TCS Daily

The Big Eye Blinks

By Douglas Kern - November 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Former CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg has written a diatribe bemoaning the performance of bloggers during the 2004 presidential election. It's an uncommonly terrible article, even by CBS standards.

Less talk, more fisk. Shall we begin?

"As the election campaign unfolded, operators of some of the internet's politics-oriented blogs, no doubt high on the perfume of many "hits" and their own developing sense of community, envisioned a future when they would diminish then replace the traditional media as the nation's primary source of political news and commentary."

No one gets high from perfume, although some of us enjoy a nice buzz from mixed metaphors.

I'm as big a cheerleader for blogging as they come -- I've got this adorable little outfit and pom-poms and some really killer gymnastic routines -- but even I haven't claimed that blogs will replace the media within the foreseeable future. Has anyone? Can you link to their site? Why not?

"One of the more self-important of these blog-ops, Andrew Sullivan, declared in a newspaper article in September that the internet upstarts had become, along with cable-TV, the new 'powerbrokers in American politics and culture,' primed to unseat 'old media.' In another piece he compared the new and old thusly: 'Critics of blogs cite their lack of professionalism. Piffle. The dirty little secret of journalism is that it really isn't a profession, it's a craft. All you need is a telephone and a conscience and you're all set.' That hubris was rampant through much of blogland as election night rolled round."

"Blog-ops." "Blogland." It'll hurt if I swallow.

In the cited quote, Sullivan isn't comparing anything to anything, "thusly" or otherwise. When Sullivan observes that journalism isn't a profession, he isn't guilty of hubris. He's guilty of mocking the MSM -- and mockery of the MSM was rampant well before blogging caught on. And I fail to see how Sullivan claimed that the blogosphere will replace anything. But I'm sure that more examples are forthcoming in your article. Completely, utterly sure.

"Big plans and big claims are to be expected from folks -- pajama-clad or not -- who are dabbling with new technology and new modalities of public expression. As a retired mainstream media ("MSM") journalist -- and thus a double-dinosaur -- I don't begrudge these knights of the blog-table their grandiose dreams."

"Knights of the Blog Table." On the great playground that is Internet commentary, lame cracks like that will get you a cyber-wedgie. Ever seen "The Simpsons?" Remember Martin Prince? Just asking.

"But I worked on a school paper when I was a kid and I owned a CB radio when I lived in Texas. And what I saw in the blogosphere on Nov. 2 was more reminiscent of that school paper or a 'Breaker, breaker 19' gabfest on CB than anything approaching journalism."

Confucius say: "He who makes condescending comparisons should restrict himself to one per sentence."

Mr. Engberg is really on to something with that CB Radio/Internet political blog analogy. Why, in the seventies, you couldn't twist a CB dial without hearing erudite political commentators with advanced degrees holding forth on the complicated policy matters of the day. Sure, it sounded like a horde of hick goobers swapping Smokey sightings, but that's only because the CBloggers were speaking in their secret CB radio argot. Who knew that "Ten-four, good buddy!" actually means "President Carter's anemic foreign policy has emboldened the Soviets to aggressive adventurism in the Third World?"

"From early afternoon to very late in the evening, those who checked in with the leading political blogs like Drudge, Wonkette, Andrew Sullivan, evote,, Daily Kos, and others were given the distinct impression that John Kerry would win the election. The website, well-funded and generally a responsible voice, joined in the folly."

Oh, that crazy blogger, Matt Drudge. He's always posting pictures of his cats, sounding off on the issues of the day, opining about his favorite albums and TV shows...

Wait a minute. He doesn't do any of those things. His website doesn't blog anything, in any form whatsoever.

Eh. Blog, website, news portal -- no need to worry about the fine details, Mr. Engberg. We'll just refer to all those thingies as "Pictures That Pop Up When I Click on the Big 'E' on the Screen of the Magic Box."

And by the way: those who checked in with the leading political networks like CBS, NBC, and ABC were also left with the distinct impression that Kerry would win the election, largely due to the drumbeat of "bad news" and bogus polls that were passed off as news just prior to the election. One might also have derived that impression simply by watching the smug expressions on the faces of the news anchors early in the evening, followed by the bewildered and panic-stricken visages to be seen later in the evening. I know. I watched their commentary with the sound turned off.

"The bloggers, obtaining through leaks partial, in some cases suspect snippets of information from the early 'cut' of data gathered by MSM through exit polls, were spreading a story that the network and wire service bosses knew to be incorrect because their own experts -- and their journalistic experience -- had warned them of the weaknesses in such data."

Bizarro says: "Incomprehensible virtually is sentence awkward this of half first the."

My experts also warned me of the weaknesses in such data. My experts included the invaluable Jay Cost at The Horserace Blog ( and the Mystery Pollster ( Did your intern find those fellows? Boy, you just can't get good help for $8.00 an hour.

On election night, those experts provided detailed discussions of the flaws in exit polling. Strangely enough, both bloggers trusted me with the ability to understand their critiques, and to interpret the exit polling data accordingly. Gosh -- clarifying complicated ideas and then expecting your audience to handle sensitive news in light of those ideas. What will those crazy pajama-clad bloggers think of next?

