Blogger Truths, Counter Messaging, and Media Narratives

6 04 2008

Bloggers are a mixed bag of modern day pamphleteers, gossipers, mainstream media parasites (that’s me!), and truth seeking muckrakers in search of a story. Few blogs, if any, can really compete story for story with the resources of a well funded media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, and some of the cable news networks.

But perhaps one day they will.

On the biggest national stories of the last seven or eight years, 9/11, the Iraq war, Katrina, and the demonization of immigrants (the mortgage crisis only became more than just a financial and business story in the last 2 years), the mainstream media sold us a certain frame and story arch to boot. I would recount them here, but we pretty much know how they unfolded. Bloggers of various political persuasions, however, choose to challenge these narratives by feeding or resisting various MSM memes and suddenly began to break stories themselves.

Liberal bloggers pounced on Senator Trent Lott remarks in praising Senator Strum Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign, which explicitly ran on a Jim Crow platform, by saying “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” He did it before a group of journalists who did not blink an eye until bloggers got a hold of the story and made it so much of an issue Lott stepped down from his leadership post in the Senate.

Conservative bloggers were overjoyed when their rigorous fact checking exposed Dan Rather’s story on President George W. Bush’s National Guard service was based on flawed evidence. Rather stood by the story until CBS News internal investigation revealed its inaccuracies. Rather stepped down as anchor from CBS News the network refused to renew his contract.

On more substantive stories of the past few years, blogs such as Talking Points Memo has more than kept pace with McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Post or any other newspaper in detailing the politicization and cronyism of the civil rights division at the Justice Department by Bush appointees.

Many of us in the blogosphere would be utterly lost without Juan Cole’s blogging on the Iraq war and Mid-East affairs more generally. And many people of color would not have heard about the Jena 6 if it were for a network of black bloggers or know that much at all about the abuses of undocumented workers if it were for Latino and pro-immigrant rights bloggers.

For a while I thought of all these emerging voices as simply a part of some ill defined “alternative media” that were in effect merely countering, either real or perceived, ideological biases and factual inaccuracies to buck mainstream media storytelling. But what emerged as counterspeech is indeed beginning to rival more established media organizations in altering the news cycles and developing stories.

Cable news networks devoted entire segments of their shows to comment on blogosphere chatter. One of the first things Obama did to quell the Rev. Wright controversy was submit a post to the Huffington Post. And now political elites setting up conference calls with bloggers and factions within the U.S. military are contemplating recruiting and hiring bloggers for counter messaging.

In other words, blogosphere is not simply used to hold the media accountable anymore, its also used to propagate a message and create media competing narratives. Some might call that spin other might call it counter speech. Case in point. If enough people in the blogosphere and elsewhere say there is a Louis Farrakhan and Barack Obama connection enough times people will believe it and even write stories on it.

Admittedly, as influential as many political blogs are only a few people read them. A Harris poll found that only 22 percent of Americans regularly read blogs. But that number will surely increase with time considering that 67 percent in a recent Zogby poll said traditional journalism is “out of touch” with the concerns most Americans.

But what’s emerging here is in fact a series of different voices here coalescing into media communities adhering to different malaeable truths. I tend to reflexively air on the side of having a plurality of voices in the media market, but I also do think there is both a danger and an opportunity here.

Media critic Eric Alterman recently described the situation in the March 31st issue of the New Yorker this way:

And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new.

Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.

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