BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. These are tough times for campaign scribes, and tough times call for tough love, now gushing forth like an uncapped fire hydrant from the web. In fact, some concerned citizens have volunteered their time to, in their words, "adopt a journalist." The idea took off after web blogger Steve Gilliard saw one blogger doing just that. Gilliard wrote: "I think it would be a really, really good idea to track reporters word for word, broadcast for broadcast, and print the results online." He wrote: "It's all inside baseball to them -- who's up and who's down. The cool kids club is pissing away our democracy like drunks at a strip club handing out one dollar bills," and he concluded: "Well, that's a luxury that we can no longer afford. If they will no longer do their job on their own, it's time to make them."
JODY WILGOREN: It's a combination of a little bit embarrassing and a little bit flattering, frankly. I mean you know--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jody Wilgoren is the New York Times reporter following the Dean campaign. She's been "adopted" by Dean supporter Tim Withers, and since December 23rd, her every word has been parsed on a blog called Wilgoren Watch.
JODY WILGOREN: I get a lot of letters from a number of passionate Dean supporters who don't like what I write, but I'm not sure if that's because they don't like what I write, or they don't like what's going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Wednesday, Wilgoren Watch slammed the reporter for her word choices after the Iowa Caucus. Tim Withers.
TIM WITHERS: [READING] "As we read through the piece, we see Ms. Wilgoren's thesaurus was working overtime. How many variations on the angry theme can we find? The article was sprinkled with mentions of 'the outsider's tirade,' 'the scowl of outrage,' 'a growling and defiant Iowa concession speech.' I'm not necessarily criticizing Ms. Wilgoren's references to Monday night's speech, although one or two variations would probably have sufficed. He kind of asked for it. But I question why Governor Dean's version of why he was so animated was buried near the end of the piece."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What motivated you to start Wilgoren Watch?
TIM WITHERS: I was concerned with some of the coverage I was seeing, especially in the New York Times. I wasn't really sure that it was very balanced and fair to the governor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a Dean supporter, do you think you're in a position to know what's balanced and fair?
TIM WITHERS: I have tried very hard not to be too critical. I have tried not to be too snarky when I evaluated the piece. So no, of course I'm not completely objective, and I know no journalist can be completely objective. But I think there's, there's also a line that sometimes has been crossed in the Times' coverage.
JODY WILGOREN: People who are passionate believers in a particular truth are not really the greatest judges of fairness in newspaper stories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jody Wilgoren.
JODY WILGOREN: You know, because a version of the truth that I'm working on is not a truth that assumes that Dean is a great candidate or that Dean should become president. You know? And I understand that there are people for whom that is truth.
JAY ROSEN: Journalists are perhaps accustomed to discounting those who have a stake, because they expect that nothing but spin, propaganda, bias can come from such a person. But I don't necessarily think that's true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York University professor, media critic and blogger Jay Rosen.
JAY ROSEN: This is a citizen activity, and people are motivated to do things as citizens because they do have a stake. But people who have a stake have to learn that this doesn't absent them from a responsibility to public truth, and that's one of the deeper lessons that might come an individual web blogger's way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But these new, largely partisan adopted journalist blogs vary widely in quality. Some are so raw, it could be argued that Rosen's deeper lesson has yet to penetrate. That's why Rosen both loves and dreads this exercise in citizen participation. He loves the idea of readers holding reporters to account. He loves the education it offers them both. But--
JAY ROSEN: I dread it, because there's a lot of free-floating hate for the media out there, and the origins of this adopt a reporter idea were in not just frustration but, in some cases, animus towards "the media" but also towards individual journalists. And the worst thing, of course, is that hate distorts what you see in front of your eyes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you don't trust partisans to monitor campaign reporters, how about other reporters?
STEVE LOVELADY: I don't want to say that every blog out there is put together by a 14 year old kid in the basement. I mean there's some very solid ones. I haven't found one that devotes itself exclusively to campaign press criticism and commentary, and that's staffed by professionals who are articulate, analytical and fast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's what Steve Lovelady, a former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and current managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's CampaignDesk.org says he has to offer, and not a moment too soon. Every election cycle, the process for picking a president becomes more and more front-loaded. As it currently stands, ten percent of all convention delegates will be picked by January 28th, and 60 percent by March 3rd. As a result, reporters rush to set unreasonable expectations for candidates, exult when they meet them, and reach for the shovels when they fail. Campaign Desk calls reporters not just on bias and inaccuracy, but on their tendency to bury candidates alive.
STEVE LOVELADY: Reporters pick arbitrary yardsticks. That permits the reporters to come back 24 hours later and say "Candidate X flunked yardstick Y." Well, yardstick Y is a creation of the reporter himself. We're there to say this isn't productive for the undecided voter or reader -- to have this steady flurry of stories which essentially consist of a dog chasing its own tail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So then, with reporters now beating up on other reporters, there may be nothing for it but for them to stand up and take their lumps. And in the end, that could actually improve their relationship with their frustrated audience. Jay Rosen.
JAY ROSEN: I think it's frustration with a big institution that has the power to define reality to some degree, and I think there's a lot of distortion in the news media, but there's a lot of distortion of the news media in the culture of complaint that we have created around it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, back in my day, when I was growing up, that used to be the phone company.
JAY ROSEN: [LAUGHS] Yes. Well, I think that -- the news media has in some ways become this gigantic object with the power to define what's real, whether you like it or not --just like Lily Tomlin used to joke about the phone company. "We're the phone company. We don't have to care."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, with this burgeoning brigade of online watchdogs, the media have a new and pressing reason to care.