The End of Honest Mistakes?

Jeff Gannon and Eason Jordan probably didn’t know each other existed a month ago, but their lives and their professional fate became inexorably linked this past week. Sometime in the last ten days, the amorphous “blogosphere” decided neither of them deserved to work in journalism anymore, and at that moment it was merely a matter of time. Indeed when the history of the blogosphere and the founding of the grassroots journalism movement is written, the second week in February 2005 will mark a historic moment.

It was in this week that bloggers managed, with only a little assistance from the mainstream media, to take down two journalists–one from the right and one from the left. On any given week the Jeff Gannon saga or the Eason Jordan controversy would have been big news on the blogs, but the fact that they came in the same week–their virtual bloodletting separated by just a few days–marks a much larger sea change.

We now entering an age where journalists are so closely scrutinized by thousands of people with almost limitless time and limitless research power that the slightest misstep can end a distinguished career.


Post columnist Dan Froomkin wrote earlier this week that one of the possible responses to the Jeff Gannon story was that it served as “yet another example of the blogosphere’s ability to out-investigate the mainstream media and force it to pay attention to stories that otherwise would be ignored.” And it’s almost scary looking at how much information on Jeff Gannon, a.k.a. James D. Guckert, a.k.a. J.D. Guckert, that the Kossacks were able to find primarily just by searching public records online. They forced the story to stay alive in the same way that the mainstream media does: Digging up just enough new nuggets to keep it on the front page until the smoking gun is uncovered.

Thanks to intense investigative work by AmericaBlog.org, DailyKos.com, and Media Matters, Jeff Gannon’s “career” as a journalist flamed out only two weeks after Media Matters’ first piece questioning his reporting. The mainstream press had barely begun to figure out the story, and suddenly it broke wide open.

Similarly with Eason Jordan’s controversial comments at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos. One particular paragraph in Howard Kurtz’s piece this morning on Eason Jordan’s resignations explains just how nascent that controversy still was when it claimed its victim yesterday:

Blogs operated by National Review Online, radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt and commentator Michelle Malkin were among those that began slamming Jordan last week after a Davos attendee posted an online account, but the establishment press was slow to pick up on the controversy. The Washington Post and Boston Globe published stories Tuesday and the Miami Herald ran one Thursday. Also on Thursday, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Bret Stephens, who was at Davos, published an account accusing Jordan of “defamatory innuendo,” and the Associated Press moved a story. As of yesterday, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today had not carried a staff-written story, and the CBS, NBC and ABC nightly news programs had not reported the matter. It was discussed on several talk shows on Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC but not on CNN.

ej.jpgThere’s still no transcript of the event, no exact record of what Jordan said, and the one thing on which everyone seems to be able to agree is that Jordan immediately realized the error of his comments and backed away. (Who hasn’t done that at least once in public speaking?) Never mind. The blogs decided that he was done, and the death watch began. As Timothy Karr wrote over at MediaCitizen, “Bloggers Nail[ed] Another Skin to the Wall.”

One of the many problems with the blogosphere is that it leaves little room for honest mistakes made in the heat of the moment. Everything must fit into a meme and be part of a larger narrative. A reporter’s mis-transcribing of a remark becomes another sign of a liberal (or conservative) conspiracy. An executive’s offhand remark becomes a sign of deep-sided organizational bias. A story rushed to air by an overzealous but still well-meaning journalist is a sign of a corporate vendetta and must, by the rules of the blogosphere, mean the end of a talented career.

As Jay Rosen wrote yesterday, “Whether you agree or not in the case of Jordan’s remarks, suspicion of the blog swarm is not crazy or wrong, and fear of mob-like actions by bloggers and others online is going to continue to speak to people, for the same reason invasions of privacy by the press always speak across ideological divides. It doesn’t take much to imagine the mob coming at you.”

Speaking to the Delaware News-Journal after his resignation, Guckert/Gannon said, “I asked a question at a White House press briefing and this is what happened to me…If this is what happens to me, what reporter is safe?”

The short answer to his question is now that no reporter or public figure is safe any longer. But contrary to the celebratory postings today on most blogs about a new era of “accountability,” “balance,” and “fairness,” that’s not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes reporters are just people, and they’ll always be the first to tell you that they’re not perfect. For the sake of everyone, let’s hope that the “blogstorm troopers” will remember that from time-to-time too.