By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Don’t blame blogging

Did blogging lead Ben Smith down the road to error? Or did he err because he was trying to do real-time reporting on a rapidly unfolding story?

Smith, as you may already know, is the blogger for Politico who reported that John Edwards would suspend his campaign — “and may drop out completely” — because of Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrent cancer. Smith wrote a heartfelt mea culpa later in the day, and Howard Kurtz has the complete rundown this morning in the Washington Post.

Smith had what he says was a reliable anonymous source and a chance to make a splash. He made a mistake that anyone could make, and the attacks to which he’s been subjected are unwarranted. Still, I find it curious that he blames his error, at least in part, on blogging itself. Smith writes:

Though I’ve spent the last several years at major newspapers — the New York Observer and the New York Daily News most recently — I’ve done much of my reporting on blogs, and have developed an instinct to let my readers know whatever I know, as soon as I know it. The medium typically allows you to refine and update a story as it changes — including saying, “Well, my original source had it wrong.”

But the scale of this story was simply too big to report that way, to share information with high but imperfect confidence — and without making that level of confidence crystal clear. I should have waited for a second source, or hedged the item much more fully. Or simply waited for the news conference like everybody else.

Smith also quotes his editor, John Harris, as telling him: “I believe a blog item is different than a story — not in standards of accuracy or fairness — but in the ability to report and reveal a breaking story in real time: You write what you know when you know it. BUT, and here’s where you went wrong and we let you go wrong, you can not write more than you know.”

Well, now. It strikes me that what Smith did was not qualitatively different from what radio and, especially, television journalists have been doing for years: Reporting live from the scene, offering something no newspaper can match, but sometimes getting it wrong because the story is still unfolding.

To screw up as a blogger is to link to a bit of news that has already been proven wrong (see this and this), or to a site that you should know lacks credibility.

Once you pick up the phone and start calling people, though, you’re acting not as a blogger, but as a reporter who has a blog. And the normal standards of verification apply.

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  1. Anonymous

    No harm, no foul, I guess. Most news outlets were predicting his campaign would be suspended in some way, so this guy certainly wasn’t the only snafu-prone reporter. It’s the beauty of–and the problem with–blogging, though if this guy prides himself on taking a professional journalistic approach to his duties on Politico, he probably should have tried to get some better confirmation, rather than puke it out onto the blog and then count on the “but that’s how blogs work” defense. An interesting discussion point, at any rate.

  2. Anonymous

    I honestly believe that Politico DOES NOT CARE whether it’s right or wrong – just that it gets picked up. they are in the “no pub is bad pub” stage and they are thrashing for attention. Their originators, Harris and VandeHei, have said the mantra is “fast, fair and first.” Notice it doesn’t say “right.”

  3. D Brooks

    “Once you pick up the phone and start calling people, you’re acting not as a blogger, but as a reporter who has a blog. And the normal standards of verification apply.”I hope I’m reading that wrong, because it sounds like a massive dis-incentive for bloggers to do actual reporting. It sounds like you’re saying that if they present information that’s wrong, they aren’t at fault *unless* they did some actual work, in which case we can dump on them big-time. As long as all they did was mindless pass-along of somebody else’s work, they can’t be blamed because it’s “just” blogging.Well, I sure blame the media outlets that mindlessly passed along Politico’s error.

  4. Peter Porcupine

    So what about bloggers, unaffiliated with a newspaper, who DO call and verify before writing?What does that make US?

  5. Don

    Who cares about Edwards’political future? When the Clinton machine gets done rolling over him, he’ll be squashed like a bug. Better he should go home and comfort his family, and leave the politics to the professional panderers.

