Funkhouser to Electric Chair? – Journalists Make Lousy Bloggers, Too

I wrote a recent piece about the dangers of confusing bloggers with journalists, and several journalists emailed me with compliments on the piece, which I really appreciated. I meant what I said – bloggers rarely present original news that has been well-researched and based on reliable sources. Red letters, exclamation points and claims of “exclusive” are poor substitutes for fact-checking, confirmation and attempted even-handedness.

While my piece on Tuesday was directed at bloggers who act like they are journalists, today I want to consider journalists who think they are bloggers.

If you want to blog, close down the Prime Buzz, open up your own blogger account under your own name, and have at it. Because you, more than Tony, more than any self-deluded “citizen journalist”, are to blame for blurring the distinction between news and nonsense. When you hold yourselves out as journalists and then behave as bloggers, you can’t blame readers for getting the two confused.

Take, for example, the Star’s Yael T. Abouhalkah. When he publishes a column in the Star, we all expect him to have checked the facts, spoken with the players, placed the issue into context, and considered all perspectives. And, while I frequently disagree with his published columns, I respect the fact that they uphold journalistic standards.

When Yael publishes something on Midwest Voices, though, we don’t know what to expect. We can see, however, that we’re getting a lower standard than we’d expect for something published. Where are we, as consumers, expected to draw the line between Yael the Kansas City Star Journalist, and Yael the Blogger?

On Thursday evening, I heard that Yael had a civic bombshell posted – the Mayor could be dismissed at any moment by a vote of 9 councilmembers. Sure enough, I went to his collection of posts and saw red letters and “Exclusive!” notices highlighting a post entitled “City Charter allows City Council to throw Funkhouser out“. And I read a sensationalistic account of a Charter Provision that has been in the Charter for years, and that does not, in fact, allow the City Council to throw Funkhouser out – unless they find significant misconduct in office beyond anything that has been even alleged.

The red letters and “Exclusive!” notices have been deleted now. On sober reconsideration, the story is no more valid or newsworthy than a similar story entitled “Criminal Code allows State to Put Funkhouser to Death” – if he is found guilty of a capital crime which has not been charged. It’s funny that Yael isn’t even holding himself up to Blogger ethical standards, which frown upon altering a prior post in order to make yourself look better. (See, for example, that Tony has not tampered with his mistaken post about Funkhouser getting fired by his lawyer.) On Thursday, Yael wanted to out-Tony Tony.

The point is broader, though, than one blog post or one ethical lapse by Yael Abouhalkah. The point is that when journalists report gossip on blogs, or publish material without the rigorous fact-checking and placement into context that ought to go into their published work, they devalue themselves as journalists.

Back in the pre-blog world, journalists were privy to a lot more than they published. The line between what was “newsworthy” and what was “between us” was respected and dependable – and often abused. Real journalists kept us in the dark about womanizing and backroom deals – the public’s right to know suffered to support the journalist’s access to information.

Now, the pendulum has swung. An off-the-cuff elevator remark about a fellow politician’s lack of fashion sense could show up on the Prime Buzz, and the line between journalism and blogging gets further blurred. When you add in the sad fact that McClatchy is asking fewer people to do the real work of journalism, you have a dangerous pressure to pass along quick gossip rather than solid analysis. And that pressure shows itself in Yael’s page of recent posts, which, as of this moment, includes Yael trying to write intelligently about Blagojevich, the auto bailout, a gossipy piece with a glaring error about Marcason and Funkhouser’s relationship, the Golden Globes, sewers, Tyler Thigpen, Mets baseball, cars, Tony DiPardo, and Big 12 Football. Plus much more, all over the course of 5 days! While still supposedly doing his real work of producing press-worthy copy. (I don’t mean to pick on Yael, but his Tony imitation on Thursday evening was the “ah hah” moment that sparked this piece.)

If a journalist wants to join the blog world and post about whatever shiny issue attracts his or her attention, that is great. The more bloggers, the merrier. But if they want to publish their blog as an adjunct to the Kansas City Star, and approach public figures as a multi-headed blogger/journalist, then they have no right whatsoever to complain if the public equates bloggers with journalists.

For those journalists who like to blog on the side, I have a few questions.

When you earned the title of “journalist” by going to school and learning from your superiors, did you really want to become a blogger?

Do you think that public figures should treat you with respect, if they know you are looking for material that would never be newsworthy in hard copy?

When you were first hired by the Kansas City Star, one of the great journalistic institutions of the country, did you feel like you were taking on mantle that you would strive to live up to, and maybe even improve? Do you think you’re doing that?

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