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Celebrities Move into the Blogosphere; Spokane Sex Scandal Sting Operation -- Did They Go Too Far?

Aired May 15, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Blogging goes Hollywood. Larry David, Ellen Degeneres, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Bill Maher. Arianna Huffington tells us why these and other celebrities will change the face of online commentary. And the InstaPundit, Glenn Reynolds, on why the Huffington post is getting such bad reviews.

"The New York Times" may start a blog and respond to its critics. Ombudsman Dan Okrent on dealing with "Times" bashers and the pitfalls of being the paper's first in-house critic.

Plus, two newspaper editors square off on whether the "Spokane Spokesman-Review" should have staged an undercover sex sting against the mayor.

And death on the freeway. Are L.A. stations addicted to car chases?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on how Internet bloggers are changing the media culture. I am Howard Kurtz.

Once upon a time, bloggers toiled away in obscurity, trying to make a name for themselves. Now, it seems anyone who is anyone wants to blog. Networks like CNN and MSNBC have even been reading from blogs and booking bloggers, which drew a barb the other night from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show."


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": By reading the blogs on TV, the 24-hour news networks have combined the visual pizzazz of a text file with the deep insight of a 90-second cable segment.


KURTZ: Now, activist and author Arianna Huffington has invited 300 of her closest friends, not just celebrities, but the likes of Walter Cronkite, David Frum, Senator Jon Corzine and Mike McCurry to join a group blog, which quickly drew cyber fire from, of course, other bloggers. Even "The New York Times" is considering starting a blog to respond to critics, online and otherwise. Joining us now to help us navigate these blogging wars, in Los Angeles, Arianna Huffington, syndicated columnist, former candidate for governor in California and now the founder of

In New York, Daniel Okrent, public editor of "The New York Times" and a veteran magazine editor. And in Knoxville, Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the blogger better known as InstaPundit. Welcome.

Arianna Huffington, one criticism of your new site has been that Larry David, Bill Maher, Walter Cronkite don't need an online forum, they've got TV shows and columns and access to the media. That you are giving voice to people who are already famous.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, ACTIVIST: Well, actually, one of the reasons why I wanted to bring together 300 of the most creative people in the country into the cyberspace, into the blogosphere, is because I believe the blogosphere is so important, it is changing the way we receive information so dramatically that I wanted to make sure that those people, who, as you say, have other platforms, would also have an online platform, because the truth is even though they could probably all write a column and send it to "The New York Times," the chances are they would not do that. They are busy, they have other things to do, but they can blog a thought that they have, a reaction to something that is happening. They can express a passion, because that is the beauty of blogging.

Your thought doesn't have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It can be put out there. Others respond. It can start a conversation and you can get on with the rest of your life.

KURTZ: Well, sometimes my thoughts lack a beginning, a middle and an end. Dan Okrent, you don't speak for "The New York Times," but as a veteran observer of these matters, do you think that lesser-known bloggers will have more impact on the media than some of these celebrities? After all, very few people had heard of the bloggers that went after Dan Rather and Jeff Gannon.

DAN OKRENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" PUBLIC EDITOR: Well, I think they multiply each other, Howard. The -- any blogger, if he or she has something interesting to say, will have those words picked up and moved to another blog and from there throughout the Web. And this is why the conversation has extended beyond the pages of a newspaper and into this enormous place where nobody ever shuts up.

KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, as the InstaPundit, you are sort of the gateway to hundreds of more obscure blogs. How do you find them and are you less likely to link or provide a quick click to somebody who is less famous or more famous?

GLENN REYNOLDS, INSTAPUNDIT.COM: I try to find obscure blogs and bring them more attention. That's kind of been one of my priorities, so I guess I figure that people who are more famous don't need my help to be discovered, or to get their ideas out.

KURTZ: OK. REYNOLDS: I think it's nice that celebrities are entering the blogosphere. I think they are going to find that your reputation in the blog world rises or falls based on what you have to say and not who you are or what you have done elsewhere. So I think that it will be a fascinating experience for them and for the rest of us to see how they do.

HUFFINGTON: I think that's very true. We are finding that already. This is only the first week of the Huffington Post, but we are finding that a lot of people, from the e-mails we are getting and the comments on the site, are going there, say, to read Larry David or Mike Nichols, and they discover somebody they have never heard before, and they love what they are saying, and they prompt them to write more and so that kind of exchange...

