Last month, I had one of the most chilling experiences of my career as a reporter-blogger. I had planned on taking a day off from writing on ThinkProgress.org and going on a short vacation to a small town in Virginia. Instead, I ended up being followed from my apartment and ambushed by O’Reilly Factor producer Jesse Watters and his cameraman.
It all started on March 1, when I wrote a post reporting that Bill O’Reilly was slated to speak at a March 19 benefit for the Alexa Foundation, a group that supports rape survivors. I noted that O’Reilly had made controversial comments in 2006 about Jennifer Moore, a woman who was raped and murdered. In my interpretation, he seemed to imply that it was partially her fault by calling her “moronic,” and adding:
Now Moore, Jennifer Moore, 18, on her way to college. She was 5-foot-2, 105 pounds, wearing a miniskirt and a halter top with a bare midriff. Now, again, there you go. So every predator in the world is gonna pick that up at two in the morning. She’s walking by herself on the West Side Highway, and she gets picked up by a thug. All right. Now she’s out of her mind, drunk.
That three-week-old post was the furthest thing from my mind when my friend and I drove two hours from Washington, D.C. to Winchester, Virginia, on March 21. But when we left the hotel, two men crossed the street toward me, calling out my name. They stood in front of me, put a microphone in my face, and asked me why I was causing “pain and suffering” to rape victims (by writing my March 1 post). What I didn’t immediately realize—but later found out—was that they were sent by O’Reilly.
The scariest part of this experience was how O’Reilly’s crew found me. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going that weekend, and the hotel reservation wasn’t in my name. However, my friend remembered seeing a tan SUV following us for much of the trip; that same vehicle was then parked on the street where I was ambushed. I can only ascertain that O’Reilly’s men found my home address, staked out my apartment, followed me for two hours into rural Virginia, and then ambushed me.
My editor and I immediately decided that I would write up my experience and expose O’Reilly’s ambush “journalism” on Monday morning. The outrage was instantaneous. Even conservatives—who don’t generally agree with me ideologically—thought O’Reilly had gone too far. During his segment that night on the incident, O’Reilly never mentioned how he had his crew follow me or the fact that he never first contacted me for a statement. He also never actually showed what I originally reported. Instead, O’Reilly accused me of deliberately attacking the Alexa Foundation (which I never did) and made up a conspiracy theory about ThinkProgress being in a cabal with NBC News.
Since the incident, I have often wondered why O’Reilly targeted me—or for that matter, anyone else at ThinkProgress. He has ambushed nearly forty other people, but they have usually been bigger catches: The New Yorker’s senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), and even CJR editor Mike Hoyt. I seemed to be the first blogger to really get under O’Reilly’s skin.
I think the answer lies in what ThinkProgress does. O’Reilly thinks we’re “insects” who run a “hate Web site.” I have a different view. I believe that we’re a new type of journalists. We still do traditional journalism work—reporting, breaking news, explaining complicated policies to the public. However, some of the most exciting parts of the job are less traditional—rapid-response research, pressing for progressive policies, and promoting media accountability.
ThinkProgress certainly isn’t alone in this type of work, and O’Reilly recognizes that. One of Watters’s questions to me was why, in my March 1 post, I linked to an item by the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters. Watters said that we were all part of a “smear pipeline.” Many progressive blogs now spend a considerable amount of time monitoring Fox News, highlighting controversial commentary, and fact-checking the network’s reporting.
Perhaps part of the reason O’Reilly finds blogs so objectionable is that without them, he would be able to freely speak to his like-minded audience. His slip-ups, controversial statements, and flat-out lies would be overlooked. To some degree, the same theory applies to traditional journalists, who are still adjusting to having their every word scrutinized for accuracy or bias—by liberals, conservatives, and even nonpartisan writers.
Hopefully, this type of media monitoring will help make reporting more accurate. Conservative bloggers helped identify bogus documents regarding President Bush’s National Guard service, and progressive bloggers closely watched reporting on the Iraq war, after major publications reported false pre-war information.
New media is also leveling the playing field by creating a media marketplace. In the past, readers had to rely on the news that was available to them in their geographic region. A city’s newspaper basically set the agenda for the public.
This power has now become more decentralized. Readers now go online to find the most interesting news of the day, regardless of where the stories are published. Part of the reason that sites like the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report have been so successful is that they find the best of what’s on the Internet and bring it together for readers.
This isn’t to say that all publications are exactly the same. Of course, stories from outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post still carry considerable heft because of the newspapers’ reputations. But more than ever, they are competing for attention from smaller newspapers and less-established online publications. For example, sites like Talking Points Memo and McClatchy were often quicker to report on news about the U.S. attorney scandal than larger news outlets, and some of the biggest campaign stories were broken by people with little or no journalism training.
One of the most exciting parts of my time during the past four years I have been writing for ThinkProgress is seeing journalism change and adapt to new media. In 2005, I could barely convince people to return my calls. When they did, I had to patiently explain what a “blog” was and how I wasn’t a crazy person sitting in my basement. Obtaining press credentials to an event was beyond my wildest dreams.
Compare those stories to a November 2008 Zogby International poll that found that people believe the Internet is the most reliable source of news. The president of the United States is even calling on bloggers at prime time press conferences.
The journalism I’m doing now is certainly different from what young writers were doing a decade ago. However, these changes don’t have to mean the death of quality journalism, as so many observers worry. Strong, groundbreaking reporting will still be elevated in the media marketplace, but sloppy, inaccurate pieces will also be more quickly identified.
Clearly, I have found out in the past month that there are hazards to this profession that I never imagined. But if O’Reilly’s intent was to intimidate me from writing on ThinkProgress, it’s not going to work.
In July, we invited laid-off and bought-out journalists to reflect on their experience in the form of a letter to colleagues. Now we are issuing a similar invitation to the young people who’ve come into the profession in the last five years or so, and the young journalism students who soon will. We invite them to air their concerns and hopes about journalism, too. The central questions: What do you see in this business that makes you still want to pursue it? How do you imagine people will get quality news five years down the road? How will you try to fit in? Send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish these periodically under the headline “Starting Thoughts,” and we’ll archive everything we publish here.