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Who has power over the fourth power?

Blogs demystify journalism and dictate the news

laura teixeiraIt all began with a computer programmer named John Barger who, bored with his work, but excessively self-confident in his opinions, resolved “to post” on the internet a little note about his website in which he commented, in a very personal manner, on the progress of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Little by little, he went on to speak about everything else and, gaining a liking for the idea, he continued to daily update his personal “column”. Baptized as a “web-log” or “on board the net diary”, the term caught on and, shortly after, another colleague, joking about the ring of the word (he wrote his as “wee-blog”), ended up coining the term: blog.

A decade later, the federal deputy Roberto Jefferson, in the middle of his testimony to the Chamber’s Ethics Committee, nervous, re-invented the word by screaming: “Blig do Noblat! Bomba!” [Blig from Noblat! A bombshell!] after having read the note that had been passed to him. The polemic parliamentarian was referring to the political blog of the journalist Ricardo Noblat, who had anticipated the interview of the secretary of the then unknown Marcos Valério to the weekly magazine IstoÉ Dinheiro.

Barger’s arrogant lack of what to do, created a powerful mechanism. CPIs (Parliamentary Investigation Committees) were interrupted by parliamentarians who re-transmitted information obtained in political blogs. “The internet gave life to the coverage of the mensalão (monthly payments to parliamentarians) crisis. Today all of the world works with a computer switched on. This was a crisis in real time”, analyzes the journalist Nelson de Sá, responsible for the column All the Media of the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. The expression “all the world” is not merely rhetoric. According to recent research of the specialized website Technorati, more than 38 million blogs exist on the internet and this number doubles each six months: on average, a new weblog is created every second of the day. The current volume is 60 times greater than that of three years ago. The new universe gained the daring nickname of “blogosphere”. “This structure brings fundamental differences to the communication process”, observes  Alessandra Aldé, a researcher from Iuperj and a professor at Uerj, one of the few academics to be inclined towards the study of the phenomenon of blogs, and especially those of opinion.

“One is dealing with a diffused and capillary emission, fundamentally non-hierarchical, in which alternative emitters and marginal political actors attempt to produce newsworthy events, looking to attract the public’s attention, be it specialized as of journalists or of the curious or interested. Its use as a source has turned the internet into a new field of political dispute.” Literally speaking. The secretary of international relations of the PT (Workers’ Party), Valter Pomar, recently released divulged a text to the party’s militants, inviting them to “accompany the sites, blogs and relationship communities providing information”, in order to, in his words, “combat the ‘dirty war’ that will occur on the internet during this election”. Even at that, marketing experts and politicians are as yet not unanimous in their evaluation of the growing importance of the internet as a source of political decision.

There are, however, many examples, here and abroad, that can change this picture. “The internet reaches a ‘Belgium’ of internauters and builds the motor of the dissemination of opinions in Brazilian society and what happens by way of the capacity of this segment to influence the agenda and the focuses that the major media, above all the TV, print on the base. The ‘Battle of the Belgium’ on the internet is going to define the election this year”, evaluates the sociologist Antônio Lavareda. In the United States and Europe, battles of this type have already caused important loses. In 2002, the Republican Senate leader, Trent Lott, made racist comments during a birthday party. The major media ignored the fact, accustomed to improper comments from the senator. The blogosphere, however, did not forgive him and denounced Lott on the internet in such a vigorous manner that, a week after the fateful birthday party, the press saw itself obliged to return to the theme and the Republican fell into disgrace. Last year the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, conceded an interview to the blog reporter Louis Le Meur, attacking immigrants. His words ran through the internet and were responsible for the wave of violence in the suburbs of Paris.

Compared to the major players of public life (interest groups, political committees, the media), the blogs, if one were to look at them closely, seem to have little power or even little visibility, even more in societies with a high index of digital exclusion. There may even exist a large number of them, but experience shows that only ‘an elite’ are the catalyst for information on the blogosphere. Even at that, who today can take the liberty of despising its role, fundamental, in the political forum, moving the political life of major nations?”, questions  Daniel Drezer, from the University of Chicago, author of, The power and politics of blogs. In Brazil these effects have a potential as yet unknown, but, most certainly, nothing despicable. “The Brazilians, after the major mobilizations for re-democratization in the decade of the 1980’s, have become disillusioned with politics, which to them seems as something distant to be left to the specialists”, says Alessandra Aldé. Even at that, the researcher believes, there is the necessity of justification, even for themselves, of their opinions about the political universe, that makes the Brazilians more attentive to the legitimizing speeches that simplify the complexity of politics.

