Archive for Sunday, April 9, 2006

Bloggers lose credibility points on hostage

April 9, 2006

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— I am sure that Jill Carroll and her family are too busy inhaling the sweet spring air of freedom to spend time sniffing out the pollution in the blogosphere. Anyone who spent three months imagining the grimmest fate for this young journalist in the hands of terrorists can't get too upset when a little Internet posse goes after her scalp.

Nevertheless, this is not a good moment for the bustling, energetic Wild West of the new Internet media. Remember when a former CBS executive described bloggers as guys in pajamas writing in their living rooms? Well, it seems that many have only one exercise routine: jumping to conclusions.

In the hours between captivity and true freedom, Jill Carroll was seen in one propaganda film describing the mujaheddin as "good people fighting an honorable fight" and in another interview saying she was never threatened. An online jeering section bought it hook, line and sinker without waiting to hear that the videos were made under threat. As Alex Jones of Harvard's Shorenstein Center said, "They were gulled by a clever piece of propaganda and ought to be ashamed of themselves."

The printouts on my desk describe the 28-year-old journalist, a hostage and victim for 82 terrifying days, as something between Patty Hearst and Baghdad Jane, between a traitor and "Princess Jill." TBone posted a potshot, calling Carroll "a liar" and the kidnapping "a total scam." PA Pundits said that "I still just can't get past her being (for the most part) unharmed." And Debbie Schlussel, called her a "spoiled brat America-hater."

The blogosphere was not the only source of pollution. Indeed, the oil-spill prize goes to Don Imus' producer, Bernard McGuirk, who described this young reporter as "the kind of woman who would wear one of those suicide vests. ... She may be carrying Habib's baby." But in the short, volatile and powerful life of the Web log, the Jill Carroll debacle may be a turning point.

Web logs have been around barely a half-dozen years. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that a quarter of Internet users now read blogs and 9 percent write one. Most of the 28 million blogs are online diaries such as those on MySpace. But there is also the feisty political corner of this zone.

The political bloggers first flexed their muscle in 2002 when they trumped the MSM - blogspeak for Mainstream Media - by forcing Trent Lott out of the Senate speakership after he toasted the good old segregated days of Strom Thurmond. In 2004, they proved the power of the Internet as a great equalizer when they confronted the house of CBS and Dan Rather over Bush's military records.

Two years later, we have - ready, fire, aim - the Jill Carroll affair. These attacks raise the question of what bloggery is going to be when it grows up. An Internet op-ed page? Or a polarized, talk-radio food fight?

As Internet users, we've learned a lot about the good, the bad, the true and the false in cyberspace. If you Google an illness, you get links to a cutting-edge cure for cancer or a Web site for pills made from apricot pits. Dan Gillmor, author of "We the Media," says that "people are having to learn a new kind of media literacy" and that "quality will end up surfacing." Maybe so. Maybe not.

If newspapers are the first rough draft of history, a blog is like reading a never-ending draft as it's being written and published, mostly unedited, without standards or correction boxes. Defenders will tell you that blogs are "fact-checked" in the rough and tumble of the marketplace by other bloggers. But don't count on it.

The difference between old media and new, MSM and blog, says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, is the difference between sitting at a restaurant and having your food delivered nicely plated or standing at a buffet nibbling constantly. It's the 24/7 news cycle brought down to the 604,800 seconds-per-week cycle.

In the wake of the Carroll story, a few - far too few - bloggers stopped stocking the buffet long enough to eat their words. But this case provides a juncture for bloggers who want a respected role in the public debate.

It has already provoked something rather rare in the blogosphere: soul searching. Rick Moran, the self-named Right Wing Nut House, asks: "Are we nothing more than a pack of digital yellow journalists writing pixilated scab sheets vying to see who we can lay low next?" Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice warns: "You can't fake credibility. You earn it. And today some blogs and blogging in general need to re-earn it."

For many bloggers, credibility - and decency - should begin with an apology to a survivor named Jill Carroll.

- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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