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Ibanez, Donaghy cases refuel the debate about blogging

Last week, as Raul Ibanez's reputation was getting kicked around the blogosphere like a hacky sack, numerous media outlets received an e-mailed press release about disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy.

Phillies star Raul Ibanez was the subject of Internet speculation this past week about whether he might be using performance-enhancing drugs. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
Phillies star Raul Ibanez was the subject of Internet speculation this past week about whether he might be using performance-enhancing drugs. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)Read more

Last week, as Raul Ibanez's reputation was getting kicked around the blogosphere like a hacky sack, numerous media outlets received an e-mailed press release about disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy.

It noted that Donaghy would be getting out of prison next week and that he had been assaulted by a fellow inmate, one who apparently had access to both the New York mob and a heavy object.

Newspapers such as The Inquirer attempted to confirm the legitimacy of the company issuing the release, Executive Prison Consultants, and to contact officials at the Florida prison camp where the ex-referee was serving a 15-month sentence for his role in a betting scheme.

Meanwhile, as those reporters awaited return calls to confirm the unusual facts cited in the release, sports bloggers already were busily spreading the unadulterated story, accompanied by instant responses heaping doses of unsubstantiated opinion about both Donaghy and his attacker.

Those two cases - the Donaghy news and, especially, the Web-fueled speculation on whether Ibanez's gaudy statistics might be drug-enhanced - raised now-familiar questions about the contrast, and the friction, between bloggers and what they like to call the MSM, the mainstream media.

Is what bloggers do journalism? Is what journalists do passe? Should bloggers assume the same standards as journalists? Should the MSM ignore or embrace them? And are the two entities performing the same function or something inherently different? And what about mainstream media journalists who blog for their newspapers?

Just one thing seems certain: In a rapidly changing media environment, answers are hard to come by.

"They [bloggers] are doing some great things," said Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "In many ways, they're helping the conversation get bigger. But the optimist in me hopes that at some point some of the time-tested old-media standards will rub off on them.

"Whether you're a blogger or a reporter, you ought to know that there's a difference between speculating with your buddies in a bar and doing so in a public forum."

Sometimes, as happened in the aftermath of the Ibanez post on a little-known Web site called Midwest Sports Fans (MSF), disagreements about that difference can result in a pitched battle between old and new media.

Not long after The Inquirer gave wider exposure to the original Ibanez speculation, the Internet was teeming with widely varying opinions on the Phillies outfielder and on bloggers.

The White Sox fan who triggered it all, JRod, real name Jerod Morris, found himself defending blogs on national television, a sometimes-intimidated-looking guest on ESPN's Outside the Lines.

Bloggers like Morris insist that even though their Web site fodder frequently looks and reads like fact, it's most typically speculation based on mainstream-media reporting, 21st-century street-corner talk for information-addicted fans.

The best blogs, defenders say, are more cleverly written than most journalism and chock full of useful data. Their authors and aficionados can't understand why reporters like to characterize them all as pajama-clad, basement-dwelling geeks.

"I'm just trying to kind of create some conversation, put some stuff out there," explained A.J. Daulerio, the Bucks County-born editor-in-chief of the wildly popular sports blog Deadspin. "I think you can take the gossip side and the salacious side and the journalism side and try to make this whole neat product. . . . Maybe it's complete horse- . . . but we can fix that later."

Not surprisingly, many journalists saw the Ibanez case as a perfect example of a problem with which their industry continues to wrestle. To them, bloggers are more than just a threat. They are mean-spirited, irresponsible, and bound by no rules.

"I've come to find out that there are some good sites out there," said H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, the best-selling author and a former Inquirer reporter. "But for the most part, they're just filled with unreported, unsubstantiated rumors that, in many cases, are posted anonymously.

"They're speculative, based on no reporting, but yet they can cast deep doubts and shadows on someone. Raul Ibanez can say he doesn't take steroids, and there's no proof he has. Yet he has to keep answering these questions."

