August 23, 2009

Chris Matthews seems to think that bloggers don’t do any fact checking, and that we’re going to lose that if the newspaper industry goes out of business. While it’s true that beat reporters and those doing the footwork out there are sorely needed, to say that bloggers don’t fact check is just a cheap shot at the on line community that he and his ilk have such disdain for, probably because we’re the main ones fact checking the likes of him.

What Matthews fails to note here is why the industry is in such bad shape. The Economist lays out some of the problems in their article Who Killed the Newspaper.

Nobody should relish the demise of once-great titles. But the decline of newspapers will not be as harmful to society as some fear. Democracy, remember, has already survived the huge television-led decline in circulation since the 1950s. It has survived as readers have shunned papers and papers have shunned what was in stuffier times thought of as serious news. And it will surely survive the decline to come.

That is partly because a few titles that invest in the kind of investigative stories which often benefit society the most are in a good position to survive, as long as their owners do a competent job of adjusting to changing circumstances. Publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal should be able to put up the price of their journalism to compensate for advertising revenues lost to the internet—especially as they cater to a more global readership. As with many industries, it is those in the middle—neither highbrow, nor entertainingly populist—that are likeliest to fall by the wayside.

The usefulness of the press goes much wider than investigating abuses or even spreading general news; it lies in holding governments to account—trying them in the court of public opinion. The internet has expanded this court. Anyone looking for information has never been better equipped. People no longer have to trust a handful of national papers or, worse, their local city paper. News-aggregation sites such as Google News draw together sources from around the world. The website of Britain's Guardian now has nearly half as many readers in America as it does at home.

In addition, a new force of “citizen” journalists and bloggers is itching to hold politicians to account. The web has opened the closed world of professional editors and reporters to anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection. Several companies have been chastened by amateur postings—of flames erupting from Dell's laptops or of cable-TV repairmen asleep on the sofa. Each blogger is capable of bias and slander, but, taken as a group, bloggers offer the searcher after truth boundless material to chew over. Of course, the internet panders to closed minds; but so has much of the press.

Ironically we see Bob Woodward saying journalism lives on after playing stenographer for the Bush crowd to get some books sold rather than reporting on what he found out. And he holds up Tina Brown’s operation at The Daily Beast as a business model for making money on line and some hope for journalism's future.

Just how different would this conversation have been with a completely different panel? The viewers might have learned something had it been our own Dave Neiwert and Susie Madrak who’ve worked in the newspaper industry and turned to blogging instead, and Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo and Eric Boehlert from Media Matters, who’s sites look more like the future of journalism to me.

When the fourth estate doesn't do its job, people are going to turn to other sources that will. Something that seems to completely elude Chris Matthews and his panel here.

Another thing Matthews fails to note is that most bloggers who use other people’s reporting link back to that material and allow their readers to evaluate their assertions for themselves. We are not just taking stenography from press releases or other people’s reporting. And when we get something wrong, there’s generally a swift retraction. Something you cannot say for too many in our “mainstream media” who tend to circle the wagons rather than admit mistakes. And while Joe Klein is claiming that his commenters “fact check” him, just how many of those comments does he actually read?

Transcript below the fold.

Matthews: Bob, we’re getting down to it. In the seven years this program’s been on every week, we’ve lost a fifth of circulation of the Sunday papers right now.

Woodward: Yeah, it’s sad, but the question is, the newspapers are going, are changing and there’s no question about that and they’re going through a real convulsion, but does journalism live. And I am really optimistic about journalism, that ah, you know, what Tina does, magazines, television.

There are great stories out there, great journalism is being done, and I think the younger generation, yeah, really main lines information, they get it free, and I think if it is not available people, young people are going to say okay, we need to develop business models, like Tina’s doing with The Beast and uh, it will work, and people will make money, ah, so you know, period of ah deep trauma, but ah, there is life at the end.

Matthews: Tina, what people like Bob’s newspaper have, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the big papers have is a whole team. Do you have the goods to do that? Does anybody, on line?