“The media comes forward here as a signposted road that proposes an authorized organization of events. To a large extent, television brings a repertoire of easy access and large credibility, but there exists a latent demand, which is not attended to, for information and participation in public life. In this case, audience criteria are of no interest, but certainly political criteria, in coherence with the democratic norm that was chosen”, she explains. In her opinion, the internet can attend to this demand by being a vehicle that is more democratic than the traditional mass media. “Blog people are speakers and writers of their own invention, in general in the public sphere. They’re participating in the major game of influencing public opinion and are developing within this movement, in general the fruit of a work of passion without any remuneration, a media instrument of the most democratic fashion”, agrees Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University.

laura teixeira“Traditional journalism frustrates and has its importance of being by the same reason: it is an institution with all of the machinery to check, edit and distribute information. In order to keep this working for such a long time, it created the label of ‘trustworthy, credibility, visibility’, difficult to overcome”, she analyzes. For Rosen, nevertheless, this rigidity has ended up revealing the fallacy that is the virtue of the major press: impartiality.

“In the manner in which it is being constructed today, this objectivity makes the media be easily manipulated by an executive arm that controls the message and produces rigid orthodoxy, excluding whatever voice that is not conventional.”Many laughed at Nelson Rodrigues when he criticized the arrival in journalism of the ‘idiotic objectivity’ “. The ‘reactionary’ came sooner and went further. “The Roman Empire that was the media is destroyed and we’re entering into an almost feudal era, in which there will be many centers of power and influence”, evaluates Orville Schell, a professor of journalism of the University of California. “For years, the media tossed away great professionals, believing that this wouldn’t change anything in the business. Many of them became bloggers and stimulated previous readers to do the same. Now the hegemony of journalism as the guardian of news is threatened, not by new technologies not by rivals, as had been imagined up until now, but, potentially, by the public to whom it must serve: the reader, transformed into writer, journalist and editor”, says  Rosen.

Even Ricardo Noblat himself, one of the most influential and internet accessed bloggers, is proof of this newsroom mistake. In 2004, he was the author of a page of political command in the newspaper O Dia. When his news was published in the paper it had already been outdated. Noblat, in spite of his little knowledge about technology and computing, accepted to set up a blog so as not to lose his news items, and when the column was extinct, saw that the public had been giving him prestige in a growing manner, with comments and information, for his electronic journalism. In the height of the political crisis, his page was being accessed by more than 700,000 internauters. Besides, the politicians had regulated their opinions by way of his blog. And not only them, but, above all, the very press itself. “The means favors this encounter. The blogosphere is a cheap way of communication for the blogger to express his ideas and to be even more in contact with third parties to use the information that they place on the blogs. The traditional media, called by the bloggers the ‘mediasphere’, in this movement ended up working as current transmitter between the blogosphere and the powerful political players. The blogs affect the political debate to the extent that they affect the content of reporting by the conventional media and their comments about politics”, analyzes professor Drezner.

“Nevertheless, as well as being an important means of direct communication, through access by a cognitive elite, qualified by access to the means of mass communication, the internet has contributed to the specialized access of spreaders of news such as journalists, who monitor content in search of stories and newsworthy events, contributing so that the technological imagery that involves the network goes much beyond its users rights”, evaluates Alessandra. The researcher recalls the Chinese example, in which there was government investment into a system of virtual persuasion, with a task force of on-line commentators whose mission was to anonymously influence the opinion of the internet users, in the forums of discussion, related to controversial political themes, in a universe of 100 million internauters. Not always, however, is this democratization manipulated. “In terms of public debate, this transformation tends to stabilize and pluralize the relations of knowledge and authority present in the construction of opinions and political attitudes of citizens. The blogs, people and journalists, raise the readers to contributors in this privileged cyberspace of the building of public opinion”, she observes.

