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March 15, 2004

The Legend of Trent Lott and the Weblogs

A new study from the Kennedy School pinpoints what happened between Big Media and the blogs in the case of Trent Lott. It does not portray weblogs as lead actor, but as reactor to a story that almost disappeared. A certain receptivity in the bloggers allowed judgment in the press to correct itself.

I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.
— Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, Dec. 5, 2002

One way to learn that pack journalism is real is to be caught outside the pack with a story it does not recognize. This happened to Ed O’Keefe, a young “off-air reporter” for ABC News in Washington, who happened to be in the room when Trent Lott, then the most powerful man in the United States Senate, gave remarks that embraced the spirit of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 campaign for president. O’Keefe knew enough about that campaign to find Lott’s words shocking, and he said to himself, “This is news.”

But Washington journalism said back to him: we don’t think so.

O’Keefe’s judgment later won out. Pack judgment was wrong— in this case, extremely so. Lott became the first majority leader in Senate history to resign under pressure. How it all happened is told in the new case study from Harvard’s Kennedy School, “Big Media” Meets the “Bloggers.” (By Esther Scott, supervised by Alex Jones of the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government. Available only in pdf form here.)

My favorite moment in the story is when O’Keefe’s counterpart at another network asks a more senior producer in the Washington bureau to look at what Lott said that evening at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. “No, I don’t think it’s anything” says the more experienced pro.

This gave O’Keefe some pause, causing him to second-guess his judgment. “I think there is something to the [notion] of pack journalism,” he reflects, “of individuals believing that if something is noteworthy, … everyone will get it… If they didn’t all get it, then it couldn’t possibly be a newsworthy item.”

The conservative writer David Frum would later call Lott’s words, “the most emphatic repudiation of desegregation to be heard from a national political figure since George Wallace’s first presidential campaign.” But when “everyone” didn’t get it, O’Keefe began to doubt himself. That’s how group think works.

The Harvard study has gotten notice in Blogistan, but its stingy formatting (the pdf is encrypted and won’t allow you to cut and paste) has been discussed in greater depth than the story it tells, perhaps because we think the events are well known. According to legend—partially confirmed by the report—webloggers from Left and Right were responsible for pushing the Trent Lott story into the news, after the mainstream media missed it.

“The Internet’s First Scalp” said John Podhoretz in the New York Post. That’s hyperbole, but the report makes clear that webloggers had a crucial role. It also delimits and describes that role. Now we know more precisely why—and when—the bloggers were needed.

There’s another way to read this sequence of events, however. The report does not portray the blogs as lead actor, but as intelligent reactor to an event of neglect (similar to an act of omission) within professional newsrooms, where the story of Lott’s remarks languished and nearly died. The case study is largely about herd thinking in the press, and the illusion that “news” jumps out at everyone simultaneously.

Other than a brief item that ABC ran at 4:30 am on December 6th, television news did nothing with the story, initially. This is due in part to the strange effects of the “24-hour news cycle” in television, a creature that has its own demands and even a kind of inner logic. What it does not have is the gift of human judgment. Strangely, humans in the system understand this deficit.

“Part of the problem, O’Keefe points out, was that “there had to be a reaction” that the network could air alongside Lott’s remarks, and “we had no on-camera reaction” available the evening of the party, when the news was still fresh. By the following night, he adds, “you’re dealing with the news cycle: 24 hours later— that’s old news.”

Let’s review what the news cycle is saying. There is a logic here, but of course it is circular:

X happens. We do not report X. Nor do we solicit and air reactions to X. The next day, we ask ourselves: is X still news? It’s true, no one in the nation knows about X, which entitles the nation to say, “X is still news to us,” but look at the facts. X surfaced yesterday, right? That’s old news by our definition. And today we find there are no reactions to what we did not report yesterday. Sorry, X. Your existence may be news to Americans out there. But not to us, the keepers of the cycle. Next time, don’t be surfacing in one or two places “yesterday” if you want to be news today.

“News stories,” says Josh Marshall in the report, “have a 24 hour audition on the news stage, and if they don’t catch fire in that 24 hours, there’s no second chance.” O’Keefe had one success during this interval. He got the story online and into The Note, the most blog-like medium at ABC News. This in turn gave it to the weblogs.

Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post was the exception in the establishment press. He heard about Lott’s statements from a Style section reporter who covered the party qua party. Then he read the key quote in The Note. “And at that point I began to press that we should do a story on that quote.” Edsall is the author of Chain Reaction, a forceful book on race and American politics. He had earlier written a series of articles for the Post about Trent Lott and his connection to the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a “racialist” group and a remnant of segregation in the South.

Still, the Post editors didn’t think much of Lott’s remarks as news, and they tried to confine Edsall to a paragraph or two. He had to write his 660-word story and show it to them before they could see any real news in it. This is where prominent webloggers like Josh Marshall, Atrios, Glenn Reynolds, but also others entered in. They and their readers (200,000 people at most) were a back-up alert system, another sphere where the story could circulate, register with people, and provoke a response. Reactions and rumblings from across the blogs were thus a kind of proxy for public reaction that had not been able to emerge.

But the blogs got only temporary custody of a story that originated in a small corner of the national press on December 6th, and became big news on December 10th, with just a few days (Dec. 6-9, 2002) for the blogs to operate as bridge narrator. “For the most part,” Atrios says in the study, “the influence of blogs is limited to the degree to which they have influence on the rest of the media. Except for the very top hit-getting sites, blogs need to be amplified by media with bigger megaphones.”

