Blogs and the Mainstream Press

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At the 2006 Austrian Scholars Conference held last March, I gave a talk on "An Austrian View of the Fourth Estate," in which I noted that the modern mainstream news media is more a relic of the Progressive Era than anything that came from the early days of the American republic. Toward the end, I made some mention of the Internet blogs and how they are serving as an antidote to the warmed-over statism that we see on the pages of established newspapers and broadcasts.

Even though I stressed that they were important, little did I realize just how important they really are, for even as I spoke, the so-called Duke Rape Case (or, more accurately, "Non-Rape") was beginning to brew in Durham, North Carolina. Not surprisingly, when the story broke, it broke in the mainstream press, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Durham Herald-Sun, and Newsweek, as well as broadcast entities like ABC News, and ESPN.

The early coverage was dominated by interviews of Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong, who seemed to be convincing in his accusations. Immediately, the mainstream press declared the accused Duke Lacrosse team guilty of gang rape and began to speculate on how many years those convicted would spend in prison.

Had this case occurred 20 or even 10 years ago, there is not much else that would have happened. Almost all of the news coverage would emanate from the D.A.’s office and the Durham police, as most "sources" in mainstream news work for governmental bodies. Yes, the attorneys for the players would have tried to work their message into the media, but would have had a more difficult time, and almost surely there would have been a "gag" order from the trial judge (as there exists now). In other words, the prosecution would have dominated the pre-trial message, so any exculpatory evidence would not have been made public until the trial.

To put it another way, everything would have been stacked against the accused athletes, and they would have been strongly pressured to plead out rather than risk going to trial, given that the prosecution already had managed to win the public relations battle. Indeed, that is what happened in the infamous "child molestation" case in Edenton, North Carolina in the early 1990s. The press early on sided with prosecutors, so when the case involving day care owner Bob Kelly came to trial, he faced a hostile jury and judge, and the outcome was inevitable.

(Kelly received twelve 99-year sentences after being convicted, but appellate courts overturned the conviction and in the end charges were dropped. It was the most expensive case in North Carolina history, and it was constructed entirely of fabricated charges by government officials. Dawn Wilson also was convicted, with her conviction later overturned, and two others who had spent years in prison because they could not make bail ultimately pleaded "no contest" with "time served" as the sentence — although they still claimed — truthfully, it turns out — that they were innocent.)

The role of the mainstream press in promoting the "molestation" hysteria cannot be underestimated. A large number of similar cases roared across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, with similar results. From Kerns County to Wenatchee (the last hurrah of these kinds of "witch hunt" cases), the pattern of the media was the same: journalists concentrated upon allegations from prosecutors and state "investigators," while essentially convicting the accused before they faced what in essence were kangaroo courts. The lone exception was the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, where Dorothy Rabinowitz was a lone voice, speaking out against these legal outrages.

In time, evidence that these charges were pure fraud came out, but the institutional setting made it difficult for people to be able to defend themselves during the early states of the cases, when most prospective jurors, not to mention judges and pundits, already had made up their minds. To put it another way, the state held the upper hand in disseminating "information" because of the symbiotic relationship between government and the media.

Introduction of the Blogs

In the summer of 1999, the blog Lewrockwell.com was begun. A number of other blogs began to appear as well, and the nature of dissemination of news has not been the same. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media dismissed bloggers as rank amateurs who worked in their "pajamas" while real journalists were working for the New York Times, the Washington Post, or CBS News.

When Republicans and Democrats issued press credentials to bloggers during their 2004 conventions, the mainstream factions continued to sniff that these rank amateurs had no right to rub elbows with distinguished journalists such as Dan Rather. Within a couple months of that fateful summer, we saw just how powerful these "rank amateurs" could be.

All readers of this piece are familiar with Rather’s fiasco story of President Bush’s less-than-stellar record in the National Guard, and he had "documents" to prove his case. Yes, these were "authentic" writings that "proved" Bush was a slacker. (For one, Rather did not need such evidence, as it was common knowledge that Bush did not have a very distinguished record while "serving his country" in the Guard. But the foolish Rather wanted everything on the record, and sometimes one should not hope for something, because he just might receive it….)

In the past, Rather might have been able to present these documents with almost no criticism and certainly no challenge to his claims that would have stuck. The reason was simple; the mainstream media held all of the cards, and the critics would have enjoyed no forum except for Human Events, which is confined to a relatively small readership compared with major news outlets.

However, in the age of bloggers, it was only a few hours before some Internet wags were able to pick apart the authenticity of the documents. While Rather held firm — sticking by his story, as almost always has been the case with the MSM — the bloggers chipped away at his credibility. It was not long before producers at CBS were being fired, and Rather himself was in talks on how he might "gracefully" leave his employer of more than 30 years.

