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Katrina: A Defining Moment for Blogs

First-person accounts, rapid-fire fact checking, and a mainstream media that’s paying attention – the blogosphere has arrived, for real this time.

Michael Barnett didn’t ask to be a front-line reporter for the biggest natural disaster ever to befall America. But when he opted to stay in the Crescent City to work for his employer, web hosting company DirectNIC, that’s just what he became.

Barnett’s blog, The Interdictor, had previously been a “private little journal,” according to Barnett. But when he began chronicling Katrina’s destruction and the terrible aftermath, it became a lot more.

Currently, tens of thousands of readers a day visit it. “I get thousands of instant messages an hour, I can’t keep up with them,” he writes in the blog.

Barnett’s blog is just one of tens of thousands of blogs covering Katrina’s aftermath. In the blog coverage, readers have heard first-person accounts such as Barnett’s of surviving and surveying the damage, or have read of the maddening frustration that a small group of volunteers has experienced in trying to set up an FCC-sanctioned, low-power radio station inside Houston’s Astrodome.

Blogs have allowed displaced New Orleanians to view satellite images of the city overlayed with first-hand descriptions of damage at specific locations. “A friend of mine from New Orleans was able to see one of these maps and read some damage descriptions and she realized the floodwaters had stopped about 20 feet from her house,” says Xeni Jardin, co-editor of the influential blog Boing Boing.

What’s more, blogs have jumped to the fore in shaping the mainstream media’s coverage of the hurricane aftermath. Indeed, bloggers have served as a legion of fact checkers for political claims and spin efforts.

As such, the Hurricane Katrina disaster is the defining moment for the blogosphere – the first time it has truly become enmeshed in the media landscape, rather than relegated to curiosity status.

Of course, pundits have said at other moments in recent history that blogs were finally coming into their own, only to see their influence dwindle after some momentous event passed.

When the Democratic convention invaded Boston in July 2004, much of the talk among media observers centered around the new kids on the bus: the bloggers. For the first time, select bloggers were awarded press credentials to a political convention, allowing the writers behind Talking Points Memo and the Daily Kos to rub elbows with hardened political reporters such as the New York Times’ R.W. Apple Jr. and ABC’s Ted Koppel.

Select bloggers were admitted to the GOP convention in September as well. The hoopla around blogging’s role in the 2004 presidential election culminated in Ana Marie Cox’s famous appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with Apple and columnist Jack Germond (Cox is the irreverent political and cultural blogger behind Wonkette).

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.  

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