I’m not much of a political blogger, unlike many of the folks at the Personal Democracy Forum conference. (Okay, that’s not true. I just write about African politics, not US issues, which puts me decidedly in the minority in this room.) So I wasn’t familiar with either Jane Hamsher, of Firedog Lake, a left-wing blog, or Patrick Ruffini, a Republican activist, organizer and blogger. They reminded me that I’m spending too much time at journalism conferences these days – it was a surprise for me to hear from speakers who are decidedly partisan, decidedly activist and doing work that’s decidedly journalistic.
Hamsher tells the story of breaking an interesting video – a very upset Clinton supporter, Harriet Christian, who was thrown out of the DNC rules committee meeting. She filmed a video of Christian yelling as she left the venue, and tells us that she rushed to get it online before the dozens of TV crews who’d shot the same footage. She was shocked that none of the networks aired their footage… until the video she shot received more than a million views on YouTube, and became a subject of political discussion.
She sees this as an example of liberal blogs ability to direct attention and potentially to shape the news agenda. She believes that liberal blogs were able to power Ned Lamont past Joe Lieberman in the democratic primary in Connecticut (though not actually into a senatorial seat.) This demonstrates that anti-war candidates can win elections. (Hmm. See previous parenthetical.)
Political blogs aren’t just reporting stories – they’re taking action. She shows a political ad that her blog produced with Ricki Lee Jones and the Squirrel Nut Zippers – titled “Had Enough” – which was offered to any candidate who wanted to run against a Republican. “It’s not just about community and commentary, it’s about coming together to effect a change.”
That change may be affected by money. And readers of liberal blogs have a lot of it. Hamsher reports that readers of liberal blogs are “white, male, old, affluent,” with the largest group between 40 and 60 years old. They’ve got an average income of between $100 and $150,000 a year. This helps candidates like Barack Obama, who are discovering that fundraisers may be obsolete – one good speech, documented on blogs and available online, may be the centerpiece of campaigns in the future.
Patrick Ruffini points out that Republican bloggers have largely focused on three issues: the war on terror, the governmental fiscal restraint, and support for conservative judges. Right-wing bloggers have shown their strengths at moments where they’re able to work on specific, concrete issues. He sites the example of the RedState blog as a group that came together to defeat Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It’s not a minor victory for a community to get a president to pull away from a nomination, Ruffini argues.
The best organized campaign on the right in this election cycle, he argues, was Mike Huckabee’s campaign… and he cites Zephyr Teachout, no conservative sympathiser, as the person who gave birth to this observation. The Huckabee campaign allowed bloggers to add themselves to a blogroll, a group that included lots of “long tail” blogs from the evangelical and homeschooling communities.
For the right to really take advantage of these tools, they’ll need a common cause. He offers the idea of a wiki-based “Contract With America” – could we see another Newt Gingrich-type revolution coming from conservative activists getting together online and putting forward a new governing platform?
There aren’t a lot of questions from the audience at PDF so far, but the question immediately after these two speakers is a doozy. Former independent Presidential candidate Lenora Fulani – who reminds us that she was the first female and first black presidential candidate to make it onto the ballot in fifty states – wonders whether there’s any space opened by these new tools for politics in the US beyond the two established parties. (The answer she gets from the two speakers isn’t very satisfying – Ruffini points out that most “independent” voters voted for Reagan, and argues that most independents will vote for either the Republican or the Democrat this year.)
After a break, we’re back on stage with the left and the right. Chuck DeFeo of Townhall.com argues that we’re now seeing the “true democratization of the 4th estate.” Our new media makes it possible for anyone to communicate ideas in a many to many model. We’ve been waiting for the “1960 moment” – the moment at which television become the most important medium in US politics – to come to the Internet. But perhaps we’re waiting for the wrong thing.
The move to television has made politics less participatory. Voters become an audience to be talked at, not dialoged with. And we can trace a decline in political involvement, DeFeo argues, since we’ve seen that shift in media. As our media shifts towards many to many media, it’s fragmenting and getting more partisan. But DeFeo argues, “I would much prefer involved activism over apathy.”
Following DeFeo is Ariana Huffington, who’s legendarily shed her conservative past to become a leading liberal activist, and publisher of the Huffington Post. She’s very good at one-liners… and very, very angry with traditional media. “Old media has given up the pursuit of truth for a type of fake neutrality.” She points to media debates over climate change, where Al Gore faces off against Senator James Inhofe, a notorious climate change skeptic. (You’ll note that his Senate homepage currently features an oil derrick…) These two sides, she argues, don’t have equal news value:
“The earth is not flat. Evolution is a fact – sorry Mike Huckabee – there is no other side to this issue. The war in Iraq is an unqualified disaster – I am convinced there is no other side to this issue.”
What Huffington Post seeks to provide is “transparency, accountability, and community.” The reporters for the site are not unbiased, but they make it clear where their biases lie, rather than pretending they don’t exist. She points to Lou Dobbs as an embarrasing example of someone who pretends to be a journalist, pointing to his remarks linking a (ficticious) rise in leprosy cases to illegal immigrants. She feels that the media needs to pick these stories apart over sustained periods of time. “We need the obsessive compulsive disorder of the new media instead of the attention deficit disorder of the old media.”
Her fiercest words are reserved for Bob Woodward, who she dismisses as “the dumb blonde of journalism, awed by access to power.” Picking apart his career – from bringing down a president to uncritical accounts of the Bush administration – she closes with the admonition, “We cannot sell independence for access.”
While I admire and respect the passion and energy of this set of speakers, they leave me a little worried about my colleages who work on the future of journalism. Friends like Dan Gillmor are passionate about ensuring that new media holds on to what’s best about older journalistic media. But an increasing amount of journalistic media is coming from very partisan sources. Should we expect that readers are aware that media has changed and that we should expect every voice to have strong, visible bias? Or does this point to a need to re-learn how to read both online and offline media to understand that we’ve got far more activist media and far less that’s striving for – real or fake – neutrality?