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February 10, 2005

Blog Storm Troopers or Pack Journalism at its Best?

"A good number of PressThink readers think I am in error for tracking the Eason Jordan story as closely as I have. By writing about the furor I am voting for it, and in some sense endorsing it, they say." Plus: Who broke the story? And Steve Lovelady blasts Hugh Hewitt.

UPDATE, 7:00 pm, Feb. 11: Eason Jordan resigns.

1. Release the Tape.

Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix asks at his Media Log: Where’s the Tape?

Like Kennedy, I was in the “reserve judgment until we hear for ourselves” camp on Eason Jordan’s comments. But we may never hear for ourselves. The World Economic Forum is not thinking ahead when it says it will withold the tape of the event. It doesn’t realize how bad it looks when it offers the public this account instead, which does not even mention the events in question. (An AP story about those events finally made the New York Times today, at 8:22 pm.)

“What Jordan said in Davos has become a big enough story about an important enough institution that it’s time for all of us to have a chance to judge for ourselves,” Kennedy writes. And I agree with that. (An online petition about it.) I also agree with Robert Cox of The National Debate who said to an e-mail list we’re both on: “Right-wing bloggers have swarmed.” They “think they have the next Rathergate when they may well have the next Kerry Intern rumor.” We still have to see the tape to know.

Jim Geraghty of the National Review Online had a similar thought: “Unfortunately, I think the effort to get to the bottom of this has been hampered by… an eagerness to get to the full-throated denunciation of Jordan before the fact-gathering is finished.” Definitely true.

2. The Enabler.

A good number of PressThink readers think I am in error for tracking the Eason Jordan story as closely as I have. By writing about the furor I am voting for it, and in some sense endorsing it, they say. (See this comment thread.) It’s an argument worth having. Today’s post at the blog Reading A1 is called Blogstorm troopers. It speaks of a “serious disappointment… that the last three entries at PressThink are taken up with the Eason Jordan flap,” which is “[Hugh] Hewitt’s hobbyhorse for the last couple of weeks now.” I am called the “enabler of that agenda in giving the issue such sustained and exclusive attention.”

Judge for yourself. In my first post about Eason Jordan I said I was reserving judgment, and I provided links to eyewitness accounts so readers could judge… or reserve. In my second I gave some background on the political nature of Jordan’s job, and the diplomacy it requires. In the third I published without comment the statement of an eyewitness, Richard Sambrook of the BBC, generally seen as friendly to Jordan. Am I enabling his agenda?

Comparison: Here is a journalist writing about the “Jeff Gannon” storm, and devoting to it quite a lot of space. Is Dan Froomkin stoking the flames with this kind of attention? Not in my view.

Yet I think the fear and disgust in A1’s phrase, “Blogstorm troopers” is part of the blogging story now. (See this and this, for example.) Whether you agree or not in the case of Jordan’s remarks, suspicion of the blog swarm is not crazy or wrong, and fear of mob-like actions by bloggers and others online is going to continue to speak to people, for the same reason invasions of privacy by the press always speak across ideological divides. It doesn’t take much to imagine the mob coming at you.

On the other hand:

Media critic [Jack] Shafer said the sheer immensity of the blog response forced the story onto newspaper front pages. “What they were practicing was virtuous pack journalism,” he said. “Everybody thinks pack journalism is bad, but sometimes, like on 9/11, you want a pack. This was pack journalism at its best.”

3. Gate Think.

Attaching the suffix “gate” to things is not something you will catch PressThink doing. (If you do, alert me right away.) It’s lazy and it’s dumb. Call X a “gate” before X has much event-ness at all and you’re halfway to a ginned-up controversy. You’ve launched another cliché. All “gate” narratives arrive pre-banalized, their scandals in a sense pre-lived. (“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up!” for example, or Joe Scarborough: “There’s a cancer growing at CNN…”)

If it’s all dubbed Easongate we don’t have to think of a description that fits what’s actually known. The shorthand wants to short circuit; that’s the strength of “gate” thinking. It’s not that I know how to title such a story: What Eason Jordan Said is about the best I can do. And as a tactical move, another day at the office in scandal culture, Easongate works perfectly well. That’s the problem.

