Monday, January 31, 2005

Facts Schmacts

Look, I'm all for the notion that speed gets in the way of accuracy at times in blogging, in the same way that no matter how careful you are if you host a 3 hour daily radio program you're bound to get a few things wrong at times, and the notion that egregious errors are generally spotted and pointed out by readers. But, blogs are not "self-correcting" - you actually have to, you know, make corrections. And, especially if you operate a comment-free blog, your errors are not necessarily going to be pointed out to the rest of the world. And, more importantly, when you do stuff which is journalism-like, instead of pundit-like -- that is, passing along information from sources, then there's a wee bit of obligation to try to verify that information.

Conservative bloggers engage in faith-based blogging. They say the "blogosphere is self-correcting!" and this absolves them from any responsibility to actually acknowledge or correct their errors. Wankers.

Prior to Hinderaker's presentation, the week before the November elections, I visited the Powerline site. To my surprise an Oct. 27 post covered alleged voter fraud in Racine, Wis., my hometown. The charges involved the registering of illegal aliens to vote. The story seemed outrageous, so I made a few phone calls to check it out.

What I discovered was troubling. There was no factual basis for the voter fraud allegations. Powerline posted the story based on the word of a single individual employed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). This was hearsay at best, posted as "news" at a time when voter registration efforts by the Democrats and 527 groups were coming under fire by conservatives.

At class I asked Hinderaker if posts to Powerline were fact-checked. He was dismissive of the question, so I asked if he was aware that the Racine voter fraud story was inaccurate. He stated that he was not, slapped his hands together and stated that the blogosphere was all about speed and therefore did not allow for fact-checking. Mr. Hinderaker went on to say, "Our readers let us know when we get it wrong."

And therein lies the cautionary Catch-22: Bloggers may serve as media watchdogs, but who will watch the blogs? Do you have time to fact-check what you read online?

Let me be perfectly clear. I believe bloggers of all political and social stripes have much to offer. They provide a pulpit for the average citizen and a dizzying variety of insights on a wild array of topics. But blogs can also be ideologically driven, presenting hearsay as fact without apology.

Extremists on both the right and the left would love nothing more than to lend their blog-of-choice credibility beyond its due. The blogosphere is the perfect vehicle for disseminating ideologically driven rants against people and policy. There are no checks and balances, no fact-checkers, no code of ethics, no professional associations or peer review. It is illustrative, and sadly ironic, that the blog lionized for breaking the Rathergate story does not fact-check its posts and apparently has no intention of doing so.

I don't agree with the last bit. There are checks and balances and fact-checkers and peer review. But, at the end of the day bloggers have to correct themselves no matter how much criticism they get from readers and other blogs. And, people should really stop comparing the reality of blogs with the ideal of journalism - as we learned during the Jayson Blair fun, fact checkers are not apparently a key feature of the New York Times reporting process.