League of Women Voters Convention
Sorry about the time it took me to get this up on the site, I had to change my scribbled notes into a more web-ready format.
This Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at the Maine League of Women Voters' annual convention as the representative "blogger" on a media panel along with Liz Talbot, anchor and news director for WVII (ABC 7). Judy Meyer of the Lewiston Sun Journal was also scheduled to speak, but she had a family emergency.
I really enjoyed Ms. Talbot's remarks, especially during the question period as she explained the difficulties of running a modern local news department with a small staff, a tight schedule, and a small budget. In particular, she mentioned the difficulty of going beyond the he-said, she-said nature of political reporting and doing more objective analysis without a research department and other resources. Her biggest fear: being replaced by Wheel-of-Fortune.
The League members were incredibly hospitable and very interested in the subjects we were discussing. I met a lot of great people, a few of whom surprised me by relating that they were already readers of this blog. Thank you, Al Gore, for the internet.
Click here to read the rest of this post and my own thoughts on changing media trends and their relationship to political coverage.
(I began by describing Maine Politics and the basic idea of a blog. If you're reading this, you probably already know enough about that, so I'll jump right in to my thoughts on weblogs as a news medium. The following text was imported from word, so it might be missing a few apostrophes or have other typos.)
Today I want to talk about online political journalism on a more general level.
I don't think blogs will ever replace the mainstream press or any of that nonsense, but they are an incredible tool that can be used by anyone and reach everyone.
They are quick and dirty publishing platforms that allow you to communicate with a large audience in seconds. This results in a lot of interesting reading, but it results in a lot of misinformation and heated rhetoric as well.
There are two things that political weblogs are very good at. The first is discussing things that might not get coverage from larger media sources. The second is providing a means for collaborative activism.
To understand the importance of blogs as a media source, lets take a look at the recent history of political coverage.
50 years ago, in the Maine gubernatorial election of 1954, Edmund S. Muskie beat the Republican incumbent governor by using an attentive press to run an insurgent campaign and became the first Democrat to win state-wide office since the great depression. He did this despite an almost 3 to 1 Republican advantage in voter registration.
In his latest book on Maine elections, Chris Potholm, the Bowdoin College professor and political consultant discussed the press coverage of that election.
Today it would be almost impossible to run the type of campaign that Muskie put together. The newspaper reporters of today - as well as their editors - simply would not cover the race they did earlier. For most Newspapers in Maine, political campaigns are not worth covering in their ebb and flow, only in the generic sense of press conferences and polls. [...]
While an AP or print reporter might take a one-day swing with a candidate to get the flavor of his or her campaign, no news organization would follow the candidate around as did the reporters in 1954. [...]
Regrettably, this print coverage is long gone in Maine politics and has been replaced by made-for-TV public appearances and the 30-second commercial. Newspaper editorials decry the high cost of campaigns and the overemphasis on television, but newspapers themselves are the major reason for these developments. They simply do not pay enough attention to campaigns to give their readers anything but the most epigonic of coverage.
Now I don't agree with Potholm that the blame for this lies solely with newspapers - there are many contributing factors, but this is an example of the kind of void that online journalism can fill.
By following campaigns closely, and by providing more detailed analysis, blogs are beginning to give interested readers the kind of coverage that short TV reports and limited column inches newspapers no longer provide.
You might have heard about the right-wing bloggers who hounded CBS and Dan Rather over the National Guard Memos, and eventually contributed to his resignation. But that's just one example of many.
For instance, recently, Microsoft announced that they were dropping their support for a gay rights law in Washington State. This came after evangelical Christians threatened a boycott of their products. This was reported in local media but got very little national attention.
A liberal blogger named John Aravosis, who runs a site called AmericaBlog and who gets about half a million visitors a week took up the cause and, along with others, doggedly pursued the story. He was able to get information from sources inside the company and posted daily reports on the situation detailing Microsoft's links to right-wing groups like the Christian coalition and their cynical political maneuvering on the issue. Some of his reporting made it into the mainstream press and Microsoft soon faced a backlash from the gay community.
Yesterday, they gave in and changed their position on the bill.
These kinds of stories highlight not just online journalism, but online activism as well, which is the second thing that blogs are exceptionally good at.
The reason for this is that the majority of people who choose to communicate about politics online do so because they feel very passionately one way or another. The journalism that occurs on blogs is nothing like the journalism in newspapers and on television for this reason. Its partisan and opinionated and passionate.
(I myself am a partisan Democrat, by the way, if you haven't figured that out yet.)
These passionate people can use blogs and other similar internet tools to create online communities and accomplish political objectives.
The best example of online passion turning into activism is the Presidential run of Howard Dean. His campaign reached out to the new netroots and found a motivated base of supporters who were able to organize themselves using the tools of the internet into a potent political force. They weren't able to win him the nomination, but they beat every other campaign in terms of contributions and volunteers.
A Maine example occurred in November when WGME in Portland, along with other TV stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, prepared to run a documentary biased against Senator Kerry just a few days before the election. You might remember how a dozen Maine businesses publicly dropped their advertising from WGME. The reason why was that several popular left-leaning internet communities including dailykos.com, the largest Democratic blog, organized a national phone and email campaign targeting Sinclair's advertisers. Sinclair eventually relented and replaced the program with a more balanced piece.
Weblogs aren't always a tool of the people, however. In South Dakota last year, during the hard-fought Senate race between Tom Daschle and John Thune, two Republican bloggers got national attention by making it their goal to change one aspect of the political dynamic of the state. They focused in on South Dakota's main newspaper, the Argus Leader, and began to attempt to influence their reporting.
They attacked most of the papers articles as biased and targeted the main political writer and his editors personally, claiming that they had ties to the incumbent Senator. They succeeded in creating controversy and making some very public attacks against Daschle.
After the election was over and Daschle was defeated, it was revealed that the two bloggers were actually paid operatives of the Thune campaign, a fact they had never disclosed. One of them had received $27,000 for his services.
In January it was reported that Thune had a meeting with other Republican Senators and urged them to explore using blogs in their own political campaigns. David Winston, a GOP pollster who was present, said that, "given that success story, the senators were very interested.... A lot of conversation went back and forth. I think we were scheduled for about an hour, and it went an hour and a half." Even senators who missed out on the session have been asking for details of Thune's story. "Other senators have asked him in private how he worked with the bloggers," says Thune spokesman Alex Conant.
Some have already taken his words to heart. The anonymous authors of a blog supporting the reelection of embattled Senator Conrad Burns of Montana were recently revealed to be a couple of Republican writers for the American Spectator who actually live no where near big sky country and are being paid to say nice things about Burns.
(I concluded my talk with the guarantee that blogs would play an increasing role in political journalism and activism and I outlined a new project I'm currently working on in this vein - stay tuned to the site for more information.)
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