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Breakthrough, hype — or both?

By Dan Kennedy

Is blogging the most revolutionary breakthrough in communications since Gutenberg, or the worst case of overhype since cold fusion? Actually, it's both. By making it easy for anyone to publish his or her thoughts to the world, blogging has ruptured the media landscape, giving millions of ordinary citizens a chance to write about their own lives and obsessions and to talk back to power. Yet traditional journalism remains crucial for informing us in an accurate, comprehensive and neutral manner. For all their flaws, only the mainstream media — or the “MSM,” as they are derisively known in blogspeak — have the money and the resources necessary to produce that kind of journalism.

As the former media critic for the Boston Phoenix , I've watched and documented how the Internet has changed the way we work. As recently as the mid-1990s, if I wanted to write about how, say, the Washington Post covered a story, I had to send an intern to Harvard Square and hope she would come back with a day-old copy. Now, not only is the Post instantly available online, but so is virtually every other paper, both in the United States and abroad. This is both a blessing and a curse: the Internet has made it easier for a media critic to do his job, but it has also instilled in readers an expectation that the critic will bring more to the table than would have been possible a decade ago.

The first blogs I read regularly were the Drudge Report and a site called, a compilation of media news put together by Jim Romenesko, a journalist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press . (Call them proto-blogs: neither Drudge nor Romenesko appears to use blogging software, but, as with most blogs, their sites consist mainly of links and commentary.) Romenesko eventually was hired by the Poynter Institute, and today his site — known simply as Romenesko — functions as a virtual water-cooler for professionals and media junkies. Thanks to Romenesko's willingness to link to my articles, I was able to develop a small national audience while I was at the Phoenix — again, something that wouldn't have been possible previously.

Over the past few years, hundreds if not thousands of people — some of them professional journalists, most of them amateurs — have started blogs to keep tabs on the media. This is a healthy development; the news media are imperfect instruments of democracy, and the more that people are watching us, the better. But rather than acting as alternatives to the mainstream, as some bloggers think they are, their most effective role is as a complement.

Perhaps the best example of this is the saga of CBS News and the phony documents regarding President Bush's National Guard service last September. It's true that, within days (make that hours), conservative blogs such as Power Line and Little Green Footballs showed the documents had most likely been produced on a computer, and not typed in the early 1970s, as CBS News had reported. But liberal blogs such as the Daily Kos produced evidence that seemed equally compelling — at least to my non-expert eyes — that the documents could only have been produced by a certain model of electric typewriter available more than 30 years ago. In the end, it took the mainstream media, led by the Washington Post , to do the kind of hard reporting necessary to reveal the truth. (I wrote about this for the Phoenix last fall and winter; click here , here and here .)

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