Who's Easier To Intimidate: A Newspaper In Need Of Advertising... Or A Group Of Concerned Citizens?

from the just-asking dept

As newspaper folks continue to insist that only newspapers can really do investigative reporting, their reasoning just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. The latest is publisher (not radio host) Alex Jones who suggested in a recent interview that we need big news organizations to do investigative reporting, because the subjects of those reports are likely to try to intimidate the investigators and only a big organization can stand up to that sort of intimidation. However, Tim Lee points out why that doesn't make much sense, and why a group of concerned citizens is probably a lot less likely to be intimidated than a single organization. It's the same basic theory as the difference between a distributed system and one with a single point of failure:
Jones gets the implications of this story completely backwards. It's only because newspapers are large, profitable, commercial enterprises that the kind of intimidation techniques he talks about work at all. Imagine it's 2020 and the Idaho newspapers have all gone out of business, and they've been replaced by several hundred bloggers, most of them amateurs. A whistleblower discovers some evidence of wrongdoing by a prominent Mormon official. Is it easier or harder for the whistleblower to get the word out?

Obviously, it's easier. She can anonymously email the evidence to a dozen different bloggers. Those bloggers don't have to all prepare long "investigative journalism" write-ups; some of them can just post the raw documents for others to look at. Once they're widely available, other bloggers can link to those raw documents and provide commentary. The official being criticized has three big problems. First, taking legal action will be vastly more expensive because he'd have to sue dozens of bloggers rather than just one newspaper. Second, many of those bloggers won't have any assets to speak of, so he's unlikely to recover his legal costs even if he wins. And finally, if he foolishly presses forward, he'll discover our friend the Streisand Effect: the fact that he files the lawsuit will cause a lot more people to cover the original allegations.

Likewise, the threat of a boycott only works because newspapers are for-profit operations with significant overhead. Threatening a boycott against, a blogger who writes in a his free time is no threat at all.
As if to prove this very point, there were stories this week about a newspaper columnist being fired (and, yes, the newspaper disputes some of the details) for writing a column that highlighted an investigation of a major advertiser in the newspaper. Oh, and what has the fired guy done? He's gone and set up his own blog. Again, none of this is saying that professional reporters and news organizations aren't an important part of journalism -- but the idea that no one else can do what they do is just silly.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  •  
    identicon
    you want a name well for now my name is fred., Aug 19th, 2009 @ 4:00pm

    On the other hand, "concerned citizens" are like to write a one sided blog to expresses only their side of the story, nowhere near the actual truth. It would be like having someone who is absolutely against newspapers writing stories about newspapers.

    (sarcasm in there somewhere)

     

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      identicon
      FoxNews, Aug 19th, 2009 @ 4:56pm

      Re:

      As we all know, MSM is not biased.

       

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      DJ (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 5:31pm

      Re:

      ""concerned citizens" are like to write a one sided blog"

      You're absolutely correct on that point.

      "expresses only their side of the story, nowhere near the actual truth"

      That part of your statement suggests two things.
      1)that "concerned citizens" NEVER tell the truth. If that were the case, then you, yourself, are lying, and should therefore NEVER be listened to.

      2)that professional journalists ALWAYS tell the truth. That's just plain bollox and you know it.

      The reality of things is that just because a blogger can't be fired for lying, doesn't mean that they're going to. Also, just because an opinion is not a fact, does not mean that it cannot be SUPPORTED by fact(s).

       

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        Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 5:57pm

        Re: Re:

        Moreover, the open commentary and criticism of the network of bloggers, plus the need to compete for readers, will force the bloggers to support their points with facts and links and convincing arguments or risk losing credibility and falling into obscurity.

        You'll always get a few small clubs of people who completely deny reality and publish and read the crap that fits the way they want the world to be, but you get plenty of that already, and it's not as if too many outsiders are being swindled by it.

         

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 19th, 2009 @ 5:49pm

      Re:

      First, how hard is it to distinguish between being against something and being indifferent to it? Second, there's more than one blog. Why should any one blogger commit to presenting all sides when someone else can cover a different angle on their own site?

       

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        DJ (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 6:01pm

        Re: Re:

        Aha! I honestly didn't even think of that side of things. Even if EVERY blogger only presented their opinions on a subject with a few facts to back them up, there is ZERO CHANCE that ALL OF THEM will have identical opinions; even those few who do agree won't likely use the same facts to back up their opinion.

        End result is that the reader winds up doing the "work", by reading multiple blogs, to get the full story.

         

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          Sneeje (profile), Aug 20th, 2009 @ 3:58am

          Re: Re: Re:

          And how is that different than today with traditional media? Multiple media outlets have biases, even if they are more subtle, and each reporter has a different approach to every story.

           

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            Hephaestus (profile), Aug 20th, 2009 @ 7:34am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "media outlets have biases, even if they are more subtle"

            LOL .... can anyone tell me which media outlet Obama was talking about when mentioned a biased cable news company ...

             

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 20th, 2009 @ 8:38am

      Re:

      When anyone can write a blog, doesn't that mean *Gasp* that people can tell their side of the story through the exact same means?