Brown: Well what we don’t have right now is those kind of budgets or have those kind of investigative teams. I believe it will happen because we’re in sort of a terrifying transitional place where that business model isn’t quite there. But what I am finding you can do, and it’s very exciting is you can always have like a virtual news team all over the world, particularly with foreign reporters.

I know at The Daily Beast we have extraordinary girth with vigorous, factual, terrific foreign reporting from everywhere, who, writers that we’re developing from in those places, so I don’t think it has to be necessary to be all done from head offices like it used to be.

Matthews: The great thing about the mornings for most of us is to get up at dawn and with the coffee, the coffee, we read a couple of good papers. When you look out in that driveway and there’s nothing there, where are we going to be at?

Borger: We’re going to be uh, we’re going to be on the Internet, but you know, in my own world I read both now because I have the sense while I love picking up my New York Times, my Washington Post in the morning, I’ve already read what’s in them largely on my Blackberries the night before because I’m a news junkie and I kind of log in and so I know what the news is, so by the time I see it, it almost seems, ah, a little old to me.

Matthews: Wow.

Borger: And I love newspapers.

Matthews: I always find something in the A Section. Let me go to Joe Klein, you’re with Time Magazine, which is the last standing news weekly with the dinosaurs.

Klein: Yeah and you know I don’t trust myself on this story, on this topic because this September I will have, will be my fortieth anniversary in this business and yeah, I blog now, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from it, but I sure, I would go into withdrawal if I couldn’t pick up the daily newspaper and flip the page and see a story that I didn’t expect to see at all about, you know, hair cuts in Burma or something. You don’t get that on the web because everything is targeted.

Matthews. All these on line groups are grabbing stuff off of newspapers like The Washington Post and selling it on a secondary market. When is the Post going to get that money from all that to pay their reporters?

Woodward: Well, the younger generation is going to figure out that business model. What’s missing now, right this year is a crisis. We’re going to have a crisis. The crisis is going to be big. People are going to turn to television, to newspapers and magazines to tell them what the hell is going on.

Matthews: But newspapers are essential to understanding complicated stories, like health care, the economy especially, you’ve got to sit down and read it for ten minute or twenty minutes to get your head around it, and people like that are not going to be hired by television. There’s just not, Joe, they’re just not going to be out there. Foreign correspondents, you just got back. You were out there. You just spent a good part of this year overseas. Who’s going to pay Joe Klein to go to Iran and places like that?

Klein: Well one of the reasons why I’m going to Iran and places like that is because Time Magazine and other publications like ours are closing bureaus all over the world. I’m, you know, too old to be able to go but I mean there has been a diminution. The other thing I would say is this. On complicated stories, you can do this stuff on the Internet. In fact you’ve got more space to do it on the Internet.

Matthews: Who’s going to fact check for you?

Borger: We fact check, our editors…

Matthews: On line who’s going to fact check?

Borger: There are still, it depends..

Matthews: The bloggers don’t fact check.

Klein: No body fact checks. We still do, the print magazine and Time Magazine still has elaborate fact checkers….

Borger: We fact check.

Klein: ….but, no.

Brown: But they’ll still be able to have the Internet now to fact check. I mean, you know in a way, you know one of the things that amuses me now when I think about it just, you know we have on line fact checkers. There is no information that you can’t find out on line. So the fact is, this idea that fact checking has to be just associated from the reporters is..


Matthews: But that’s not fact checking.


Matthews: I tell you when you write for major magazines like Vanity Fair, every story line by line, we’ve got people checking out the truth or falseness of statements made.

Brown: Yes, but they’re checking it out very often on line.

Klein: But you know who does the fact checking? It’s really interesting, our readers, our readers. My commenters will say, well you said Paul Wolfowitz said that, but on September 8th 1997 he said this.

Borger: But there’s a..

Klein: You know, it’s there. And it’s immediate.

Borger: But there’s a difference between fact checking though, and checking the quality of the journalism.

Matthews: Right, well said.

Borger: Those are, those are two different things, and the quality of the journalism…

Matthews: Check your sources. A good editor will say who are your sources, right.

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