivors. And perhaps most importantly, citizen bloggers have continued to document the realities of life in post-storm New Orleans long after traditional media had moved on.

Citizen journalism still has some rough edges—indeed, it will probably always have some rough edges—but it is increasingly clear that there is no way to map today’s media landscape without acknowledging its growing presence. Citizen journalist blogs belong to a long tradition of news reporting that is full of responsibilities, privileges, and hard-won rights. What’s more, they foster a level of engagement on the part of citizens that may bode well for democracy.

Hopefully, this chapter has helped to provide a bit of context for bloggers who choose to serve as reporters. As the next chapter will illustrate, the oft-cited line between reporting and editorializing can be a difficult one to negotiate, but acknowledging the difference will help any blogger to present information that is truthful, useful, and that won’t come back to bite them. Readers worried about this latter point may want to take a bit of extra time with Chapter 12, Keeping It Legal.”

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