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March 9, 2007

They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial

"What happens? One blog puts more boots on the ground than any commercial news operation. The writers bring more background, savvy and commitment to the case. And they dominate in coverage of a big news event. Journalists themselves use it to keep up and get their bearings."

I wish I could have covered the Libby trial for my one-person magazine of press criticism, PressThink, which has been dark since January. But I have been consumed with a new project, NewAssignment.Net, which will be launching a Beta site and its first editorial project soon. (Like real soon.) Which means PressThink will spring back to life shortly.

As a critic who follows the fortunes of the American press, and writes about its collapse under Bush, I found it extremely painful to sit on the sidelines for this event. But as compensation I had the pleasure of watching Firedoglake, a group blog, emerge as the best site for primary, tell-me-what-happened-today coverage of the trial.

The political press supplemented FDL quite well, I thought.

If I had time, I went to Memeorandum and sampled all of it. If I didn’t have time, I read Firedoglake and the Washington Post’s team of Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig. It wasn’t a secret. Maybe 200,000 readers knew. If you wanted to keep up with the trial, and needed something approaching a live transcript, with analytical nuance, legal expertise, courthouse color, and recognizably human voices, Firedoglake was your best bet.

In Boston in 2004, I was part of the first class of bloggers admitted to cover a national political convention. I did some okay stuff. And bloggers had their coming out party before the national press. Beyond celebrating that arrival, no one suggested the bloggers had a better product, not even the bloggers.

In 2007, another first, similar in form: first class of bloggers accredited to cover a big Federal trial. They “join” the courthouse press as new members. And what happens? One blog puts more boots on the ground than any commercial news operation. The writers bring more background, savvy and commitment to the case. And they dominate the coverage of a big news event. Journalists themselves use it to keep up and get their bearings.

Granted, if what you most wanted was a concise bulletin, a few minutes a day from the Libby trial, there were better choices from among traditional suppliers. In all other categories, from hard news to analysis to informed ranting, FDL was tops.

What does that tell you, Newsroom Joe?

Firedoglake got handed a golden opportunity by the reluctance of big news organizations to spend on the information commons. At the Libby trial, there was no broadcast and no taping allowed. No posted transcript for anyone to consult. Thus the most basic kind of news there is—what was said in court today—was missing.

Converging on Washington, the team from FDL felt they represented people back home who wanted to know everything, and certainly had to have the blow-by-blow when court was in session. This was their strength: a demanding core community behind them, which couldn’t wait to discuss the newest events. Their decision was a no brainer: working in shifts, we live blog the whole thing.

“It’s a real shame no one is buying and Web-publishing the full trial transcripts,” wrote Dan Froomkin in his Jan. 24 White House Watch column. “In the absence of that, Firedoglake’s live-blogging of the trial is becoming essential reading.” Froomkin again on March 6 said that FDL “became a must-read for journalists who couldn’t attend the trial, but wanted to get a better and faster sense of what was going on than they could from their own colleagues.”

There were others getting credentials and independently blogging the biggest Federal trial in years. (Robert Cox did a good job getting seats for the Media Bloggers Association.) But none did what Jane Hamsher and crew did.

FDL had more people on the story (six contributors, all housed together). They cared more about documenting every turn. They knew more about the case because they had been writing about it for longer, and they didn’t want to disappoint their supporters.

But wait a minute: bloggers do views, not news, right? They’re like a giant op-ed page, but without decorum. Bloggers are parasitic on reporting that originates elsewhere. Bloggers have an ax to grind, so their reports aren’t going to be reliable. Besides, bloggers don’t do reporting, really. Their trade is opinion (“…and don’t get me wrong, I think that’s great.”) These ideas are “fixed” points for a lot of journalists. And the example of Firedoglake at the Libby trial disconfirms them all.

It was the most basic kind of journalism imaginable. You’re my eyes and ears, Christy. Tell me what happened today. When it came time to interpret, to get inside the heads of the key actors, they rose to that challenge too. (Here’s video of FDL’s Jane Hamsher, Christy Hardin Smith and Marcy Wheeler after closing arguments.)

The nature of the Web makes it easy to discover where the people wary of the Bush White House and intrigued with the Valerie Plame case were hanging out— at this occasionally foul-mouthed, always-busy lefty poli-blog that sprung up around the CIA leak case, Firedoglake. Skeptical of the whole case and Patrick Fitzgerald’s decison to prosecute Scooter Libby, but intrigued to the point of obsession with its spreading awfulness? There was Tom Maguire’s blog, JustOneMinute, for that.

