A 'blogswarm' stings old media into action

Posted: August 18, 2005

They're called "blogswarms" and you never know when they'll attack. Bloggers start taunting and disparaging the mainstream media - or MSM - for not paying attention to a story they deem worthy.

It's a strategy as old as Socrates, who noticed that a bunch of annoying gadflies could force even a large horse to move.

Sometimes the MSM swat away the swarm. But sometimes they prick up their ears, as they did to the buzz about a scandal at Air America Radio that New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is looking into. He wants to know why $875,000 was diverted last year from a Bronx charity to a liberal radio network founded by millionaires.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED AUGUST 20, 2005, FOLLOWS: A story about blogswarms in Thursday's Magazine gave an incorrect first name for the reporter at the Gotham Gazette in the Bronx, N.Y., who broke a story involving Air America. His name is Michael Horowitz.

The story was largely ignored until last week, when conservative-leaning bloggers pushed the MSM into carrying it to the public square.

"The formation of a network of bloggers capable of acting as a machine is under way," said Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University and writes a blog called PressThink (http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink).

He calls bloggers the "court of appeals in news judgment."

"People have always complained about news coverage," he said in a phone interview Tuesday, but before the Internet, they had no quick, cheap way to connect.

Now they do, and what has resulted is an uneasy symbiosis between bloggers who can kick up a fuss but lack brand identity and clout, and more influential print and broadcast outlets whose audiences and resources are declining.

Already, blogswarms have emerged as a potent force. Conservative bloggers helped to force Dan Rather from his CBS anchor chair for using false documents, and Eason Jordan from CNN's top news job for saying that U.S. troops target journalists. Liberal bloggers helped to drive Trent Lott from U.S. Senate leadership for racially insensitive remarks, and prodded the media to publicize the Downing Street memo.

A swarm begun by Philly blogger Richard Blair, a.k.a. Richard Cranium of the All Spin Zone (http://allspinzone.com/blog) propelled missing pregnant Philadelphian Latoyia Figueroa into a fixture on Fox News.

The Air America story came to light June 30, when New York City stopped funding the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, a loss of $9.7 million for programs for 22,000 schoolchildren, disabled adults, and elderly Alzheimer's sufferers. An audit had uncovered transfers of funds last year from the club to Progress Media, Air America's corporate parent.

Radio talk-show host and blogger Brian Maloney got a tip in late July, and discovered that reporter Mark Horowitz had broken the story July 2 in a Bronx community weekly, the Gotham Gazette. Three weeks later, the New York Daily News, which like many newspapers has geographically zoned editions, ran the story in the Bronx. Then it simply disappeared.

But there are no zones in the Internet. And that's where Maloney's report appeared July 27, at www.radioequalizer.blogspot.com. Demanding an end to what he called a "media cover-up," Maloney put a clock on his blog, counting seconds, minutes, hours and days, with the question: "When will the MSM pay attention?"

"What I really did was make a stink, to get the story out there," Maloney said via e-mail.

He contacted Michelle Malkin, a syndicated columnist who posted a commentary on her blog (http://michellemalkin.com): "Air America: Stealing From Poor Kids?"

The swarm had begun.

"If people don't like how the media is covering something, they now have the means to complain about it and get heard widely," Steve Outing, senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said in an e-mail interview.

He said people have "been empowered . . . to join the fray" because they can reach a global audience via the Internet at little or no cost. But he warned that "a loud group of ideologues armed with blogs can force an issue to be covered when from a larger societal perspective a story isn't worthy of it."

Bloggers can make a lot of noise, but they need the MSM to carry their message forward. Malkin, born in Philadelphia, began blasting the New York Times for not covering a story in its backyard.

Other bloggers chimed in, including a law student named Leon, who calls his blog Macho Nachos (http://machonachos.typepad.com). The scandal, he said via e-mail, has "been wonderful for my site's hit counter."

The day Maloney and Malkin pounced on the story, a New York radio reporter asked Air America for comment. The network issued a statement saying it is now owned by Piquant L.L.C., which "neither received nor expended any of the sums" under investigation.

Enter the law bloggers: Several lawyers found that Piquant L.L.C. and Progress Media shared many of the same principals and that Piquant had acquired all Progress' assets.

Bloggers, acting like investigative journalists, contacted the city's Department of Investigations, which said it wanted Piquant to pay back the money.

As the story advanced in the blogosphere and New York tabloids, Al Franken discussed it Aug. 8 on his Air America Radio show. He blamed it on a Progress executive who also was a director for Gloria Wise, and who left more than a year ago.

Franken told listeners that Air America's new owners were not obligated to repay the missing money, but would do it because it was "the moral thing."

Radio talkers, including Philadelphia's Glenn Beck, got on the case, as did CNN, Fox News and, last week, more than a dozen newspapers around the country. On Friday, 17 days into the swarm, the New York Times ran an article.

Yesterday, Malkin and Maloney launched an investigative series on their blogs. "Blog pressure and blog reporting are integral parts of the 21st-century information revolution," Malkin said. "Better get used to it."

Contact staff writer Beth Gillin at 215-854-2917 or bgillin@phillynews.com.

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