Newsworthy vs. Blogworthy

(Yes, I’m still on vacation. But you know how I am.)

The question, posed by the right side of the blogosphere: Why, oh why hasn’t the mainstream press given as much attention to the “Kerry in Cambodia” story as the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” story?

Short answer: Because it’s not nearly as newsworthy, and news editors know it.

Long answer: Let’s do the math on these stories. The Swift Boat story has legs because Kerry has made quite a deal about being a Swift Boat captain in Vietnam; it’s an implicit criticism of George Bush, who flew planes over Texas for his service. The centerpieces of his Swift Boat saga are his medal-winning exploits, which Kerry has been happy to play up, again, as a contrast to Bush (who so far as I know, is medal-less). Now along comes a group of fellow boaters, who dispute the Kerry story, going so far as to say he lied about the circumstances surrounding his medals. The group is funded by conservative Republicans, some of whom appear to have connections to the Bush family, and features several members who have previously praised Kerry and his heroism. And for fun, one of the co-writers of the Swift Boat book has left a digital trail on a partisan Web site cheerfully attacking a variety of demographics. There’s also a long trail of verifiable paper evidence with which to check claims and investigate the truth This is good news story.

The “Kerry in Cambodia” story, on the other hand, is not. Aside from the point that secret missions without paper trails are hard to prove 35 years after the fact, it’s also not a story that Kerry has been actively touting during his campaign. Unless someone can go back in time, attach a GPS transponder to Kerry’s boat and see where exactly he was at particular points in time, this story is just noise, in which Kerry says I was here and someone else says, no you weren’t. As of earlier this week, Kerry is maintaining the basics of the story are correct; the opposition here is from the same people who accuse him of lying about his medals, a charge that is both more sexy and more factually newsworthy. A “he said, they said” story is not news, especially in a news environment with rather more interesting and useful stories.

This is, incidentally, bourne out in the media distribution of the stories: According to Google News, there are 311 stories out there about Kerry and Cambodia, a substantial number of them in the, shall we say, less than entirely high-minded right wing media, and over 4,200 stories about Kerry and the Swift Boats, rather more evenly distributed. It’s possible that more than 90% of the media is in the pay of Kerry, but a rather more plausible explanation is that a significant number of editors and reporters used their experience to determine what is newsworthy and what is not.

(To remind everyone, I think these hay-pitchings of the Vietnam adventures of either candidate is a big fat waste of time and thought. But I’m not running for president or running a news outlet.)

When someone says in their blog “Why is the media paying so much attention to story X and not to story Y,” what they are saying is “in my opinion, story X and story Y are of equivalent news value.” The problem here is that simply suggesting two stories have equal news value doesn’t make it so. In this particular case, right-wing bloggers want to make it seem that the “Swift Boat” and “Cambodia” stories are of equivalent value: The reasoning here as far as I can see is if they can make it stick that Kerry was lying about being in Cambodia, then it stands to reason that Kerry could be lying about other things, like, say, the circumstances under which he received his medals. The Cambodia story is a side feint to bolster the primary charge of Kerry lying about his medals.

This formulation has a number of logical disconnects. Primary among them, how Cambodia has anything to do with Kerry’s medal exploits. Even if one grants the idea that Kerry is actively lying about Cambodia (which, again, is well nigh impossible to prove), it does not logically follow he would also lie about the circumstances of his medals. This especially the case since, as I understand it, the awarding of combat medals is based on information provided by several sources, which makes casual tall-taleing rather more difficult. Of course, the inverse of this formulation is true as well — even if Kerry is telling the truth about the circumstances of his medals, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that he’s being truthful about Cambodia.

But note: If you’re a news editor, and you’ve got a group of people who are pushing the ultimately unlikely story that Kerry is lying about his medals, who then try to push a story on you about Kerry’s alleged journeys into Cambodia, it’s rather less likely you’re going to commit time and resources to follow-up on that story. Especially if cursory examination shows that you’re not going to get verification for the story one way or another. There’s an election going on, and you’ve got better things to do with your reporters.

One suspects some of the smarter bloggers who are complaining about the bias in the media know all of this, but are galumphing away about bias anyway. The reasonable question here is to ask why. Some answers:

1. Maybe they’re not actually that smart. This is likely in some cases but not others, and certainly not in the case of some of the more popular bloggers whining about this.

2. Maybe their partisanship overwhelms their intellect. This is somewhat more likely, but again not a complete answer.

3. They see it as their job to goad the mainstream media, and be an alternative to it. This is a good answer, but it’s the least satisfying, because if one is ultimately goading the mainstream media to pay attention to stories that aren’t inherently of value, you’re not exactly doing the mainstream media a service, and it is right to ignore you. But it’s also valuable to remember that one can champion a “better” media and also simply not care if one gets it; there’s an attractive value in simply railing against the media, particularly if one has a readership that gets off on it.

4. They either don’t understand the lack of news value in the story, or simply overestimate it. This is the most charitable explanation, and the most likely. Bloggers like to believe that any old idiot can work in a newspaper or be a reporter or an editor, but this says less about the competence of reporters and editors and more about the flat, pan-hit ignorance of bloggers — even the “smart” ones — who have in their wisdom apparently set Jayson Blair as their baseline model for newsroom behavior. There are certainly bloggers who are also writers, reporters and editors; I’ll give them somewhat more credence when they whine, but I’ll also be cognizant of the fact that by and large their blogs are their personal playrooms; they can blue-sky ideas that may or may not work in the real world, or simply vent.

Can the media be better than it is? Sure it can. I have a list of all the ways it could be better. But I guarantee you my list is different than, say, the list Instapundit has, or the one Atrios has, both of whom take the media to task on a frequent basis (and both of whom have it in for the New York Times, but then apparently who doesn’t). I don’t expect the blog-bashing of the media to stop; why should it? And sometimes the bloggers are right. But as often as not, the bloggers are wrong, too, and much of that being wrong comes from not understanding how a newsroom works. There’s more to reporting than simply writing, which ultimately I suspect lots of bloggers just don’t get — accentuated by the fact they’re, you know, writing too. And while I think the media could be better, I think blogging could be better too — and yes, I have a list for that, too. And again, it’s going to be different from Glenn’s or Atrios’. That’s how it works.

I’m not coming down on the existence of bloggers. I’m a professional blogger, for God’s sake; I actually get paid to do it. I’m a big fan. But, you know, look: Bloggers used to get incensed each and every time some clueless newspaper reporter or columnist would spout off on the pointless stupidness of blogging, because they weren’t bloggers and just didn’t get it. Pot, meet kettle. Out there on the Net today, someone said that “The Internet has detected the mainstream media as a form of censorship and simply routed around them.” Likewise, the mainstream media — rightly — sees much of the blogosphere as noise and routes around it. The aims of two media are not coincident; just because they look the same (they involve people typing) doesn’t mean they are the same. Is the Internet right to route around the mainstream press? Yes, and roughly to the degree that the press is right to route around the Internet.

To go back to back to the question of why the mainstream press isn’t doing much with the Cambodia story, here, another question should be — why is the blogosphere doing so much with it? The answers, I suggest, are complementary: It’s a good enough story for the blogosphere and what it does, and not good enough for the mainstream press and what it does. The real question here is — should one of these media change to accommodate (or reject) the story, and if so, which and how much? Your answer to this will likely do nothing to change either media, but it will be instructive for the purposes of exposing your own biases.

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