Fast forward to the Duke affair. As I pointed out earlier in this piece, the N&O and other mainstream newspapers and broadcasters worked exclusively with Nifong and the authorities, giving sympathetic coverage to the accuser and painting the lacrosse players as hooligans hiding behind their lawyers. After three players were arrested for this "crime," however, things began to change, thanks to bloggers and the Internet.

First, the attorneys were able to take advantage of the Internet, as people who might not have been able to see their press conferences when they were broadcast were able to see them via their computers through media archives. For example, one telling press conference, one in which the attorneys announced that the DNA found in the woman indicated she had engaged in sexual relations with someone shortly before the fateful lacrosse party — in contrast to her statements to police.

Nifong had arranged for this information to be released after 5 p.m. on a Friday, and in the past it would have worked, as the broadcast entities would have been busy on other stories and likely would have missed this one. However, because of the Internet, many people were able to see what still is a damning moment (of many moments) in Nifong’s crusade to put innocent people into prison for a "crime" that never occurred.

Second, within weeks of when the story broke, bloggers already were going to work. Blogs entitled Johnsville News, Friends of Duke University, Lie Stoppers, and John in Carolina, not to mention what K.C. Johnson is doing on his History News Network blog, have provided powerful ammunition to the defense of the three players. Moreover, even though the judge has issued a partial "gag" order in this case, he cannot gag the blogs.

Thus, if you wish to see the timelines, pictures of Reade Seligmann standing at a bank teller at the same time Nifong claims he was committing rape, or find information about the accuser’s past, or see the mainstream journalists being dissected story by story, the blogs have it all. There is no doubt that these powerful informational entities have forced the N&O (not to mention Newsweek and other media outlets) change the direction of their coverage.

For example, the executive editor of the N&O, Melanie Sill, has a blog with which she communicates with readers. (Again, without the presence of independent blogs, the N&O would have insisted that "we always stand by our story" was all the public needed to read.) The comments to her from readers regarding the N&O’s coverage of the Duke story have been devastating and I have no doubt that the arguments they have presented in their postings have pressured her and the editorial staff to look beyond Nifong’s press releases for stories. Likewise, Ruth Sheehan has taken a well-deserved pounding on her blog, as readers who have seen through Nifong’s false statements have forced her and others to re-think how they approach this story.

As I have stated before, I have no doubt that in the pre-Internet and pre-blog age, Nifong would not be on the defensive, as most people who followed the story would be convinced that the players were guilty. After all, people reason, an indictment itself is near-proof of guilt. Instead, we see a D.A. on the defensive and his core group of supporters dwindling.

(Not surprisingly, the editor of the Herald-Sun, Bob Ashley, firmly supports Nifong and still tries to convince readers that Nifong would not have indicted the players unless he had solid evidence. Andrew Cohen of the Washington Post also still tries to convince readers that Seligmann, Colin Finnerty, and David Evans really must be rapists, otherwise they would not have been indicted. The New York Times, in its sparse coverage of the issue, still goes with the prosecutor. In other words, the representatives of the MSM are still giving us the statist line: prosecutors are truthful and are accurate sources of information. The state is and always will be correct.)

If Seligmann, Finnerty, and Evans ultimately are acquitted, or if charges are dropped, they can thank the blogs for putting pressure where it counted: in the court of public opinion. Not long ago, Nifong could have railroaded these young men into prison, as Nancy Lamb was able to do to Robert Kelly and Dawn Wilson a little more than a decade ago — but before the Internet became a force.

Obviously, the blogs have a larger role than just flushing out lies told by prosecutors and the Dan Rathers of the world. One can argue that the recent successful candidacy of Ned Lamont in Connecticut was due to bloggers, with sites like the Daily Kos and Huffington Post that have forced the Democrat Party to move sharply left, but also have energized the current political climate.

Does anyone believe that in the days when the MSM ran the show, that a Ned Lamont would have been able to successfully challenge a three-term incumbent in a Democratic primary — where Democrats dominate the voting? The bloggers clearly made the difference in this case — and they will continue to change the political and legal scene.

In retrospect, I should have devoted nearly all of my speech to the role that the blogs are playing. At the time, I was stuck a bit in a time warp, but no longer. If the MSM is little more than a relic of the Progressive Era, then the blogs are the living relic of a time when freedom of the press meant that people with an opinion could get out their message unmolested. Read them, enjoy, and realize that you are taking part in a revolution that is bringing back real freedom of the press.

August 12, 2006

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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