Blogs and the post-press era

The controversy over “Jeff Gannon’s” access to the White House press room (catch up here and here) has raised yet more interesting questions about alternative versus mainstream media and the role of blogs.

Gannon it turns out is really James Dale Guckert and gained his press pass under a false name. He was known for lobbing “softball” questions and he wrote for a small GOP supporter funded web mag Talon News (which this week announced it was closing for renovations!). Bloggers started investigating him when he asked President Bush how he could work with Democrats who had “divorced themselves from reality”. Turns out the false name wasn’t the only controversy lurking behind the facade. Bloggers quickly revealed that he had registered a number of websites that appear to offer his services as a “military style” gay prostitute. At first glance it all seems pretty juicy and pretty clear cut.

But the Nation’s David Corn raises some very interesting questions in a recent analysis of the story. His first point is bloggers need to be careful about critiquing standards for awarding White House press passes. It might come back to bite them:

Let me stipulate that how Gannon/Guckert came to be permitted into the White House press room is a worthy topic of inquiry. But his pursuers ought to be careful on this point. Talon News was a fly-by-night (or phony) news operation with a political agenda. But White House daily briefings should be open to as diverse a group as possible. There is a need for professional accreditation; space is limited. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with allowing journalists with identifiable biases to pose questions to the White House press secretary and even the president. And if such a reporter asks a dumb question–as did Gannon/Guckert (which triggered this scandal)–the best response is scorn and further debate. Bloggers should think hard when they complain about standards for passes for White House press briefings. Last year, political bloggers–many of whom have their own biases and sometimes function as activists–sought credentials to the Democratic and Republican conventions. That was a good thing. Why shouldn’t Josh Marshall, Glenn Reynolds, John Aravosis, or Markos Moulitsas (DailyKos) be allowed to question Scott McClellan or George W. Bush? Do we want only the MSMers to have this privilege?

The other slightly more complex issue is the newsworthiness of his sexuality and his sex sites. There is a pretty straight up assumption in some reports that someone who has worked as a hooker is simply an unworthy recipient of a White House press pass. Many of the liberal bloggers of course framed it differently. Outing him as gay and a male prostitute was relevant under the “hypocrisy” rule because of his negative reporting on gay marriage. But Corn and his assistant have shown pretty convincingly that although Gannon’s reports – written for a conservative audience – primarily quote the views of Republican same sex marriage opponents, they fall a long way short of gay baiting.

Gannon/Guckert clearly was writing for a conservative audience. But he was hardly a flame-thrower on gay issues. His observation about Kerry was clumsy but not homophobic. Sure, he worked for an organization that supported an administration and party opposed to gay rights, and he was a Bush-backer. But does that automatically qualify him for outing? Should a lesbian reporter who works at the Wall Street Journal or at any metropolitan daily that editorializes against gay marriage be outed? Reporters are not elected officials. They do not legislate the behavior of others. Once Gannon/Guckert became an issue, his past–or present–as a male hooker was newsworthy, at least in a descriptive sense. But as a line of attack against him, it may be too much. I recognize this distinction might be hard to draw. But he has been hounded for being a gay male hooker. Should we even care if a reporter is moonlighting on the side in this fashion? I don’t–let Helen Thomas be a professional dominatrix in her free time–unless that reporter explicitly claims to be a person of family values or publicly decries homosexuality or prostitution. I have not seen evidence that Gannon/Guckert struck such a stance.

The other interesting perspective on this whole affair comes from Jay Rosen who contextualises the story under his rubric of the “post-press” era. If the Bush administration was deliberately using Gannon to seed easy questions, or even if they just credentialed him with too little care, it reflects their broader view on the role of the press in the political process.

Rosen shows that Bush and his associates have made their views crystal clear in recent statements. He quotes Bush’s chief of staff on the role of the press:

“They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election,” said Card. “I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.”

Rosen calls “Gannon” a “replacement press, a fake journalist with a fake name working for a fake news organization, asking fake questions at a real press event.”

Creating “Jeff Gannon” as a credible White House correspondent, and creating radical doubt about the intentions of mainstream journalists (in order to de-certify the traditional press) are two parts of the same effort, which stretches beyond the Bush team itself to allies in Republican Party politics, and new actors like Sinclair Broadcasting, or…

It is this larger picture that accounts for a professional tribe of journalists who, as Lemann said, “collectively felt both more harshly attacked and less important” in 2004. The more harshly attacked part comes from the Culture War rumbling below, while the message “you’re unimportant” is sent directly from the top.

