Blogger Robert Cox tried everything he could do to get The New York Times to change its ways. After he read an incorrectly abridged quote in a Maureen Dowd column last year, he tried in vain to get a correction in the paper. He vented, he raged, he rallied the blogosphere and even some other newspapers. But in the end, his parody of the Times' correction page -- and the overreaction from the Times' legal department -- got the newspaper to change its policy.
The old policy was to let columnists make their own corrections. Thanks to Cox's efforts, the editors at the Times now will make the final determination on corrections, which will run at the bottom of future columns -- so that syndicated columns are corrected in all the papers in which they run.
And Cox isn't the only blogger who's made waves recently. Australian blogger Tim Blair unearthed a fabricated quote by Chicago Tribune correspondent Uli Schmetzer, whose career at the paper ended shortly thereafter. And blogger Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, helped counter a series in the Los Angeles Times about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's conflicts of interest with a front-page L.A. Times story on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's own conflict.
But Cox stands alone in that he brought a policy change to The New York Times, at a time when the newspaper is trying to be more receptive to readers' concerns. Cox runs The National Debate blog and Web site, which focuses on political media coverage, including a handy daily newsletter that tells you which pundits are on the various news shows that day.
"I spent many months pushing the Dowd correction issue before I became aware that the failure to correct the Dowd column was part of a broader problem at the Times," Cox told me via e-mail. "(It was) a flawed policy that allowed Times op-ed columnists to decide for themselves whether they had made an error and, if so, whether that error rose to the level of requiring a correction and, if a correction was warranted, how to issue it. Not surprisingly, corrections of the Times op-ed columnists were as rare as an honest politician and harder to find than WMD in Iraq."
After Cox posted his parody of the Times' correction page on March 3, a Times lawyer threatened him and his ISP in a heavy-handed attempt to shut him down. The move backfired, making Cox's page a cause celebre in the blogosphere and bringing media attention from all corners. Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent took the time to meet with Cox over breakfast one day, and soon thereafter, the Times' Editorial Page editor, Gail Collins, issued a new policy for columnists.
"I think Cox did play a role, because he kept the issue out there," Okrent told me via phone. "His parody page was, I thought, remarkable, and the Times' legal department overreacted. Not that the legal department was wrong, but the reasonable thing to do, I think, was call the guy and tell him to say it's a parody at the top of the page or otherwise people will think it's a trademark infringement. But instead, the classic lawyer's cease-and-desist letter, once that was out there, it was very hard to ignore."
Okrent says that columnists have always had more leeway at the Times to give their take on facts -- but some facts are arguable.
"The Times' position has long been that they choose a columnist, and that space belongs to the columnist until it no longer does," Okrent said. "A fact to you might not be a fact to someone else. Safire might make a link from Al Qaeda to Saddam, and someone says, 'but your own newspaper on Page One on such-and-such a date said there was no link.' Safire says they're wrong, and maybe they are. You have to give columnists more leeway. After years of having an unstated policy, it's going to take awhile for everyone to get used to (the new policy)."
Columnists vs. bloggers
While Okrent has ingratiated himself to the blogosphere -- and its legions of Times bashers -- he noted that he will be vacating the public editor's job on schedule in a year. The idea was to make the job temporary, so that he wouldn't feel like he had to please the bosses to keep his job. But Okrent said management was likely to hire a permanent public editor to replace him.
"Dan Okrent's willingness to listen to a reader's concerns and, when warranted, to act on those concerns, is a remarkable turnaround at the Times and one that almost makes the Jayson Blair scandal worth it for readers," Cox told me. "As a fierce critic of The New York Times, I find myself in the unusual position of having to compliment the paper in how they have changed over the past year. It may be going too far to say that this event represents a watershed moment -- a significant turning point in the balance between old media and new -- but it is certainly a powerful testament to the power of the blogosphere."
By being more responsive, the Times is starting to make friends with begrudging, right-leaning bloggers. Glenn Reynolds, who writes the InstaPundit blog, even gave props to the Times in a backhanded way.
"I think that -- as much as we bloggers pick on it -- the NY Times is starting to get the message," he wrote to me via e-mail. "I've praised Okrent, and the NYT's new op-ed correction policy. So have a lot of people. But while I think they're trying to improve their products, it's like the auto industry in 1977 -- they're putting out Granadas, Fairmonts and Gremlins and telling us they're great."
Part of the tension between bloggers and the various opinion sections of newspapers is a battle for turf. Bloggers often operate as political pundits, writing their take on the day's news with their own spin. That can't help but make editorial writers a bit nervous as the new kids on the cyber-block invade their ink-stained territory.
"I think most of the 'clout' Weblogs have involves various lost monopolies in the traditional news media," said Jay Rosen, PressThink blogger and chair of New York University's Department of Journalism. "Almost all of the op-ed writing in America used to be on op-ed pages. That is no longer true. Weblogs have taken over part of that territory. And while the best of them may have 'opinion clout,' the simple fact that they have some territory alongside Big Media is significant. There are just more players today."
And one role bloggers have been playing is as ideological watchdogs on Big Media, as most of the bloggers mentioned in this article are more conservative folks who see a liberal bias in the newspapers they read with a fine-tooth comb each day.