4. “CNN was not interested in taking on this fight.”

I was asked, as I know others were, whether I wanted to defend Eason Jordan on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes, Feb. 9th. I said no thank you. I thought someone who worked with him should do that.

But Fox producers had a better idea. They got Danny Schechter of MediaChannel, who felt there was a case to be made for journalists as targets because he had aired that case in his documentary film, Weapons of Mass Deception. He had already “reached out,” as he put it, to Eason Jordan.

Schechter, a former producer at both CNN and ABC, now an independent with his own production company, had asked Jordan to “help me get on CNN to discuss and debate the issue.” At his News Dissector blog, Schechter wrote:

I was hoping CNN might call and we reached out to Lou Dobbs and Aaron Brown to no avail.

I guess CNN was not interested in taking on this fight.

But Fox News was. Fox is always at war with CNN which it brands as a liberal network, a label CNN does not want or like. And so Fox scheduled a segment and asked if I was interested. When I told them I had a film documenting the attack on the Palestine Hotel, they were doubly interested.

This is an important observation about Fox. There are certain situations in which Fox is the network more open to controversial ideas, or in “taking on” a fight, as Schechter put it. “Conservative bloggers went into action by criticizing the rest of the media for not covering the story,” he wrote. “Their assumption: Jordan is lying.” His: Jordan has reason to worry, if you look at what’s happened to journalists in Iraq.

Eason, seemingly shaken by all the heat coming down on him for discussing something that many journalists and press freedom groups like the International Federation of Journalists has been discussing, began to withdraw from the controversy he stirred.

Schechter was willing to advance the controversy: “That there’s been a policy that has favored embedded journalists over independent journalists, that many Arab journalists were hassled, harassed and killed in Iraq under suspicious circumstances.” (Audio from Hannity and Colmes; transcript.)

I asked him whether it was easier to get ideas like that onto Fox News Channel, as compared to the other networks. “Fox likes to have people they perceive as hardliners on,” he said. “For example years ago Jeff Cohen of Fair was a regular on their press show but he could never get on CNN Cross Fire. They like polarization and heat. They want their viewers to see liberals as radicals and often have on radicals who they call liberals.”

And what about CNN, where he once worked? “CNN is more timid, aiming at insiders, as moderate and reasonable, etc…. more controlled.” It’s strange, but Schechter’s defense of CNN’s Eason Jordan may have only been possible on Fox. As Rebecca MacKinnon put it, “CNN turns its back on its own.”

5. Blog Storm Skepticism.

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily (formerly Campaign Desk) e-mailed PressThink with a reaction to the blog storm, and criticism of one of its leaders, Hugh Hewitt, who has broadcast the Jordan story on several platforms— his blog, his radio show, a television appearence with Chris Matthews, the Weekly Standard. Lovelady, formerly an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal among other stops, doesn’t trust what he’s seeing:

I have to confess, this tempest in a teapot that Hugh Hewitt is trying to stir up over Eason Jordan leaves me baffled. First, Eason has already said his remarks were misinterpreted, and that he was not imputing intent.

But he’s more than a little dismayed by the number of reporters killed by friendly fire, and why shouldn’t he be? If he weren’t, he would be shirking his job as a boss who regularly has to send reporters into harm’s way. Furthermore, it’s not like Eason is the first to bring up this issue. Two highly-regarded professional organizations, the Committee to Protect Journalists (“Permission to Fire”) and Reporters Without Borders (“Two Murders and a Life”), have issued reports on this problem.

And numerous blogs and websites have done their own work, most recently Resonant Information. Hugh needs to come out of his conservative cocoon and get a life— not to mention a more comprehensive reading list.

This whole matter really exasperates me — and makes me think all over again that all too many bloggers (Hugh Hewitt foremost among them) are little more than the equivalent of the idiots lined up at any sports bar critiquing the athletes giving up their hearts and their guts on the playing field.

