Bloggers Rush In Where Dailies Fear to Tread
Daily papers have lost a lot of their authority to decide what's news. A story they refuse to cover will get to the public some other way, and if the dailies don't lead the discussion it'll go on just fine without them.
A couple of weeks ago the sexual orientation of the daughter of Alan Keyes became various bloggers' new hot subject. As I write this column, the Tribune and Sun-Times have published nothing on it. They've stood on principle, and the principle is hard to fault. They saw signs that Maya Keyes, only 19, dreaded the attention they were thinking of paying her. There is, after all, a big difference between her playing with the subject of lesbian romance on a Web site read by a few friends and having it exposed to the world. When bloggers began calling attention to www.xanga.com, the site where they said she posted her blog, the intimate material they'd noticed there promptly disappeared.
Furthermore, it's not Maya who's running for the U.S. Senate. Her father has made his position on gays stridently clear, and there's no evidence his daughter caused him to either alter that position or apply a double standard. The ruminations posted on xanga.com suggest Keyes didn't spare his daughter the judgment of "selfish hedonist" he imposed on the daughter of Vice President Cheney.
Besides, what compelling news interest would coverage serve? Alan Keyes will be lucky next month to get 25 percent of the vote. The dish on his daughter would make no difference. And then there was always the possibility of a hoax--though neither Keyes has alleged one and regular readers of xanga.com seem to have no doubts.
So the dailies stood their ground while the story washed around them. UPI put out a short item that made its way into a New York Daily News gossip column. There were mentions on the radio and TV. Carbondale's Southern Illinoisan, covering a September 30 Keyes rally in Metropolis, reported that "things became heated...when Keyes was asked when it would be the right time to address his daughter's sexuality." Keyes's response, said the newspaper, was to blame the media for "scandal-mongering nonsense," to long for the day when "there were some lines you didn't cross, some standards that you observed, some decency you actually honored," and to accuse journalists of becoming "a gaggle of propagandists promoting their own personal views at the expense of truth." Keyes has been asked about his daughter more often than that, but newspapers rarely write stories about questions that don't get answered.
Rich Miller, publisher of the newsletter "Capitol Fax," reported on September 30: "Almost every Chicago political reporter is currently and actively pursuing the Keyes controversy, and his refusal to talk about it is starting to drive them a little crazy. You can see it in their stories. They're champing at the bit, eager to find the hook that justifies blowing this thing wide open. Most of them are also sensitive about the daughter, but this thing is obviously driving them nuts. Millions of people already know about this, but they're not allowed to report it."
On Sunday, October 3, political columnist Kristen McQueary of the Daily Southtown named names. She described the online diary of a young woman "wedged between her deeply religious parents, her Catholicism and her heart." She described a photo she'd found online of two young women kissing. "It's pretty obvious...Maya is the black woman in the photo."
The Daily Southtown's Phil Kadner had Maya Keyes on his mind when he composed a column that didn't mention her. "The world of tomorrow belongs to the bloggers," he wrote on September 30. "Almost every major political scandal in the past year was first reported on a Web site. Often, citizens call reporters for traditional news outlets demanding to know why they haven't printed their own versions of the Internet stories. Here's the truth about that: We're slow. We check the facts. We call both sides and give them a chance to respond....We don't just pass on the unverified information that someone else turns out."
But Kadner sounded less vain than defeated. Bloggers, he concluded, are "the folks setting the news agenda. And you probably don't have a clue who any of them are."
Here's one of the passages from xanga.com that attracted the attention of other bloggers. Now removed, it had been posted in early September: "In another rather amusing anecdote, I have now had three separate people come up and offer me their support! First, at a parade in Kankakee county I was standing while my dad greeted people, and every few people would come up and ask if I was his daughter and tell me how much they loved him....Then another guy sidled up rather discreetly and said 'Um, excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt, but I'm assuming you're family?' So I glued on another smile and said 'Yes, I'm his daughter...' to which he said 'No, no...I mean...you're...family...'
"There was a brief moment of 'We're in the middle of a bunch of republicans out away from Chicago in Illinois he can't mean--' confusion before I realized yes, he'd noticed my rainbow everything and he did mean family like that...so I said yes and he gave me literature for his queer youth group and said he figured it must be tough on me but they were behind me and I should stop by sometime.
"Then, I was out at lunch at Chili's with my dad and his aide and our adorable gay waiter stopped me when I was coming out of the bathroom to say how much he liked my bright rainbow bracelets. He then told me he understood how hard it could be being queer in a conservative family and I should hang in there.
"Then again today in Naperville some random queer boy in passing shook my hand and told me that 'Lots of us are pulling for you, be strong, be proud!'
"So...wow. I never realized I had supporters!"
The dailies like to think they don't traffic in gossip--at least not at the expense of the innocent--and if gossip had been the extent of the bloggers' reaction to xanga.com, the dailies' silence would look irreproachable by comparison. But the blogs became a public forum for the same sort of serious debate over Maya Keyes that the papers allowed no one to participate in but their editors. At illinoisleader.com, a conservative site that champions Alan Keyes, someone wrote: "Funny, I don't remember anyone here 'circling the wagons' to protect Mary Cheney. I don't remember anyone calling Keyes statements about Mary Cheney a 'non-issue.' All of you fell over yourselves to defend Alan last month by pointing out that he was right--homosexuality is a sin and it was about time a politician had the guts to say so. Now you sound like a bunch of Halsted Street liberals claiming that Keyes' newfound silence is justified and his daughter's sexual preference (nobody's saying 'perversion' anymore, either) is her own business."