laura teixeira“If the traditional media build focal points by which the political players operate, the blogosphere is capable of doing the same thing with the format through which the media operates. The blogs are read as a barometer of the interest in a given theme. If the readers-writers of the blog concentrate themselves on something, this, most certainly, will interest the media, which will be affected through consensus, in the same manner that public opinion is affected by the media”, saysr. The equation, “happened, became headline” is now transforming itself into “if so many are interested, lets make it a headline”. The function of journalism is demystified. “There is a change in the relationship between the journalist and the reader, since the latter is invited to participate. A blog that doesn’t stimulate reactions on the part of its readers is not very successful.Thus the expectation of the journalist as an authorized intermediary who processes information for the readers and makes it intelligible for them supposedly situated (is broken, a situation that had put them) on a less privileged step on the scale of knowledge is broken”, noted researcher Alessandra. “With the blog, the journalist’s position, on the contrary, is humble and subjective, since it depends on the return of his readers”, she completes. Informality and subjectivity are the tonic of the journalistic blogs. Errors are committed in a posting and corrected in the next, reputations are dissected in a paragraph and put back together in the next. The ‘cooking’ of a news item is open to visitations.

“Contrary to the edition of a diary, whose material is going to be modified throughout the day, even being discarded before reaching the reader, in on-line journalism the process of finding out, reporting and checking of facts happens in real time and is accompanied by the readers who have access to a greater variety of fragmented information and alternative sources”, recalls Alessandra. The blogosphere, without the restrictions of space of the traditional means of communication, is transforming itself into a rare combination of shared knowledge, collective reaction to news, a barometer of public opinion, (the capacity to regulate whether a certain news item should be receiving more or less attention by the conventional means, and the rapidity of information.

National News (Jornal Nacional)
Whoever wants to know the result of a recent electoral poll does not have to wait until the end of the National News to know the result. The political blogs advance and comment even before the previously quick television and are a long way ahead of the following day newspapers. What is the price for this?

A good example was the 2002 election, the first in Brazil in which the internet played a relevant political role, strategically used by the candidates to provoke news in real time that would end up being amplified by the media, reinforcing attacks that, in another manner, would not have had such visibility. Various candidates used their pages on the network to release doubtful information, unkind jingles, to set off direct confrontations, to confuse the head of the elector about a rival’s agenda etc., combustible material that would not stay on the net for more than a few hours, but would end up with wide repercussions on the pages of newspapers or on TV news programs.

The political marketing permits a widening of the target audience and a lowering of campaign costs, at the same time avoiding any direct reaction from the Electoral Justice, more alert to what is passing in the conventional means of electoral transmission. “The accompaniment of facts in real time allows for a continual coverage in which the readers participate in the unfolding of the reporting. If it is  scandalous or soap opera like, with denials and repercussions at every moment, there will be is more chance of keeping the reader linked to the electronic bulletin board to the last second”, says Alessandra.

Thus, making use of the “viral effect” (the news item is placed on the internet and passed on through an e-mail chain of geometrical progression) of the network or the amplification of a small rumor by the media, the politicians learned to manipulate the blogosphere. To a certain extent, they gave a push for the arrival of the blogs of the mensalão crisis, which must always be read with caution, considering that, the rule of “listening to the other side” does not exist in them, although one must eulogize its format for it privileges the coexistence with the “different”. “Contrary to the means such as television that, by reaching a more universal public, sees itself forced to find common denominators, the public of the blogs is confronted with the differences, with content not necessarily produced for it, in such a manner that the emitter trusts in the possibility that his informational content awakens interest in a determined audience, even if it is restricted or far-off.”, explains Alessandra.

The researcher emphasized that the blogs pride themselves in argument and value the disagreement of opinions and publish the fact that they expose themselves there without worrying about (others) preferences of others, even demanding that the readers-writers-editors express themselves. An ideologically editorialized blog runs the risk of remaining with a restricted group of readers, which signifies, in terms of blogosphere, death in life. A problem confronted, for example, by the North American bloggers is its “transformation into mainstream”. Various independent bloggers were adopted by newspapers or vehicles of the traditional media and today these bloggers are losing their rebelliousness, their contester and innovator character, having been integrated into conventional politics, and (are) ended up making up part of the institutions that they should be criticizing. In Brazil, all of the important bloggers are linked to media institutions.

Nevertheless, one must not throw out the baby with the bath water, even when the baby is not always one of the most trustworthy. “When a blogger interviews an author about his book, this is journalism. When an opinion columnist manipulates facts to create a wrong impression, this is not journalism. When a blogger ferrets out facts and discovers that the statement of a public figure is false, this is journalism. When a reporter repeats the same affirmations without taking the time to check if they’re true, this in not journalism”, says Rosen. Gore Vidal had previously advised: “Half of Americans don’t have a critical eye when reading the news. Half of Americans don’t vote for their President. I hope that they’re the same half.”