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The Blogosphere, the Media and the Truth: Can we Get It from Fox News or MSNBC?

It was one of those ironies that the new issue of The Atlantic, which features the brilliant article “The Story Behind the Story” by Mark Bowden, arrives just after ACORN, Van Jones, and Yossi Sergant were brought down by bloggers, young conservative activists and talk-show hosts on Fox News. What Bowden deals with is the amazing debate that took place during the period that Judge Sonia Sotomayor was preparing for her Senate hearings prior to her Supreme Court confirmation.

We all recall watching on virtually every news station -- not only cable but the MSM key outlets -- her remarks at a Duke University panel in 2005 and a speech at Berkeley Law School in 2001, at which the then Circuit Court judge said that her identity as a “Latina woman” made her judgment superior to that of a “white male.” At the Duke panel she seemed to say that appellate judges make policy, and then followed that with these words: “I know this is on tape and I should never say that, because we don’t make law, I know,” at which her law school audience all laughed.

It was these remarks that led many conservatives to oppose her and caused many to argue that Sotomayor was not going to be the moderate she claimed to be. How did these videos get to the stations immediately after it was announced that Obama picked her as his choice? The answer is that it came not from scores of network or news reporters combing through files, but from one conservative blogger in particular. He is Morgan Richmond, a man who runs a computer consulting business and blogs during his spare time as a hobby at the relatively unknown website VerumSerum.com, which he runs with a Christian conservative, John Sexton.  His goal was, Bowden writes, “to develop original stories that attract attention” and would resonate, not to damage the candidate.

Usually his website gets 30 readers a day. Yet what he uncovered, after going through long tedious tapes of the judge speaking at the two law schools, would soon be known in almost every American household, at least those who watch at least one news program. Every news program ran his tapes and never verified their accuracy, or checked to see if Sotomayor’s remarks were made in context. Nor did they cite the source of the videos, thereby, as Bowden says, “abdicating its responsibility to do its own reporting.” Thus, he writes, “several hours of Internet snooping by Richmond at his upstairs computer wound up shaping the public’s perception of Sonia Sotomayor.”

Critics portrayed her as a racist and liberal activist, which Bowden, and even Richmond, now acknowledge was not accurate. Richmond told him: “She’s really fairly moderate, compared to some of the other candidates on Obama’s list ... she really wasn’t all that bad.”

Bowden says in conclusion that we now live in a “post-journalistic” world, in which our democracy is in a constant political battleground. Bloggers exist to help one side or the other, which leads to what Bowden sees as “distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context,” which do not bother the bloggers, since they are simply ammunition for their own chosen side. Truth is simply what comes out of whoever wins a particular battle — it is winning that is key, not who is right. This, Bowden argues, is not journalism.

What he despairs is the result that we have more propaganda, and not news, with no room for compromise. Hence he asks a key question:  “Isn’t there, in fact middle ground in most public disputes?” Can’t one weigh public good against factional goals? Can’t we decide the public interest in other than through a “partisan lens,” in which “politics becomes blood sport”?