Lovelady posted similar text at Romenesko’s Letters column (Feb. 10, 2:40 pm) which means he wanted to be heard. I asked Hewitt if he wanted to reply. This is what he sent:

1. The tape should be released and it will answer all questions. I do not believe Jordan’s comments are harmless, and I suspect Senator Christopher Dodd’s “outrage” is the reaction that most Americans would have if they heard the tape;

2. Given Jordan’s comments to another foreign audience —in Portugal, and quoted in the November 19 Guardian, the burden of proof is clearly on Jordan to show he was not enagaged in anti-American pandering. Does Lovelady believe the tape should be released? Either he favors the public being given the facts, or he favors a cover-up. Jordan’s silence on the release of the tape tells us a great deal about the tenor of his remarks.

3. At least three of the bloggers runing Easongate are veterans, and it is my belief that their outrage is a reflection of widespread outrage among the military at being falsely slimed as at best undisciplined and at worst as murderers. I think defenders of Jordan need to understand they are defending the practice of side swiping the military.

6. Who Broke the Story?

Almost all accounts of this event, including my own, begin with the eyewitness account by Rony Albovitz, Jan. 28 at the World Economic Forum’s blog. As Robert Cox put it, “this is a truly blogger-driven story since the original reporting was on the official WEF blog.”

That’s what I thought, too. It’s what everyone thought. But that claim has come under question and no one seems to have noticed. According to the New York Sun’s story (Feb. 8):

The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, who covered the panel for his paper, told the Sun that after the panel concluded, Mr. Jordan was surrounded by European and Middle Eastern attendees who warmly congratulated him for his alleged “bravery and candor” in discussing the matter.

Mr. Stephens broke the news of Mr. Jordan’s statements for his paper’s “political diary” blog.

Turns out a Mr. Stephens of the Wall Street Journal editorial page broke the story, not Rony Abovitz, the blogger whom I just saw on MSNBC. Did you catch that? Bret Stephens put the news in an e-mail newsletter available by subscription from the Wall Street Journal, the Political Diary. It is not on the Web. The Sun reporter was incorrect: The Diary is not a blog. You cannot link to it. It comes to your IN box if you pay the freight ($3.95 a month.)

Pretty straight forward as a business proposition. As a journalism proposition, not so simple. That you can break stories in a private e-mail newsletter, and never mind whether word reaches other writers, or the Web, or the Wall Street Journal itself… this is not self-evident to me. It sounds rather 1983. What does Roderick Boyd of the Sun mean when he says “Mr. Stephens broke the news of Mr. Jordan’s statements,” when, as far as the entire online discussion knew, the story originated in this account on the Web? (See his note on it in the After section.)

I asked some bloggers and no one had the Political Diary item. So LaShawn Barber posted about it, and one of her readers sent it in— the account Bret Stephens penned for publication on Jan. 28, the same date that Rony Abovitz posted Do US Troops Target Journalists in Iraq? at the Forumblog. Barber ran the Diary item, which I re-post here. This would have gone to several thousand e-mail subscribers.

Pandering, CNN-Style

DAVOS: Is the American military deliberately killing foreign journalists including Western journalists covering Iraq?

Yes, they are, says Eason Jordan, Chief News Executive of CNN News. Or, rather, no, they’re not. Or, perhaps, maybe, sort of, in a sneaky kind of way. Speaking at a panel session on democracy and the media at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Mr. Jordan startled his audience and fellow panelists— including Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and former presidential aide David Gergen—by implying as much.

First, he noted that of the 60-odd journalists killed in Iraq, 12 had been targeted and killed by Coalition forces. Then he offered the story of an Al-Jazeera journalist who had been “tortured for weeks” at Abu Ghraib, made to eat his shoes, and called “Al Jazeera boy” by his American captors. Mr. Frank, the liberal Democrat Congressman, asked Mr. Jordan to be more specific: Had U.S. forces actually killed foreign journalists on purpose? And had CNN done a story about it? Well, no, CNN hadn’t done a story on that specifically. And, no, he didn’t himself believe the U.S. government had a policy to target journalists. And besides, the [U.S.] generals and colonels have their heart in the right place.