A poster at dailykos.com argued: "Maya's not running for office. The only thing her outing accomplishes is demonstrating that Democrats are now adopting the smear tactics that have worked so well for the GOP in recent years. We're supposed to be better than that." A rejoinder appeared at chillinois.blogspot.
com: "Maya Keyes appears in these entries to be an articulate, passionate, and publicly out lesbian. She has no problem with people knowing about her. As long as Alan is going to be featuring pictures of his cherubic family on his campaign website, and as long as Maya is working for his campaign, the fact that she and her father don't exactly see eye to eye on the question of homosexuality is pertinent information."
Xanga.com made its own comment. "My quiet internet refuge has been the victim of a sudden, unexpected, and extremely ungraceful invasion," the blog said as of September 29. "All I have to say to you new arrivals is, please. This house wasn't really designed to host such large parties, but if you must stay, take off your shoes before you enter. We don't want to track mud through my newly-polished floors...
"Some of my friends have been highly amused at the idea of so many adults examining so intensely the disjointed ramblings that a 15 (/16/17/18) year old posts to her friends through high school. I have to admit that, had my 15 year old self realized she was going to be subject to public scrutiny, she might have tried harder to be less of a teenager...
"Finally, I shall leave you all with an excerpt from what was by far the most amusing email I've received through all of this insanity. I quote it here because it made me laugh (no small task, at the moment) and hopefully it might make you do the same. The email came from Xxxx Xxxxx, a reporter at the Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx, who was looking for Maya Keyes. Its conclusion read: 'I know it's a difficult time but if you want to talk, email me or call me at 312-222-#### or my cell phone at 312-259-####...'
"Now, when life gets trying, I of course do what I'm sure each and every one of you would do too: Run out and search for the nearest available reporter. I thank Mr. Xxxxx for his concern, but the amusement he provided me with far outweighs any possible counseling he might have proposed to provide."
Friends of Maya Keyes also heard from Mr. Xxxxx. Complaining about reporters who "hound teenagers to try to leach intimate details on the lives of their friends," someone calling himself "Jerry King" outed him as John Chase, who's covering the Senate race for the Tribune.
Chase's letter gave the blogging public a clue that the dailies were monitoring the saga of Maya Keyes from the sidelines. Another was the blog maintained by Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. He didn't write a word about her, but on September 28 he posted the headline "The News Story the Tribune Won't Touch." He went on, "I refer, of course, to 'Bears medallions flying out of stores,' the Sun-Times' page-12 news story about how gosh-darn well the newspaper's souvenir medallion promotion is going. What did you think I was referring to?"
And two days later, when Zorn commented on an interview Keyes had just conducted with high school students for WTTW, the headline announced, "The Evasive Alan Keyes."
On October 2 chillinois.blogspot. com protested Zorn's silence with a headline of its own: "Free Eric Zorn!"
Bloggers have broken much bigger stories than Maya Keyes, usually because the establishment press wasn't paying attention. This one's different. The blogs broke the story, spread the story, held it up to the light, and argued over it, and drew conclusions from it--all while the daily papers didn't know how to write word one. The dailies had cause to feel just as virtuous as they wished, but also just a little archaic.
The Nature of the Beast
John Cruickshank, publisher of the Sun-Times and chief operating officer of Hollinger International's Chicago papers, wrote the following letter to his employees October 5:
"I'm now able to provide you with detailed results from the company's probe of circulation practices at our newspaper. The investigation uncovered evidence of manipulation of circulation numbers going back to the period covered by the 1998 Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) report.
"The inflation continued until it was uncovered at the time of the single-copy price increase earlier this year. All unacceptable practices were then stopped and the inflation was promptly reported to Hollinger International's corporate officers and directors. We estimate that in the ABC Audit released in March 2004 and subsequently withdrawn, weekday circulation was overstated by 10.4% or slightly more than 50,000 newspapers a day and the Sunday circulation was overstated by 4.6%, approximately 17,000 newspapers a day. Saturday circulation was never inflated.
"Our parent company, Hollinger International, has reserved $27-million to deal with the claims of advertisers against our newspaper.
"In the course of a five-month review, Jim Van Horn, Hollinger International's chief counsel, and a team of outside lawyers and auditors interviewed dozens of Sun-Times employees and extensively reviewed our business records. The review concluded that the circulation inflation was instigated by former publisher David Radler and implemented by senior officers of the Circulation Department.
"We have also discovered that the circulation of the Daily Southtown and The Star were inflated in the last year under [Mark] Hornung. While many Circulation employees were aware of at least some of these practices, there has been no suggestion that anyone from our Advertising Department had any knowledge that the numbers were inflated.
"The probe found that the inflation of Sun-Times single-copy weekday and Sunday numbers began modestly but increased when the paper underwent start-up problems at its printing plant on Ashland Ave. and rose again in 2003-2004. The Review documents three distinct practices that inflated the audited numbers of the newspaper:
"* The Sun-Times inflated circulation averages by manipulating the counting of unsold newspapers in violation of ABC rules.
"* The newspaper failed to record all of its unsold newspapers.
"* The Sun-Times violated ABC rules governing the payment of copies for schools. Although these papers were printed and circulated in schools they are not eligible to be included in the ABC audit.
"We are now beginning the process of discussing compensation with our customers and negotiating advertising contracts for 2005 at lower levels of circulation. The short-term consequences for our business will be dramatic and negative. But the long-term effect should be strongly positive. The investigation into the circulation scandal had made it very clear that we must invest more substantially in editorial, merchandizing, reader service and marketing if we want to stop the decline in our business and set the newspaper on a course for growth. The real, recent decline in Sunday sales is alarming and must be promptly addressed.
"We were on a disastrous path. This one seems tougher right now. But this is a far better path for the health and integrity of The Sun-Times and for the security of our jobs in the future."