Blogging on the Hustings
Bloggers were a significant and cacophonous force in Virginias gubernatorial election. What was their impact, and was that journalism they were practicing?
By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.
One morning at the height of last fall's campaign in Virginia, my e-mail queue informed me that political journalism had changed: First came a missive from a reader passing along a blog item about a news release from a candidate for the state Legislature. A few minutes later, the blogger himself sent me that same item. And finally, more than an hour after that, the candidate's campaign sent me the release I had by now read twice.
Later, when I wrote a column sparked by that release, comments on at least two blogs questioned whether I had ripped the item off from a blogger.
As if the relationships among government, the campaign industry and the news media were not troubled enough, now comes a new player that purports to be a fresh, grassroots voice but is rapidly evolving into an agent for spin, stealth identities and yes, scattered around the wild world of blogging, some aggressive and original reporting. The new political blogs sometimes look and act like purveyors of journalism, but at least as often, they play the roles of propagandist, gossip, campaign clubhouse and vehicle for personal attacks.
In most places, state-level political blogs are still a novelty, but in a few, campaign blogs last fall blossomed well beyond their rudimentary roots in Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid. In Virginia, one of only two states that hold gubernatorial elections the year after a presidential race, blogs became important enough that some campaign managers neglected their daily duties to obsess over the latest blogospheric gossip, state regulators began watching the blogs for compliance with campaign finance laws, lawmakers started grumbling about how to regulate speech on the blogs, and bloggers themselves began talking about setting standards and figuring out just how much coordination makes sense in a fraternity of extreme individualists.
In many states, you can count the number of all-politics blogs on your fingers. New Jersey, the only other state with a gubernatorial election last year, doesn't have nearly as vibrant a blog scene as Virginia does. Some states, such as Texas and California, have lots of political bloggers, while others, such as Maryland and Connecticut, do not.
By the time Virginia, a confirmed red state in national elections, chose Democrat Tim Kaine as its governor last November, more than 50 political bloggers had been busy commenting on and changing the course of the campaign. Virginia's blog roll included an elected county prosecutor, a former candidate for the legislature, several newspaper reporters, a lobbyist, a paid operative from Dean's former campaign and a 14-year-old boy, who everyone agreed was among the best of the bunch.
They became important enough that Kaine granted them a group interview; his Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore, appeared on a blog for a Q&A session; and campaigns and newspapers alike honored the blogs by imitating them, launching link-laden Web diaries of their own.
Was the bloggers' collective work journalism? Before risking a response, let's say what political blogging is as it enters its toddler phase:
Soap opera: For months, bloggers, who are each other's most dedicated readers, peppered each other's comment boards with guesswork, investigative probing and heaping piles of gossip about..the true identities of two of their brethren who were operating under pseudonyms. In each case, the blogosphere managed to out its targets. Commonwealth Conservative turned out to be Chad Dotson, the elected commonwealth's attorney of Wise County in Virginia's rural southwest. Not Larry Sabato (the title is an inside joke about the state's most prominent political pundit, a University of Virginia political scientist) was penned by Ben Tribbett, a campaign manager and former candidate for the Statehouse who moved to Las Vegas yet still provided detailed accounts plus predicted outcomes of legislative races that were going largely ignored in the state's daily newspapers.
Secret society/budding fraternity: After months of slashing at each other and building alliances on their blogs, the proverbial pajama-clad pundits emerged from their basements and bedrooms and gathered at a bloggers' summit. They discovered that yes, they were geeks, and yes, they were policy wonks, and yes, they cared more about the minutiae of politics than the average bear. And yes, they disagreed vociferously on everything from ideology to whether they are the Replacement for the Evil Mainstream Media or Just a Bunch of Guys Having Fun or Willing Tools of the Partisan Political Machine. Whatever their differences, they discovered that, well, they kind of like each other, and maybe they could just all be..friends.