"Kerry was 'in striking distance' in Florida and Ohio, said the Drudge Report. The popular and smutty Wonkette site claimed it had 'information' from 'little birdies' showing Kerry up 52-47 in Ohio and 50-49 in Florida. 'The national number that's floating around right now: 51/49 K/B,' wrote Wonkete [sic], aka Ana Marie Cox. After repeating some of Wonkette's numbers, Sullivan mused, 'A Kerry landslide? Could be. Could be.' He cautioned the numbers could be misleading, even as he was publicizing them."

So what? Those bloggers simply reported information that they had heard, without vouching for its accuracy. They didn't pass off that information as gospel truth. No one did. Those who acted in reliance upon the exit polling data have only themselves to blame.

"This is the kind of stuff we used to run in my aforementioned school paper when the speculation surrounded who was going steady."

Speculation is not strictly a blogger thing. On election night, the major networks had platoons of talking heads on hand to do nothing but speculate. Why, somewhere in New York City, Susan Estrich is still on duty, pestering bums and winos with her insights. "Ohio is still in play....lawyers will take care of Florida...Pennsylvania...can I have a sip of that?"

"The difference is that the bloggers aspire to being a force in our public life and claim to be at the forefront of a new political-media era."

I thought "the difference" might be that inaccurate speculation over exit polls will be corrected by reality in a few short hours. Quick to pontificate, quick to correct -- it's the blogger way.

"It was clear to me, from following their efforts that night, that, unlike journalists, some blog operators who are quick to trash the MSM not only don't care about the veracity of the stories they are spreading, they do not understand when there is a live hand grenade on their keyboard. They appear not to care. Their concern is for controversy and 'hits.'"

Not like the MSM, boyo, which reports the news strictly out of the goodness of its own heart. Commercials? They're actually public service announcements for consumerism. Ratings? The MSM prefers PG-13. Circulation? They've been cutting back on saturated fats, thank you very much. And pay no attention to the gaudy contracts of those news anchors. What's a few million between friends?

It's strange to hear non-classified information regarded as "a live hand grenade." Perhaps it would be more helpful to analogize information to firearms. Firearms can be a threat to the innocent, but they can also be helpful against the guilty. Either way, I don't believe in gun control.

Oh, and that "It was clear to me" sentence? Excessive clauses make the baby Jesus cry.

"The numbers they were bantering about election night were real enough, just not sufficient for responsible publication. They came from polling data obtained by the two companies organized and paid by the major networks and the Associated Press to interview voters at polling places in key states. About 13,000 voters are asked their choice and a series of questions explaining their decision. The networks get the information throughout the day, using it as one tool to make their 'call' or estimate on who won the state. The key words here are 'one tool.'

Might one infer from this explanation that the spectacular uselessness of the exit polling data was ever so slightly the fault of the MSM? The key words here are "spectacular uselessness."

"Let me tell you a few things about 'exit polls' as one who was there from the time they were invented and then watched them develop through the nine presidential campaigns I covered. Experienced journalists treat exit polls like hand grenades with the pin pulled; they are unstable and dangerous."

Mr. Engberg, I just got handed a note from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Analogies. They want you to leave "grenades" alone. Once is permissible. Twice is abusive. Twice in the space of three paragraphs is a crime.

"While out on the campaign trail covering candidates, my own network's political unit would not even give me exit poll information on election days because it was thought to be too tricky for a common reporter to comprehend."

At last, a point with which I agree. But while the arcane mysteries of exit polling may stretch the abilities of the common reporter, they might not break the mind of the average person. Does it really require a 155 IQ to understand the phrase "Exit polling is frequently wrong?" Do you need a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism to grasp that "A polling sample composed primarily of women might be skewed?"

"If you are standing in the main election night studio when your network's polling experts start discussing the significance of a particular state poll, you the reporter will hear about three words out of one hundred that you will understand."

Admittedly, polling experts use hard words. Hard, long, multi-syllabic, vaguely Lovecraftian words, like "statistics" and "averages" and "variance." If you say "sampling size" repeatedly, an Elder God might smite you dead. No, the opinion of polling experts is best listed among Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

"These polls occur in the realm of statistics and probability."

Shhh! Not so loud, lest dread Cthulhu be wakened from the briny deep!

"They require PhD-style expertise to understand."

You know those statistics classes that community colleges offer? Lies, all lies. They actually teach macramé.

"The people who analyze them for news organizations, like the legendary Warren Mitofsky and Martin Plissner at CBS News -- have trade associations like doctors do to certify their work."

Were these the same geniuses responsible for the networks not calling Iowa and New Mexico until, oh, three hours ago? "Yes, Dan, 103% of the precincts in Iowa have reported, everyone has voted and the dead have voted twice, and Bush is 12,000 votes ahead, but it's still too close to call." If my doctor's work was this well-certified, my hand would be stitched to my elbow.

"When you the humble reporter are writing a story based on the polls you need one of these gurus standing over your shoulder interpreting what they mean or you almost certainly will screw it up."

