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July 25, 2004

Dispatches From the Un-Journalists

Bloggers who will be filing reports from Boston don't know in advance that what they are doing is meaningless. This can be an advantage. Here's my "convention preview" piece that ran in Newsday today.

This was published Sunday morning in the Opinion section of Newsday— without links, of course. It ran under the title, “Bloggers will file reports from Boston that could close big gaps in the media’s coverage.”


July 25, 2004

Richard Benedetto of Gannett News reported the news on July 11: “Conventions today are little more than weeklong, made-for-TV infomercials and pep rallies for the party, its candidates and its luminaries.”

Brian Faler in The Washington Post had the story earlier, on July 5: “The conventions have become carefully staged productions intended, primarily, to reintroduce the parties’ nominees to the general public.”

On July 15 it was Reuters, quoting “political experts,” who have discovered: “What was once an exciting and occasionally unpredictable way to pick presidential and vice presidential candidates has descended into empty ritual - set-piece events that are infomercials for Democrats and Republicans.”

But back on May 25, a Boston Globe editorial had the scoop, with an upbeat twist: “Even though everyone knows that conventions have become staged events with little real drama, the nominee usually gets a lift in standing from a week of being bathed in favorable publicity.”

You get the drift. Starting today, about 30,000 people will begin assembling in Boston for an event - the Democratic National Convention - that, according to the press, is “staged,” a “set-piece,” an “infomercial,” an “empty ritual,” and, perhaps the cruelest characterization of all, “little more than a reality show.” That was Rick Lyman in The New York Times, July 4.

As proof of this sad state of affairs, observers cite the dwindling hours when the conventions are broadcast in prime time by the major networks. What used to be “gavel-to-gavel” coverage, in the 1960s and ’70s, is now down to three hours - one a night for three nights. That’s how bad it’s become.

Still, there are facts in open view that don’t quite fit this picture. One of the odder ones is that 15,000 journalists and media hands will be in Boston for the big infomercial shoot.

A regular citizen, trying to take seriously what journalists say about political conventions, might have trouble understanding the mobilization of this army for an event declared newsless in advance - by its own scouts!

Roger Simon of U.S. News (who’ll be in Boston) tried to explain. “Even though 99 percent of it is predictable,” he told Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post, “you always have to be prepared as a reporter for something unpredictable. That’s why we’re there - just in case.”

An army of 15,000 protecting against the 1 percent chance that reality will break out? It seems kind of odd. (Reporting and analysis of a pep rally - that’s odd, too.)

Look a little closer and other puzzles present themselves.

Take this comment from Gannett’s Benedetto, who said conventions do still have value: “Voters who really want to know who the candidates are and what they stand for can get a pretty good primer if they watch the conventions.”

Apparently, then, “infomercials and pep rallies” - his words - make for a good briefing on the election. (“Hey, how was the pep rally?” “Great, I learned so much!”)

And what’s the difference, finally, between contempt for an “empty ritual” and contempt for those millions who are influenced by it, watch it, learn from it, attend and participate in it? It’s the kind of question I would like to ask Benedetto.

And I may do that, if I see him in Boston, because I will be there, with credentials to report on the event, along with 30 to 40 other authors who write and publish their own weblogs - some with an online user base nearing 100,000, others far less (mine is 5,000 or so in a good week). This is the first time the “bloggers,” as they’re called, will be invited to join the media crowd.

Often called “online journals,” blogs are self-publishing in action: Web pages, typically written by one person and updated several times a day, with commentary on the news, links to what other blogs are saying, reactions to major events, and—for the successful ones—a devoted following on the Web. Some have comment sections where the users debate things.

There are more than 3 million weblogs on all topics, but the ones that have drawn the most attention, and won credentials in Boston, are mainly about politics and public life - with no pretense of neutrality. Dave Winer, who has been doing his blog since 1997, calls a weblog “the unedited voice of one person.”

I think the bloggers have something to add:

They don’t know in advance that what they are doing is meaningless; if they did, they wouldn’t do it.

They don’t assume that a ritual is an empty ritual simply because it obeys a script, since this is the very essence of ritual, as any Boy Scout or churchgoer can tell you.

Although we’re told that “bloggers wear their politics on their sleeves,” and things like that, politics is a personal matter for most of them - not a professional interest. Their communication style is citizen-to-citizen, rather than expert-to-layman or media to “mass.”

Journalists are sent by their editors and bosses to cover the convention. Bloggers are “sent,” in effect, by the people who read their accounts and find use for them. Some bloggers heading to Boston have been asking their users, “What do you want to know about when I get there?” How many reporters do that?

People have subscriptions to newspapers. People have relationships to the blogs they follow. Here’s what Amy Wohl, a blogger herself, wrote on July 21: “Those of us who are watching the (convention) from afar will be counting on those of you who are blogging from ‘inside’ to try to see the real story - the one the official journalists won’t write. Be curious, be candid, be passionate, and try to tell us not just what you are seeing and thinking, but why.”

Journalists have learned to split themselves off from the public, and talk about it as an “other,” almost a thing with behavior patterns of its own. Bloggers are more embedded with the public, which to them is not so much an “it” as a “we.” David Weinberger, whose blog reports will run on the Boston Globe’s Web site as well as his own, wrote: “I can’t even anticipate how cynical or filled with spirit I’ll be; I am, after all, perfectly capable of crying at a good political speech.”

Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It’s a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence.

What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed. For journalists the politics at the conventions is no mystery - this is a marketing moment and there is nothing to discover. To the bloggers, or at least to this one, there is always mystery when hope and belief coalesce around a human being, a candidate. And even though I know that will happen, I am still going there to discover it.

Jay Rosen is chair of the journalism department at New York University and the author of PressThink (, a weblog.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Listen here to NPR’s On the Media report on bloggers and the conventions.

David Weiberger in comments: “I’m approaching this primarily as someone traveling to a new country, reporting back to friends on the strange habits and rituals of the locals.”

This one, I thuink, is going to cause a big stir in the blog world: Daniel Okrent, public editor of the New York Times: Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?: His answer: Of course it is.

And I am gone… to the train station. Next dispatches will be from Boston.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 25, 2004 9:12 AM