Envelope-pusher: Some bloggers developed standards and stuck to them. Other bloggers let a thousand flowers bloom and showed some pretty ugly roots. Anonymous posts accused opposing campaigns of all manner of dirty tricks, some of which even turned out to be true. The blogs helped push discussion of several candidates' use of anti-gay tactics into the open. But one potentially explosive allegation that a statewide candidate had a homosexual lover never made it beyond a few blogs, and for good reason: There was never any remotely credible evidence behind the chatter.
So are the bloggers journalists?
I asked some of the state's top scribes. Well, they're good sources of information, says Bob Gibson, political reporter at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville. "I read them daily to see what other newspapers are reporting and what the bloggers are saying about that." Gibson saw that the campaigns were watching the blogs closely, so it behooved him to do likewise. He found himself reporting out some of the tips he found on the blogs. Some checked out; many did not. "I view them the way I do TV news it's a headline service, a tip sheet. They're lively, fun, timely." Gibson's not eager to join the bloggers, but he can see the writing on the balance sheet; several Virginia dailies have added blogs, and the Daily Progress might, too.
At the Washington Post, reporter Mike Shear, who runs the state capital bureau in Richmond, admires some of the state's bloggers enough that Shear lobbied hard to have the Post's Web site start its own blog. "It got to the point where I looked at those things every morning and every evening," Shear says. "Some of them are really well done. There's no evidence of a wider reading public, but they have become important to a really elite crowd consultants, lobbyists, flacks."
So if the reporters look to blogs for tips and politicos depend on them for zeitgeist, is this journalism we are witnessing? Not quite, says Shear. The Post's own campaign blog, Race to Richmond, demonstrated the gulf between the real blogosphere and its corporate imitators. Shear's items never had the gossipy feel of the solo practitioners Post editors decided from the start that reporters on the blog could be snarky but were not to opine on the news. But the Post blog, along with one by the Richmond Times-Dispatch's Jeff Schapiro, was routinely cited by bloggers as a source of dependable information, a basis for commentary.
"The difference is that the bloggers don't go anywhere; they don't do reporting," Shear says. "Ninety-nine percent of their stuff is us they're like leeches." Ouch. But Shear gives credit where it's due, and he singles out the Not Larry Sabato blog as one that indeed added information to the mix.
The problem: The information was not always right. Not Larry Sabato was a brash blogger, happily dishing out predictions months before the vote. The slogan under the blog's name read, "100% accurate so far." Then, in August, the blog reported that the chairman of Virginia's House Appropriations Committee, Del. Vincent Callahan, was near death. The blog went on to speculate on successors to Callahan.
But Callahan was in fine health; there was no story. The blog took down the item and issued a quick apology. And the slogan atop the blog was changed: "99.4% accurate so far."
"My site is a little gossipy headlines grab people," says Ben Tribbett, who outed himself as Not Larry Sabato in mid-October in an anti-climactic posting about how "it just became pointless to keep it a secret." Tribbett, 25, started his blog in March, shortly after backing away from his own campaign for a House seat from Fairfax County in suburban Washington. He launched the site anonymously because "the other blogs were all so partisan. It was all, 'This guy is great; this guy sucks.' The only way I could get people to take it credibly was to start it anonymously. If people didn't know which side I was on, they'd focus on my information."
Tribbett never made much of a secret of where he stood. Clearly a Democrat, he had obvious favorites among the candidates. Still, insiders flocked to his site because he seemed to have details unavailable elsewhere. Tribbett has never worked as a journalist but rather is a former campaign manager with close connections to many of the state's political pros. At the peak of the campaign, Not Larry Sabato was getting about 15,000 hits a day, making it one of the most popular political sites in the state. Tribbett credits anonymity for his success, saying it allowed some of Virginia's most prominent politicians to feed him tips without revealing themselves. (At one point, Tribbett and other anonymous bloggers got so highfalutin as to hold up their namelessness as an echo of Thomas Jefferson's use of ghostwriters to pen partisan tracts in Revolutionary-era newspapers.)