So what remained of the allegation? “There are people who believe there are people in the military who have it out” for journalists, said Mr. Jordan. He then offered another anecdote: A reporter who’d been standing in a long line to get through a checkpoint at Baghdad’s Green Zone had been turned back by the GI on duty. Apparently the soldier had been displeased with the reporter’s dispatches, and sent him to the back of the line.

It isn’t often that we feel grateful for Barney Frank. But had he not spoken up, Mr. Jordan’s vague remarks might have been left to stand— further proof, to the global elites assembled here, of the depths of American perfidy. Bret Stephens

Apparently, Boyd of the Sun says Stephens of the Journal broke the story because most of the major facts are in there. But I think a story breaks when it becomes public knowledge, when it is subject to public discussion. An e-mail newsletter like Political Diary (which is not archived on the web) circulates news among a limited group, not the public-at-large. That’s the whole point. Such products are often sold as “inside knowledge,” valuable because the material is not broadly known.

It’s odd (to me) that Stephens remained mum about his scoop as What Eason Said began to circulate and provoke reaction on line. When you break a story, don’t you usually stay with it as it gets bigger? Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s legendary editorial page, which had a man on the scene, who presumably had notes (since his piece had quotes), and the page is watching from the sidelines as a wave of interest in the story—arguably his story—built, with bloggers attempting to contact those who were on the scene, anyone who might have had notes or recollections.

From author Stephens, from the Journal’s news report, from the Editorial Page where he works, and all its columnists, there is nothing—the bloggers are given custody of the matter—until today, two days after Howard Kurtz published his account at the Washington Post.

Say you’re on the Editorial Page staff of the Journal, the people in charge of winning the war of ideas. You’ve let Kurtz scoop you in the newspaper press, even though you had the story (and the story is primo original culture war material!) Then you send Bret Stephens, who sat out the story for 12 days, into the game with a Commentary for the WSJ. Rational behavior, I’m sure. But what’s the rationale?

The title of today’s commentary: “Easongate.”

There’s a reason the hounds are baying. Already they have feasted on the juicy entrails of Dan Rather. Mr. Jordan, whose previous offenses (other than the general tenor of CNN coverage) include a New York Times Op-ed explaining why access is a more important news value than truth, was bound to be their next target. And if Mr. Jordan has now made a defamatory and unsubstantiated allegation against U.S. forces, well then … open the gates.

By chance, I was in the audience of the World Economic Forum’s panel discussion where Mr. Jordan spoke. What happened was this…

Well, perhaps it wasn’t entirely by chance. Anyone have an idea why the Journal held on to this eyewitness, ceding the story to bloggers, until now? I’m all ears. (See Michelle Malkin on the Stephens piece.)

“The blogosphere has reported on this from day one, and refuses to stop,” wrote CNBC’s Lawrence Kudlow at his blog, Money Politics. The opinion sphere at the WSJ reported on this from day one, too, and then refused to start up. I wonder what Larry Kudlow thinks about that.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Hugh Hewitt in the Weekly Standard: “The folks paying attention are spread out across the political spectrum, from Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and Mickey Kaus on the left to all the usual suspects on the right, where Michelle Malkin and LaShawn Barber merit special recognition for pushing the story forward.”

Mitch Ratcliffe: “Coverage without endorsement is called ‘news.’”

Q. “Nothing on Jeff Gannon, Jay? Nothing at all?” Oliver Willis in the comments.

A: I will write about this; it’s a bigger story than Eason Jordan because it’s about the White House and how it operates.

Meanwhike, Timothy Karr’s Gannon’s White House Maneuver is totally on top of it. Impressive. Also Eric Boehlert in Salon: “Questions remain.”

