By Steve Rosenbush The bloggers blew it. Hours before the polls closed on Nov. 2, the online diaries known as Web logs began circulating early exit polls that showed Senator John Kerry was on the cusp of a big victory over President Bush.
The reaction was swift -- and intense. The erroneous data spread from sites such as Wonkette! to the National Review Online , where editors were on the verge of despair. The reports helped kill a rally on the Dow Jones industrial average. Shortly thereafter, pollster Zogby International publicly forecast a huge Kerry win.
Major news organizations, which got into trouble in 2000 and 2002 by broadcasting erroneous exit polls, this year avoided them like teetotalers at a cocktail party. But the forbidding data shaped the tone adopted by anchors, reporters, talking heads, and guests, complete with background shots of excited Kerry supporters.
TRANSFORMATION TIME. No one quite believed that the huge margins of victory for the Democrat would hold up. But almost everyone believed that the direction of the polls was correct. The tone didn't shift until late in the evening, when Bush campaign officials began insisting that their internal data for Florida and Ohio actually looked pretty good to the GOP. It would have been easy to dismiss such claims as partisan spin -- except that they had it more correct than the exit polls.
So bloggers ended the 2004 Presidential campaign just where they started it -- in a spotlight they still don't quite know how to deal with. As the Howard Dean candidacy surged in late 2003, everyone agreed that this would be the year the Internet would transform politics.
Younger people, rallying online, were going to set the agenda and flock to the polls, altering the outcome. And blogs, a medium native to the Web, were going to chronicle it all. Bloggers were even accredited as correspondents at the Democratic and Republican political conventions, taking their place next to more established media from around the world.
CHALLENGING THE BIG BOYS. While many of the assumptions about youth, politics, and the Internet seem a little less certain now, the bloggers actually seemed to be living up to the hype for awhile. They latched onto the political significance of the Swift Boat Veterans at a time when the major media chose to ignore it.
And when CBS News targeted President Bush's service to the National Guard, bloggers successfully challenged the authenticity of documents at the heart of the CBS report. Likewise, when The New York Times and CBS reported on tons of missing munitions in Iraq, they were forced to run a gauntlet of blogger review.
So now what?
We've learned a lot about the media during the recent election. Young bloggers and aging ink-stained wretches with cigarette burns on their faded tweed sport jackets have all missed and mishandled their share of stories. Coming so soon after controversies about made-up stories at the Times and USA Today, the media has reason to be on the defensive.
GOOD FOR THE GANDER. The bloggers are here to stay. They're part of the media food chain. There are good bloggers and bad bloggers, hacks and diligent reporters, just as in the worlds of print and TV. From now on, the bloggers and print and broadcasting folks are going to be an important check-and-balance on one another. Eventually, the walls between them will come tumbling down.
For the last few years, journalists have maintained that the Internet is going to change everything from entertainment and telecom to stock trading, health care, education, government, etc., etc., etc. They were right. Did they really think the Internet was going to leave them alone?
Big media need to accept blogs into their ranks. And in turn, blogs need to be prepared to find themselves subjected to more and more scrutiny in the pages of newspapers and magazines. As for the exit polls: Next time, better take a pass. Senior writer Steve Rosenbush moderates BusinessWeek Online's blog, Party Lines. He fell for the erroneous exit polls just like everyone else (see "Should the Latest Forecasts...")