       

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    BullJustin (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 4:13pm

    Gombossy's explanation

    So I read the explanation Mr Gombossy presents over his termination and the events leading up to it. He wrote a column where he investigated companies that people complained about. He had at least one column held back from publication because the subject of his investigation was a key advertiser. He wrote another one that also targeted a key advertiser and the editors gave him the boot.

    Gombossy was born in Hungary and lived under communist rule until he escaped in 1956. He worked at the Hartford Courant for 40 years, the last three writing a watchdog column. Over the three years he wrote he had over 8000 complaints. He knows the industry and understands the heart of the problem with the modern newspaper business.

    Advertisers don’t take out ads because they like the columnists or reporters. They take out ads based on a newspaper’s circulation, which is based on its credibility. The less credibility a newspaper has, the less readers it should have. And if that happens everyone will suffer consequences beyond our ability to now measure.
    Geroge Gombossy
    President
    Ctwatchdog.com

     

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    AdamR (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 4:21pm

    To commenter #1

    So your saying that journalists and their corporate masters have never taken a story and published a one sided damming work against anybody? Better yet made a journalist tone down, make changes to a story so not offend advertisers or important people that have clout?

     

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      you want a name well for now my name is fred., Aug 19th, 2009 @ 5:30pm

      Re:

      If you spent any time in a newspaper office, you will know that most of them are way too large for the sales people to spend their time coaching the reporters on "right and wrong".

      Amateur bloggers are much more likely to be related to someone in the company, have bought their last (whatever) there, perhaps they own the building that the company is working in. Because bloggers have no disclosure requirements, they can not just put their finger on the scales to tip the story, they can lean on it hard without risk. Anonymous blog spot poster #299383 is without risk.

      The person pushing this story probably also thinks that Wikipedia is 100% correct all the time.

       

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        DJ (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 5:34pm

        Re: Re:

        "The person pushing this story probably also thinks that Wikipedia is 100% correct all the time."

        If you've ever read this blog prior to today, you would know that not even the AC's are dumb enough to take that stance.

         

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 19th, 2009 @ 7:31pm

    A big organization has a lot to lose where as a single person has little to lose. When you're rich you have more to lose than a poor person so a poor person is obviously less intimidated.

     

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    Anthony (profile), Aug 19th, 2009 @ 7:54pm

    We only have 1 daily newspaper here(QLD,Australia) and it's owned by News Ltd. Not sure how the US feels about News Ltd, but in Australia they're basically a laughing stock whose articles are incredibly dumbed down and basically don't investigate any stories at all.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 19th, 2009 @ 10:51pm

      Re:

      and if the corporations have their way they would turn the Internet into the same nonsense that mainstream media has turned into (under noble pretexts of course, all of which lies).

       

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    identicon
    Jake, Aug 20th, 2009 @ 2:55am

    I don't really know what to think here. Most bloggers started writing one as a hobby, usually whilst holding down a full-time job doing something completely unrelated; someone uncovering corporate corruption and sundry acts of evil in their spare time is fairly unprecedented. (Batman doesn't count.) Would they act differently if they aren't getting paid to do it? Depends on the blogger I suppose.

    Of course, I suspect the real test's going to come when someone is actually murdered to silence their blog. Far as I know that hasn't happened yet, though if Frank Sinatra's estate weigh in on the RIAA's side it's probably only a matter of time.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 20th, 2009 @ 8:03am

    If mainstream media is so much harder to intimidate how does one explain this?

    "On the Friday before Monday's air date, Monsanto's lawyer faxed a letter to Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News in New York, claiming that the series was biased and unscientific. It threatened, "There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto, but also for Fox News and its owner." Rupert Murdoch, of course is the owner, and part of what was at stake was lots of Monsanto advertising dollars--for the Florida station, the entire Fox network, and Murdoch's Actmedia, a major advertising agency used by Monsanto. Fox pulled the series for "further review."

    After the Florida station's general manager, who had a background in investigative reporting, meticulously vetted the show, he verified that every statement was accurate and unbiased. The station re-scheduled the series for the following week.

    Monsanto's attorney immediately sent another, more strongly worded letter to Ailes, this time indicating that the news story "could lead to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News." The airing was postponed indefinitely.

    The Florida station's general manager and news manager were soon fired, and according to Wilson, the new general manager was a salesman with no news experience. Wilson tried to convince him to run the rbGH story on its merits. He said Monsanto's whole PR campaign was based on the false statement that milk from rbGH-treated cows is "the same safe wholesome product we've always known." But even Monsanto's own studies showed this to be a lie, and it could be endangering the public. "

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-smith/monsanto-forced-fox-tv-to_b_186428.html

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Aug 20th, 2009 @ 8:33am

      Re:

      The answer is simple: You weren't dealing with media, you were dealing with a broadcast blog called "faux news".

      Using Murdoch's shitpile as proof of anything beyond greed and narrow mindedness isn't exactly helping. it's like holding up Rush Limbaugh up as a fair and balanced commentator.

      Which proves to point even more: can you imagine if your only news source was Rush? How f-ed up would your world view be, pushed to be a dittohead like everyone else?

       

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 20th, 2009 @ 9:55am

    This is unrelated, but why are we targeting 'Mormon' officials, rather than just officials?

    Seems like there's a bit of a bias going on. Should it matter as to the religion of people you're targeting?

     

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