Spy Agency OKs Bloggers as Journalists

Are bloggers part of the news media?  The U.S. government -- led by two of its most secretive agencies -- is increasingly saying, "Yes, they are."

Despite the rap that bloggers simply "bloviate" and "don't try to find things out," as conservative newspaper columnist Robert Novak once sniffed, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have altered policies to indicate they're taking blogs seriously, and a growing number of public offices are actively reaching out to the blogosphere.

The CIA recently updated its policies on Freedom of Information Act requests to allow bloggers to qualify for special treatment once reserved for old-school reporters. And last August, the NSA issued a directive to its employees to report leaks of classified information to the media -- "including blogs," the order said.

Experts say it's part of a trend. Earlier this year, the criminal trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was the first time a federal court had issued press credentials to bloggers. A rotating pool of five to 10 bloggers sat alongside dozens of traditional media reporters to hear the government try and convict one-time aide to Vice President Dick Cheney on perjury and obstruction of justice charges stemming from the leak of an undercover CIA operative's identity.

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"'The press' has been expanded," said New York University journalism professor (and blogger) Jay Rosen. "It's not fundamentally different than other moments in earlier eras," Rosen explained. "Radio reporters had to be added to newspaper reporters, which were originally 'the press.' Public institutions had to make accommodations for television cameras when they became part of 'the press.'"

While some agencies are changing their policies -- in the CIA's case, they are granting bloggers a waiver on fees for copying the documents it releases to requesters once available only to traditional media -- many press offices still dismiss bloggers' inquiries, Rosen said.

The political world, however, has embraced bloggers, according to Rosen. Presidential campaigns hold lunches and meetings with their candidates and popular bloggers, and congressional offices regularly hold conference calls to share information with bloggers and answer questions.

The CIA's new fee waiver for bloggers, first reported by Government Executive magazine, may be more of a symbolic gesture than anything else, however: the spy agency released a mere 344 complete documents as a result of FOIA requests in 2006, according to an April study by ScrippsNews. A CIA spokesman noted his agency had also made 1,000 "partial" releases of information to FOIA requests during that period.

This post has been revised.

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