For all the commotion, though, the blogosphere didn’t do much to influence the narrative arc of the election. To be sure, right-wing blogs took the lead in debunking the forged documents behind Dan Rather’s 60 Minutes report that questioned George W. Bush’s National Guard service. But despite the frenzied efforts of the blogs to point out the questionable nature of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s claims against John Kerry, those accusations stuck.
“The Dan Rather story was high profile, but that’s dwarfed in comparison to this,” says Chris Redlitz, vice president of marketing with Feedster, a blog search engine.
At most, the election-era blogs were just more voices in the he-said, she-said battle for influence. The buzz was more about the blogosphere’s much-heralded arrival than any notable influence on the election’s outcome.
Fast forward a year, however, and the situation has completely changed. Blogs have taken the lead in providing comprehensive coverage of Katrina’s devastating aftermath in the Gulf Coast, and people are turning to blogs in huge numbers for their Katrina-related news.
“This is by far [our] most-searched term or event to date,” says Blake Rhodes, founder and CEO of IceRocket, a blog search engine based in Dallas, TX, that’s been around for a little over a year.
One critical factor bringing exposure to blogs, ironically, is the mainstream media’s rediscovery of its own teeth. During the presidential election, the media bent over backward to appear unbiased, to the point that it gave unproven allegations such as the Swift Boat Veterans’ attacks on Kerry as much air time and print space as factual assertions.
With Katrina, however, news crews were on the ground, witnessing and reporting the destruction – and the undeniable ineptitude of the early rescue and recovery efforts. So when blogs highlighted the fact that FEMA Director Michael Brown had little previous emergency management experience, for example, the MSM pounced on the information that blogs were supplying, calling spin for what it was.
Likewise, when President Bush said that “no one could have predicted” the levees would fail and New Orleans would flood, the blogosphere jumped into action, producing dozens of articles, studies, and video files that predicted just that, sparking a new round of mainstream news stories.
“The so-called ‘memory hole’ that many politicians of all stripes have relied upon is now closed,” says Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor of interactive telecommunications at NYU. “The blogosphere has become the institutional memory for the country.”
Through the terrible aftermath of Katrina, we are witnessing the legitimization of a new medium, one that provides alternatives to or supplements what’s available through the MSM. Blogs have made a leap toward legitimacy: a story is now a story whether it originates on a blog or on CNN. The medium is no longer the message. The message, in fact, is now the message.