KURTZ: But you certainly know, Arianna, from being online, that bloggers love to smack other bloggers around, and you've gotten your share of that this week. We'll take just one example. Nikki Finke in the "L.A. Weekly" writes that "the Madonna of the media politics world," that's you, "has undergone one reinvention too many. Her blog is such a bomb that it is the movie equivalent of "Gigli," "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate" rolled into one. Why do you think there has been this hostile reception in some corners?

HUFFINGTON: Well, that is so hysterical that it was laughed at, because she wrote that literally within hours of us going live, so ...

KURTZ: Things move quickly online.

HUFFINGTON: ... for them to say -- what?

KURTZ: You get box office reviews right away, right?

HUFFINGTON: Well, this is not a movie opening. We've had great box office reviews, as you know, in terms of numbers, but the important thing is that this is a rollout. We are going to be there for years, and we are going to keep evolving. Already, on Friday, we had much more personal blogging, including Cheryl Saban writing about watching her child giving birth to a child and that very emotional response that she blogged about.

So you have bloggers writing very partisan, political stuff. You have others writing very personal stuff. It's an unfolding show.

KURTZ: Right. Dan Okrent, at the "New York Times," where you are finishing up your term as the public editor, a credibility committee says that top editors should consider responding more often to critics, online and otherwise, and perhaps starting a blog. Do you think it's been a mistake for "Times" editors to not be more aggressive in responding to critics, and is starting a blog, one way, perhaps, to deal with that?

OKRENT: Well, I think that they have been reacting -- really kind of -- behaving the way that newspaper editors have always behaved. They believe that when something is published, that is where the story stops. And since the blog world exploded, a second story begins there, and they are only catching up to this now.

I think it is a good idea, if the conversation is going to be extended beyond the pagers of your paper. I think the paper does need to be part of the conversation itself.

KURTZ: And you have done that yourself by responding online to critics.

OKRENT: Yeah. I do it as much as I possibly can, although I find that if I respond more than once, that I am in an argument rather than a conversation, so I cut it off after that.

KURTZ: Now Glenn -- go ahead, Arianna.

HUFFINGTON: This raises one of the most important aspects of the blogosphere. I wrote about that as far back as 2002, when I praised Glenn Reynolds for the amazing job he did by bringing to the public's attention Trent Lott's comments at that famous birthday lunch. They were ignored by the mainstream media until Glenn wrote about them, then others like Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan linked to him, developed the story and there came a point where the mainstream media had to jump on but it was all because of what Glenn started. So that was really the first moment when we saw the power of the blogosphere and, it's only been growing since.

KURTZ: Now, I'll treat you with more respect, Glenn Reynolds, now that we know how powerful you are. Now, the bloggers were all over the "New York Times" this week because there was an editorial that said that blogs are great, they are really interesting, but perhaps they could use some standards like calling people for comment when somebody is the target of a post. Is that such a bad idea?

OKRENT: I don't think it's ever going to happen.

KURTZ: Glenn, it won't happen?

OKRENT: Go ahead.

REYNOLDS: I think I've done that sort of thing from time to time myself and I am actually trying very hard to encourage bloggers to do more original reporting. But I think blogs are at the moment are more a vehicle for media criticism then they are for original reporting.

If I can jump in, what I suggested the "Times" do is actually have somebody use tools like Technorati to see what bloggers are saying about all their stories, and when they find an actual factual error, correct it and credit the blogger who found it first, and they'd have thousands of unpaid fact checkers happily toiling away for them.

REYNOLDS: I think that that actually may happen. I don't know whether they're going to get so good about the crediting, but I think they are looking at what the bloggers have to say all the time.

KURTZ: Follow-up point, Glenn Reynolds. When you are linking to other blogs, and you must spend a lot of time in addition to your law professor duties doing this, do you hesitate to give prominence to something where somebody is making a wild charge or a personal attack and you have no way of knowing whether there is any evidence behind it?

REYNOLDS: Oh, absolutely, and I have passed up some big stories that way. I got a story on a scandal at Bell Labs that somebody e- mailed me and said it's going to be all over the "New York Times" next week and here it is. And sure enough, it was all over the "New York Times" the next week exactly as he said, but I had no way of knowing whether it was true, and I didn't want to publish an anonymous e-mail from a guy whose name was Godless Capitalist.

