Monday, October 18, 2010

A Fine Line

There's a disturbing incident that occured over the weekend in Alaska. In case you missed it, Joe Miller, Sarah Palin's handpicked candidate for the Senate seat currently held by Lisa Murkowski (R), held a campaign event in which he was answering questions from the audience, a "town hall" as it were. As the meeting wound down, Miller began to make his way to the exit, surrounded by private security, when Tony Hopfinger attempted to confront Miller to ask him at least one question. Hopfinger was detained, physically manhandled and handcuffed by Miller's security detail. Once the police arrived, he was released. 
Many different characterisations have been and will be made over the confrontation: was he harassing Miller? Was Miller deliberately evading his questions? Clearly the know, the folks with actual authority to detain someone...felt he was not a threat to Miller, so it seems likely Miller's thugs acted irresponsibly.
The thing I want to focus on is, when is a reporter, a reporter?
See. Hopfinger works for the Alaska Dispatch. The Dispatch bills itself as an "online news magazine." They do take their journalism seriously, I should point out. The former CFO of US News and World Report owns a majority share, there is a staff of ten journalists in addition to Hopfinger and his wife, Amanda Coyne, and a three person ad sales team. 
It also has no other presence than its on-line incarnation. 
Yet, Joe Miller insists on pinning the blame for the incident on Hopfinger, whom he calls "an irrational blogger" (emphasis mine).
Now, Hopfinger was a reporter with Newsweek. That alone seems to make him a legitimate reporter. Two years ago, he started the Alaska Dispatch. As noted above, he's expanded his staff to include at least two people who have participated in Pulitzer Prize winning stories. Further, Miller knew Hopfinger was a reporter, because it is the Dispatch that is sponsoring tonight's debate with Miller, Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Scott McAdams (who must be wondering if he'll have to do a striptease on stage tonight to get any attention from the public).
I'm a blogger. I do absolutely no work on my stories other than read other people's work and digest it and put my judgement to it. If I had the time and the resources, I would probably do some of the legwork. It would make my mentor, Bill Burrows, proud of me, and likely make up for the gentleman C I eked out by barely beating the rest of the class to a story on campus.
Thank God for touchtyping classes, huh?
Tony Hopfinger is a reporter.
Here's the bit that bothers me, tho. When does a reporter become a blogger and vice-versa? I mean, take Andrew Breitbart (and I'm proud that I haven't added "out back and kick the ever living crap out of him," but I digress...). He's a blogger, to be sure, but he has investigated and researched stories.
And gotten them woefully wrong. Does this make him a reporter, albeit a terrible one, or a blogger with major delusions?
Or Matt "The Eggman" Drudge? Most of his "articles" seem to be retreads of FOX News items and GOP talking points memoranda. Reporter? Columnist? Blogger?
Now, having that opinion firmly in your head...along with whatever ugly images I've placed there...take a hypothetical case of a left-leaning writer who investigates stories, seeks out both sides of a story, writes what he finds out...but gets it wrong.
As tempting as it is to smear the Breitbarts (and Drudges and Kathleen Parkers of the world), the simple fact about journalism is that it has gone from a crystal clear "Woodward and Bernstein" byline to what is effectively citizen journalism writ large.
That concerns me. The rules I learned in school (and no, my degree is not Journo but I took more than a few classes) about fact-checking and insistence on support for a story, and a laser-like focus on the facts, have gone by the book in a day and age of Google and desktop publishing.
Tony Hopfinger is a reporter, and probably a good one. Glenn Beck is a pundit, and a really good one, if you measure the number of opinions he can influence even as he misleads and deliberately ofuscates facts. So those are the extremes and we can easily identify those. 
It's the mushy middles, the Chris Matthews and Chuck Todds and Matt Taibbis and the Ben Smiths of the world that worry me.
(ed. note: For the record, I consider Taibbi to be a reporter, first and foremost, but he has a definite slant to his stories, and so I include him on this list for that)