It’s almost too perfect. A mainstream reporter mocks a story a blogger has been working to break, asserting that “it all makes perfect conspiratorial sense!”, and that the blogger is “seeing broad partisan conspiracies where none likely exist,” only to backtrack a few weeks later when the story explodes across the front pages of the major dailies.
If you wanted to force the issue — and we would be surprised if some MSM-hating critic doesn’t — the episode illustrates perfectly how the Washington press corps ignores the blogosphere at its own peril. But the story, and its implications, are actually far more complicated — and for journalism, heartening — than that.
Still, the image is great. While the mocking reporter, Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief Jay Carney, was busy dumping, via Times Swampland blog, on the story of U.S. Attorneys being fired across the country, Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo, and two of his reporters at his offshoot site, TPMuckracker.com, Paul Kiel and Justin Rood, were busy reporting, using a variety of sources that had been largely untapped by the mainstream press.
To be fair, Carney wasn’t dismissing the story out of hand, but his snark hardly masked his belief that Marshall & Co. were out on a partisan limb, hyping a story that just wasn’t there.
As we now know, there is most definitely some “there, there,” and the press has been all over the story for more than a week, discovering that the paper trail that led to the firings leads, on some level, to the White House. Many (including two Republican members of Congress) have called for Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to step down, and the Democratic controlled Congress is licking its chops to hold hearings and issue subpoenas.
Despite his early misgiving about the story, on March 2 Carney finally came around, saying this his “hat is off” to TalkingPointsMemo and “everyone else out there whose instincts told them there was something deeply wrong and even sinister about the firings.” And then came the words that bloggers have so longed to hear: “The blogosphere was the engine on this story,” Carney wrote, “pulling the Hill and the MSM along…what happened was much worse than I’d first thought. I was wrong. Very nice work, and thanks for holding my feet to the fire.”
But before bloggers crack open the bubbly and start dancing around burning piles of dead tree media, it’s important to remember that Marshall and his team of bloggers were hardly the only ones paying attention to the story. TPM reporter Paul Kiel says that David Kurtz, a reader of TPM who posts for Marshall on the weekends on TalkingPointsMemo, noticed some stories in the Arkansas papers about Timothy Griffin — a former adviser to Karl Rove — replacing Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Then on January 12, TPM’s Justin Rood flagged a piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune that raised questions about the firing of U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, and according to Kiel, “that’s when our collective hair caught fire, and over the next couple days, putting Griffin’s appointment together with Lam’s [story], and then the other firings as they were reported, we went back and tried to put the pieces together.”
At the time — mid-January — TPM’s reporters were surveying media around the country and following up links to local papers sent in by readers, “so it was kind of a mix of what you might call blog reporting and traditional reporting,” or what might be termed a kind of “wisdom of crowds” method of reporting, combined with some good old-fashioned banging of the phones.
Kiel also credits McClatchy and the Las Vegas Review Journal with doing some good early reporting on the burgeoning story concerning how the Bush administration had forced some attorneys out and replaced them with party loyalists.
This mixing of tips from readers, hitting the phones, and ferreting out tidbits in local papers was exactly what Marshall had in mind when he launched TPM as an investigative reporting blog last year. “What I wanted to do is create a blog where bloggers could do original reporting full-time, and pay them salaries,” he says. “Most bloggers aren’t full-time journalists, and it’s a commitment of time that is nearly impossible unless you have the financial resources to pay people a living.”