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From AJR,   June/July 2009  issue

Off the Bus   

Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press

By Eric Boehlert

Free Press

352 pages; $26


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

An obvious irony underlies "Bloggers on the Bus," Eric Boehlert's study of how motley, fervent amateurs transformed coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign.

The irony is that the bloggers weren't on the bus at all. Unlike the reporters profiled in "The Boys on the Bus," Timothy Crouse's memorable look at election reporting in 1972, Boehlert's cast of bloggers rarely saw, much less spoke to, a live presidential candidate.

This proves important, for it is their very distance from the action that helps explain both the contributions and limitations enormous in both cases of the expanding legion of citizen journalists.

Boehlert's readable book captures the passion and quirkiness of many of these characters, and charts their role in several game-changing episodes. A senior fellow at Media Matters for America, Boehlert focuses on the liberal blogosphere, dubbed "netroots," and dismisses conservative bloggers as too attached to yesteryear's talk radio and largely irrelevant.

Triumphantly and persuasively, though without actual proof, he asserts the blogosphere's role in John McCain's "lopsided, Internet-fueled defeat."

Bloggers, he writes, "helped democratize the process by sapping the mainstream media of some of its previous, oracle-like control over the campaign narratives." They "vetted Sarah Palin better than the GOP," "unleashed blog swarms on offensive cable commentators who diminished Democratic candidates" and pushed key issues onto the mainstream media's agenda.

An army of eyes, ears and memories, bloggers served as a ubiquitous virtual truth squad, different in one vital way from professional journalists: They aggressively took sides.

Who were they? The likes of Robert Greenwald, Hollywood television producer turned viral video maker; Joe Anthony, a paralegal whose Obama MySpace fan page drew 160,000 friends; the "slightly rebellious, unrepentant minister's daughter" Jane Hamsher; the former professional saxophonist John Amato; ex-mechanic Bruce Wilson; and high school math teacher Stephanie Craig.

They blogged under assumed names like Atrios, Stiffa and Digby at sites like Crooks and Liars, Firedoglake and Suburban Guerrilla, and from as far away as Rio de Janeiro.

Most powerful were two sites: The Huffington Post and Daily Kos, high-profile liberal gathering places where a mention or link could flood a lesser-known site with thousands of viewers.

For the most part, they operated off the bus, present virtually but not physically for campaign functions. But they showed muscle and sharp instincts, recognizing Barack Obama as phenom early, goading Democrats into canceling a debate sponsored by Fox (the "mouthpiece for the Republican Party"), and exposing on YouTube the anti-Semitic rants of McCain backer John Hagee.

To be fair, the citizen journalists did contribute some significant in-person reporting. A "break-out star" was Mayhill Fowler, the Oakland novelist and intellectual who spent $50,000 of her own money following candidates. (See The Beat, October/November 2008.) In work she called "more fun than my honeymoon," Fowler won two big scoops, luring Bill Clinton to call reporter Todd Purdum "sleazy" and a "scumbag," and taping Obama's San Francisco remark about bitter small-town Pennsylvanians clinging to guns and religion.

But Fowler's role also ties in with potential ethical problems of citizen journalism. A "maxed-out donor" to Obama, she was at the San Francisco fundraiser as a guest, not as an accredited journalist. She delayed the story to think through her "instincts to protect the candidate."

Many bloggers also exposed their gullibility, for example by fixating on the quickly discredited rumor that Palin's daughter, not the governor herself, had given birth to her last child. Their passion showed a nasty side when the blogo-sphere turned on Sen. Hillary Clinton in crudely sexist ways.

Overall, the bloggers derived great advantages from staying off the bus. They could think independently, avoid the pack and not be beholden to sources and candidates.

But that distance also created blind spots and fed rumors, made it hard to provide primary evidence and soak up the feel of candidates in action. It proved tricky to blend journalism's neutral reporting with activism's desire to mobilize and spin the message.

To see bloggers as supplanting traditional coverage seems misguided. Instead, pro-am journalism probably will become increasingly synergistic. Although many bloggers in Boehlert's book express contempt for the mainstream press, it is striking how often they depended on cracking traditional media to gain credibility.

The richest irony here may be that traditional media and citizen journalists aren't so much competitors as codependents.

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@jmail.umd.edu), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.