Eventually, unmasking Not Larry Sabato became enough of a parlor game that Tribbett felt compelled to come clean. He suffered through a few days of vituperative recriminations on his comments board readers seemed especially miffed that Tribbett had moved to Las Vegas and was serving up inside dope on Virginia from thousands of miles away and continued on with steady access to inside information.
Tribbett, who, like several other bloggers, makes his living as a computer consultant, found himself devoting several hours a day to a hobby that provided no remuneration. He loved the attention and the influence. Richmond lobbyists would tell him they read the blog to see how well their campaign contributions were being spent. The governor's staff, candidates, reporters they all read the blog. Heck, the campaigns even began to send bloggers their talking points and inside analyses of poll data. Tribbett loved to see campaigns react to his criticism. He loved the game.
Like many showbiz impresarios, Tribbett developed a certain disdain for his audience. "If I were a candidate, I'd order these staffers off the blogs. They spend too much time on it. Within minutes of me posting, they're there answering. I've had to downgrade candidates' chances when I see the manager sitting on the blog all day gossiping." (Bloggers loved the attention, but after the vote, some political observers wondered whether the campaigns' overindulgence of blogs changed the outcome of some races. "Candidates have a unique ability to focus on the wrong thing when it comes to strategy," says Sean O'Brien, executive director of the University of Virginia's Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. "I suspect they overfocused on blogs.")
Tribbett had no illusions about being a journalist; he was happy as an insider, delivering "crack to political junkies." He says his audience included candidates, managers and consultants. "I gave them a place to float ideas, trick the other side, have a conversation with your opponents."
Some bloggers, buying into the '90s rhetoric about the Web creating a new paradigm, do see their sites as a replacement for the loathed mainstream media. But most acknowledge their dependence on newspapers for the raw material on which they then riff. "I'm not a journalist and don't claim to be," says Chad Dotson, the 32-year-old prosecutor whose Commonwealth Conservative blog was perhaps the season's most popular pro-Republican site. "But I do some reporting, and I aim to be reliable. This is the Wild West of reporting (and I use that term very loosely), but if I said something completely off the reservation, I would expect that bloggers on the left side would come on my blog and correct and criticize me. It is self-governing in that way."
Dotson started his blog in 2004 under a pseudonym, "John Behan." "I was kind of doing it for myself, and I never blogged about my job," he says. As an elected official and the face of the criminal justice system in his community, Dotson felt the need to separate his official role from his personal political expression. But as with Tribbett, ferreting out the blogger's real identity became more of the story than the content of the blog, so when the Post's Shear revealed Dotson as the blogger, Dotson immediately copped to his alter ego. "I realized it had to be out there," he says. "Politicians should blog; it's a great way to be open with the public."
Dotson jokes that as a result of his extensive electronic trail he spends up to two hours a night at the laptop after the rest of his family has gone to bed "I'll never be a Supreme Court justice. I'm creating a record of my thoughts, and there's always a chance it'll come back and bite me if I run for another political office later." But he's committed to the form; it satisfies his politics jones and helps raise his profile. Dotson's blog was one of the quickest and most informative during the campaign; he argued forcefully but courteously for his side, adding value by sifting important developments out of the daily noise of rumors and allegations.
"Much of the blogosphere depends on the legwork of the mainstream media," Dotson says. "We need the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post and so on. And the MSM is starting to realize that bloggers are an important part of the system. I think of it as a general store where we sit around and talk Virginia politics, which is what I love."
Over the course of the campaign, Dotson became friends with Waldo Jaquith, a 27-year-old Web developer in Charlottesville whose blog was as close in spirit to Dotson's civil, smart, reasonably reliable as it was different in politics. (Jaquith is an avid liberal.) The two bonded in their desire to use the form for constructive debate rather than personal sniping. And both broke occasional news. But like Dotson, Jaquith harbors no illusions about being a reporter.
