TV news struggles to catch up with Internet

The major networks owned the drama of Hurricane Gustav storming into Louisiana, but it was the blogosphere that drove the coverage of another province the nets like to think they rule: the big political story of the day.

On day two of the Republican National Convention, that big story continued to be Sarah Palin, John McCain’s pick for vice president.

The latest wrinkle on Tuesday was Web-fueled speculation about whether the Alaska governor was once a member of an Alaskan secessionist group, but that is only one of many strands that have circulated since her selection was announced Friday.

TalkingPointsMemo.com wrote on Friday about the so-called troopergate scandal alleging that as governor of Alaska, Palin used her office to fire her former brother-in-law, who was in the midst of a bitter conflict with his estranged wife, Palin’s sister. A blogger for Reason magazine’s website posted comments Palin once made about having smoked pot.

On Saturday, a blog on the New Republic’s site cast doubt on the McCain campaign’s claim that Palin had opposed the notorious “bridge to nowhere” boondoggle of federal spending in Alaska. There were also Web reports that McCain’s campaign had not taken the customary step of asking the FBI to vet Palin prior to announcing her selection.

Two of the primary topics of blog chatter over the weekend were a question of whether Palin’s youngest child was really hers — it is — and news that Palin’s 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant. The latter thread eventually generated huge attention from the mainstream media on Tuesday.

“The Palin story played right to the strengths of the blogs,” said Tom Rosenstiel, exec director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Details on Palin’s background were available through extensive online research without the need for classic reporting. The best bloggers are experts at such research, Rosenstiel continued.

“There’s a lot you can learn about Palin that doesn’t involve getting on a plane to Alaska and then walking around knocking on doors,” he said. “Blogs are very sophisticated at doing this.”

Timing also worked against mainstream media, which were “trying to cycle through Obama’s speech in Denver to the Republican convention in St. Paul and then the VP pick and then Gustav,” said Donald Rieck, exec director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason U.

“The media were all over the place, whereas political blogs’ raison d’etre is to pull things apart about either Obama or McCain,” Rieck continued. “They’re always on target and not distracted.”

The networks’ redeployment of talent and resources to Louisiana just as the GOP confab opened put mainstream media at a considerable disadvantage, Rosenstiel added. But even reporters who stayed in St. Paul faced logistical problems.

“The media had to play a sort of zone defense on two fronts, yes, but with the political media at the convention, they were in the worst position to do any quick vetting” of Palin, Rosenstiel said. “These people were not in their offices but either on planes or working off of Blackberrys.”

The nets might not have been so far behind in the days before downsizing, Rosenstiel said. “They weren’t really distracted by the hurricane but otherwise occupied in a way reflecting diminished manpower.”

Jack Shafer, media critic for the online mag Slate, doesn’t think blogs have contributed significantly to what’s known about Palin.

“Much of what I read on the blogs was hugely derivative of Anchorage Daily News coverage of Sarah Palin’s political career, so unless you can cite a specific blog scoop, I’ve yet to be impressed by what they’ve turned up,” Shafer said. “On the downside, I think bloggers were far too eager to spread rumors about Trig Palin being Bristol Palin’s son without even bothering to examine the child’s birth certificate for proof.”

For the mainstream media — particularly the major TV news outlets — the Palin story has been a source of frustration as they sought to examine its implications. This was perhaps most evident in CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s attempt on Monday to question McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds about Palin’s qualifications for the vice presidency.

Despite Brown’s repeated attempts to get Bounds to provide an example of a decision involving the Alaska National Guard that Palin has made as governor, Bounds tried changing the subject to McCain’s extensive foreign policy experience until he implied that Brown was seeking to “belittle” Palin’s decisionmaking.

The tense exchange underscored the tendency of news outlets to book official campaign mouthpieces who are well trained in the art of spin. ABC News appeared to have cut through the messaging, announcing Tuesday that anchor Charles Gibson had landed a sitdown with McCain, to air today.

Rieck believes it’s ironic that the Web has become an info pipeline for television in this campaign.

“I don’t think even 24/7 cable news understands the velocity of the news cycle as well as websites,” he said. “Cable is constantly searching for nuggets to report. They have to — they’re on 24 hours. But it’s websites and blogs that have mastered the ability. When you see cable news analysts on TVs getting ready to talk, what are they doing? Looking on the Web.”

As Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told Daily Variety, “It may be that this week is a sign of things to come with conventions as we know them.”

(Ted Johnson contributed to this report.)

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