A key point. Weblogs may continue to exert some influence on the news, but it won’t come by grabbing the attention of the broader public, gaining major traffic, or displacing the national press as a news source. Political blogs need the press; they are parasitic on the flow of news. They can still have an effect, however, by debating the mainstream news mind, correcting for errors and blind spots, further sifting and refining the flow. And by activating passions and commitments long ago driven from daily journalism, blogs force news through the argument test, which in this case showed that Lott had few defenders, Left or Right. That was news too.

The Web legend about Trent Lott’s demise says “the blogs kept the story alive,” and this is basically accurate, but it misses why journalism needed weblogs for that. To understand how Lott’s words were a political deed, and to see how they might be made into news, some specific background knowledge in American history was required. (The case study doesn’t tell us how, but Ed O’Keefe knew his history.)

The chances that this critical background knowledge would be missing are close to zero in Blogistan’s reaction to the fateful words. But the chances were very high indeed in newsroom discussion of what Lott said, and in the reactions of journalists on the scene. When we can identify what blogs actually do better than journalists, the idea of weblogs as corrective starts to make some sense.

Here, certain differentials in how knowledge is quickly mobilized for discussion may give weblogs an advantage in estimating the import of things spinning by in the news cycle. Another advantage, perhaps, is the quality of deliberation as the blogs talk among themselves, compared to newsroom deliberation—journalists talking among themselves—over the same stretch of time. I admit these are speculations, but they find general support in the Kennedy School study.

Also required to “get” the story was a certain receptivity (an ear) that seemed to be missing in many Washington journalists. Lott had become too familiar to be revealed by his own words. “Seems the blogosphere is way ahead on this one,” said Glenn Reynolds on the morning after Thurmond’s birthday party. “Where’s everybody else?”

What news was heard that night when Lott rose to speak depended entirely on prior knowledge that a journalist either did or did not have about race, Southern politics, and the re-alignment of the political parties during the civil rights era. It also helped to know something of Trent Lott’s career in Mississippi, going back to his college years at Ole Miss. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t hear anything special in his praise of Thurmond and the Dixiecrats of 1948. A party platform Edsall dug up summarizes it well: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”

Well, bloggers did know this background, and they went right to it. Atrios, for example, printed the official Democratic Party ballot in Mississippi from 1948. “Get in the fight for State’s rights— fight for Thurmond and Wright,” it said. Esther Scott writes: “Bloggers weighed in quickly on Lott, offering readers a short course on Dixiecrat politics and their own acid commentary on the matter.”

That the blogs provided, almost overnight, that “short course on Dixiecrat politics” was one reason they could play corrective to the news machine. It happens to be one of the properties of the weblog system at this stage, especially the political blogs that touch the membranes of professional journalism most often (Marshall, Atrios, Reynolds, the Daily Kos, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Cal Pundit are some examples.) The blogs don’t originate much, but they are quick to import knowledge that is often missing from the news. In this—and the “acid commentary”—lies their originality.

Free from the craziness of the 24-hour news cycle (and from some of the reflexes in press think) the blogs, their users, and the links among them work as a second filter added to the news flow. The blog sphere sifts through information, rescuing facts and arguments from the cycle’s strange habits, while loosening up the lines of debate. The case study says:

What journalists found when they visited these weblogs would not be new stories, but a closer look at those that were of interest to the blogger. “There is very little—though some—original reporting on weblogs,” Atrios observes, “…It’s more about focusing on stories which would otherwise be buried or simply focusing on key details from stories which may be overlooked….” For a blogger like Marshall, providing what he calls “a kind of counter-conversation to what’s going on in the mainstream media, particularly the national daily newspapers, was [a] driving force in his weblog writing.

Counter-conversation gets it right. The initial verdict on Lott, “No, I don’t think it’s anything” called out for a counter opinion, which the blogs gave. According to Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News, the press “is usually not in the business of saying, ‘Oh my God, this is outrageous.’” It would prefer to have someone else take that step. But journalists will go trolling about for strong responses, an act considered within their authority.

Very often, Halperin observes, the he said/she said cycle is “what it takes not only to make something a story, but for journalists to realize that there is a story.” This outsourcing of news judgment is most extreme in the case of television news. And it’s another reason weblogs can have influence. For they are in the business of saying, “this is outrageous.”

On Monday, March 14, what might be a landmark in press studies was released by the Project on Excellence in Journalism. The State of the News Media is a 500-page report that attempts to account for the alarming, but also churning and complicated condition of the news business today. One of the themes is capital withdrawal, which I would contrast to the better weblogger’s willing investment in time, energy and quality flow. The industry trend is clear in this passage, under “News Investment.”

When AOL purchased Time Warner in 2001, one early move of the new company’s executives…was to institute a cost per minute analysis of the network. How much did it cost Fox News to produce a minute of its news versus CNN to produce a minute of its programming? The result of the AOL analysis was this: CNN was spending too much. It needed to rid itself of people and bureaus— as it turned out including many of its more senior journalists… In quick succession, some of CNN’s most familiar on-camera faces were gone, as well as many behind-the-scenes staff.

And those are the people with knowledge. What the “counter-conversation” is countering includes this trend.

Big Media Meets the Bloggers, Kennedy School case study

Seth Finkelstein at Infothought on the case study.

Glenn Reynolds on declining investment in news quality. Jeff Jarvis has a reply.

See also: PressThink, The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism.

John Naughton in the Guardian (March 14, 2004: Power to the bloggers? That’s only half the story

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 15, 2004 1:16 AM