The Impact of Web Blogs on Mainstream Journalism
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the rise of the bloggers, and the fall of their targets, on the left, and on the right. Media correspondent Terence Smith has that.
TERENCE SMITH: Web bloggers have added a new prize to the walls of their virtual trophy room: CNN’s top news executive, Eason Jordan, resigned after a Web-fed controversy over comments he made at a conference last month in Davos, Switzerland.
A 23-year veteran of CNN, Jordan drew the ire of mostly right-wing bloggers after he allegedly said that U.S. forces in Iraq targeted journalists on several occasions. Jordan quickly modified his comments, but his remarks, made during an off-the-record discussion, were paraphrased on a Web site immediately after the forum. From there, two weeks of escalating criticism and demands on Jordan to explain exactly what he said ensued in the right-wing blogosphere. He resigned Friday night.
Jordan joins two other recent Internet-led casualties: Dan Rather, whose faulty reporting on documents purportedly dealing with the president’s National Guard service led to his impending departure from the CBS anchor chair. And Jeff Gannon, an overtly partisan writer for a Republican-funded Web site who asked a now-famous softball question of the president at a recent press conference:
JEFF GANNON: Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?
TERENCE SMITH: Gannon was also found to be using a pseudonym, his real name is James Guckert, raising security questions. Bloggers from opposite sides of the political spectrum trained their fire on Rather and Gannon.
Right-leaning Web sites like Powerlineblog and Little Green Footballs immediately questioned the authenticity of the documents used by Rather in his September report. After defending the report for 12 days, CBS recanted.
DAN RATHER: It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it. Also, I want to say personally and directly, I’m sorry.
TERENCE SMITH: Shortly thereafter, rather announced he would leave the anchor chair this march. Bloggers from the left trained their sites on Gannon after the Jan. 26 news conference. Sites like Daily Kos and Americablog drove the investigation into Gannon’s affiliations; his reporting and how he got into the White House press room. Gannon announced on his Web site last week that he was resigning.
TERENCE SMITH: And for more, we turn to: Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, and author of the “PressThink” Weblog; Jim Geraghty, author of the “TKS” Weblog at National Review Online; and David Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Welcome to you all. Jim Geraghty, many bloggers refuse to accept it when Eason Jordan apparently pulled back from what he said. Why?
JIM GERAGHTY: Well, there was some dispute between the differing accounts we got from people who were in the room at the Davos conference. Some, like David Gergen, said well it was pretty clear that he had stepped back. There are others like Rony Abovitz who wrote the original account of this that weren’t quite so flattering and made it appear that well, maybe he didn’t really step back or maybe he left the audience rather confused.
I think everyone wanted to see the tape and get a sense for ourselves of just what he said and just how much that retraction and how effective it was in persuading the people of saying whatever the controversy was it died down.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. David Gergen, if you can hear me now, what exactly — you were there. You were the moderator of this panel. What exactly –
DAVID GERGEN: I was.
TERENCE SMITH: — did Eason Jordan say and then pull back?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I can’t quote him precisely because I don’t have a transcript. I can only tell you, Terry, a little bit of context and then what he said. The context was that Eason Jordan had just come from back from Iraq, 16th visit to Baghdad. The elections in Iraq were just a few days away. He was very tightly wound because he was deeply concerned about the safety of CNN journalists in Baghdad during the election. They had hired their own security firm and the U.S. troops were also protecting them. But CNN had lost three journalists over time there in Iraq.
They were all killed — one quite intentionally so by the insurgents. So this is a man who cares — was under great stress and was very deeply concerned about safety of journalists on all sides as the election was approaching. When the question came up about all the deaths and Barney Frank, the congressman, made a comment that he thought most of the deaths had been collateral damage, I think that hit a button in Eason Jordan. And he really just exploded saying, look, this is not all collateral damage there. Journalists are being targets in Iraq. And he left a very clear impression that journalists on both sides were being targeted, that Iraqi insurgents were targeting American journalists and in a limited number of cases he thought…he left the impression there had been targeting by American troops of journalists perhaps al-Jazeera or others.
Now he knew as soon as he said that that was incendiary, that he had gone way too far. And he immediately began to walk his conversation back. When he was pressed to say, make it very clear, he was not saying what it sounded like he was saying. He was trying to say there is no official policy from the United States government to allow the killing of journalists and that his concern was whether troops on both sides especially American troops here in this particular case we’re talking about were careful enough or whether there had been some carelessness and whether, in fact, the Pentagon and others ought to push harder for more care so that other journalists will be protected. In turn obviously he felt that that would help to protect American journalists.
So, I thought he blundered. He went too far. But he also walked it back. And that’s why I believe sometimes it’s terribly sad that he resigned over it. I think the punishment far exceeds the offense.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Jay Rosen, why — bloggers picked this up right away. Mainstream media generally speaking did not. The bigger papers and broadcast organizations did not. Why not?
JAY ROSEN: Well, I think they felt that, first of all, the event was possibly off the record. They felt he had made amends, and they’re used to a situation in which their judgment…this is news, this is not news — is in a way final. And in this case they were surprises that it wasn’t final. There was more to the controversy than they thought.
And it ended up a very strange circumstance in which, for example, the Los Angeles Times was reporting on Eason Jordan’s resignation over a controversy that it had never told its readers about in the first place. So this is a strange series of events. And I think it shows that journalists don’t have exclusive sovereignty over the news anymore. Their judgment is not final. They have to be in conversation with people that perhaps they don’t recognize as completely as they should.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, but in this case, Jim Geraghty, a real drumbeat developed. And so the question is: what was motivating bloggers who were calling for Eason Jordan’s resignation even before they did establish exactly what he said. Were they trying to put another establishment scalp on the belt?
