Online media is assuming the role of watchdog. Watching media this week cover the latest breaking news in the 2001 anthrax case, I bet Glenn Greenwald's hounding of the media coverage of this story will raise online journalism coverage to new heights and I bet he might be up for award nominations in 2009 as the mediasphere shifts to new investigative reporting levels online.
Greenwald, previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and now a contributing writer at Salon, has picked up on the anthrax story (here, here and here) and he asks important questions about media sources and reporting of the story, sparking other online journalists to pursue this story that the mainstream media isn't covering. Anonymous sources and Greenwald's spotlight on this issue has brought other journalist's journalists, such as New York University Journalism Professor Jay Rosen, to ask questions about mainstream/corporate media outlet ABC and the handling of the original story. Lapdog journalism is what the media has been accused of being after 9/11. Online media has taken over the role of watchdog. This shift is the news I'm watching.
Online investigative reporting? Investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna lists the finalists for the 2008 Online Journalism Awards that were just out this week. She has highlighted the small online sites that have been cited for investigative awards. In reviewing the finalists, few small sites are listed for award categories and it is notable that they have been in the investigative journalism category. She had an interesting early angle on the anthrax story (on September 12, 2001 New York was scheduled to host a joint "war game" about a bio-weapons incident in NYC).
ProPublica is a new non-profit online investigative journalism site, started because of the lack of such coverage in mainstream corporate for-profit media, and I checked the site out to see what they might be covering on this week's anthrax investigation and, sure enough, they are leading today with an anthrax story by Eric Umansky that is very different from what you are getting with the mainstream media coverage.
New Media watching Old Media (the new watchdogs in the world of journalists): For voting issue news I watch Brad Friedman's blog which was highlighted by a NYU journalism professor who spoke to our New School political communciations class in NYC. I checked with his stories on the anthrax case and see he is covering the story that the Washington Post scrubbed an article that cast doubt on reported 'anthrax killer' case:
We're glad it's the Washington Post, and not just us "bloggers," asking questions about this anthrax case. Had we been the ones pointing to the questions that WaPo is now pointing to, we'd have been accused of forwarding "just another conspiracy theory" and the notable questions raised might have been relegated to the trash-bin of history.
Since it's WaPo raising the questions, on the other hand, the trash-bin will take an extra day or two to fill up, but we suspect the results may eventually be the same: Legend will have it that the lone "Anthrax Killer," Bruce E. Ivins, killed himself just before he was to be indicted on capital murder charges. Case closed on the previously-unsolved deadly series of terrorist attacks that occurred on American soil since 9/11.
That said, it's certainly odd the way that WaPo has been covering this story. While their top story on page A1 today is headlined "Scientists Question FBI's Probe of Anthrax Attacks" and sub-titled "Ivins Could Not Have Been Attacker, Some Say," the paper nonetheless managed to scrub from their website --- or at least completely replace --- a story they ran originally on Friday afternoon questioning the same points (whether Ivins had the means, ability, or access to the dry, weaponized anthrax used in the attack letters against senior Democratic Senators and other perceived "liberals") with another that greatly softened concerns about those questions.
No retraction or correction notice --- unethically, in our opinion --- was given for WaPo's odd swaperoo.
Today "many details of the FBI's work remain fuzzy," the Washington Post writes about the $10 million FBI investigation that "launched a new field of forensic science" (microbial forensics). Would mainstream media be as questioning of sources if feet weren't being held to the fire by watchdogs? Again, WaPo cites unnamed sources in the same article: Sources have said that as many as 10 people worked with Ivins and could have handled his material. Another page A1 WaPo story today pokes holes in official stories and raises questions -- a move away from reporting in stenographic fashion the news as authorities report it to media. Lapdogs and watchdogs. So I'm following the WashingtonPost now, too, as it questions and pokes.
Much of media has become an echo chamber and it is confusing to understand the real life mysteries and the truth of the matters. update: Columbia Journalism Review has weighed in asking ABC to step up and review their actions in terms of player-or-pawn in the matter of the 2003 anthrax reporting. This boils down to transparency, truth and anonymous sources - CJR has a good summary. For investigative journalism and this story I give you these online investigative journalist links, emphasizing primarily Greenwald who is staying with this, latest link here.
update 2: ABC did respond and notes that the coverage of the anthrax case would make a good case study for journalism classes. Meryl Nass, M.D., who works with anthrax vaccines, looks at the story here. A good media study would be the anthrax story post 9/11 versus the media coverage, traditional and new media, now. A lapdog press then, but watchdog now, pushed by bloggers?