The Talking Points Meme

Several months ago, I decided on a simple experiment: I'd stop reading most blogs I'd been reading, and just get news from my regular sources, and see if I'd be any less informed. I think I've stayed sharp. In this three-thousand exercise, I looked to see whether I missed anything in the U.S. Attorney "purge" scandal that's been brewing over the past couple of months.

The best change to my own personal habits was that I no longer felt compelled to make corrections everywhere. The New Republic has 50,000 paying subscribers; this yields enough readers writing in with corrections. If somebody were to come along and start fabricating things, somebody will make a movie about it. So I trust it and other publications that I follow. This process could be improved, but that's for another time.

Nonetheless, I tuned into a friend's blog this week which linked to a story in the Los Angeles Times which had saluted the blogs' role in bringing the US Attorney "purge" to the spotlight. That was news to me; I know had been aware of it since before March 5th, when I mentioned it in an email to my father; I seem to remember reading this editorial comment from Adam Cohen of the New York Times the week before that. I had assumed that the scandal had been running its course. So I started writing a comment on my friend's blog… but when I realized that this might run over three thousand words and require some trending graphs, I realized I needed to post it here with the full research. Here it is.

The Talking Points

The LA Times article was "Blogs can top the presses" by Terry McDermott on March 17th. It didn't bring anything new to the table, and it's hard to believe that the cosmopolitan readers of Southern California were just getting clued into the sensation: "Neither side in the blog-MSM debate seems to have great appreciation for what the other brings to the party." I remember sitting in on a conference a couple of years ago where phrases like that were already declared dead.

Evidently 139 bloggers found it blogworthy. Robert Niles of USC's Online Journalism Review heaped on the hagiography: "The latest scandal engulfing the White House might have escaped public notice if not for the work of one influential blog."

There are very few bloggers one can find who have been able to successfully drive the news other than Joshua Micah Marshall, the blogger at the helm of Talking Points Memo. He had singlehandedly amplified the story of Trent Lott's soft support of racism in December 2002 and thrust it onto the front pages; and in 2005 he probably did more than any private citizen in sinking the social security privatization effort by President Bush. In his article, McDermott profiled Marshall's nascent TPM franchise of publications, and added another feather was added to his cap:

"In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM, posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas. For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress."

I was curious whether this had met Marshall's high standards in the past. A couple of years ago, I had looked into his 2002 coup of Trent Lott. Here was his glorious week of being the first to dig up several pieces of documentary evidence associating Lott with a history of racist-pandering statements. With the social security privatization battle, Marshall had branded wavering Democrats the "Fainthearted Faction" and began acting as a citizen party-whip, continually badgering them to get in line. I half-expected this time as well for Marshall to duplicate either of these efforts. But not this time. What was odd about McDermott's article is that many of the facts were correctly reported by the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily two days prior. Still, CJR Daily missed other crucial facts. Who connected the dots into a single story, and how did that get through the memegate— and break into the national consciousness?

The Story

In Talking Points Memo on December 16th, David Kurtz (who's not on the masthead, he's apparently a reader who fills in on the weekend) posted an item from the Northwest Arkansas News Source about the firing of U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins. This was a great catch, though I'm curious just how it was caught; a search through TPM's 11,000+ blog posts over the last five years show very few scoops from Arkansas. Likely a reader sent it in, though Marshall usually acknowledges such tipsters.

The followup from Marshall finally came 297 posts later, on Friday January 12th, when he first noticed an article in the San Diego Union Tribune regarding the firing of Carole Lam, the US Attorney who prosecuted disgraced Congressmen Randy "Duke" Cunningham. But he didn't note the attorney pattern. He turned it over to Justin Rood on TPMMuckraker, who twenty minutes later posted a four-paragraph blog entry linking the article to earlier Muckraker blog posts. The first three paragraphs were about the Cunningham investigation; the fourth one was this: "The paper raises the possibility that Lam isn't the only U.S. Attorney who's being pushed out. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the paper in a statement, 'We don't know how many U.S. Attorneys have been asked to resign it could be two, it could be ten, it could be more. No one knows.'"