  6. Paul Levy

    But to expand on Dan’s point, sometimes these early unsubstantiated reports are not so harmless. I remember vividly a TV report shortly after the Atlanta Olympics bombing, when some newscaster broke the news that Richard Jewell was a lead suspect. When asked how certain it was that he was the likely bomber, the reporter said it was a sure thing because the FBI would never release the name of somebody unless they had really found the right guy. Being a child of the 60’s (!) I turned to my wife and said, “I wouldn’t count on that source if I were a major televison network!”As Wikipedia notes, “Jewell was cleared of suspicion by the United States Department of Justice [3 months later], and Attorney General Janet Reno publicly apologized later, but he claimed that the negative media attention had ruined his reputation. He eventually settled libel lawsuits against a former employer, Piedmont College in Northern Georgia, as well as CNN, ABC, and NBC.”

  7. O-FISH-L

    It speaks volumes to the inappropriate use of a full-blown press conference by John Edwards when the main story that emerges afterwards is that some unknown blogger “Ben Smith” had a 50-50 chance of guessing whether Edwards would continue his campaign and guessed wrong. Ben who???Jon Keller gets it right in his blog, when he calls Edwards’ press conference “awkward and invasive.” Kudos are also due to the Herald’s Howie Carr, who wondered aloud on his WRKO talkshow how nervous the physicians treating Mrs. Edwards must be feeling, knowing how many good Doctors have been destroyed by her “Malpractice Lawyer” husband. Many share Howie and Jon’s thoughts, but few in the media have dared speak them.Also, since when have the Edwards’ been “super-likeable” as more than one journalist has recently declared? Am I missing something, or didn’t Sen. Edwards’ homestate of NC reject the 2004 Kerry-Edwards ticket in a landlside? Jeesh, the Edwards NC neighbors must “super-like” them so much that they couldn’t bear to share them with the whole country. PLEASE!Lastly, good luck and good health to Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. Romney, Mr. Giuliani, Mr. McCain and the millions of other Americans who have had or are now having, serious health problems.

  8. Tony

    I too saw the Ben Smith story and the aftermath and I have to wonder if the anonymous source got the story wrong or the Edwards changed their mind on the way to the press conference. That could’ve happened too and if this is the case, then Smith’s story – and that of the anonymous source – weren’t wrong at all.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    P.P.: Please enlighten us as to when you think it’s necessary to interview people and when it’s not. Did you call Sal DiMasi on this item and ask him whether the Globe had quoted him accurately and within context? I mean, come on. Nearly all of what we do is link to content we find interesting, quote an excerpt and comment on it. We’re not doing the kind of verification I would want the New York Times to do if it’s picking up on a story in the Washington Post — we’re taking it as it is.My point is that on those occasions when a blogger starts calling people and doing some original reporting, it’s not acceptable to fall back on “I was only blogging” if something goes wrong. If you’re going to start calling people, you’ve got to make all the calls.

  10. Peter Porcupine

    The quotes from WRKO I recorded with a small tape recorder as it was broadcast.But you’re right – I SHOULD have questioned if the Globe got a quote correct.

  11. mike_b1

    Or at least specify when you called versus when you didn’t.Come to think of it, it would be nice if the mainstream media did that all the time too.

