Features » April 13, 2005
The Blogosphere: Insiders vs. Outsiders
What most journalists and others who observe the new phenomenon of political blogging fail to understand is that the “blogosphere” is actually two rather sharply distinct spheres.
It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise when Time named the right-wing blog PowerLine “Blog of the Year” in December 2004. After all, PowerLine had been widely read by the mainstream media because of its role in a big journalism story—the Dan Rather “Memogate” affair.
In the days after the infamous September 8, 2004 broadcast, PowerLine was among the first to point out the anomalies in the alleged National Guard memos. The notoriety stuck, although a later investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review revealed that the PowerLine bloggers—as well as others who gained national media attention, like Buckhead from Free Republic and Charles Johnson of LittleGreenFootballs—were uniformly wrong as to the details, and only right in the larger sense that the memos could not be authenticated.
Nonetheless, from that point on, the right-wing blogosphere became the go-to place for nifty blog stories, leaving the less-celebrated lefty blogs largely ignored by the mainstream media.
What most journalists and others who observe the new phenomenon of political blogging fail to understand is that the “blogosphere” is actually two rather sharply distinct spheres. These roughly mirror the country’s political divide and are organized in very different ways.
The right blogosphere operates largely as part of the greater Republican message machine. Many of its bloggers are already part of that infrastructure, working as journalists for conservative publications, writing books and lecturing. Independent bloggers on the right hail from all walks of life, but the leading voices are either part of the political machine itself, like Mike Krempasky of RedState, or closely connected to the conservative media and think tank infrastructure, like Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin and the PowerLine bloggers. The right blogosphere is a reflection of successful top-down Republican message control, and as such these bloggers are welcomed warmly into the fold.
As Garance Franke-Ruta writes in the April issue of The American Prospect, the right-wing blogosphere has also recently become useful to long-established political operatives such as Morton Blackwell, mentor to iconic GOP campaign strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater. In the recent Eason Jordan affair, the right blogosphere was credited with forcing the former chief news executive of CNN to resign over a controversial off-the-record comment. It turned out that many conservative blogs were part of this larger concerted effort. In the wake of this success, conservatives are now running what Franke-Ruta describes as “Internet Activist Schools, designed to teach conservatives how to engage in guerilla Internet activism,” or what some people used to call “dirty tricks.”
By contrast, the left blogosphere is populated by “citizen bloggers,” who work in non-political occupations for a living and blog for reasons of personal interest. This sphere actually operates as a unique and potentially powerful political constituency rather than a part of the Democratic Party apparatus. Unlike their counterparts on the right, the lefty blogs have had to crash the party, but because they did it with energy, votes and money, they are making themselves a power in their own right.
In the last election cycle the “netroots” exerted their influence through prodigious fundraising, contributing greatly to the Democrats’ fundraising efforts. Howard Dean’s primary campaign also demonstrated that the Internet was a rich source of small individual donations that collectively added up to many millions. But throughout the campaign, blogs such as Daily Kos and Eschaton were able to raise the six figure sums that normally only fat cats like Bush “Pioneers” could generate. And along with that money came a large group of engaged and informed netroot activists who were able, in the weeks leading up to the election, to marshal a boycott of national advertisers virtually overnight to protest Sinclair Broadcasting’s plan to air a blatantly partisan documentary about John Kerry. That action led to a precipitous downgrading of Sinclair stock, enough to cause the company to abandon its plans.
Lefty blogs also spend a lot of time discussing various ways for the party to hone its political message in the hopes that these ideas will percolate up from the blogosphere and gain the attention of the powers that be. They have found that through the amplification of many blogs linking to certain themes and concepts over time, good ideas rise to the attention of those who have the power to put them to work in the mainstream media.
Because of these sucesses, some progressives believed that the recent efforts by Republican members of the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) to regulate blogs as paid political speech may have been motivated by partisanship. As it turns out, the new proposed FEC rule changes, still subject to public comment, continue to exempt blogs from regulation.
With all of the potential for fundraising, “guerilla activism” and massaging, perhaps neither party wants to unduly inhibit their sector of the blogosphere.