The statement the article had referenced was this press release from Feinstein's office the previous day, which had prefaced the quote in the paper with this ominous sentence: "It has come to our attention that the Bush Administration is pushing out U.S. Attorneys from across the country under the cloak of secrecy and then appointing indefinite replacements without Senate confirmation."

Given the L.A. Times version of events, I had thought it possible that it was a TPM reader which had brought the attention– but then TPM would have reported this.

The next morning, Rood read the Union-Tribune and another San Diego paper and combined it into blog post, and marked this post with the "U.S. Attorneys" tag for the first time (the first of what is now 204). Rood did not solicit comments on any other attorneys being fired; and none of the 24 commenters supplied any. Nothing else was reported over the weekend. The next Muckraker post came Monday at 12:14pm, finding an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, reporting the ousting of prosecutor Daniel Bogden: "Bogden is not the only U.S. attorney targeted by the Bush administration."

There's an explanation how the Muckraker caught this item from a paper with a circulation of 167,000– Paul Kiel told CJR Daily's Paul McLeary, "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" and McLeary added "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."

What I can't understand is how this vast collective knowledge missed the editorial from the New York Times published in Monday's paper (and online Sunday night). The collective hair of the Times editorial writers caught fire as well, and they immediately acted upon it. The Times also referenced the press release from Senators Feinstein and Leahy, which had already articulated that multiple U.S. Attorneys were pushed out.

On Tuesday, Senator Feinstein gave a speech on the Senate Floor identifying seven of the fired prosecutors. The White House supplied the list of interim appointments; I assume the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee was able to exercise Google and find out whose places they'd be taking. TPM Muckraker had the good sense to report it and then add the transcript of her speech.

With the seven (soon eight) prosecutors named, the TPM crew had enough to go on, other sites like Daily Kos were cued in, and it was off to the races. To CJR Daily, "the mainstream media dragged its heels." Robert Niles at OJR proclaimed "Decades of operating as near monopolies have atrophied many newspapers' ability to build buzz."

Niles is a bit off the mark here. Certainly the newspapers still have competition– with radio, television, the web. But more to the point is that stories compete with each other for attention. News events do not happen in a vacuum, and the public does not have unlimited attention. It's easy to blame Anna Nicole Smith and American Idol, as Eric Alterman does, but that would be ignorant of the other political news of the last couple of months.

Competing Stories

Here's the graph from BlogPulse which illustrates some other breaking over the past two months ( how immensely useful this would be if there were a public service to do the same thing on traditional media)

The graph starts January 13th; I have done that so that the intervals would be every seven days. I checked January 12th for blog posts. Note that I searched "U.S. Attorney" (singular) in order to best count the stories from the time before the purge pattern emerged. And, as I imagined, there's a lot of noise: of the 47 blog posts mentioning on that day U.S. Attorney, only 5 mentioned Carole Lam firing. The bump on January 18th reflects the column by Paul Krugman— and a response from his polar opposite, Ann Coulter. But, clearly, something else was happening that week which had gripped the nation's press corps– the Libby trial. Lest anyone get the impression that the blogging community felt that playing court stenographers was beneath them, they were out in force to cover the trial like never before. The Media Bloggers Association regularly crowed (in most of these fifty-two posts) that they had arranged, after two years of negotiations, to have bloggers as credentialed press for the trial (twelve MBA members took turns at the two credentialed seats).

The Libby trial was pushed off the front page when the scandal of the deteriorating conditions at Walter Reed Hospital erupted with the one-two punch of the Washington Post's reporting and the subsequent ABC News special. It stayed front page news as several generals, and the Secretary of the Army, resigned. The Libby trial had last hurrah when the guilty verdict was delivered, shooting into the stratosphere with 1,224 blog posts.

And that's just scandals. There was a State of the Union Address and a Super Bowl which were off this chart, spiking at tens of thousands of posts. But the main ongoing news was the discussion over the Iraq surge– not to mention the incredibly early start of the 2008 Presidential campaign. Consider the candidacy of Barack Obama, who has been a United States senator for all of two years. He's not generating any real news in the sense of the muckraking world, just generating buzz; and that's the sort of political story that any scandal needs to compete with. Here's the BlogPulse graph:


With the front page headline on March 13th, "White House Said to Prompt Firing of Prosecutors" the story finally eclipsed Walter Reed, Scooter Libby, the Iraq surge, and even, hold your breath, Barack Obama. That was the day Time Magazine's Washington Bureau Chief Jay Carney realized that it was big news. Eric Alterman responded with a detailed look at the reporting timeline from mid-January timeline– and it's not exclusively TPM. But the CJR Daily, a near-blog that has been increasingly fawning over blogs over the last couple of years, offered up the headline "How TalkingPointsMemo Beat the Big Boys on the U.S. Attorney Story."

