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'Watchblogs' Put the Political Press Under the Microscope

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Bloggers mount an "adopt a journalist" campaign to track election coverage. Along with CJR's nonpartisan Campaign Desk, the effort puts some of the nation's top political reporters under intense public scrutiny.

You write the story. Your editor checks it. Your copy editor checks it. The story runs. Then your "watcher" reads it and writes a scathing critique on her Weblog. Welcome to the new workflow for prominent political reporters, as citizen bloggers and the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk Weblog have created another layer of oversight for the Fourth Estate.

The so-called "watchblogs" are generally anonymous bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to read each report from a particular presidential campaign reporter and then critique it for factual errors or bias. If they gain traction, watchblogs represent another step in the evolution of reader feedback and media criticism, and they have the potential to improve the work of journalists.

Previously, readers were limited to letters to the editor, or perhaps a phone call or e-mail to a writer, often left to collect dust in a never-accessed voicemail queue or inbox. Then along came Weblogs and their promise to let anyone critique anyone, with political blogs sharpening America's partisan warfare.

The anonymous muckrakers at Media Whores Online called for left-wing bloggers to bite back at conservative pundits by running "watch" blogs that followed and critiqued their every move. Then a group of loosely knit, unorganized liberals -- mainly Howard Dean supporters -- decided to start watching political beat reporters who covered their favored candidate.

The New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren, the Associated Press' Calvin Woodward, Reuters' Patricia Wilson and the Washington Post's Dan Balz each has bloggers watching their every scribble. What was Wilgoren's first thought at hearing there was a blogger devoted to her writing? "I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" she told me via e-mail. Wilgoren is the Times' Chicago bureau chief, and is also covering the Dean campaign.

Though almost all the "adopt a journalist" blogs take aim at reporters who might be unfairly knocking Dean -- especially since his slide in the race -- Wilgoren isn't sure what to make of the new breed of amateur media critics.

"I don't think Wilgoren Watch or the comparable blogs are motivated by profit or other cynical incentives," she said. "I just think that what we're sure of about them is that they have a particular agenda, and what we're not sure of is their particular qualifications as critics. I don't mean that to dismiss them in any way -- I think they're valuable reader response forums."

Gaining street 'cred'

The public has a pretty low opinion of the media, and recent scandals such as the Jayson Blair fiasco at The New York Times don't help much. But are anonymous bloggers going to make a difference as a scruffy watchdog group? And will the public embrace amateur media critics as their heroes? It's too early to tell.

Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University's Department of Journalism, wrote a quick history of the "adopt a journalist" movement in his PressThink Weblog. He also wrote pointed e-mails to me on the subject of credibility for these bloggers.

"Credibility is an interaction -- not an aura," Rosen said. "If a citizen decides to track the reporting of Dan Balz, and everything Balz writes is there, every TV appearance is cataloged, there is a faithful attempt to document all his work, the links are good and take you places, the Weblog 'works' to open up Balz's campaign journalism. Credibility has a lot to do with reliability. If a citizen's site is reliable for certain things, people will use it for those things. Build a reliable Weblog that tracks something and you have credibility."

Still, Rosen said he both loves the "adopt a journalist" idea and dreads it. In a thoughtful blog post, he wrote that the watchers would learn more about journalism while becoming involved in politics and civics. But Rosen also said he worries that some sites may drift toward attack modes that may cause very real damage.

"The difference is in the drift toward rhetorical violence, which cannot be prevented but ought to be questioned at opportune times," he wrote. "This is one. Adopt-a-journalist could, in individual cases, drift that way; and to say that such sites would never succeed -- because they are bound to be shoddy, unreliable -- is naive at this point in Net time... They can succeed by taking an inherently political subject -- the performance of the press during an election -- and politicizing it, but in the extreme."

Rosen said he sees a problem with bloggers being anonymous, but thinks they can be valuable and quite good. While none of the watchers included a bio or personal background information, some were willing to go on the record and tell their stories. Tim Withers, who runs Wilgoren Watch, talked to Wired News recently about his blog, and Joseph Arrieta, who runs Charen Watch -- following syndicated conservative columnist Mona Charen -- told me he's a Web producer for Symantec in his day job.

Arrieta said he was able to talk freely because Symantec's CEO is a liberal and wouldn't mind his writing online. Arrieta said he was bitter about the 2000 presidential election, and has been watching Charen for the past 14 months. Still, he was pessimistic that the media or public would pay attention, saying he had a tiny viewing audience with his site getting about 240 hits per day.

"You're shooting for a fantasy here in a way," Arrieta told me. "You're shooting for a principle that you hope might be upheld, so that if a regular citizen does a watcher site and writes it well, and people get interested and read it, then that many more people are aware of what's going wrong in the media."

