More on the Courtship of Blogs by Politicians


Danny Glover of National Journal‘s “Beltway Blogroll” has a superb piece on the question of what lines ought to divide elite political bloggers and the subject of their posts.
His article today, “A Warning about Blogger Conference Calls” links to my post today — and also to a great article that he wrote on this same subject.
His piece, “The Courtship of the Blogosphere” perfectly complements mine as he focuses on trends in the conservative blogging community, whereas I discussed some of the trends in Democratic blogging circles.
Glover’s perspective tracks extremely closely with my own, and I wish I had read this before I posted my own note today.
Here is how he opens:

Fifteen years ago, just a few months into my first full-time job as a reporter, I covered a speech by Iran-Contra figure Robert McFarlane. It was a defining moment in my career.
I say that not because of the speech, which was both predictable and unspectacular, or because of the story I wrote, which was ordinary and uninspiring. I say it because of what happened afterward: One of my journalistic brethren approached the disgraced national security adviser to former President Ronald Reagan and requested an autograph.
I was floored. How could a supposedly objective journalist solicit the autograph of a controversial news subject, especially before finishing his story? How objective could his story possibly be if he were so enthralled as to publicly request a favor from his source?
I felt the same way last week when reading the accounts of conservative bloggers handpicked by the Republican Party to cover the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito from Washington. The communications experts in the party took to new heights the courtship of the blogosphere that they began last fall — and they found a most receptive audience.
The bloggers not only welcomed the lavish treatment and exclusive access bestowed upon them by the Republican National Committee and the Senate Republican Conference; they basked in it without reservation. They dropped names (White House adviser Karl Rove was the favorite), heaped praise on their news subjects and celebrated their chance to imbibe in the trappings of power.

After my post on this subject today, I have been flooded by emails both applauding and excoriating the questions I posed. The most interesting response came from one person I won’t name. I have anonymized this email with this person’s permission:

It is incredibly unfair to broadly paint every blogger who participates on these calls as “journalists” with some sort of ethical problem.
I am on the other side of the spectrum of some on this list, and consider myself an activist first. I also acknowledge that there are other liberal bloggers who consider themselves reporters first; that’s fine, it’s just not what I’d call myself. And of course there is a big mushy middle in between.
However, as an activist, I DO have a common interest in helping frame issues for candidates via my blog. I DO have a common interest in helping the party I support get their message out. Why? Because I want to help them win. My agenda is absolutely clear to everyone who stops by my site and should be clear to everyone who’s ever met me.
There is no blurring of the lines there. I am openly partisan. Why is that wrong? How is my participation in conference calls unethical in any way? I wonder if Steve C thinks that people like me should be dis-invited from these calls.
And to be painted a syncophant… I can’t even express how disappointed I am.
I’m not sure Steve C. realised that his comments would be taken so personally, but believe me, they are. Because by applying that broad brush, you’ve smeared me and many other folks who are working our asses off.
I sincerely doubt that anyone on those conference calls is there to suck up to the candidates, especially those of us on the activist side. And I would also bet an inordinate amount of money that if some politician threatened to “disinvite” any blogger who didn’t write about a call, they’d be called out so fast it would make their head spin.
With all due respect to Steve C, I really think you got that article wrong. You tried lumping us all together. We’re not GOPbots. And those of us activists who get on these calls get there for one purpose only: to help good candidates get elected. And we openly admit that. We aren’t hiding anything. I would hope you will take that into consideration if you expand on that article.

This perspective is important and, in a way, reinforces my point that there is a clear identity quandary evolving in these calls.
Some of the blogger conference calls are managed by the communications staff of the Senator or House Member. Others are organized by PR shops. Some are organized by the web/blog staffer in the Member’s employ. Some are organized by the election office of the Member.
But most of the sessions in which I have participate have the trappings of a press conference with the Member making a statement and bloggers issuing questions for response.
But the blogger above has a point. He/she is an activist and wants to collude and is open about it. Non-profit blogs can’t play this game as they’d lose their 501c3 status, though there are few blogs of course that are incorporated.
The Washington Note is a private LLC corporation and operates as a center of opinion journalism. It does take on causes, like keeping John Bolton from securing his Senate confirmation, but it approaches the political game with both “attitude” and respect for the different players and the roles that they have to play. To have credibility, I need to be able to report without colluding, and I maintain a centrist sensibility with progressive objectives.
If I were on the far left or the far right, I would still need to maintain some distance from the subject of my writing. This is a nuanced and complicated subject because in the Bolton battle, I did make common cause with a number of Senators and players in that battle, but in my own mind and sense of things, I also maintained a cautious distance — as did all of my interlocutors.
Danny Glover’s great piece from a few weeks ago raises the same point as the blogger above:

By this point, you’re probably thinking, “So what? They’re bloggers, not journalists. Nobody expects them to be objective.” I thought the same thing — especially of the writers who attended the forums for sites like Blogs for Bush and GOP Bloggers.

Glover continues in the piece:

Pat Cleary of the Manufacturers’ Blog attended some of the GOP forums and said in an e-mail interview that “the beauty of blogging” is its unfiltered nature. “You get what people are saying without benefit of my bias or filter. … My job isn’t to pin them, debate them, argue with them. I’m glad to be invited, happy to write what they have to say.”
I agree to an extent. But blogging also is beautiful because the people who are doing it are outsiders. They are neither part of the media establishment — the MSM they hate so much — nor the political establishment. Their ability to see the world differently than people inside the Beltway is precisely what moved them to outrage against former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., three years ago, when the establishment initially yawned.
The blogosphere lost some of that edge last week. I hope the loss is only fleeting.

As I’ve said repeatedly in emails today, I like the blogger conference calls. They are an interesting and potentially great innovation in citizen blog journalism (and activism).
However, I have to approach these call sessions with the view that the Member of Congress or Bush administration official is going to try and use me, to sell something to me, to co-opt me. That’s what they are supposed to do. We need to be aware that we bloggers are becoming power centers — and that is why the Senators are speaking to us.
So, it’s important to remember, in my view, that sometimes we’ll endorse and write favorably about a policy action, and sometimes criticize it. When politicians engage regularly with any part of the public — whether its trade associations, regular media, or bloggers — there needs to be an understanding that bloggers may be activists or they may be journalists who blog.
But the presumption of a collusive relationship damages all sides. To my blogging acquaintance above, I would not advocate that blogging activists be dis-invited from calls. I just think that there should be different types of calls. Serious journalists who want to compete with the media should develop and establish norms that institutionalize a constructive distance from the politician or party being written about.
Activists who mingle with journalists on these calls need to realize that journalist bloggers have to be very cautious about environments in which total cooperation is presumed.
— Steve Clemons
Update: A great think piece by Matt Stoller on the same subject.
David Neiwert also has a thoughtful, long piece on the difference between journalism and blogging. He doesn’t address the question of the nexus between politicians and bloggers, particularly if routenized, but he’s written an important piece. (thanks to P for sending)
Here is another thought-provoking piece by Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice blog.
On the libertarian/conservative front, I just found this quite thoughtful post recounting some experiences with Republicans on blogger conference calls. McQ makes great sense.