"I hate the whole approach of being anti-media or even using the initials MSM," says Jaquith, who got married in September and had to promise his wife he'd back away from the keyboard after the election. "I like reporters. If somebody said you could magically be governor or a political reporter for the Washington Post, I don't know which I'd pick. I'll be honest: I write for you. It's for journalists and my friends and family." Nothing thrills him more than to see one of his items morph into a story in the daily paper, as some of his posts examining campaign contributions did.
But Jaquith is clear that blogs operate in a different universe, with different rules: "Bloggers are not a model of bipartisanship or a model of journalism. We jump to conclusions; we say stupid things; we say things that are wrong."
During the campaign, Jaquith found a state legislator, Del. Vivian Watts, using the phrase "one of our own" to tout her candidacy in a mailing. "It appeared to be racist," Jaquith says. "I went after her for using what I saw as sneaky code words." But immediately after the post went up on waldo.jaquith.org, Watts' campaign manager called to protest that the candidate had used that phrase for more than 20 years to demonstrate that she was a member of her local community, not to send any racial signal.
Six hours after his initial post, Jaquith issued a follow-up retreating from his accusation. "I posted that I was wrong, and I presented all the evidence," he says. "That's what I get for jumping on it before getting the basic information that any decent journalist would get before publishing. As I said, we're not reporters."
The line between blogging and reporting gets blurrier on Bacon's Rebellion, a site run, unlike most other Virginia blogs, for a profit. Jim Bacon started an e-zine four years ago after serving as publisher of Virginia Business, a monthly magazine based in Richmond. In the hours left over after his day job publishing newsletters for economic development organizations, Bacon decided to try to make some money by creating an electronic alternative to the view of politics available in the corporate media, which he believes suffer from a rigid liberal worldview.
His e-zine a collection of columns, written in traditional form by commentators from around Virginia and blog are mostly conservative, but offer other perspectives too. "I'm tired of the name-calling and viciousness," says Bacon, 52. "I deliberately set out to get people of different opinions who could express them seriously. Blogs polarize the electorate and I didn't want to do that." Toward that end, Bacon launched Road to Ruin, a second, reported blog dedicated to Virginia's transportation woes, and hired a full-time journalist to produce stories. But the reporter, Bob Burke, who formerly worked at the Fredericksburg Freelance-Star, is paid by the Piedmont Environmental Council and two Washington foundations that have a clear, slow-growth advocacy position on the issues that Burke covers. All of this is explained on the site, where Bacon writes: "We and our sponsors share the same perspectives on a number of transportation-related topics, and our coverage will reflect those perspectives." Bacon says Burke has no problem reporting neutrally despite the blog's advocacy interest. "He's definitely a journalist," Bacon says. "We tell both sides of the story. We have no trouble getting anybody to talk to us."
In their blog entries, Burke and Bacon write with a point of view, in typical blog tone. One item expressing outrage over an editorial in the Richmond paper ends, "Amazing, just amazing. ISMHIW. [I shake my head in wonder.]" But Burke's more formal, reported pieces read like news analyses, with generous space given to opposing views, even if the spirit of the articles stays true to the blog's overall viewpoint.
Bacon's aim throughout is to show that "people can make a mark on the world. It's all about people having a desire to express themselves. Newspapers are going through hard times, and reporting staffs are getting smaller and smaller. So who's going to gather the news? The fact is that blogs rely on the mainstream media totally. All of us have other things to do for a living. But the world feels out of control, and people feel they can't make a difference. Blogs let them feel they can."
Bacon and other bloggers felt confused enough by these questions of identity that they convened at a summit smack in the middle of the campaign. Several dozen bloggers showed up in Charlottesville ostensibly to consider the impact they were having on the campaign and to discuss whether they ought to sign on to any common ethical standards, but really to see whether they were a bunch of nerds, or what.