KURTZ: That's a great name. Arianna Huffington, you have a section on your blog edited by Harry Shearer called "Eat the Press." What is your biggest frustration with the mainstream media, and do you think that your blog will do anything to deal with that?

HUFFINGTON: Well, one of my frustrations was actually touched on by Glenn right now. You have many stories that die on the front pages of the "New York Times." Big stories covered but then forgotten. There isn't enough follow-up, and the greatness of the blogosphere is that there is a lot of follow-up. A story is covered and re-covered and re-covered until your break through the static of a 500-channel universe, and that is how you can actually begin to bring about change and capture the public's imagination, and you have to do a lot of that.

KURTZ: Dan Okrent, as I mentioned, you are finishing up your 18- month term as the first ombudsman in the history of "The New York Times." You've gotten into it with reporters, with editor Bill Keller. Was this a painful experience in part? And what kind of impact do you think you've had?

OKRENT: Well, of course it's painful, but I knew it was going to be painful before I went into it, so I deserve all the pain that I suffered. I think that the impact is that the job is established forever now. I think it will be very hard for the "Times" to drop it. And so long as there is going to be somebody in the pages of the paper offering an independent, critical view, I think that's only good for both the paper and the readers.

KURTZ: You wrote that the "New York Times" is a, quote, "liberal newspaper," at least on social issues. You said that was your most important column. Why?

OKRENT: Well, it addressed the issue that had been raised by so many people, particularly during the campaign year, and one that was really raised rather frequently by people on the staff as well, and it was sort of the charge that couldn't be answered. And I think that it's important that we recognize that newspapers get made by people, and people come from a certain place and a certain life experience, and it shows up in the coverage.

KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, are you surprised at some of the attacks on Arianna's blog? There are already two parody sites up.

REYNOLDS: That's a sign of success when they are parodying you. As long as they are not accusing you of putting puppies in blenders.

KURTZ: Do you feel it's a sign of success, Arianna? We just have a few seconds.

HUFFINGTON: Yeah, we are very excited with our first week. We have a long way to go, and it's going to be evolving, and we are very, very open to everybody's feedback.

KURTZ: And will you be posting online critics from outside who perhaps want to take on some of what your famous people think?

HUFFINGTON: Absolutely. We are linking, I have already been blogging and responding to people like Jack Schaefer in Slate and others. I am going to be doing a lot of responding myself, and others on the blog are already doing it and mixing it up with each other.

KURTZ: All right. And you have just responded here as well. Arianna Huffington, Dan Okrent, Glenn Reynolds, thanks very much, all of you, for joining us.

Just ahead, that online sex sting against Spokane, Washington Mayor Jim West. We will talk to the editor of the newspaper that conducted the undercover investigation. Was the newspaper's deception warranted? We'll ask him and a top editor who says, "No way." That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. There is no question an undercover sex sting by the "Spokesman-Review" of Spokane, Washington against the city's mayor had a major impact. Mayor Jim West, a strong opponent of gay rights, acknowledges looking for young men online, but denies having had sex with anyone under 18. Now he is taking a leave of absence, and had a few choice words for the newspaper.


JIM WEST, MAYOR OF SPOKANE: The current news media hysteria is distracting to the business of the city and is occupying a great deal of my time. I hope that you and the people will reserve judgment on me until the newspaper is done persecuting me.


KURTZ: The "Spokesman-Review" hired a computer expert to pose as an 18 year old, go to a gay Internet chat room, and seek out the man the paper believed to be Mayor West. That subterfuge has been denounced by some editors and media critics, who say journalists should not act as undercover cops.

Joining us now to talk about why he approved the sting, Steven Smith, editor of the Spokane "Spokesman-Review" and Amanda Bennett, editor of the "Philadelphia Inquirer." Welcome.

Steven Smith, you have gotten hammered by some journalists over this undercover, online operation, which you yourself said you approved with great reluctance. Any second thoughts?

STEVEN SMITH, "SPOKESMAN-REVIEW" EDITOR: No second thoughts at all. It was the right thing to do, given the circumstances. We gave it considerable thought and agonized over the decision, but once made, we felt it was the right approach.

KURTZ: Even though, obviously...



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