Much of what irritates journalists is the standard-free environment in which some bloggers operate. It's easy to be provocative and fast, they contend, when you're writing off the top of your head and without rules.

And given the Wild West nature of the Internet, there probably is no way that's going to change anytime soon.

"I don't think you can really have a hard set of standards on the blog side because that's not really what it's rooted in," said Daulerio. "I think what makes blogs more interesting and probably a little more appealing is we can probably ask some questions you can't. If we're being used as some kind of idea-starter or conversation-starter, I think that's fine. But I don't think we should start to use the inverted pyramid."

Curiously, Bissinger became a poster-boy villain in this ongoing dispute. During sportscaster Bob Costas' HBO show last April, when he and Daulerio's Deadspin predecessor, Will Leitch, squared off on the topic, the respected journalist lost his cool, profanely ridiculing bloggers as dedicated to "cruelty . . . dishonesty . . . and speed."

Afterward, the New York Times sports media critic wrote that "if the sports blogosphere needed someone to symbolize the mainstream media's fear and suspicion of its influence, it found him in Buzz Bissinger."

"I was way over the top and I regret that," Bissinger said about his now-infamous Costas appearance. "I read some of the political blogs and they're very good, very thoughtful. I'm into photography and some of those blogs are really useful, too. But the vast majority, especially in sports, are terrible.

" . . . Deadspin praises you and then bites you in the ass. That's what they do. They deal in a certain kind of humor. Personally, I find it sophomoric, but a lot of people like it and that's fine. . . . That's what I was trying to point out when I was on the Costas show."

Bissinger's fury betrayed the professional journalists' growing unease about blogs, more than a decade after these personal "Web logs" began appearing. This despite the fact that most major newspapers now have Web sites with their own blogs and bloggers.

"[That mistrust is] often encapsulated in the phrase, 'blogging isn't journalism,'" Alfred Hermida, a University of British Columbia journalism professor wrote recently on MediaShift, a PBS Web site dedicated to tracking how new media are changing society and culture. "This is a tired argument that mistakes form for content.

"Blogs, just like magazines, radio or television, can contain journalism, but they may not. The content, rather than the platform, defines whether or not it is a work of journalism."

All the arguments and animosity were on display this week when Morris, in a lengthy, statistically based post composed in response to a query from a Fantasy Baseball colleague, wondered whether the 37-year-old Ibanez's great first-half might be due to some illegal substance.

Inquirer sports columnist John Gonzalez saw the post on another Web site and questioned it on ethical grounds the following day. The Inquirer's baseball writer, Jim Salisbury, then asked Ibanez for his reaction, which turned out to be both angry and disparaging of bloggers.

A defensive Morris later wrote that he was raising an issue many baseball fans have been discussing. And if not for The Inquirer's mentioning his work, he said, it might have been viewed by 300 or 400 people and quickly forgotten. Fellow bloggers claimed Morris' post was extremely well-reasoned.

In any event, by midweek, Morris was on ESPN, taking the blog side in a debate with Gonzalez and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, a former newspaper reporter.

"It's unfortunate because I really don't think the kid's blog post was anything to get that upset about," said Daulerio. "It's not reckless and I don't think he did anything wrong in pushing that conversation to the forefront. In fact, I think he did it in a pretty responsible way."

Perhaps predictably, some bloggers felt Morris was being ganged up on. But in defending him, they likely buttressed their detractor's arguments. Morris' brother, in another MSF post, referred to Gonzalez and Rosenthal as "the biggest turds."

It's possible, of course, that despite all this sound and fury, the wider public fails to see any significance in what is essentially an internecine feud.

Nathan Marinoff, a New York City attorney and an avid reader of sports blogs and sports pages, pointed out in an e-mail to The Inquirer this week that the two media may be more alike than they'd care to admit.

"Are there excessive, irresponsible bloggers?  Of course," Marinoff wrote.  "That said . . . one doesn't have to look too far to find examples of similarly excessive, irresponsible figures in print and broadcast media.  As with all things, the key is to read and think critically."