"Frankly," says Dotson, "I thought it was going to be a geekfest." Instead, the group turned out to be "a bunch of real people who have something to say about Virginia politics."
"When I told people I was doing this," says Sean O'Brien, whose Sorensen Institute sponsored the confab, "everybody laughed and said they're all going to be pale and wan and in their pajamas. But there was no common denominator they were young and old, Libertarian, Republican, Democrat." Yes, but a rainbow coalition it wasn't: The bloggers are, with few exceptions, white and male.
"There's a bit of testosterone involved," says Claire Guthrie Gasta๑aga, a Richmond lobbyist whose changeservant.blogspot.com is one of the few popular Virginia blogs penned by a woman. "It's easy to get intimidated, and it's real competitive: How many races can I call? How many people can I slam? The conversation seems quite masculine." Gasta๑aga's blog, by contrast, has a quieter, more analytic feel, grounded in policy, even if she did dip her toes into handicapping the election results.
"You can set your own tone," says Gasta๑aga, 57, a lawyer who represents several liberal advocacy groups. "I don't allow anonymous comments, so I don't get kids hurling epithets." (But she keeps a couple of pseudonyms of her own to post comments on other blogs "that are a shade more acerbic than my clients might be comfortable with seeing under my name.")
So what are these people? Surely bloggers paid by partisans in a campaign aren't journalists, but what about ideologically driven solo bloggers who ferret out information and post it? Are they journalists? "I go back and forth on that," says O'Brien. "Typically, what's said in a newspaper is said without name-calling and is based on more than a single source. The bloggers are jealous of you because you guys get press passes and sources talk to you and trust you and you would go to jail for a source. But they do serve some journalistic functions. And they are changing campaigns. If I'm a campaign and I have something to put out, I'm not going to call you, because you're going to check it out. I'm going to create a fake name account on Yahoo! and dump the item on my favorite cooperative blog, and he'll just post it." Not exactly a textbook definition of journalism.
The summit was a social success "There's a certain clubbiness to the blogosphere, and I like that," Jaquith says but came to no conclusions about whether or how to set basic ethical standards for bloggers. Bacon issued a treatise positing that while "bloggers have done a phenomenal job of pointing out the biases, inaccuracies and flaws of the Mainstream Media, the blogosphere has tremendous credibility problems of its own." He proposed that bloggers voluntarily adopt standards no anonymity, openly stated conflicts of interest, a commitment to fact-checking. But while some bloggers, including Jaquith and Dotson, embraced the idea, "in the end, it's a bunch of maniacal individualists," Bacon says. "They just think they can say anything they want to, without any limits."
Those who endorsed Bacon's initiative see it as a way to forestall state action. "If we don't adopt standards, the General Assembly will," says Jaquith. Given First Amendment protections, state regulation of bloggers' speech seems far-fetched, but legislators are already grumbling about what they see as libelous, anonymous attacks presumably from campaign opponents on some comment boards, and several lawmakers have contacted state campaign finance officials to ask whether partisan bloggers are covered by existing regulations.
Chris Piper, manager of the campaign finance division at Virginia's Board of Elections, met with the bloggers at their summit ("I felt like a cop at a Grateful Dead show," he quips) and encouraged them to consider voluntary standards because "legislators have a tendency to try to control things that are out of control."
"I've had calls from legislators asking if a blog is supporting fundraising for a candidate," Piper says. "We sent out a few letters, but we backed off quickly because we didn't really have jurisdiction."
One of those letters went to Lowell Feld, who runs Raising Kaine, a blog created to promote the Democrat in the governor's race. Feld, a 43-year-old economist who analyzes oil markets for the U.S. Department of Energy and lives in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia, started his blog after working on the Wesley Clark and John Kerry presidential campaigns. Feld's blog from the start was more partisan than most; from the title to the posts, it was all about getting Kaine elected. But Feld avoided contact with the Kaine campaign at first, believing he could be more pointed if the campaign had "plausible deniability. If they wanted to be positive, we could be the attack dogs."