  12. Stella

    The environmentally safest graveyard belongs to the BLOGS!IN the latest entry on her personal weblog, Lindsay Lohan, the hard-partying Hollywood actress, was in characteristically bubbly form. “Hey guys, I’m soooo sooo sorry I haven’t written in a while!!” she wrote.She was heading off to New York for two days of photo-shoots, then to Toronto for a week of filming, then back to Los Angeles again. The entry ended: “I just wanted to check in, I’ll try and write more . . . xx LL.”It has been a long wait for any Lohan fans who may be hoping for an update. That entry was posted on October 15, 2003. Lohan’s blog has since taken its place in the internet’s fastest growing graveyard — of an estimated 200m blogs that have been started then abandoned.The extraordinary failure rate of online diaries and claims that interest in blogging will soon begin a precipitous slide are sparking an intriguing debate about the future of self-ex-pression on the internet and whether blogs, once seen as revolutionary, are destined to become a footnote in the history of computing.To the embarrassment of millions of internet users — from Hollywood celebrities such as Lohan, Melanie Griffith and Barbra Streisand to countless ordinary parents, workers and would-be poets — the evidence of failed diary-keeping cannot be easily erased from search engines that continue to provide links to blogs that have lain dormant for years.Some internet analysts call them “ghost blogs”, lingering reminders of a cultish enthusiasm for self-expression that is rapidly wearing off. Others liken the abandonment of blogs to “the suicide of your virtual self”. At least one internet writer blames the blogging culture for helping to turn the internet into a “dictatorship of idiots”.According to research by a firm of US technology analysts, the blogging phenomenon may have peaked last October, when 100,000 new blogs were being created every day. As well as personal diaries these included corporate, professional, celebrity and other specialist blogs.Yet the Gartner research firm also concluded that the trend would level off in 2007, with perhaps 100m people still blogging worldwide. Other analysts predict that number will fall to 30m.“A lot of people have been in and out of [blogging]”, said Daryl Plummer of Gartner. “Everyone thinks they have something to say until they’re put on stage and asked to say it.”Santo Politi, a Boston engineer, appears typical. His blog, This and That, is subtitled “more useless information from yet another blogger”.He posted sporadically in 2006 and then last December vowed to do better: “I started my blog with great enthusiasm and abandoned it as fast as I started it . . . this time I am determined.”Politi said that he wanted to write “an interesting, engaging post, include links [to other websites], interesting facts, experiences . . . I shall post frequently from now on”.He managed two more entries and has not been heard from for more than two months, the point at which most analysts consider a blog to be defunct.At least Politi fared better than Griffith, the star of films such as Working Girl and Bonfire of the Vanities. The front page of Griffith’s official website features a series of “magic” doors, one of which leads to her personal blog, In 2 Me C (sic).“Hello everyone! I have been remiss in not writing to you sooner!” begins the latest entry. She was even more remiss after that — this last entry is dated March 18, 2005.At least Griffith bothered to write something. On Streisand’s official website, a front page link reads: “Click here to read Barbra’s blog.” The link leads to a blank page.Other bloggers have had good reasons for discontinuing their work. The anonymous author of a popular technology blog called Dead 2.0 was renowned for his scathing critiques of the internet business. Then his identity was revealed and he had to stop for fear of losing his job.An anonymous woman blogger known as Getupgrrl became widely read for her brutally honest writings about her struggle with infertility. Her blog, Chez Miscarriage — subtitled “Who says infertility can’t be funny?” — was widely praised by pregnancy and women’s health websites.Then Getupgrrl became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy child. The last entry read: “Working on the next big bloggy idea.” That was in October 2005.Research suggests that most ghost blogs are abandoned simply because their authors run out of things to say, have not got the time to write or have moved on to more exciting internet trends, such as posting home videos on YouTube or collecting new friends on MySpace.Not all bloggers are disheartened by the apparent peaking of the trend; many argue that the best blogs will survive and the world will ultimately be a better place if it does not have to read entries like this from Lohan: “Hey everyoneeeeeeeeeeeee!! Watttup?“I just wanna appologize for not writing in so long . . . I’ll try and write more, but GO SEE FREAKY FRIDAY WHEN IT COMES OUTTTT!!!! xoxoxox-oxox L.”200 million blogs have been abandoned without comment. Aah, the sound of silence.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    Stella – GREAT comment!Is it a post somewhere? I’d really like to blog about it!BTW – pause and consider all the start-up and failed newspapers over the course of their existance. Many fewer, but as they required a cash infusion to start – instead of an entirely free medium like blogging – it’s easy to see why there was a litle more perseverence there before failure.I AM entirely serious about using some of your comment as the basis of a post; my email address is on my blog.

  14. Stella

    PP – Lifted from the Sunday Times of London in part (without Creds, and I am chagrined).

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