Blogs vs. Mainstream: Let the Battle Begin

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(AP) CNN plainly hoped that the resignation of chief news executive Eason Jordan — announced after the close of business on a Friday — would swiftly calm a growing storm over comments he made about the military and journalists in Iraq. It hasn’t worked out that way.

“He just threw wood on the fire that he was trying to tamp down,” said Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the CJR Daily journalism Web site.

The Jordan incident, along with the stories of Dan Rather’s downfall and a White House reporter with questionable credentials, have increased the profile of Web loggers and ignited a debate about their roles as both watchdogs and competitors with journalists.

Jordan said he was resigning to avoid CNN being “unfairly tarnished” by his remarks at a conference in Switzerland that some journalists killed by the U.S. military had been targeted. He subsequently said he never meant to suggest it was intentional, but the context is murky since no transcript or video of the event has come to light.

He was out of a job before some major media outlets even reported there was a controversy.

Bloggers uncovered and pushed along the story, just like they were the first to poke holes in last fall’s CBS story about President Bush’s military service. Some with political agendas view Rather as a trophy for their work because he announced he was leaving as the network’s chief anchor two months later.

A furious Lovelady posted this reaction to Jordan’s fall on New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s “PressThink” Weblog: “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail.”

David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents, lamented that some Internet scribes were out for Jordan’s scalp because he represented CNN. Gergen was onstage with Jordan in Switzerland when the original remark was made.

“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,” Gergen said on PBS’s “Newshour.”

“Frankly, I think that there has been a quality of vigilante justice here which has … been excessive. 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.”

Jordan may have been vulnerable for other reasons; a series of management changes at CNN left him with no operational control over the network. CNN executives have not talked about his departure.

Still, even some bloggers were stunned by how fast he was gone.

“I think we were all surprised,” said Jeff Jarvis, the Advance.net executive who also runs a personal blog, Buzzmachine. “Most bloggers were not out for his head. We were out for the truth. We wanted to find out what he said.”

Media critic Danny Schechter said the incident illustrates the timidity of news organizations when it comes to sensitive issues involving government — whether speaking about them or reporting on them. He worries that the Jordan incident will embolden press critics and make news organizations reluctant to question the administration.

“What executive is going to want to stick his head up and express an opinion when you have bloggers making a blood sport out of denigrating people?” said Schechter, who has made a documentary, “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” about the media’s role in the buildup to the Iraq war.

Part of the reason many journalists are worried about the influence of blogs is because they’re so unfamiliar with the territory, Rosen said.

“You still need news organizations that know how to stand up to criticism and react to criticism,” he said. “You don’t want too much indifference to what people are saying in the blogosphere. But you don’t want too much responsiveness, either.”

News organizations are uncomfortable because they’re no longer the gatekeepers to the news, said Jarvis, a former television critic.

“I think that we’re definitely being accused of going on a witchhunt and I think that was unfortunate,” said Bill Roggio, a New Jersey computer technician who helped put together the Easongate.com Web site. “The reason a story like this broke is because the media ignored it and the bloggers pursued it.”

The difficulty for news organizations that stress impartiality comes when the stories are pushed by people with political agendas. Chances are part of the reason CBS News responded so slowly to questions about its guard story is because many were raised by people who have long disliked Rather.

Lovelady said some bloggers have a utopian view of a completely open communications world where the cream always rises to the top. He thinks that may be optimistic.

Liberal bloggers played a key role in exposing James D. Guckert, who used the alias Jeff Gannon worked for a conservative news outlet and was given access to White House press briefings where he asked pointedly political questions. The question of who is given press access to the White House was seen as legitimate and given attention by mainstream news organizations.

Rosen, who’s taking a leave from NYU to write a book about the new media environment, is intrigued about what this all represents.

“Things will settle down eventually,” he said. “People will get used to a new balance of power. That’s what’s so disturbing. It’s a new balance of power and nobody knows what that’s like — bloggers, journalists, executives, users, Web cruisers. This is a moment of great expansion.”

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