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Ryan Kawailani Ozawa

Sunday, November 14, 2004


Whither the weblog

No doubt about it, bloggers took a flogging last week. On both the national and local levels, independent, online publishers made bold moves against the mainstream media this past election season. But on Nov. 3, many on the Internet side of the aisle had stumbled, and the big guns had no qualms about getting in a few kicks.

On Election Day, weblogs gleefully leaked early, raw exit poll numbers. The figures suggested a possible John Kerry landslide. But even though everyone was talking about it, the national mainstream media didn't touch it.

In the end, the real numbers trumped the poll numbers, and George Bush won. "Real" journalists knew better.

Locally, HawaiiReporter.com -- a news and commentary Web site -- turned up court records and assorted allegations targeting the wife of mayoral candidate Duke Bainum. The story spread across the Internet like wildfire. But even though everyone was talking about it, the local mainstream media didn't touch it.

And in the end ... well, the last chapter has yet to be written. We do know a strong Bainum lead evaporated in a matter of days, and Mufi Hannemann squeaked out a very late win. And everyone, from political analysts to Mayor Jeremy Harris, has now placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of a nebulous, mysterious "smear."

Only after the fact, local TV news teams devoted a few seconds of their post-election coverage to assert that the story about Bainum's wife "did not meet the standards for broadcast." The Star-Bulletin published a note to its readers explaining its decision to pass on it. Whether aimed directly at HawaiiReporter.com or bloggers in general, their message was clear: "Real" journalists knew better. But did they?

After working hard to pretend the HawaiiReporter.com story didn't exist, interview after interview mentioned it as pivotal in the mayor's race. Many viewers and readers were left with the impression that there was something worth knowing and that they weren't allowed to know it.

The real story here is that the work of an independent Internet site -- a virtual news outfit -- had a tangible impact on the real world.

We all know the power of the press is immense. But until recently, ordinary citizens couldn't get much closer to that power than a library photocopier. Now, the advent of the Internet and cheap online publishing tools have empowered the "person on the street" to reach an audience of millions with the click of a mouse.

That's a good thing -- and a bad thing.

While the mainstream press has gotten some black eyes lately, it has the resources to dedicate to things like fact-checking, editing and legal hand-wringing. It's based on a profession with considerable training, standards and ethical codes. And it still has to earn its credibility -- the disappearance of a media outlet's audience would mean the outlet's disappearance altogether.

Digital journalism has far fewer barriers and relies less on a fickle public. You can publish anything you want, and you can keep publishing even if only your mom is reading.

Yes, some bloggers are way out there, dealing only in conspiracy theories and gossip. But many are trained journalists or specialists in their fields. They take what they do seriously. Those are the bloggers that people tend to read.

And yes, bloggers often take advantage of the freedom to be unapologetically partisan. But while this bias diminishes credibility for some, others find it refreshing.

Instead of completely ignoring the allegations against Bainum's wife, the local press could have at least acknowledged their existence and their impact on the mayoral race (which, we know now, is newsworthy). The people should be left to decide on their own whether it -- and its source -- was relevant and credible.

After all, that's how it's supposed to work with any story.

Digital journalism clearly has a place in the media landscape. It's only the size and shape of its footprint that remains to be seen.


Ryan Kawailani Ozawa's Web world includes HawaiiNews.com, HawaiiThreads.com and HawaiiStories.com.

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