I've got this insane, wacky, nutso idea. Let's give the masses direct access to the gurus! Let's allow exceptionally intelligent, literate, and experienced people to set up little cyber-kiosks of information for the edification of thoughtful, interested readers! We'll call it "the blogosphere." Indeed, let's go totally cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs and assume that some people might benefit from such information. Such a body of people would need a snappy name, of course. How about "the citizenry of a free country?"

Yeah, you're right. It's a stupid idea.

"There is a word for this kind of teamwork and expertise. It's called "journalism."

I was thinking "the poorly-concealed arrogance of a self-appointed elite," but "journalism" is kind of catchy.

"You did not see any of the networks or the AP put out misleading reports of a Kerry lead nationally -- or in the battleground states of Florida or Ohio. The editors, producers and executives who run these MSM organizations, in typical responsible, dinosaur fashion, know it would be wrong to do so."

They knew it would be wrong. Knew it. They base their certainty on the proofs they mastered in Advanced Theology, which is taught at journalism school right after the class on photo captions.

"As professional journalists, they understand the limitations of this kind of polling. The polling results from early in the day will not necessarily conform to late afternoon and evening voting patterns."

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down, there, Einstein. Those arguments are way too complex for an electron-stained wretch like me. You can't expect us non-PhDs to master such sophisticated logic. We need experts like the legendary Warren Mitofsky and Martin Plissner at CBS News to make it clear for us. And is that Nyarlathotep materializing in the corner of the room? I warned you about uttering those hard scary words. Now our bodies will be disintegrated and our souls will get eaten. Crap.

"They also understand that even as they lumber toward the extinction predicted by so many blog warriors, providing a false early picture of the returns can be bad for democracy."

Blog warriors. I'm going to put bottles on the fingers of my little Sims 2 avatar. "Blog waaaaaaarioorrrrrs! Come out and play-yay!" [clink, clink] "Blog waaaaaarioooorrs! Come out and play-eeeeeeeee!"

Look, MSM: no one cares about what you think is "bad for democracy." Democracy got along just fine before you and will continue to flourish once you are gone. Don't worry about protecting democracy from us horse-brained masses. Tell the truth, give us balanced commentary for perspective, and you'll have done quite enough for democracy.

"Oh, those backward, self-serious dinosaurs."


" is deserving of special criticism in this matter. That website is not a blog; it's a well-established, well-funded and mostly responsible organization that qualifies as serious journalism. But, in what seemed to me to be a smarmy grab for election night circulation, Slate decided to go with leaked exit poll results, thus helping boost the amplitude of the bogus "Kerry leading" buzz on the web. Presumably, Microsoft, which owns Slate, has a few dollars jingling around in its budget which would have permitted its editors to join the official National Election Pool, which conducted and analyzed the exit polls. Many major newspapers did so. That would have given the Slate bosses access to the cautions being provided by the pool's experts to the networks and other members about the booby-traps in the early poll numbers. Then they wouldn't have put out a bunch of misleading figures.

Yeah! Screw you, Slate. What were you thinking -- publishing information without access to the cautions being provided by the pool's experts? That's halfway to being a hate crime. Why, journalism without expert gatekeepers is like ice cream without Worcestershire sauce.

"The public is now assaulted by news and pretend-news from many directions, thanks to the now infamous 'information superhighway.'"

Aaaaargh! I'm being assaulted by news! Facts and interviews are crawling into my hard drive and kicking me in the face, while pretend-news slaps my fanny! Help me, superior journalist man! Stop me before I visit Lucianne.Com again!

"But the ability to transmit words, we learned during the Citizens Band radio fad of the 70's, does not mean that any knowledge is being passed along."

True. I've read Engberg's entire essay and I've learned nothing.

"One of the verdicts rendered by election night 2004 is that, given their lack of expertise, standards and, yes, humility, the chances of the bloggers replacing mainstream journalism are about as good as the parasite replacing the dog it fastens on."

Mr. Engberg, as one writer to another, I've got to say: that ending of yours is droll. Darned droll.

I particularly enjoyed the comparison of the MSM to a dog. I was thinking the same thing: smelly, prone to licking itself in full view of others, and frequently guilty of leaving messes in public places, the MSM is on its last legs.

But bloggers as parasites? Mr. Engberg...we're the veterinarian.

Speaking of droll endings, here's mine: I've made it through this entire fisking without breathing a word about Rathergate. Two months ago, the blogosphere handed your former employer a humiliating and richly-deserved lesson in journalistic integrity. Yet despite CBS' stupefying display of incompetence and negligence, and despite the fact that CBS still hasn't formally disavowed those ridiculous forgeries, I haven't rubbed your nose in that fiasco. I deserve a medal.

But if I don't deserve a medal, I deserve at least enough respect to be permitted to draw my own conclusions about some stupid polls. And if I'm not afforded that respect -- well, Mr. Engberg, you may find that when you hold the intelligence and judgment of the American people in contempt, the American people will return the favor.

And smile when you say parasite. We lawyers take that personally.

The author, a lawyer, is a TCS contributor.


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