JIM GERAGHTY: Well, there are a lot of bloggers out there. And there’s no doubt that some of them put the cart before the horse and were calling for him to be resigned or to step down or to have some sort of consequences before they called for the release of the tape. I think that’s a little bit backwards. It would be nice if we could see exactly what happened.
On the other hand we did eventually have seven accounts, all variations of saying he made the accusation and then kind of a backtrack. I do kind of wonder if to a certain extent we ended up in sort of a situation of like an old western in which, you know, Black Bart comes into town. Everybody wants to be the one who shot Black Bart. As soon as Eason Jordan ended up in this controversy there was a certain extent some bloggers wanted to be the one who took down Eason Jordan.
And I don’t think bloggers, you know, quit themselves well if they start trying to hold the execution before they hold the investigation. But most of the big mainstream bloggers, the instant pundits, the Hugh Hewitts, the Jeff Jarvis’s and Mr. Rosen clearly came out and said look show us the tape and let the public decide for themselves just how bad these comments were.
It’s just rather fascinating that the Davos authorities aren’t releasing this tape and that mainstream media journalists who are usually the first ones pounding at the door saying the public has a right to know are actually blasé and casual about this tape not released. I think it would help if Mr. Gergen come out and say please release the tape the way that Chris Dodd and the way that Rony Abovitz, the blogger who started all this, did.
TERENCE SMITH: David Gergen, would that be helpful?
DAVID GERGEN: I have no objection to the tape being released whatsoever. I’ve been quoted to that effect in the press. It was an off-the-record setting. That’s ordinarily respected. But in these circumstances I have no problem with the tape being released and let it be settled that way. But, you know, I think the damage is done now. This is what I think is very regretful is that this is a man who spent more than 20 years gaining stature and great respect within the journalistic community for helping to build CNN International, working with Ted Turner, working with Tom Johnson and others.
And I think it’s very distressing that one mistake which he tries to move back from, you know, costs him his job. And I have to tell you, Terry, that while I agree with Jay Rosen that, you know, the world has changed. I welcome the blogosphere because I think it’s really important that citizens in this new public square be able to hold people more accountable than in the past, whether it’s journalists or public officials or corporate officials or others.
I think that is a welcome development. It’s empowerment of citizens that we should be for. But there is within this public square — there is a raucous quality sometimes; in this particular instance there were not only those who were pressing I think not unfairly for a release but there were those who were out for his scalp. And there was a vigilante justice kind of quality here of people who were going after Eason Jordan not because of what he said but because of what he represented, and that is he represented CNN. And there are those who wish to paint CNN as this liberal media outlet in contrast to Fox and they want to beat up on him for that reason. Frankly I think that there has been a quality of vigilante justice here which has gone — has been excessive. I think it’s very — it’s been a cruel fate for Eason Jordan to be caught in effect in the culture wars that are going on in the country.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Jay Rosen, what about that ideological content or motivation so far as you know of bloggers on the left vis-à-vis Jeff Gannon and the White House business or bloggers on the right who are looking with disfavor at either Eason Jordan or Dan Rather?
JAY ROSEN: I think there is an element of mob justice in this. The problem comes when a pre-existing story is tapped to interpret events that actually have their own reality and their own integrity — in this case, a preexisting story about CNN being a liberal network, sympathizing with Saddam, being anti-military, all of which is very dubious in my opinion, certainly played a big role in how people interpreted this event.
At the same time, I have to disagree with David Gergen a little bit in that his only mistake was not speaking a little bit carelessly. He made a second mistake after that, which was not to communicate very well at all, not to enter into dialogue with people online, not to give any interviews except for one to Howard Kurtz late in the game, not to really respond until pressed further and to sort of keep adding to statements that weren’t very illuminating in the first place.
And even today CNN’s explanation for why Jordan is gone is not very forthcoming. He isn’t giving interviews. I’m sure you tried to get him on the show to dialogue about this, discuss it. He wouldn’t do that.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes, we did just to make the point, Jay, we did invite him to come on.
JAY ROSEN: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: And he did not respond to that invitation.
JAY ROSEN: I think that this is where CNN and Jordan made a mistake. They thought not only that they could outlast the blogs but that they really have to engage with people who were raising questions online that they wanted answers to. I think that was an error.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
DAVID GERGEN: Can I just respond?
TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead. David Gergen.
DAVID GERGEN: Very, very briefly. I think Jay Rosen is right that both Eason Jordan and CNN made a mistake in the way they handled it after the fact. I don’t think that that’s what was the cause of his resignation. I think this was a drumbeat that just became relentless. He found himself in an untenable position.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let me ask Jim Geraghty here, what about that drum beat or digital lynch mob as it was called? You said you used your Black Bart analogy. Are there bloggers whose motivation is really to attract attention to themselves?
JIM GERAGHTY: Like I said there are a lot of bloggers out there. I wouldn’t doubt that there are some who decided well, this is a great way to attention to get traffic to my blog. But I can’t say I really buy into this argument that this is one mistake or one slip in the tongue because at a conference in Portugal last fall, Eason Jordan said that several journalists were taken to the Abu Ghraib Prison complex and been tortured there.
I’m wondering why I didn’t see that on CNN. If he’s got these kinds of evidence behind these stories, he should come out and show it. And the other thing which I’ll admit a lot of people took into this story was his comments about not reporting everything he knew about Saddam Hussein in a run-up before the Iraq War. I admire him for coming out and saying this. But it’s one of those things where he kind of came into this controversy with a black mark on his record that a lot of people caused them not to cut him slack they might have otherwise done.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Well, thank you all three very much. It certainly leaves one with the feeling that this whole debate is not over yet. Thank you very much.