During the early days of the military conflict in Iraq, Americans discovered a new Internet phenomenon called "blogging." U.S. soldiers stationed in the Middle East created online Web pages, or "Web logs," to share their experiences and feelings with readers. This brought attention to blogging as a form of communication, and people worldwide began Web logs of their own.
Last year, the "blogosphere," as the world of blogging is called, gained even more prominence when politically oriented bloggers exposed several mistakes in the media's reports during the U.S. presidential campaign. And bloggers' growing role as observers of the political scene has led to a provocative question: Are they journalists?
John Hiler, who edits a blog called "Microcontent News" that writes about blogs and the blogosphere, asked that very question a couple of years ago. Once bloggers go beyond venting their opinions and start researching and reporting information, do they qualify as "real" journalists? How can they? Mr. Hiler asked, when they don't have editors checking their facts, and when they openly harbor biases in favor of one political viewpoint or another.
Most blogs are highly personal -- either talking about one's life experiences or sounding off about politics and world events. Bloggers often link to, and critique, each other as well. Internet users discover Web logs by chance, or at the recommendation of others. Or they can browse search engines such as "Feedster" and "Bloglines" that are specifically geared to blogs.
Bloggers are among the establishment media's most voracious readers and viewers, and prominent blogs regularly critique the mainstream media. In turn, the so-called "old media" are embracing new media like blogs. Many newspapers and television networks have assigned writers to produce blogs in the name of the paper or network.
Recently the debate about bloggers' qualifications as journalists has intensified. A discussion at the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank, for instance, was entitled, "Are bloggers and journalists friends or enemies?"
Jim Hill, who's the managing editor of the writers' group at the Washington Post newspaper, told the audience that bloggers are welcome in what he called "our band of journalistic brothers." He said, "A journalist can be anyone who takes pen to paper -- how antiquated that phrase is in this electronic era -- and spreads the news."
Danny Glover blogs about his personal life, such as the adoption of his children. But he also runs a mainstream online technology site for the National Journal magazine. In the Heritage Foundation discussion, Mr. Glover said many journalists have contempt for bloggers -- calling them "barroom loudmouths," "salivating morons," and "the headless mob." He, himself, does not go that far. But he agrees that bloggers are absolutely NOT journalists. "They are intellectual adversaries engaged in battle on a 21st century information war," he said. "Are bloggers journalists? And the answer is a resounding 'no.' Bloggers are not journalists and clearly have no desire to be. They are grass-roots activists who, if inclined at all to quit their day jobs and change careers, are more likely to end up in political or policy circles than journalistic ones."
Danny Glover conceded that bloggers sometimes perform journalistic tasks such as checking the facts in politicians' statements. In that role at least, he said, they are important public watchdogs. But he added, "Just doing journalism doesn't make you a journalist, any more than doing first aid makes you a doctor -- any more than loaning money to a friend makes you a banker. Bloggers bring fresh insights, unyielding passion, and a whole lot of sass to the public sphere, and they answer to no one but themselves. They are the militiamen of the information revolution."
One of America's most successful bloggers is Ed Morrissey, whose conservative blog, called "Captain's Quarters," once crashed under the weight of 20,000 "hits," or online visits, a day. Bloggers dig for original information and exchange it with readers, he told the Heritage Foundation audience. "And that's journalism, no matter what one calls a person delivering it."
"Captain Ed," as Mr. Morrissey is called in the blogosphere, acknowledged that bloggers often bring partisan biases to their work, and that moderate political bloggers are hard to find. But he argued that mainstream journalists also carry hidden -- or not-so-hidden -- political prejudices.
When bloggers got together last year and debunked a CBS television report about President Bush's Vietnam War service by exposing key documents as likely forgeries, Mr. Morrissey says, they were acting as "citizen journalists" in the best sense of both words. "Bloggers can move between journalist, pundit, critic, self-promoter, and back again," he said, "sometimes all within the same day. As our own editors and publishers, we have the flexibility to do all that as we see fit. Our impact in all of these roles depends on our level of trust that we have built with our readers."
Journalism has long been recognized as a viable career and an honorable profession. A powerful one, too -- so much so that it's often called the "Fourth Estate" alongside the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. [In pre-revolutionary France, the three Estates were the nobility, the church, and commoners.]
Bloggers, on the other hand, rarely get paychecks. At best, they're sometimes called "amateur journalists." Most, like Ed Morrissey, blog at night, on weekends, or during breaks at work and must rely on unrelated fulltime jobs to pay the bills.
Blogger Jeff Jarvis once noted on his Web log called the "Buzz Machine" that journalism is "institutional, impersonal, and dispassionate." Blogs, he wrote, "are human, personal, and passionate." Too passionate and opinionated to suit many traditional journalists, who cling to the American tradition that only those who write objective news -- and don't interpret it or intersperse their personal life stories, analysis, or partisan rants -- can legitimately call themselves journalists.