From the Hollywood Reporter account of the episode:

“Mr. Jordan emphatically does not believe that the U.S. military intended to kill journalists and believes these accidents to be cases of ‘mistaken identity,’” the CNN statement said. (Feb. 11.)

Military & media blogger Tim Schmoyer (Sisyphus) points out that Steve Lovelady’s letter to Romenesko had some vivid and additional language:

Such Internet dilettantes need to get a life.

More importantly, they also need to do a little elementary research before they sound off from the comfort of foundation sinecures, or sequestered law offices, or academic preserves, about men and women — some of whom do not come back — who venture out every day, at great peril and under fire, to report back the truth. It’s time we distinguish here the warriors from the sideline commentators and bloviators.

Eason is concerned with the warriors. I’m with him.

“Why wouldn’t the managing director of the Columbia Journalism Review Daily call on Eason Jordan to release the tape?” writes Sisyphus. “You embarrass yourself, Mr. Lovelady.”

“We all do our part. Welcome to mine.” That’s N.Z. Bear introducing his attempt at “tracking the coverage of the Eason Jordan controversy across the blogosphere.” He charts all mentions of the story and ranks the blogs attending to it. Check out this list.

Bill Roggio of the insta blog Easongate e-mails with an alert to his Motivations post, which contains some regrets about what I have called “gate think” and the merchandising of scandal by nomenclature such as this.

Jim stated his only complaint is the use of the “gate” in the name of the blog. To be perfectly honest, I agree with him… we kicked some names around, but this story was destined to be labeled “Easongate”. I liked Captain’s Quarters “Eason’s Fables” much better, but the story was beginning to be called Easongate, and here we are. I also dislike calling this current war we are fighting “The War on Terror”, but the name has stuck and there is no going back.

I think anyone who starts a controversy blog and includes a post called Motivations deserves a certain readership for that decision alone. Here’s Easongate’s post on Purpose, also a good practice to follow for new sites.

Hugh Hewitt as his blog says gets your terms right. He doesn’t use “blog storm,” a sad coinage, he says. It’s blog swarm. “Opinion storms follow blog swarms.”

Did Rony Albovitz break the story? “Hello, Rod Boyd here of the NY Sun,” reads the e-mail I just got. (I had said that Boyd erred in calling Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal the One who Broke the Story.) He writes:

As a reporter—and a former grad student, I am very conscious of trampling the work of others, so I always look to cite my peers when warranted. Call this the ghost of Jayson Blair. In short, since i wasn’t at Davos, I was seeking to cite someone. Good intentions, but I suspect I omitted something.

The first account I read of this was Bret Stephens of the WSJ. What I didn’t do was establish that Rony Albovitz, WEF blogger extraodinaire, had posted his account several hours prior to the Politcal Diary’s release. Given that Political Diary goes out to thousands of readers, many of whom are media or once-removed from major media, I’m not sure that it’s as private as all that, but the point is taken: it’s not directly linkable. I suppose no real harm was done and pehaps the truth is in the middle: Rony’s was the first post on a chronological basis, but Bret’s was the first bearing the imprimatur of a major media organ.

Still, i should lob an email to Rony and note the distinction.
Thanks for keeping me honest.

Thanks for explaining, Rod. It appears Rony Albovitz broke the story.

Betsy Devine: “We bloggers think of ourselves as individuals. When we team up to report on a shared news story, we need to start thinking about the human impact of an possible swarm of people following our lead.” Blogswarm reporting and the new public figure.

Larry Kudlow turned his blog post into a National Review column: Eason Jordan vs. the Blogosphere.

Tragedy of the Comments
In a thread to an earlier Jordan-in-Davos post, I wrote:

Ungated may be a great thing. It may be the thing we want, the thing we celebrate. (I have certainly done my share of that.) Doesn’t mean it works in an actual human situation, a concrete setting.

To turn on the comment feature is basically to say, “Okay, I’m going to run a tragedy of the commons case study here at my site.” And that is what I feel I am doing. It’s sorta like the laws of the casino. But in this case the house always loses.

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 10, 2005 11:32 PM