Both distinguished themselves long before the trial, along with Marcy Wheeler of The Next Hurrah, another go-to blogger for followers of the tale that started with Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger. (Not to leave out Jeralyn Merritt.) They were joined of course by some distinguished Washington journalists: Murray Waas of National Journal, David Corn of the Nation, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. All broke stories. Corn and Isikoff wrote a book on the case, but then so did Marcy Wheeler, who joined forces with FDL for the book and the Libby trial. Her Anatomy of Deceit was the best primer available for the trial, in my opinion.

That an online community could, of its own free will, scare up support for six correspondents at a big trial; that the correspondents would work as hard as they did informing a live public; that they did it for expenses (no pay) and the joy of informing people who depend on you, this is a small, but remarkable part of the Libby case to reflect on, if we’re still aftermathing it.

What makes it possible are the people who gather at the site, and the falling cost for those people to meet up, realize their number, find a common mind, and when necessary pool their dollars to get their own correspondents to Washington.

This point came up when I went to NPR to talk to their news people— executives and staff— as part of a social media advisory group put together by Andy Carvin. (Jeff Jarvis blogged the event.) I said to NPR executives that the cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, and work together is falling— dramatically. And so things unthinkable or impractical before might be quite doable now.

For the Internet reverses audience atomization, and connects formerly isolated souls to one another. Well, an executive at NPR heard my words “like-minded people…” and they set off alarms. He said that this was exactly what he feared— the like-minded getting together to cover a story. It sounded to him like spin and political boosterism. Like-minded meant the echo chamber effect. Like minded meant a mob.

That’s your spin, I said. Like-minded could mean birds of a political feather flocking together. That happens a lot online. It could also mean people who share an interest in knitting, or the problems of returning veterans, or the Washington Redskins. When NPR’s local stations, the backbone of the system, appeal for members to come forward and fund the station, they’re seeking a conspiracy of the like-minded to sustain public radio.

I told him to check out Firedoglake during the Libby trial because his peers in the business, professional reporters, were finding it reliable. There’s your awful scenario, I said. Snarling partisans try to cover the news! But somehow the echo chamber is producing not only good but essential coverage. The raw material, and the more refined forms too. How can that be? I asked him.

He didn’t answer me. But the people of Firedoglake answered him. (I should say that on the whole, I found NPR’s leadership quite open to the possible benefits of “social” media. Video from the event.)

“Even as they exploit the newest technologies, the Libby trial bloggers are a throwback to a journalistic style of decades ago, when many reporters made no pretense of political neutrality,” wrote Scott Shane in a New York Times feature (Feb. 15). “Compared with the sober, neutral drudges of the establishment press, the bloggers are class clowns and crusaders, satirists and scolds.”

True, and this is part of their appeal. They also recorded more of the event in “just the facts” style than the neutrals in the establishment press. So who’s the drudge of what is news? I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think.

If I understand your church, there’s nothing more sacred in it than good old fashioned shoe leather reporting— being there, asking questions and taking notes, scrambling to get down what happened. And yet here are these sinners—Atrios calls them the Dirty F__king Hippies—who walk off the jetways and do just that, the basic reporting, better than the people to whom it is religion. Wild month for the church, right?

Dave Winer said it the other day, and Doc Searls picked up on it: We are the sources, going direct. I’m in that church, if any. And if it wasn’t for NewAssignment.Net, I would have asked for space in FDL’s rotation myself. I could tell they were having a blast. Winer wrote, “Blogging allows us to go direct with our knowledge, experience and insights, without waiting for a reporter to ask us what we think.”

I think that’s one secret to Firedoglake’s performance at trial. Their ability to go direct and be direct. They were live at the trial for a public more kinetically alive to their work, and this improved their work, gave it more discipline, grounding it—despite swear words—in the most basic kind of good any news source can deliver.

We’re there, you’re not, let us tell you about it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Tom Maguire of JustOneMinute, a Fitzgerald skeptic, in the comments:

Blogs can do two things on a big story - change the filter, or eliminate it.

The FDL live blog essentially eliminated the filter and let the rest of the world observe (and comment on) the events dujour. That was invaluable and is one of the real points of blogging - info is spread, and folks who can’t physivally attend the trial are still able to analyze it.

As to changing the filter, well, to each their own - that said, I have no doubt that he FDL crew were more knowledgable than most of the MS reporters there.