But the blog seemed so close to Kaine that the Board of Elections called to check out the relationship. Who was paying for the blog? Piper wanted to know. Feld replied that he had no financial tie to the campaign. In any event, the whole shebang cost him less than $1,000 and was therefore not covered by campaign finance rules. Piper suggested that Feld add a disclaimer noting that the blog was not authorized by any campaign, and the state went away.
Feld eventually met Kaine and his staffers but "we made them nervous because we weren't under their control," the blogger says. True, but the Kaine campaign liked having Feld's site around because it let Democrats take shots at their opponent from a comfortable distance. Feld didn't seek approval for his attacks on Kilgore, yet the blogger says, "I'm sure they'd figure out a way to tell me if there was something they really didn't want me doing."
The candidates' own online campaigns were cautious. Kaine's blog was a dry collection of news releases, memos from the campaign manager and links to favorable stories. But while the campaigns kept close tabs on the outside blogs staffers were often up-to-the-hour on the arguments roaring on the most active sites they did so with a heavy dose of fear and loathing.
One week after the election, Kilgore's campaign manager, Ken Hutcheson, let out his frustrations with an e-mail responding to critical commentary on Bacon's Rebellion: It's party activists and campaign managers, not bloggers, "who actually get out there and roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty and work the long hours for the cause while folks like yourself and plenty of others like to sit back and type away on your computers and BLOGS, but in reality, each of you is kind of sad and pathetic in your own right... Why don't you spare everyone your uninformed and laughable babble and try and earn a shred of credibility so that you don't remain the laughingstock of Virginia?"
Kenton Ngo is no laughingstock. He's been quoted in major newspapers. Campaigns use his maps and charts. Other bloggers cite his analyses. Ngo has won this credibility despite his lack of political or journalistic experience. Ngo is a ninth-grader at West Springfield High School in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. His blog, 750 Volts, a name inspired by the warning signs on the third rail of the Metro transit system, won a steady audience of a couple of hundred daily visitors even before many readers realized they were taking in the work of a 14-year-old.
Ngo made short order of my question about bloggers' identity. "The difference between a regular journalist and me is we both try to keep things truthful, but I have an agenda I'm an activist. We don't have the resources journalists have. We need the mainstream media this has to be someone's day job." Ngo summed it up in three words: "It's all changing."
The end of the campaign brought a sense of wistfulness to many Virginia bloggers. Several said they didn't expect the blogosphere to be quite as open and free the next time around. Candidates, corporations, advocacy groups and paid bloggers operatives hired by interest groups to blog as if they were ordinary voters threaten to dominate the landscape next campaign season. Bloggers still cheer whenever one of their online brethren pokes a hole in a story from the MSM. But increasingly, bloggers turned away from the question of who's a journalist to focus more on whose voices will be heard.
Many expect their little club to be overtaken by the same consultants and professional campaigners who have spent the past couple of decades trying to stage-manage the relationship between candidates and the press. Matt Stoller, who ran a blog for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's campaign, wrote in his election postmortem that while official campaign bloggers like him play "second fiddle to the traditional communications and press operation," the role of the blogs will only expand. As TiVo, satellite radio and other new technologies draw voters away from possible exposure to candidates' broadcast ads, campaigns will find blogs ever more attractive as a way to reach the citizenry. Campaigning will become more viral, seeking to use the ranks of the already committed to pass the message along to ever-wider circles of potential voters. "Politics is about to become a lot messier, a lot more open, and in all likelihood, a lot bloodier," Stoller wrote.
Blogs an amorphous mix of opinion and fact, grass roots and establishment that is already changing the dynamics of politics in the Internet era are not journalism as we've known it, but they will be an essential tool in the transformation to whatever comes next.
Marc Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Washington Post columnist, wrote about coverage of Hurricane Katrina in AJR's October/November issue. Fisher's new blog, Raw Fisher, appears at blog.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher. ###