One decade in and blogging has gone from a prosaic exercise in online journaling to a serious enterprise undertaken by so-called citizen journalists eager to bring stories to light that the mainstream media might otherwise overlook. The dogged determination of these passionate online journalists has brought to the forefront stories that have derailed political campaigns and caused major corporations to rethink how they handle their customers.
Part 1 of this feature looks at half of our top 10 blogger-generated stories, their impact on the American political process and major players in the technology industry. The list continues below.
On September 27, 2006, retail behemoth Wal-Mart launched “Wal-Marting Across America,” a blog chronicling the travels of Wal-Mart customers Laura and Jim as they embarked on a cross-country trip in their RV. The trip would take them from Las Vegas to Georgia, and along the way the couple would be able to park for free in the parking lots of local Wal-Mart stores. In the first post, Laura described herself and Jim: “We are not bloggers, but since our lives have always been more journey than destination, we are explorers at heart. … We figured we’d give it a go.”
The only problem? Well, no, they weren’t bloggers. They were a Washington, D.C.-based photographer (Jim) and freelance writer (Laura) who had an idea to write a blog as they traveled across the country parking for free at Wal-Mart stores. When the couple approached Working Families for Wal-Mart to gain their permission, the company did them one better: It sponsored the entire trip in an attempt to generate some positive press for the discounter.
Jim and Laura were flown out to Las Vegas, where they found an RV (sporting the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo) gassed up and ready to go. Edelman, the PR firm behind the pro-Wal-Mart organization, paid for the couple’s gas, established a blog site and paid Laura a fee for each blog entry which cataloged a seemingly unending procession of Wal-Mart workers just pleased to be at Wal-Mart.
Without a doubt the most controversial entry on the list, the revelation that President William Jefferson Clinton was secretly having an affair with a 21-year-old White House intern by Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report scooped serious journalists at both Newsweek and Time. President Clinton’s assertion that he had “not had sexual relations with that woman” — sworn to in an affidavit and before the American public in an January 1998 network address — became the basis for impeachment hearings against the sitting president. Clinton was eventually acquitted of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges by the Senate.
However, does the Drudge Report even count? Not everyone thinks so. Drudge is “not a blogger,” B.L. Ochman, a blogger and president of WhatsNextOnline.com, told TechNewsWorld. “At that point, he was a fishmonger. It was very, very early in blogdom, and so I don’t think this one really counts.”
Drudge “pre-dates blogging by several years,” concurred Todd Watson, E-Relationship Manager at IBM Software Group. “You can put him in that camp, but I wouldn’t put him the traditional blogosphere camp because he was more of a headline enabler than he was someone actually commenting on this stuff.”
However, liking the messenger or his methods does not negate the fact that Drudge beat the mainstream media to break a story that has had a fundamental impact on the American presidency and both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Just last May, the business world learned once again how influential blogging sites and their reports can be when technology blog Engadget posted a story claiming that Apple would announce another delay of its anticipated Leopard operating system as well as a delay for the iPhone, easily the most hyped gadget to come out this year.
“This one doesn’t bode well for Mac fans and the iPhone-hopeful: we have it on authority that as of today, the iPhone launch is being pushed back from June to … October(!), and Leopoard is again seeing a delay, this time being pushed all the way back to January,” the site reported.
Apple refused to confirm its report, but the damage was already done: Apple’s stock almost immediately dropped some 5 percent from US$108.83 to $103.43, costing the company and investors about $4 billion.
The team over at Engadget quickly updated the story. Within 20 minutes of the initial post the site said Apple’s public relations had indicated there would be no delay. In the hours that followed, it was revealed that the e-mail forwarded to the blog and several Apple employees was a fake. Apple then sent out a real e-mail explaining that it was not delaying either the OS or the iPhone. Engadget promptly updated its site with the headline “False alarm: iPhone delayed until October, Leopard delayed again until January.”
The story was an example of “blogging at its worst” JupiterResearch analyst Barry Parr, told TechNewsWorld, calling it “lame and pathetic.”
The story should rank highly on the list, said Ochman. It proved — if anyone still needed proof — that blogs can move markets.
While at a 100th birthday party for Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina on December 5, 2002, then Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said, “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”
What could have been an innocuous and supportive statement designed to recall Thurmond’s glory days instead became a major scandal for Lott when his comments became public. Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket built on a platform supporting racial segregation.
Lott originally dismissed the remarks as intended to support Thurmond’s platform on national defense. However, his assertions that he was not attempting to support racial segregation were for naught. Calls came from both sides of the aisle for Lott’s resignation, and on December 20, 2002, he stepped down from his post as Senate Republican Leader.
While this is not a case where the blogosphere broke the story, bloggers kept alive long enough for the mainstream press to pick it up, Joe Laszlo, an analyst at JupiterResearch told TechNewsWorld.
It was lots of “seething outrage” in the blogosphere that kept the story going and eventually led to Lott’s downfall, according to Parr.
Clutching a folio of papers in his hands on September 8, 2004, some two months before the 2004 presidential election, veteran CBS journalist Dan Rather aired a report on the venerable news magazine “60 Minutes Wednesday” he claimed exposed valuable information on President George W. Bush’s stint in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. The service records were discovered among personal paper of the president’s then commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, according to Rather.
The documents alleged, among other things, that Bush had been found unfit for flight status after failing to take a mandatory physical exam and subsequently grounded, and that he asked to be excused from drill because he did not have time to fulfill his National Guard duties while working on the Senate campaign of Winton M. Blount of Alabama. Another note that claimed Blount was being pressured from military leaders to bump up his grades on Bush’s yearly evaluations.
Following the report, a firestorm of withering criticism and questions of the documents’ authenticity flooded the blogosphere from bloggers on the left and right of the political spectrum. Rather himself launched a concerted defense of the documents. However, on September 20, CBS retracted the story after it was revealed that the news organization had not been able to authenticate the documents and that their source, former Texas Army National Guard officer, Bill Burkett and not been truthful about how he had obtained the supposed personnel files.
The incident led to what appeared to be an earlier-than-intended retirement for Rather, who conducted his last broadcast on March 9, 2005.
This is another example of bloggers’ dogged pursuit of a story. They drilled down until CBS was forced to admit it could not authenticate the documents.
It was, according top Parr, “a marginal story in the grander scheme of things. An embarrassing failure by CBS News, but [bloggers] didn’t break a story, so much as kill one. However, [it was] a very nice job of research by bloggers.”
However, the story ranked at the top of the list for Ochman “because it took down a mainstream media leader,” however unfairly it may have been. “It raised the credibility of bloggers in the eyes of the mainstream media,” she added.
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