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July 29, 2004

"There is an Orthodoxy to Our Thinking." Thomas B. Edsall of the Washington Post on How Blogs Can Enliven Journalism

"I spend the first thing in the morning and also before I go to bed sort of scanning the blogs, and in all honesty I read Wonkette because I find it amusing." Five minutes from the Washington Post's political writer Thomas B. Edsall, speaking from the convention on why political weblogs count for him as a journalist, and what they are good at-- busting up group think in the newsroom. "Pretend journalists?" Edsall doesn't think so.

BOSTON, July 29: Around 4 pm on Monday of convention week, when I finally got myself equipped and online, I opened my e-mail and found this note sent to me by professor Thomas L. McPhail of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Jay: Do you tell your j students that they are wasting their time getting a j degree, rather they should just run out and become bloogers and pretend journalists with no commitment to ethics, laws, fairness etc. Tom McPhail ps how are the bloogers at the DNC? I am afraid that in the charge to get the scoop of the conference, that they may send out unedited or unchecked rumours as if it/they were fact. Thanks

That’s not the kind of note you edit or change in any way, and I haven’t touched it. Now this is the same professor Thomas L. McPhail of the University of Missouri-St. Louis who wound up in dueling quotes with your correpondent (me) in the text of a USA Today article some weeks ago, previewing bloggers at the convention. (It also made Romenesko, the daily bulletin board for journalists.) Here’s his quote:

That bloggers get front seats bothers Tom McPhail, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri: ”They’re certainly not committed to being objective. They thrive on rumor and innuendo,” McPhail says. Bloggers ”should be put in a different category, like ‘pretend’ journalists.”

It didn’t seem right not to reply to Professor McPhail, who is, after all, a professional colleague. But what to say?

On day three of the Democratic National Convention, I went over to the Washington Post’s tent to interview political reporter Thomas Edsall about a wide range of subjects, all pivoting off the convention and some of the ideas in my prior posts. (Day One, Day Two)

The interview runs 42 minutes and it covers a lot of ground. My plan is to edit it down to five minute sections on topical themes, and offer it in parts over the next few days (weeks.)

Who is Thomas B. Edsall? One of my favorite journalists. A writer for The Washington Post who regularly reports on national politics, taxes, and campaign finances. Been reporting on politics and government for 35 years. From an online bio:

Prior to joining the Washington Post in 1981, Mr. Edsall was a reporter at the Providence Journal Bulletin and the Baltimore Sun. Mr. Edsall is the author of two books, The New Politics of Inequality and Power and Money. He is the co-editor of The Reagan Legacy: A Nation Adrift and has contributed to numerous other edited works, including Deadlock: The Inside Story of Americašs Closest Election. With his wife Mary, he is co-author of Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics. Chain Reaction was a Nominated Finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in the category General Non-Fiction. In addition to his work at the Post, Mr. Edsall has written regularly for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly.

So that’s who he is. Now here he is in the Post during convention week:

For Lobbyists, Big Spending Means Big Presence
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page A01

BOSTON, July 27 — Lobbyists Tony and Heather Podesta are working the crowd at a reception in an art museum for big donors to House Democrats….

McAuliffe Is Dems’ Comeback Kid
DNC Chair Fought for Stability, Financial Strength
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A22

BOSTON, July 25 — On Monday night, Terence R. McAuliffe’s party will hail him as a hero, the first Democratic chairman in decades to put the party on secure financial footing…

Among the many things he and I touched on was the bloggers. Edsall brought up the subject (I didn’t) because he reads blogs daily, once in the morning and at night, he said. (Edsall was a key player in the Trent Lott downed-by-weblogs story. For the background see this.)

By way of reply to Tom McPhail and his note about “bloogers” (sic) I offer five minutes of my conversation with the Washington Post’s Tom Edsall— on why political weblogs count for him as a journalist, and what their advantages are:

Click here for audio: Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post on the blogs and why they matter. (interview with Jay Rosen, July 28, 2004)

One highlight:

JR: One reason the blogs might be able to do that is that they are an antidote to group think within the journalism profession itself. Even though you have a lot of arguments about what’s news, and you have smart people who know a lot, there still are certain ways that journalists think [in] the same fashion. And the Trent Lott piece is a good example.

The kid who got the story originally asked more senior people, is there anything to this? “Nah, there’s nothing to this.” And so the blogs may have an enlivening effect on journalism because they’re not just another pair of eyes, they’re people interested in the same things as journalists who don’t think the same way. Possible?

Thomas Edsall: I think absolutely. We in journalism— there’s an orthodoxy to our thinking. You can come up with an idea and you know it’s sort of verbotten, or they’re gonna say, “oh, that’s only worth ten inches,” and they’re gonna put you inside the paper. It’s not worth the fight.

The blogs can sort of break the ice and make it clear that there is something pretty strange or pretty unique or pretty interesting or pretty awful about something that, given our way of looking at things— which tends to be very straight line: is it illegal, is it this, will somebody criticize it? That kind of stuff.

They have the potential and actually do open a lot of doors. There’s a lot of junk, but there’s an awful lot of good stuff too.

Listen to the rest. (MP3 format, 5:03 in length.)

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

This just in… Today I struck a handshake deal to blog the Republican Convention in New York for Knight-Ridder, so I’ll be going. Of course, PressThink will benefit too.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 29, 2004 10:24 AM