On the Campaign Desk

One of the oldest watchers in the business, the Columbia Journalism Review, has even joined the fray of watching campaign journalism with its Campaign Desk group blog. Though the magazine is published just six times a year, its Web site was the perfect place to do quick-response oversight during the presidential campaign.

Bryan Keefer is assistant managing editor for Campaign Desk, and helped run the nonpartisan SpinSanity blog before that. Keefer told me the idea for the blog was to help correct the record before a mistake was taken up by the pack. They plan to have two editors and five full-time reporters who will be monitoring the media six or seven days a week.

"The narrative of [Al] Gore as arrogant but smart and [George W.] Bush as honest but dumb really took hold and led to distorted coverage of the campaign [in 2000]," Keefer said. "The idea was to start something to prevent that from happening again. The media serves as a filter for the way people see politics, and if that filter is distorted, people will get a distorted view."

Already, Campaign Desk helped correct the record on Wesley Clark's opposition to the war in Iraq after Matt Drudge made it look like Clark supported it. The site also gave laurels to Diane Sawyer for doing a follow-up report on the infamous Dean scream and how the video didn't include crowd noise.

Blogger and San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor said he was glad CJR was doing Campaign Desk, but knocked it for a lack of public comments from readers.

"Instead of making pronouncements, CJR and its contributors should be fostering a conversation," Gillmor said via e-mail. "They'd be even more credible if they trusted their readers to have something intelligent to add. Bloggers have an advantage in one key respect. CJR, even if it wanted to, couldn't keep a close eye on all the journalism being done. But there may be enough bloggers who will. Bloggers are also fairly relentless about keeping an eye on each other."

While CJR's effort is meant to be nonpartisan, the "adopt a journalist" gang can play by whatever rules it likes. Keefer is generally supportive of their work, even if some exhibit strong partisan tones. "These are smart people who are reading these things very carefully," he said. "They're obviously coming from their own political point of view, but I think some of them are very fair-minded. It will be interesting to see if it carries through to the general election. I like to see people getting involved, taking a critical look at the media in a way that the media has been reluctant to do itself."

Daniel Okrent, the new public editor at The New York Times, told me that it's always good for journalists to know what readers think and how they react to their work. But he also sees some overreactions from the watchers and the watchees.

"There does seem to be a great deal of naivete [on some watchblogs] about how newspapers work," Okrent said. "It can lead to an incomplete impression, that someone was making a conscious effort to turn the news one way or the other, when in fact it's that someone was on a deadline or something had to be cut...I think that some journalists react the wrong way [to watchers], and say 'these people are crazy, these people are partisan.' If there's some light that's cast on what newspapers are doing, that's great. The professionals can learn a thing or two from the amateurs and vice versa."

Mutual understanding

No matter how successful or popular these watcher sites become, the two-way learning could be its most lasting result. NYU's Rosen said it was important to note how many watchers had also praised the work of their watchee, and grown to understand the process of journalism and the ethical standards involved. And there's little doubt that the watchees are reading these blogs, even if just out of vanity, and trying to improve their work.

Robin Stelly, a stay-at-home mom who runs the Fact-esque blog covering the AP's Calvin Woodward, noted that the Society of Professional Journalism's Code of Ethics calls for journalists to welcome criticism from amateurs. The SPJ says journalists should "clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct" and "encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media."

Stelly has only been running her watchblog since January 13, but already she has a feel for where Woodward and others go astray. In an e-mail to me, she said she had three main complaints about the press: 1) There's not a lot of reporting in context; 2) There's nearly no follow-up of important stories; 3) Reporters like to find easy narratives and shoe-horn their reporting into it.

"On the other hand, [Woodward] can do good work and be fair," Stelly said. "I hope more people pick up journalists to watch -- especially in local papers. If that happens, I hope that the watchers are careful to be positive when it's called for as well as negative. I don't want to see watching turn into a mean-spirited pursuit."

Stelly herself has even started watching NY Times reporter Elizabeth Bumiller, who covers Bush, just to give her blog some balance and context. That's a sign that many amateurs might turn out some pretty professional work.

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Related Links
CJR Campaign Desk: Sawyer Gets It Right (Finally)
CJR Campaign Desk: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Converge on One Story
CJR's Campaign Desk
Charen Watch
Fact-esque Weblog
Media Whores Online
PressThink: Adopt a Campaign Journalist in 2004: The Drift of a Suggestion
PressThink: Why I Love the Adopt-a-Reporter Scheme. Why I Dread It.
Wilgoren Watch Weblog
Wired News: All the News That's Fit to Skewer
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Jay Rosen, chairman of NYU's Department of Journalism: 'Credibility is an interaction -- not an aura.'

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Daniel Okrent, public editor at The New York Times: 'The professionals can learn a thing or two from the amateurs and vice versa.'

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