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Monday, October 23, 2006

Lessons from last week...Weller, Edelman, Bombs...And what it means to folks like me...

The so-called new media blew it last week. Completely. What makes matter worse is that the old guard gave them a great opportunity. They blew it, too.

Let's start with how the traditional media handled the Sunday NFL dirty bomb scare. They took a non-story, offered a half-researched version of it, and worked everyone into a tizzy over nothing. They abdicated their role as gatekeepers and filters of crap in order to chase after ratings, monger fear, use their fancy NEWS ALERT graphics, etc. (see: "Dirty bombs on Sunday...")

It turns out to be nothing more than idiocy cooked up by some kid in Wisconsin who's trying to one-up some other goofball in a game of "who can concoct a creepier terrorism scenario." Had anyone in the media bothered to do some research before telling readerst that their local NFL stadium was targeted for radiological destruction, the story would have never seen the light of day.

The media reminds us over and over again that we need them because they can separate the crap from the important. They failed.

So, that's the set-up. You have the old guard looking stupid and backtracking (without apology, of course). You have the self-proclaimed Editorial Gods standing there with egg on their collective face. Onto what does the new media (in particularly the blogosphere) latch? Jerry Weller. (see: "Corporate graphics make me tired...")

A newspaper reporter and television "personality" with bad hair and a bow tie made a few allusions to another Republican getting in hot water as part of another page/sex scandal. One blogger gets a tip from another who says he knows someone who has reliably predicted some news on some other occasion. Jerry Weller is named as the next page-diddling miscreant.

Within a day, you had major blogs labeling him a "Pagef**ker." People were taking tremendous glee in the fact that Weller was taking the Foley Express to oblivion. He was proclaimed a pervert by person after person.

Apparently, none of it was true. Weller's office has a fairly compelling explanation as to why someone might have briefly thought something was amiss at his office and even though reporters have been checking the story out, nothing has really broken.

The new media hung Jerry Weller in a vigilante blogging spree. That was wrong. At least it looks that way as of today.

So, the new kids on the online block are just as bad, at deciding what constitutes news as are the stuffed shirts at the traditional media outlets. Based on the Weller experience, they are even worse. The old guard ran a non-story that didn't matter and approached it as if Armegeddon was pending, but at least they didn't label anyone a pervert without cause.

Then, Edelman-gate breaks. The Edelman PR firm 'fessed up to creating and maintaining blogs that appeared to feature honest grassroots opinion in support of their mega-client, Wal-Mart. The blogs were disingenuous and ran contrary to the influential PR firm's own stated commitment to integrity and transparency.

If you don't think defenders of the old media will use Edelman as an example of why Joe Average needs them to separate the wheat/truth from the chaff/PR, you're probably wrong.

What does all of this have to do with me? It really has an impact on multiple levels. Edelman's problems, for instance, spurred me to take another look at the ethics of ghostwriting and how writers should approach these situations.

It also affects me on an individual level. As someone who likes to be honestly and accurately informed, I bemoan the judgment lapse of all involved in all three incidents. I also think all of these events illustrate the power of both the old and new media and the negative repercussions (both pragmatically and ethically) of poor exercise of journalistic and opinion-molding power.

Finally, it has another professional impact for freelance writers like me. I am constantly involved in the new media, as the bulk of my work is done for online enterprises. I rely upon the blogosphere for news and insight while simultaneously consuming more than my fair share of traditional media offerings. I also contribute to the whole thing.

All of us do. If you blog, you are making statements and arguing opinions. You are raising your voice in the marketplace of ideas, hoping your sentiments resonate with someone. You might just want to tell the world the best way to make lasagna. You might want to change the nature of our foreign policy in central Africa. It doesn't really matter. You are part of this new media and this new information exchange, just like I am. Just like the next blogger you read is.

As little individual bloggers, we might not mean that much. As an aggregate, however, we do. The Weller story is a perfect example. A few isolated rumors became a wildfire because a slew of "little guys" who didn't really feel a responsibility toward the truth or a need to act as serious editors decided to pass the rumor along. Some passed it on as fact. Some were motivated by a political agenda. Others repeated it without thought because it seemed like an interesting story, but they didn't bother to check it out or to consider the fact that they were actually accusing a real flesh and blood person a pervert.

Individuals didn't take their new role in the world of information exchange seriously. Some of those who did screwed up, too. I am beginning to believe that if anyone wants the new media and/or the blogosphere to be taken seriously, we are going to have to do a better job as individuals of being mindful of the impact of our combined and individual actions. I hate to use the R word, but some level of responsibility is in order.

As a writer, that puts an onus on me to double-check my work, to do quality research and to be sure that when I say something is one way that it really is that way. I can't allow convenience to trump that responsibility. That's true of the paid work Content Done Better produces for clients and the blogging I do here.

Nice job, traditional gatekeepers. The only bombs yesterday were thrown by quarterbacks and you should have known that the day your broke the story.

Nice job, new media. You displayed the seedy side of blogging with disingenuous PR work and a rumor-based character assassination.

Keep up the good work, everyone, and we'll all eventually be paralyzed as we slowly drown in a growing sea of information and disinformation without any way of telling the good stuff from the bad.