In the story, Marshall is quoted: "We have a readership of about 100,000 people … and that means that in any city around the country we've got a bunch of readers who are reading the local papers. So we'll often find out if something happens that's only reported in some small paper."

It's amazing how technical deficient our online media is after the last decade of progress. First, publications could have a technology which could definitively audit the number of tipsters that each publication has; and it appears to me that the number of tips is a function of readership size. I would imagine that an established national media outlet could hold its own in this area. I know from the difficulty of getting responses from writing reporters at the Times and Slate; smaller publications like my hometown Globe, and the New Republic, are a bit more responsive. Furthermore, while newspapers have been quick to draft a blogging force (since blogging costs less to produce), it'd be much more helpful if online newspapers had simply started adopting more simple web conventions– such as hyperlinks as everyday citations. If that was standard practice by now, McDermott would have cited McLeary's article as a source for the 100,000 readers. [I sent McDermott an email on Thursday and did not hear back until Monday 3/26– he said he hadn't seen the CJR piece.]

To review McDermott's passage:

  • "In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM, posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette…" no, that was David Kurtz.
  • "Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced…" Marshall's followup didn't mention it; that was Justin Rood [who was hired by as a producer for ABC News Investigative Unit shortly thereafter]
  • "… and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas." I haven't found that post yet. It's true that readers of TPM (or any respectable publication) send it unsolicited tips all the time.
  • "For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were…" Actually, they got the names from Senator Feinstein.
  • "and why politics might be behind the firings." No reason to refute that; this was an open-ended exercise.
  • "The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress." No sleight against Josh Marshall, though it just seems like Senator Feinstein still has a bit of influence on the Hill. On January 25th, Senator Schumer picked up the ball, scheduling hearings for February 7th and has largely been the point man on this since.

Naturally Marshall read this and could have commented to straighten out the record. But why bother? (He took a pass and just called it "nice press" without any corrections).

This episode begs the question– what does this say about newspaper reliability? I have no reason to doubt the reporter, Terry McDermott; his 2005 book of the 9/11 hijackers, Perfect Soldiers received many favorable reviews. I can only guess he figured it'd be an easier assignment if he withheld any critical statement. An error in a piece like this can be forgiven, it's not the end of the world (I don't generally read the Los Angeles papers, anyways). But preumably there's an army of the famously fact-checking bloggers out there– and this is an article that anybody thumbsucking at home can check (it took me 12 hours over three days to write all this).

A puff piece with factual mistakes appeared, and it garnered 139 links– just about all of them approving– and fourteen of them quoted verbatim the paragraph in question. On the other hand, the New York Times wrote an editorial on a breaking news story about impropriety at the highest levels of government and only 25 blogs linked to it– in fact, it takes many weeks before the rest of the country catches up. What kind of media revolution is this?

Getting it Right 

The larger point I've made before is that if one wants a "corrective" to the mainstream press, blogs are simply not the answer. I covered this at length in the New Gatekeepers series, and additional research data is forthcoming. One could make the argument that blogs are the "antidote" to the mainstream press (perhaps emotionally), and one can make the argument that Wikipedia is corrective, since that is its nature. But blogs amplify mistakes just as regularly as correcting them. (This remains a hypothesis. I stick by it. I'd love to have the opportunity to scientifically test it. I don't work in a media lab).

But it also brings to mind why I never was able to comfortably read TPM for more than a week at time. Of course, TPM is the best of it's form; it's readable and has a pleasing visual style. But it's still burdened by the form of blogs. Two hundred posts on this scandal is comprehensive, but also quotidian. Headline, January 24th: "Dems Mum on Ousted U.S. Atty Number." (Story was TPM getting a "no comment" from Feinstein's office). Headline, January 25th: "Senators to Press Bush Admin on U.S. Attorney Firings." They weren't mum for long.

