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The essential stupidity of the 'blogger' evasion

I've been a paid journalist for 25 years, but after 11 months online I've made peace with being called a "blogger."

Many journalists hate the tag — it carries the connotation of "amateur namecaller." Hell, even some amateur bloggers object when I call them bloggers!

Norm Coleman — a professional politician if ever there was one — cannily exploited this insecurity Tuesday when he blew off Pioneer Press reporter Dave Orrick's inquiry into the so-called "Suitgate" kerfuffle. (Eric Black has a great rundown of that controversy here.)

The key passage occurs at about the 13-second mark of this video:

Says Coleman, "The idea of responding to the things bloggers throw out is something I'm not going to get into. There are very awful things that are said about people on blogs. And the idea to make it a legitimate story is something … I just don't respond to it."


Now, what if Coleman had instead said:

"The idea of responding to the things reporters throw out is something I'm not going to get into. There are very awful things that are said about people in stories. … I just don't respond to it."

Sort of Palinesque, right?

The original post's author, Ken Silverstein, may be a blogger, but he's also an internationally award-winning journalist for Harper's Magazine, on whose site the "Suitgate" story broke. Silverstein, an ex-L.A. Times and Associated Press reporter, relied on public documents and interviews. (More on the latter in a moment.)

In other words, Coleman isn't ducking a standards-free amateur's attack — he's evading an investigation from a colleague of Dave Orrick's, or Tom Scheck's, or Pat Lopez's. And Norm should be called on his spin.

As for me, I've long ago waved the white flag on the journalist/blogger distinction. If you're still hung up on this, I recommend a mental trick, at least when it comes to politics:

Think of everyone as a columnist.

Columnists can be hyperbolically ideological or close-to-the-vest centrist. Some are fabulous reporters, others need a supervisor to kick their asses out the door. None are objective. Most are edited — but more than a few, practically speaking, are not.

(And more than a few columnists believe editing generally weakens, not strengthens, their pieces. Silverstein, whose Harper's bio includes an interesting philosophical fight with his LA Times bosses, sounds like he's in this camp.)

"Bloggers" are not terribly different. Some are extraordinarily fact-challenged, or curdled in partisan rigidity, but many — more and more, I'd say — provide fundamentally sound facts and analysis.

Intelligent readers — intelligent citizens — need to ignore politicians any time they exploit the labeling confusion.

Instead, they need to judge a piece using media-literacy staples: Are there facts? Are they presented accurately? Can they be verified? Also: Does the correspondent have a track record of omissions and evasion?

To be sure, Silverstein's piece has a big weakness: the "pal-bought-Norm-clothing" allegation relies on two unnamed sources. (Thus, we can't verify their testimony.)

Had Coleman or his stonewalling spokesman climbed out of the bunker to ding Silverstein for this — or, in a macho moment, challenged him to name names — I'd be more impressed. (To be fair, Coleman spokesperson Cullen Sheehan cites unnamed sources in passing around the middle of this YouTube video, but quickly adds "on blogs.")

Often, the best test of a post — or story, or whatever you want to call it — is time. We're on Day Three of Suitgate, and the Coleman camp has knocked down precisely zero of Silverstein's assertions.

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Comments (3)

David,

I'm glad you wrote this piece. As Ken Silverstein's editor I'd like to respond to two things:

You wrote: "And more than a few columnists believe editing generally weakens, not strengthens, their pieces. Silverstein, whose Harper's bio includes an interesting philosophical fight with his LA Times bosses, sounds like he's in this camp."

The opposite is true--Ken is always willing to be edited. I review all of his original reporting before it's posted to Harpers.org. I regularly challenge him on his work and force him to defend his conclusions; I can't tell you the number of times I have asked "and we know that how?" over the past few years. He has supported this policy
without complaint.

You also wrote: "To be sure, Silverstein's piece has a big weakness: the 'pal-bought-Norm-clothing' allegation relies on two unnamed sources. (Thus, we can't verify their testimony.)"

We name our sources whenever possible. After a careful review, Ken and I agreed that his sources could be trusted--never a decision to be made lightly--and that it was important to go forward with the story, especially after Coleman's office refused to provide a direct answer to Ken's questions. Watching the story unfold I believe we made the right decision.

As to "the essential stupidity of the 'blogger' evasion"--I agree entirely.

First you mock the MSM, then you slander Bloggers. I guess you feel pretty secure at MinnPost, David.

Congratulations.

Paul Ford said: "After a careful review, Ken and I agreed that his sources could be trusted.."

Try that on a blog, Paul. Bloggers that hold themselves out as serious players in the info biz are held to higher standards than that.

For all we know, your source is an e-mail from Andy Barr.

Define "Journalist".

Thanks.