Blogs helped expose Foleygate

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

ABC News was the first traditional media outlet to report explicit instant messages between former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and under-aged congressional pages, but an Internet blog broke the story almost a week earlier.

The Stop Sex Predators Now blog posted suggestive e-mails about Foley on Sept. 24, after several earlier posts charging him with inappropriate conduct. The blog’s role in exposing the controversy raises questions that traditional journalists and experts have been asking about the relationship between blogs and the Fourth Estate.

Few bloggers have broken national stories. Matt Drudge was the first to report about Monica Lewinsky in 1998, and discredited documents that CBS used in a 2004 story about President Bush’s military service.

Glenn Reynolds, who created the blog in August 2001, said the Foley controversy shows that mainstream media outlets are becoming increasingly willing to look for stories on blogs.

"It’s the media playing catch-up," he said, adding that blogs, where people frequently post anonymous comments, are ideal for leaking political information.

Reynolds, who is also a law professor at the University of Tennessee, said the blogspot blog, which is only about 2 months old, acted less as a watchdog and more as a dumping ground for scandalous information.

"The odds that this was put together by a political operation seems likely," he said.

Because bloggers operate as individuals instead of as employees of traditional news organizations, they don’t necessarily abide by journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness.

"They don’t operate under the same restraints as journalists do," said Barry Hollander, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in computer-assisted reporting. "It’s very hard for reporters to write about rumor. It’s much easier for bloggers to do so."

The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times knew about the congressman’s e-mails as early as November but could not get the 16-year-old page who allegedly received Foley’s inappropriate e-mails to speak on the record. The paper did not run a story.

"The journalists had it," Hollander said, "but they weren’t confident enough because the kid wouldn’t go on the record and speak, which makes journalists very nervous."

Ralph Braseth, a blogger and the director of student media at the University of Mississippi, said blogs are good for casting a wide net to look for sources, but should be viewed with a skeptical eye.

"One of the reasons blogs are so interesting and problematic and important is that we often get sources that are simply not on our radar as journalists," he said.

Despite blogs’ unreliability, Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University, said bloggers play an important role in holding public officials and traditional media accountable.

"Each blogger is not necessarily as important as the network of bloggers, who raise questions to the point where answers must be provided," he said.

Gilbert Bailon, vice president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and editor and publisher of Al Di in Dallas, said bloggers are not journalists but do influence them.

"I think the distinction has to be made because there is often opinion in blogs," Bailon said. "They’re not authoritative enough to provide hard evidence, but they can produce new leads."

Bailon said blogs also pose new problems for journalists, who may be pressured to report a story gaining attention in cyberspace without checking the facts.

But that pressure is not a new trend, Hollander said.

"Since the early ’90s, the tabloids would run a story that traditional media wouldn’t touch," he said. "Once it became part of the public domain, there was more pressure for mainstream papers to report on it. The Internet and blogs have simply accelerated the process."

Blogs on Monday continued to post stories that mixed fact with speculation about Foley.

Many prominent blogs, including the Huffington Post, posted lengthy instant-message correspondence, including inappropriate sexual content between Foley and a page.

Wonkette, a blog that bills itself as a "blend of gossip and satire and things the author makes up," posted pictures of Foley’s head superimposed on an alien from the movie "Battlefield Earth."

It also posted pictures, linked from the Palm Beach Post’s Web site, of Foley smiling with Sen. George Allen, R-Va., under the headline, "Scattered Pictures, Of the Smiles We Left Behind." Allen is under public scrutiny because of allegations that he made racist remarks.

Anonymous comments from pages who claimed to know that Foley acted inappropriately were posted on the site.

One, dated Sept. 21, read: "I am tired of people treating this thing with Congressman Mark Foley like a joke. It is not funny. He’s a danger to any young, slightly attractive young man on The Hill."