There are some interesting contradictions in this. Rosen is right to point out that the Bush team are seeking to undermine the press through a series of overt and covert methods. However the destablising of the mainstream press is a process that started long before Bush took office and many would argue that the press itself must share a large part of the blame.

I re-watched Absence of Malice last night. Made in 1981 it clearly articulates the perceived problems with press power. “You don’t print the truth,” the Paul Newman character says, ” you print what other people say. You print what you overhear. The truth isn’t that easy to come by.”

If All the President’s Men was the standard bearer for journalists as triumphant fourth estate warriors, Absence of Malice, made only five years later, shows how tenuously that view sits in the public imagination.

The other side of all this is the very movement, that Rosen himself has been behind, which calls for a democratic grassroots media that reinvents fourth estate theory. Blogs are one part of this movement but the movement will never flower if blogs themselves simply become addicted to blogger identified political scandal. I don’t know how many more “gates” I can stand.

Climate Apocalypse

With the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect and the shock of the Tsunami, climate change has been big news over the last few months. It seems to be taking the place of the "nuclear threat" as the front line in contemporary apocalyptic thinking.

This weekend’s Independent published an interesting analysis of the recent meeting of climate scientists that makes this connection:

But it was last
week at the Met Office’s futuristic glass headquarters, incongruously
set in a dreary industrial estate on the outskirts of Exeter, that it
all came together. The conference had been called by the Prime Minister
to advise him on how to "avoid dangerous climate change". He needed
help in persuading the world to prioritize the issue this year during
Britain’s presidencies of the EU and the G8 group of economic powers….

About halfway
through I realized that I had been here before. In the summer of 1986
the world’s leading nuclear experts gathered in Vienna for an inquest
into the accident at Chernobyl. The head of the Russian delegation
showed a film shot from a helicopter, and we suddenly found ourselves
gazing down on the red-hot exposed reactor core.

It was all, of
course, much less dramatic at Exeter. But as paper followed learned
paper, once again a group of world authorities were staring at a crisis
they had devoted their lives to trying to avoid.

The consensus of scientists seems even clearer than ever in spite of all the neo-con crowing about a great liberal conspiracy typified by Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear. What is interesting about the Independent article from a media analysis point of view is the dramatic list of possible catastrophies that ends the article. Each possibility is outlined in brief in a three part format:

  • What could
  • How would this
    come about?
  • How likely is it?

While this provides great capsule information the creation of lists like this is likely to increase both the sense of crisis and passivity in the face of the seemingly inevitable. the independent’s cxatageories include:


These kinds of lists end up functioning as a kind of secular version of the biblical "signs of the times."


James Farmer posts an interesting comment about Steve Krause’s When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale About Blogs, Emailing Lists, Discussion, and Interaction. Krause concludes that email lists were a more efficient and direct way of encouraging discussion in his class. This was largely the product of the directness of the “in-box” contact. Farmer makes the critical point:

Blogs can be like email too though (and much more effective in many ways) through aggregation and I think that had, for example, a combination of the public aggregator facility in Drupal been used alongside individual aggregators like Bloglines then things might have turned out very differently.

Of course, people might not have used them (aggregators are hardly ubiquitous) but had they been used, even in very small numbers, I think that the results of his experiment might have been quite different. Blogging without aggregation is pointless (and I might also say that aggregation without blogging is equally lost…)

I’ve been having some discussions about using blogs at UTS and the usual advice is use Blogger. But it seems to me this is using about 30% of the potential of blogs. Firstly Blogger doesn’t easily accommodate categories and so you loose part of the knowledge management function. Secondly they do not easily aggregate (you could use Bloglines but I think this is clumsy) so you loose the community of practice aspect of blogging.

As Lilia Efimova and Aldo de Moor have recently pointed out in a very interesting analysis of weblog conversations:

Unlike other tools that support conversations, weblogs provide their authors with a personal space simultaneously with a community space. As a result, at any given time a blogger is involved in two types of conversations: (1) conversations with self and (2) conversations with others.

In the simplest case, a weblog post is fully and only embedded into “a conversation with self”, a personal narrative used to articulate and to organise one’s own thinking. A single blogger could have several of such conversations simultaneously, returning to ideas over time. Next, each of the posts can trigger a conversation with others that can take several rounds of discussions as well.

While in an active blogging community this communal conversation flows backwards and forwards between individual blogs in a course context, particularly with students using blogs for the first time, a series of individual blogs which aggregate to a common front page would assist the development of both conversations.

This also points to the advantage that blogs have over Blackboard threaded discussion. It could be argued that this facilitates better communal conversation. However there is really no sense of a developing personal publication in a series of scattered discussion posts.