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Blogging bloc flexes muscle

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Cost overruns on city demolition contracts. Allegations of fraud. Charges of a sinister scheme emanating from city hall to drive out a reform-minded police chief based on personal vendettas and politics of racial manipulation.

With the notable print exception of The Rhinoceros Times you would have to turn to the local blogosphere for the goods on these intrigues. Abundant details can be had – in the form of reams of public records, some streaming video and unending caustic commentary. The only thing missing is a coherent narrative.

For about two hours on Feb. 23, Greensboro City Manager Mitchell Johnson and members of his staff met with representatives of the local blogging community in the plaza-level conference room at the Melvin Municipal Building for what was mostly an old-school press Q&A session.

As blogger David Hoggard explained at the outset of the meeting, Johnson had expressed frustrations that bloggers didn’t call him to get his side of the story when they put up a critical series of posts about the city’s Willow Oaks and Reedy Fork Sanitary Sewer Improvements projects. In turn, the bloggers question why the city can’t post public documents on the web in preemptive fashion or start its own blog to meet the new transparency requirements of the digital age and improve its PR game.

Johnson’s presentation got off to a rough start.

“My goal in talking with David… I guess in blogging terms I’m what’s considered a ‘lurker,'” he began. Then, glancing over his shoulder, he muttered, “Oh geez,” as he spotted a woman happily spraying Windex and wiping down the outside window of the glass-enclosed conference room. It was the decidedly old-media investigative reporter Lorraine Ahearn – herself a target of the bloggers’ ire for her coverage of management problems within the Greensboro Police Department, which led to Chief David Wray’s resignation and an ongoing criminal investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

“I guess that’s some type of political protester,” Johnson said.

In another comic moment, Johnson tried to explain how a set of rules under federal law known as Gardner-Garrity prevent evidence collected in administrative investigations from being used to build criminal cases. Releasing information from its internal investigation into the Wray administration might have compromised the criminal investigation by tipping off the suspects, Johnson said.

“If I was in an [employment-related] interview and I said, ‘I was selling cocaine. I’m sorry….'”

Ben Holder, proprietor of “The Troublemaker” blog, took the opportunity to poke some fun at Rhinoceros Times Editor John Hammer.

“John Hammer wasn’t paying attention,” Holder said. “He just suddenly sat up. He’s going to be cherry-picking…. ‘Mitch: I was selling cocaine.'”

“Oh wow,” Hammer murmured.

Altogether, it was a messy conversation that featured tense exchanges between Johnson and the bloggers, as well as some heated words between the bloggers themselves about whose turn it was to speak. The rules of engagement and etiquette are clearly different from the customarily civil relationship between public servants and traditional journalists.

It’s easy to get the sense that bloggers are the new mediators, poised to displace the troubled news media as primary gatekeeper of information. One could also view them as a pressure group like the Pulpit Forum that has gained sufficient clout that the city manager now ignores their concerns at his political peril.

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