blogenlust
2.01.2005

All You Have To Do Is Ask


In an editorial in yesterday's StarTribune, Camille Gage sounds a note of caution over using blogs as a primary source of news. This caution resulted from a recent run-in with John Hinderaker, of the popular conservative blog Powerline. From the editorial:
As a graduate student in public affairs at the University of Minnesota, I recently heard an in-class presentation by John Hinderaker, who, with partner Scott Johnson, runs the Powerline blog. Powerline played a role in breaking the Rathergate affair and was recently named "Blog of the Year" by Time magazine. Prior to Hinderaker's presentation, the week before the November elections, I visited the Powerline site. To my surprise an Oct. 27 post covered alleged voter fraud in Racine, Wis., my hometown. The charges involved the registering of illegal aliens to vote. The story seemed outrageous, so I made a few phone calls to check it out. What I discovered was troubling. There was no factual basis for the voter fraud allegations. Powerline posted the story based on the word of a single individual employed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). This was hearsay at best, posted as "news" at a time when voter registration efforts by the Democrats and 527 groups were coming under fire by conservatives. At class I asked Hinderaker if posts to Powerline were fact-checked. He was dismissive of the question, so I asked if he was aware that the Racine voter fraud story was inaccurate. He stated that he was not, slapped his hands together and stated that the blogosphere was all about speed and therefore did not allow for fact-checking. Mr. Hinderaker went on to say, "Our readers let us know when we get it wrong." And therein lies the cautionary Catch-22: Bloggers may serve as media watchdogs, but who will watch the blogs? Do you have time to fact-check what you read online?
It's a good question, and one that bloggers and journalists should be weighing when they post stories or run with something they read on a blog (and I speak from experience on this!). Unfortunately, though, instead of using Gage's article as a starting block for a discussion on blogs and journalism, many conservative bloggers have turned to attacking Gage and impugning her credibility. Some examples are here, here, and here. Hinderaker even went so far as to call Gage a "miscreant" and criticized her for not elaborating on who she contacted and what information she found in order to conclude that there wasn't any factual basis to the story. He also added:
We are, of course, preparing a response. It will focus, I think, on the fact-checking that the Strib did before they printed Ms. Gage's attack on us. I talked to Commentary Editor Eric Ringham today, and he acknowledged that the Strib didn't do any fact-checking at all before they accused us of not fact-checking. That's right: None. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. And Ms. Gage, if that's really her name, has no knowledge about the voter fraud scandal which has now resulted in a federal criminal investigation.
And then, in an update, he notes that Gage gave money to the Dean campaign, as though that actually means anything. Now I understand that in Hinderaker's world, things move fast, and there isn't anytime for fact-checking, so I took two minutes and emailed Gage about who she contacted and what information she discovered. She was kind enough to respond with the notes she used for the story, which I've pasted below with her permission:
I began by calling Tom Farley, the news editor at the Racine Journal Times. Mr. Farley had no knowledge of the allegations. He pointed out that there is no city position with the title "Deputy Registrar of Voters" (what the post cited). He stated the City Clerk's office dealt with voter registration and suggested I call the Carolynn Moskonas, the Racine County Clerk. I then called Ms. Moskonas at the City Clerks office. She was unaware of this matter. Ms. Moskonas explained to me that at the direction of the state legislature, volunteers involved in voter registrations drives must attend a training. They are then considered "deputy registrars." I decided to go to the source of the allegations and contacted Susan Tully, Midwest field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). I told her I was a student researching allegations of voter fraud. I asked her if she would name the individual or group in question. She declined to name the individual, but said the group was Voces de la Frontera, a group that works with Hispanic immigrants. I asked her directly how she knew the individual in question was an illegal immigrant and asked if she had spoken to them. She quickly admitted that she did not actually know if the individual in question was an illegal alien. I asked her when the alleged voter fraud occurred. She informed me the incidents took place in August and September, 2004. I then asked her which law enforcement agency she contacted and she told me she had called the FBI. I then did an internet search on Voces de la Frontera. The first hit was a recent press release, released jointed by Wisconsin Citizen Action and Voces de la Frontera regarding their successful voter registration drive. I called Nathan Sooy, the contact listed on the press release. I asked Mr. Sooy if had was aware of these allegations. He informed me that this was the first he had heard about it. I asked him if they had been contacted by the State Elections Board, the Secretary of State or any other law enforcement agency regarding these charges and he said that neither Wisconsin Citizen Action nor Voces de la Frontera had been contacted.
After reading her notes, it's not hard to conclude that there really isn't any factual evidence as Gage claimed in her article. If Hinderaker, et. al. really had a problem with Gage's allegation, all they had to do was send her an email and ask her nicely to verify the source and information. But, clearly it was far easier for them to impugne her credibility than to take a few minutes to check her story out (Hinderaker says he contacted the StarTribune, but why not directly contact Gage?) And this, in my opinion, is one of blogging's biggest problems: too often blind partisanship overtakes sound reasoning, and the result is misinformation under the guise of "information you won't hear on CNN or Fox!!" Both the Right and Left are guilty of this, and I think it's the most important point of Gage's article.