Bloggers held to a higher standard -- and that's a good thing | WisCommunity

Bloggers held to a higher standard -- and that's a good thing

[img_assist|nid=92386|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=220|height=220]Author Douglass Cater apparently was the first to suggest that journalism is "the first rough draft of history." Well, that may have been true when he said it in the 1940s and it may have remained true up until about a decade ago. Now, however, journalism at best is only the second draft. Increasingly, the first rough draft of history is now crafted by bloggers.

This change, like all technological and cultural change, has tasked professional journalism as it strives to adapt to new competition from the Internet, just as it was challenged by television. On the one hand, mainstream news media belittle blogging as unprofessional and sloppy. Some of it is. On the other hand, professional reporters mine blogs all the time to fill their own news columns. Further, mainstream news outlets -- print and broadcast -- are aggressively pursuing their own blogs.

There's one other, overall difference between professional journalism and blogging: In the main, bloggers don't get paid. It's a labor of love. It's also a much wider field, where frequency, quality and standards vary more widely. Apply the Latin admonition: "Caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware.) 

I mention this because last week provided further evidence that the way people inform themselves is changing drastically, and mostly for the better. This isn't to say traditional journalism is outmoded although it, too, has a spotty record of performance, increasingly so as business decisions and influence from advertisers and elites more often trump principles of good reporting.

No one in traditional journalism paid any attention when, last year, the Doyle administration went through what pretty much has been an automated process and devised pay raises for the State of Wisconsin's constitutionally elected officers, including governor. Lawmakers are forbidden from raising their own salaries within their own terms, so this particular pay raise was, as usual, effective upon the new term of office, which in the case of governor was when Scott Walker assumed the seat last January. He immediately received a 5.4 percent pay raise over what Doyle was getting -- about seven grand a year.

Note that Doyle's administration didn't create this raise to benefit Doyle -- he'd already announced he wouldn't seek re-election. Had he been running, I've no doubt political opponents would have made a big fuss over the projected raise -- but he didn't and they didn't. And it became a non-story. But it shouldn't have. In hindsight, it should have been news that a governor-elect who was already demanding compensation clawbacks for state workers had blithely accepted a sizable pay increase for himself. Even bloggers missed that, as far as I can tell.

I doubt that the mainstream media's lack of coverage on the raise was deliberate. The world moves fast and the two events weren't obviously linked -- only significantly linked. Someone had to make the connection, and if you've ever been a reporter trying to file a half dozen deadline stories every day on a busy beat, you know how things can fall through the cracks.

But when Walker's Office of State Employment Relations last week came up with a new "compensation" plan for state workers -- a plan that freezes compensation for two years and also makes many changes to non-compensatory policy -- the Walker team walked right into a buzzsaw of its own making. The plan included a table (reproduced in an earlier post here at UppityWisconsin and at other blogs) that showed the pay increase for the governor. Now, as even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Politifact column acknowledged, the chart was presented in a very clumsy way, making it look like the pay raise was new, and still coming down the line. 

The chart's presence created some consternation and that led to some digging, by bloggers, citizens and professional journalists alike. And the final conclusion was clear: Walker quietly took the increase from Day One, and never offered to give any of it back, much less cut the governor's salary as he was planning to cut the salaries of most other state workers.

But to arrive at that conclusion, the media (which includes bloggers) need to go through a process. Remember, most bloggers (including yours truly) do their work for free and as a sideline or hobby. Professional journalists complain that bloggers don't always follow the fact-checking and reporting standards of the craft -- which is true for both bloggers and the journalists themselves. It's even more true for professional news organizations these days, where fact-checking has slipped because of cut-backs to staff that perform proof-reading, fact checking and copy editing.  That's the thing: Rough drafts are meant to be marked up and edited. 

My "first draft of history" here at UppityWis got the basic facts right but initially featured an unfortunate undertone, with present-tense verbs in the original headline and in the body that understandably made it sound to some readers as though Walker was planning a pay raise for himself (of course, it was worse than that -- he already was pocketing the raise). These errors were offset by other material in the post noting that he couldn't give himself such a raise. Nevertheless, it was imprecise. On the other hand, unlike the Journal Sentinel and professional journalists in general, I didn't have a fleet of paid copy editors (however attenuated by the current economy) to check my work. I checked my piece myself and relied on readers to check it some more.

The bottom line was that I fixed my blog as soon as I noted the discrepancies. But even after the fix, the somewhat subtle differences between rhetoric and state law were still beyond a casual reading, and that reading continued to be compounded by OSER's confusing chart. This, as it turned out, was a good thing, because it inspired readers to ask for mroe information -- and not just here at the blog, but at other blogs, and at the governor's phone bank, and at newsrooms. Indeed, it's pretty clear that the governor's office immediately began a damage-control operation, focusing on the narrow issue at the expense of the broader facts.

Nevertheless, the broader facts willed out. And now it's become legitimate to point out Walker's inconsistency and two-faced approach to public worker compensation. Indeed, a Capital Times article (see URL below) used the mini-controversy as a springboard to play catch-up and to show to readers how Walker's actions didn't match his rhetoric. 

Ironically, I am afraid, if bloggers, me included, had gotten the story out in a totally precise, unambiguous and accurate fashion -- linking an event from last fall to an event last week -- very few news stories would have been written about Walker's pay raise and his lack of interest in rejecting it, then or now. I'm not saying we shouldn't have tried to do better, only that in publishing the first draft of history, we sparked interest from professional journalists that has illuminated the issue if only in the context of pointing out blogger shortcomings, guaranteeing that the broader and far more significant set of facts will be campaign issue, perhaps even in a recall election.

That's not a justification for careless craftwork, nor was I consciously being Machiavellian in trying to cause controversy just to get the mainstream media's attention. I am always embarrassed to find errors in my work, and strive to correct them. However, in this case, the unintended consequence was that the blogger re-draft of history made news, and ultimately the truth emerged from our set of little tributaries into that mainstream. 

It's not a fault, it's a feature: Rough drafts of history are meant to be marked up and edited.  

One reader wrote me in private to say that anything other than accuracy damages the credibility of blogs and thus the political movements with which they may be identified. I agree. However, it's good to remember that mainstream journalism -- despite its many logistical advantages -- makes many mistakes, too. That's inevitable when you're working fast and without sufficient resources. Nor is professional journalism "objective." It's at best only fair-minded. That's why journalism is not the same thing as history, and why blogging is not the same thing as journalism. Still, if journalists wish to hold bloggers to the same standards that they have for themselves, I'm okay with that, just as long as journalists acknowledge their own errors and shortcomings.

The bottom line is that a well-informed citizenry needs to get its information from many sources, and not to trust any one source. A letter writer in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says he knew the blog reports were wrong because the mainstream media never printed them beforehand. His atttitude proves the folly of the eggs-in-one-basket approach to news.

Gossip, rhetoric, innuendo and outright falsehood have helped to create massive distrust of America's public and private institutions. We bloggers indeed must strive to do the best we can, and to present facts alongside opinion. Would that other institutions -- especially our political institutions and the Fourth Estate -- strive likewise.


November 3, 2011 - 10:20am