Regarding Dan Rather and Armstrong Williams

I’ve been remiss in not posting about the Rathergate Commission report as well as the Armstrong Williams scandal. Fortunately, Kathleen Parker’s syndicated column sums up my thoughts on both matters pretty well — so go check out her argument (Jeff Jarvis too — though that’s always a good recommendation). Oh, except for this part of ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

I've been remiss in not posting about the Rathergate Commission report as well as the Armstrong Williams scandal. Fortunately, Kathleen Parker's syndicated column sums up my thoughts on both matters pretty well -- so go check out her argument (Jeff Jarvis too -- though that's always a good recommendation). Oh, except for this part of Parker's essay:

I’ve been remiss in not posting about the Rathergate Commission report as well as the Armstrong Williams scandal. Fortunately, Kathleen Parker’s syndicated column sums up my thoughts on both matters pretty well — so go check out her argument (Jeff Jarvis too — though that’s always a good recommendation). Oh, except for this part of Parker’s essay:

What happened with Williams affects all of us in the business, as we share the same precious real estate and public trust. To readers seeing columnists clustered together on a page, we appear to be members of the same club. Increasingly, however, commentators are products of think tanks or politics–or renegade blond prosecutors–which can be problematic, but not always bad. Many of these people, including Williams, can bring unique insights and experiences to the debate. The same is true of the new media genre known as blogs, in which citizen journalists post news links and commentary on the Web, often shadowing the mainstream media, challenging and fact-checking, as well as influencing outcomes in politics and government. They are a formidable and welcome force, but as non-journalists in the institutional sense, they’re accountable to no one. Therein shines the little light we can find among these dark tales of the fallen. For all their flaws, mainstream (institutional) journalists are accountable where others are not. When they mess up, consequences are real and ruthless, as Williams and the CBS folks can attest. That much consumers can rely upon. (emphasis added)

In one sense Parker is correct — if a blogger just screws up, nothing prevents that blogger from continuing to post. However, without acknowledging mistakes, that blogger is suddenly going to have a lot fewer readers than before — and that is a formidable constraint. The mainstream media can experience this problem as well, but not as powerfully. In part that’s because a blogger is the sole content provider for his or her blog, whereas a columnist — or even an anchorman — is only a cog in a larger media machine. The key is that bolded part about “acknowledging mistakes” — and this is one area where the blogosphere has an advantage. Ironically, because bloggers tend to screw up on a regular basis, it is far easier for us to admit error. Journalists are probably more diligent at fact-checking, and probably make fewer mistakes overall. But they do make them. Because these mistakes are more infrequent, and because accuracy is a slightly more precious currency in the mediasphere than the blogosphere, they will resist admissions of error — compounding the original problem. This dynamic is reflected in RatherGate. The telling section in the CBS report is how producer Mary Mapes, Rather, et al reacted after their report was challenged. They dug in their heels and engaged in even more distorted reporting in an attempt to defend the veracity of their documentation (check out p. 183 of the report, for example).

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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