Looking back through the US Attorneys stream, it's a great research tool of what was reported when; it's a veritable scrapbook of public statements, reports from other media, and yes, original reporting and analysis from TPM. Under constructive media theory, TPM succeeds is by constructing a veritable artifact among different components and presenting it as a whole piece for consumption. But on a daily basis it's impossible to navigate. I'd much rather skim the compact headline-style at Slate so I can choose what to read. With the blog format of everything in one stream on the front page, it's inconvenient to tune in at irregular times. I just bring up Slate instead. They've launched a Gonzo-Meter.

I assume that the independent TPM and TPM Muckraker will continue as separate sites, in order to try and capture ad revenue twice. According to Marshall, it's the Muckraker which is up for a redesign. What they could do is present high-level "dashboard": developing scandals, current scandals, past scandals. So many would-be media revolutionaries have missed the revolution in form. There are many novel ways one can present data on the web; the "WebLong" format has persisted for, well, far too long.

While TPM is a great success, the irony is that very little of it is due to technology innovations. It resembles a traditional news media outlet more than it does a blog– it has an editor, they do reporting, they appear to be more cautious about reporting rumors, etc. It's not very much different from a blog hosted by the national political magazine.

And while TPM can cover this scandal, think of the ones they can never get to. The Walter Reed story floated up in Salon last year, but didn't break out until the Post story in February. The media (and us) still rely on dumb luck and expecting to have a dedicated editor dig through hundreds of reader tips. I wonder if such library/indexing work could be automated to some degree by news aggregators like Topix shows 3,000 stories on a search for U.S. Attorneys remove in the last year (searching date ranges is broken). It would take effective tagging, of course, and I still don't know what brought people the impression that "only" blogs can do tagging. I spoke to CEO Rich Skrenta and he doubted that journalists or editors would take the time to tag their stories, as bloggers do. But then again, Topix is owned by a consortium of newspapers. They have an interest in staying relevant– and also, in keeping readers like me from having to do the digging myself.

Update, March 27th – Obviously TPM Muckraker remains the undisputed reference library of the whole affair, with now 227 total posts tagged us_attorneys. 180 posts have come in March, out of 225 total posts (80%). In the 47 days between January 13th and February 28th, there were 47 such tagged posts out 323 total TPM Muckraker posts. A rate of one per day is fair to describe as "on a low boil" as Bob Garfield did in an "On the Media" segment last Friday where Paul Kiel appeared. Yet Kiel again neglected to explain that Senator Feinstein had done the original connecting of the dots. Furthermore, Kiel was asked about the "crowd sourcing" technique. After the Monday night document dump of 3,000 pages from the DoJ, he had asked all his readers to pick a document at random and write back to the forum. He didn't mention to "On the Media" that one commenter discovered within hours that an apparent gap in the documents– 18 days between November 15 and December 7th. Hundreds more posted subsequently, but Kiel missed it in the morning. The first he heard of it was when CNN's Ed Henry and asked White House Press Secretary Tony Snow the next day– and only afterwards did Marshall realize that one of their contributors had spotted it overnight. A call to use a wiki went unheeded. Did Henry steal a peek at the Muckraker? He doesn't have to reveal his sources. Similarly, the discovery that the deputy political directory sent an email from the domain was apparently discovered first by a Muckraker reader on March 13th. But an AP story filed that night reported that fact in an article to hundreds of subscribing papers.

So there's little point crowing about the wisdom of crowds if somebody else is going to tap into it.

Update, August 29th: Two days ago, Alberto Gonzales (whom, incidentally, I had never named in this piece), resigned as a result of the scandal.

Now it may seem like I'm downplaying TPM's role here, and a comment I made in OJR I made in March gave that impression. They did a terrific job; they did not rest on their laurels here. On April 5th, they debuted TPM TV, which they used to cover this scandal and other developments.

I just felt I'd analyze the specific claims as part of the record.

Shortly after this story appeared, Justin Rood called me, and thanked me for my work on this story, and suggested nothing to add or subtract to it.

I do have a follow-up piece on the supposed "wisdom of crowds" effect here.

NY Times Editorials by SDownes

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