Ending Raines's reign

National | An ethics crisis at The New York Times reveals that influential weblogs now have a seat at the editorial table: at first, they could take credit for tipping journalists; now they're toppling them

Issue: "How to fix baseball," June 21, 2003

Two new words have entered the English language and redefined the way American media work: blog and blogosphere. Blog is short for weblog, an Internet journal written by an individual or a small group, often with links to relevant articles. The blogosphere describes the new universe of discourse in which individual pundits or cranks can gain a broad following without going through editorial gatekeepers.

The blogosphere first showed its power during the Trent Lott affair, fanning the flames that led to his resignation from the Republican Senate leadership weeks before he would have been elected majority leader. Now this intertwined Internet community has knocked off Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd of The New York Times-and the way the mighty Times faltered in the Blair affair (see WORLD, May 24) shows how decentralized grassroots reporting can now challenge media power.

One well-read blogger, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan (andrewsullivan.com), consistently dogged the Times executive editor by pointing out error after error in Times quotations, coverage, and content-and presenting transcripts of press conferences alongside Times stories so that readers could see for themselves. Mr. Sullivan accurately crowed in a June 6 posting that "the blogosphere in general created a growing chorus of criticism that helped create public awareness of exactly what Raines was up to.... We did what journalists are supposed to do-and we did it to journalism itself."

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Another influential blogger, Mickey Kaus (kausfiles.com) premiered his snazzy Howell Raines-O-Meter, which posited a 70 percent probability that Mr. Raines would resign. The Raines-O-Meter lasted only a day before probability became finality. Mr. Kaus, a Los Angeles-based former Newsweek writer, argues that the ability of Times staffers to post their opinions on the Internet dismantled all pretext that Mr. Raines had newsroom support. After the fall, Mr. Kaus wrote "the best we can hope for, I think, is a general toning down of Raines-style activism, even if that's done in the name of 'objectivity' (and therefore has the effect of actually perpetuating the essential 'objectivity' fraud)."

The most influential blogger of recent weeks has probably been Jim Romenesko (poynter.org/romenesko), whose reader postings spawned a frenzy within the Times itself, with leaked emails and memos finding their way onto the Romenesko site. Mr. Romenesko, a Marquette graduate and longtime Midwest newpaperman, linked to dozens of articles on the Times scandal day after day, and even sponsored a limerick contest on the mess. The Los Angeles Times stated that "the brouhaha has been to Romenesko what the first Persian Gulf War was to CNN, a defining moment."

WORLD will continue to follow the Sullivan, Kaus, and Romenesko onslaughts and other major blogs. The latest major target has been Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who on May 14 changed the meaning of a statement by President Bush. He said, "al-Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al-Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore." But Ms. Dowd wrote, "'al-Qaeda is on the run,' President Bush said last week. 'That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated.... They're not a problem anymore.'"

The leading blogs are calling Ms. Dowd's misquoting either gross bias or gross stupidity and are demanding a correction. Times executives seem to be hunkering down in the hope that big-time bloggers will move on. And yet, the hundreds of smaller media-watching blogs make it almost impossible to stop a story once it starts. The breaker of the Dowd story, blogger Erasmus (thenationaldebate.blogspot.com), says, "It is my intention to continue to push this story until The New York Times runs an actual correction and distributes that correction to all the papers who printed Maureen Dowd's column through The New York Times syndication service."

Amidst the sea of inquiry, Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine.com) came up with a rare blogosphere self-examination in response to Andrew Sullivan's boasting. "First Lott. Then Raines. And you ain't seen nothing yet." Mr. Jarvis wrote. "Let's hope that the blogosphere does not become known as nothing but a land of destruction. Tearing down people can be deserved. It can be fun. It can be righteous good work. But if all you do is destroy-and complain and carp and snark-you don't build, you don't contribute."

With the downfall of Sen. Lott and Mr. Raines, the blogosphere has shown that it can tear down, but can it build up?


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