“My favorite thing about blogging is that I can do whatever the heck I want.” Markos Moulitsas Zuniga responds to this post at Daily Kos. “Maybe the huge blogging success at the Libby trial will help educate the outside world about what we do, but it’s genuinely complex stuff. We’re not easily pigeonholed, no matter how much easier it would be for everyone if we were simpler creatures.”

In the comments at Kos there is this gem: “I don’t rely on blogs for news, but they’re as necessary for my reading of the news as my glasses.”

Jeff Lomonaco at Tapped:

What made the liveblogging extraordinary was not just that Marcy was able to keep up with the fast pace in the courtroom. It was that she both knows the case at such a granular level of detail and understands how those granular details fit into the larger context of what is at stake in the proceedings, so that she has been able to produce a very reliable non-transcript of the moment-by-moment proceedings, available for anyone interested.

In the comments, ValleyGirl, part of the FDL community, has more backstage details about how the blog operated during the trial.

Pachacutec, one part of the Firedoglake team at the Libby trial, in the comments:

FDL tends on a regular day to post fresh content every 90-120 minutes or so, between 8:30 AM EST and 11:00 PM EST… more or less. But during the trial, we had to be more fluid, mostly for reasons created by technology.

That is, the nature of our site is such that high traffic plus high comment threads (200+) can overwhelm the server. So, during times of high traffic and high engagement, we “fed” the blog faster, offering new content not so much on a time schedule as on a comment load schedule (our commenters tend to congregate in one comment thread at a time: the freshest one).

Now, there were occasional periods during the waiting… waiting… and waiting for a verdict that we did not have much of substance to report from the courthouse, but our audience really wanted to hear something, anything.

At those times, we would mix in other news or posts from outside the courthouse with more colorful, anecdotal, sometimes “personality” driven material from the courthouse.

Now according to Mark Obbie at Lawbeat, a Syracuse University J-school blog on legal reporting, It ain’t journalism. It’s really, really important to Obbie (a former executive editor of The American Lawyer) to get FDL out of that category. Out, out, out. Watch how generous he’s willing to be if he can just keep “journalism” for his own tribe.

About Firedoglake’s coverage: “It’s smart. It’s fun to read. Over the long haul, it’s much deeper and more detailed than daily-news stories. It’s respected by those in the know.” Sounds pretty good, right?

But it’s for a trial junky. It’s atomized, not narrative. It’s argumentative, not neutral.

News junkies aren’t a real news audience, or a valuable one for old school journalists to grab? Odd. But here’s where things pick up…

It’s for a tiny, tiny niche, not for the masses. And it expects way too much from its audience.

The thing with bloggers is they expect too much from the people they write and report for: too much attention, too much interest in the news, too much background knowledge. Journalists don’t make these kinds of mistakes. They have the balls to expect less of people. Obbie explains who the real journalists are.

We work hard to inform the masses.

It’s paying off, too. Many of the masses know you think of them as masses, Obe.

We try to make it understandable AND interesting. We write for the person in a hurry who needs to know about this, but doesn’t know she needs to know.

Are you getting this down? So all the people who feel they really ought to pay attention to the news when a very high White House official goes on trial, those people, the “junkie” population, they aren’t in the market for real Journalism, which is for the busy masses who can’t be bothered to acquire the basic knowledge needed to understand who’s being tried and why it matters.

We invite strangers into our midst. We don’t hold little coffee-klatch conversations and stare with cold contempt at the newcomer who has no idea what we’re talking about.

I say again: journalism, the real kind, isn’t for people who are informed and up on things, outraged by what they know and hungry for more information. The core market is clueless strangers, perpetually new to the story—the masses as Obbie likes to call them—and that’s what you bloggers will never be able to understand! What the masses want, need from the news. That’s our turf. Passionate, driven, nuanced, experienced-enriched in-depth, blow-by-blow reporting, analysis and commentary by people who know what they’re talking about, sure, blogs can do that. But get real: is that stuff journalism? Let them try to grab the attention of distracted people who have better things to do with their time than stay informed about potential abuses of power! Then they’ll see how difficult my job is, says Obbie.

So they’re not journalism, at least not usually — and not journalism as I care to understand it.

He says I am “smitten” by FDL and that half of what I said in my post was bunk. Sounds to me like he’s spooked. If you look what he gave to the bloggers and the news junkies, and what he kept for himself as Newsroom Joe, defender of the faith, soldier of the guild, it’s a remarkable division of labor and an even more remarkable bid for authority. Come to us for news: we know you as the masses.

See Libby trial bloggers fall on their faces by the same author.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 9, 2007 1:39 PM