How the bloggers have driven the news agenda

Traditional media have been left trailing by the internet, reports David Usborne
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The Independent US

In the last days of this American election marathon, all the usual media rituals are playing out. The presidential candidates are picking and choosing between television shows to make their final appeals to voters while newspapers across the land are making their traditional, tautly reasoned endorsements.

In the last days of this American election marathon, all the usual media rituals are playing out. The presidential candidates are picking and choosing between television shows to make their final appeals to voters while newspapers across the land are making their traditional, tautly reasoned endorsements.

So much for the familiar, however. When it is all over, editors and reporters will finally have a moment to reflect on everything that was different about this presidential campaign. What they are likely to conclude is this: the traditional outlets, whether it is CBS News or the New York Times, mattered less. New forces nudged voters' sympathies and even drove the traditional news agenda.

This was the year when the mainstream media outlets unexpectedly found themselves looking over their shoulders at the internet and, perhaps most surprisingly, at the new armies of political bloggers.

A "blog" is a website where self-appointed experts can spout off on subjects of their choice, no qualifications required. But sometimes people listen to them. It was the blogs that, in July, noticed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Campaign that questioned John Kerry's war heroism. The mainstream media noticed and followed up in August.

"Things start on the fringes of the blogosphere, become the buzz, and then move to cable news," observed Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press. And often, critics note, the cable news channels pick up the stories, without always verifying all the facts.

A signal media moment in this season was the furore that followed a 60 Minutes report by Dan Rather of CBS purporting to have a memo showing that George Bush ducked his National Guard duties. Mr Rather was tripped up when word surfaced that the memo may in fact have been forged - in the blogs.

"Bloggers, in some instances, are pushing the envelope in defining the political agenda and news coverage," remarked Pete Blackshaw of the press monitoring service Intelliseek.

It is a new world that can be uncomfortable for reporters. Blogs have been ruthless in monitoring their reports for any hint of political bias and then skewering them.

The attacks on reporters like Howard Fineman of Newsweek can be personal. "I would be lying if I didn't say that it can be hurtful," he told The New York Times.

The mainstream outlets find themselves under ever greater pressure not to betray any bias whatsoever. In the wake of the three presidential debates, 59 per cent of stories in the main newspapers and on network television focusing on Mr Bush were mainly negative, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Only a quarter of the stories that focused on how Mr Kerry fared were negative. A fair reflection what happened? Or evidence of bias?

This is the moment, however, when newspapers can finally let off steam with their endorsements. And so far, they seem to be heading in surprising numbers into the Kerry column. According to the journal Editor and Publisher, Mr Kerry was leading Mr Bush by 175 endorsements to 138 by last Friday.

But in this new cyber-age, perhaps even the endorsements cease to make much difference. As Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia suggested on the scrupulously neutral Newshour programme on public television last week: "Editorial endorsements are dinosaurs. This really is horse and buggy. People make up their own minds." With a little help from the bloggers.

...and how you can watch them

BBC1 - 11.05pm US Election 2004

The BBC puts its seasoned hands in charge of live coverage. David Dimbleby presents from Washington, DC, while Peter Snow will be working alongside some fancy 3D graphics in the UK.

BBC2 - 11.20pm Rich Hall Election Special

The Perrier Award-winning US comedian presents his personal take on the race for the White House. Hall will unravel the election process by explaining all to the Canadian comic Mike Wilmot.

ITV1 - 12.30am America Decides: ITV News Special

The unfolding picture will be tracked during a five-hour broadcast presented by Alastair Stewart from Washington. Further analysis comes from James Mates and Andrea Catherwood over here.

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