Blogger Tim Blair is a scathing critic of outlets he considers to have a liberal bias, and nailed Chicago Tribune correspondent Uli Schmetzer for quoting someone who was supposedly a psychiatrist making racist comments about Australian Aborigines.
Blair just didn't believe the quote and pinged the Tribune's public editor Don Wycliff with his hunch. It turned out that the name of the quotee and his profession were fake, though Schmetzer says the quote was genuine and he was just protecting his source. The Tribune is still investigating past stories from the writer, who had been with the Tribune for 18 years.
Like Cox, Blair was surprised when his query got results -- albeit much more quickly than in Cox's case. "I was impressed," Blair told me via e-mail. "Very impressed. Remember, I didn't have any hard evidence that the quote was faked; it was just a hunch. That the Tribune investigated on that basis is admirable ... They should regard bloggers as the audience -- and not as some freakish sub-group. We're reading their papers, watching their news, listening to their radio shows. It's lame to dismiss us simply because we write online."
Wycliff, for his part, takes an agnostic view on bloggers and views them as he would any other reader of the Tribune. "Usually, when a complaint or a report of journalistic wrongdoing or irregularity comes in here, I can't tell whether it's from a blogger or from an ordinary reader who spotted something over morning coffee," he told me via e-mail. "And frankly, it doesn't matter to me. I check it out in either case. I generally feel that the more sets of eyes that see and read our work critically, the better off we are."
The Times' Okrent agreed with that take, for the most part, but saw a downside with bloggers who had a political agenda or viewpoint. "In some instances, some are so partisan -- even though they're right in many instances -- they're immediately discredited within the newsroom because of their partisanship," he told me. "If the comment comes from someone who isn't identified as a partisan, they take it much more seriously."
In the case of blogger Patterico, he had been critiquing the Los Angeles Times's supposed liberal bias and struck gold when he pointed out how liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a similar conflict as conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. The swift action by the Times to run a story on Ginsburg on its front page shocked the blogger, a prosecuting attorney who lives in Marina del Rey, Calif., who had been referring to the paper as the Los Angeles Dog Trainer (a term coined by comedian Harry Shearer).
"I'm not concerned about the impact of politics in this, for I think it all balances out in the end," said blogger and Advance.net president Jeff Jarvis. "If someone on the right complains about the treatment of a conservative figure, but has the facts to back up their argument, then the story will still be advanced. And someone on the left will surely complain about ill treatment of a liberal. We need many more cases like [these] to clearly demonstrate that news is a conversation and we will listen and improve our reporting with the help of the readers."
How much clout?
Patterico (whose real name is Patrick Frey) was lauded for his efforts by Rosen in PressThink and even was mentioned in Dan Gillmor's upcoming book, "We the Media," in galleys I saw. Strangely, the L.A. Times' readers representative Jamie Gold was cagey on the role that Patterico played in the Ginsburg story, saying, "I wouldn't go beyond that to speculate on how bloggers have changed the job for reporters and the way they gather news."
I talked with Richard Serrano, one of the L.A. Times reporters who wrote the Ginsburg piece. He first told me that his source for the story was not from a blog and he wouldn't reveal the source. Later, with Frey's approval, he was willing to concede that he was indeed the source. Because the blogger contacted the paper initially as Patrick Frey, attorney, and not Patterico the blogger, the Times considered him just an interested reader.
"I've never heard of Patterico and I didn't know Frey was a blogger," said Scott Kraft, national editor at the L.A. Times. "We get hundreds of tips from readers every day and we look into the tips that sound promising. Frey has written frequently to our readers representative, expressing opinions about stories -- especially legal stories -- we've published. We don't ask readers who give us tips what they do for a living or for fun."
While the Times just considered him as an opinionated reader, the blogosphere (and especially conservatives) considered it a triumph for one of their own, as his tip helped balance the newspaper's coverage of the Supreme Court's conflicts of interest.
"I was impressed when the paper ran the story about Justice Ginsburg pursuant to my tip," Frey told me via e-mail. "However, the incident has not persuaded me that the Times is not biased against Justice Scalia. I think the L.A. Times has some fine people working for them. However, I have little doubt that most of them are more liberal than mainstream America -- as is the case with most newspaper reporters across America -- and this no doubt contributes to an unconscious bias towards the left."
Though these are cases of Big Media bowing to the influence of bloggers, few people believe bloggers have reached widespread public credibility. Rosen says that Weblogs are slowly gaining some influence and some respectability. "What's clear from these cases is that news organizations will have to interact with bloggers who have hold of something newsy," he said. "And there's no doubt bloggers can break stories and will do more of that in the future ... The larger effects may be on bloggers' credibility among journalists."
Frey himself was realistic about each blogger's individual influence, though the echo effect can help spread the word of a media misdeed in a nanosecond.
"There is no single blog that has power comparable to that of a major daily paper like the L.A. Times," he said. "There's just no comparison between the circulation of any individual blogger -- even Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit -- and that of a newspaper like the L.A. Times. However, when you look at blogs in the aggregate, I do think that blogs are potentially revolutionary. All you need is a computer, a viewpoint and the ability to express it. If your opinion is original, well-written and contributes to the discussion, there's a good chance that it will be noticed."