October 20, 2004: Features
By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Illustrations by Hal Mayforth (www.mayforth.com)
If political conventions are not what they were 50 years ago, then neither are the people who cover them. This summer, for the first time, both major parties made room at their national conventions for “bloggers,” that is, people who write Web logs.
Narrowly speaking, Web logs are personal journals of observation and opinion based at a Web site – personally produced and distributed op-ed columns, often with readers’ responses built right in. Talking Points Memo (www.talkingpointsmemo. com), for example, a popular and sometimes-scorching liberal blog written by Joshua Micah Marshall ’91, contains Marshall’s thoughts on current affairs, often posted several times a day. Some authors, like Marshall, are experienced journalists, while many have unrelated day jobs to support their blogging passion and supplement any advertising their sites may carry. Having a point of view and presenting it in a pungent way is what enables a blogger to carve out a niche of readership in the flooded information marketplace.
Blogs have grown in importance over the last several years, with the largest of them receiving millions of visits each month. Because blogs are so easy to establish and maintain, almost anyone can have one. And bloggers are proud of their independence.
That makes political parties nervous. But bowing to the omnipresence of blogs, the parties gave bloggers press credentials to their conventions this summer. The Democrats allowed bloggers to apply for credentials on the Web, issuing credentials to approximately three dozen of them. The Republicans issued invitations to about a dozen bloggers they selected in advance.
Tom Bevan ’91, who along with classmate John McIntyre ’91 writes the conservative-oriented RealClear Politics (www.realclearpolitics.com), attended the Republican National Convention in New York. He spent most of his week on “Bloggers’ Corner,” the area in the media center dedicated to Internet-based correspondents, which was really a room deep beneath Madison Square Garden, not far from “Radio Row” where the talk-radio pundits, those other symbols of the new media, set up shop.
RealClear Politics included constant dispatches from the convention, some posted at 4 a.m. Despite Bevan’s pro-Bush sympathies, not all his coverage was positive. Reviewing the address by President Bush’s twin daughters, for example, he wrote: “After the first couple of jokes I winced. After a couple of more, I was begging them to stop. They didn’t.” Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani fared far better.
Bevan was an options trader in Chicago before he and McIntyre founded RealClear Politics four years ago. “We had been talking about starting a site that appealed to people like us,” says the avowed political junkie. “People who flip to the op-ed page of the paper first.” Bevan says the site receives about 370,000 visits per month. The authors’ apartments serve as their offices. All they need to operate is a laptop.
Given that Bevan spent little time on the convention floor, which was located directly above his head, one is tempted to ask the point of his physically being in New York at all. Bevan responds that the Republican convention organizers, ever mindful of the old adage that you don’t have to like the press but you do have to feed them, regularly offered the bloggers access to pro-Bush spokesmen such as former New York Mayor Ed Koch for interviews.
Lawyer Tom Burka ’82, who describes his blog, Opinions You Should Have (www.tomburka.com), as “political humor and random musings,” received credentials to the Democratic convention but was not invited to New York. In a style similar to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, he tends to give a humorous take on world affairs, with an admittedly liberal slant. Burka ended his Democratic convention coverage with a “scoop” that John Kerry, having sewn up the Heinz ketchup endorsement by marrying his wife, was now angling for the Hellman’s mayonnaise endorsement to set up a “condiment sweep.” A post-convention story, written during the controversy surrounding the authenticity of documents about Bush’s National Guard service, was headlined: “Experts Say Latest Gallup Poll Written on 1972 Selectric Typewriter: Forged but True or Genuine and False?” The dispatch included a comment by one “Jill Swill,” who asked, “How could anyone, living in 1972 – when the nation was embroiled in a terrible quagmire of a war involving ever-escalating casualties, and the President himself was trying to unfairly manipulate a national election – ever imagine the circumstances we find ourselves into today?” Burka concedes that, in his case, access at the convention was overrated. “I generally make up what I write, so being there was not all that helpful to me,” he says of his experience in Boston.
Nicholas Confessore ’98, editor of Washington Monthly magazine and a blogger himself (though he did not attend either convention), thinks bloggers served one useful purpose this summer. “They added the only thing that is worth covering at the convention, which is color. Because nothing else happens.”
But Confessore’s colleague Amy Sullivan, a Princeton doctoral candidate in sociology and former author of a blog called Political Aims, thinks that any color bloggers might have provided at the conventions was lost amid a general lack of journalistic training. “There was a lot of star-struck behavior by the bloggers,” she says. “That’s sort of endearing, but it’s not especially useful.”
To those who complain that bloggers are not held to the same standards of accuracy and impartiality as reporters for traditional news organizations, Confessore responds tartly, “Anyone who believes anything they read on a blog without checking it is a moron.” Like anyone else in the media, he says, a blogger builds trust by establishing a track record for accuracy.
Bloggers themselves claim that they pursue news the mainstream press chooses to ignore, acting, as Burka argues, “as a check on a media that does not always police itself very well.” A paper published by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government credited bloggers, singling out Marshall, with maintaining the focus on controversial comments made by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond — a story that was at first largely ignored by the mainstream media but eventually led to Lott’s resignation from his leadership post.
But those who write blogs suggest that the authors could do better. By attending the conventions, Sullivan argues, bloggers actually missed an opportunity to provide a more useful service by critiquing the coverage provided by the traditional media. “Most bloggers survey the news that’s out there and then put their spin on it,” she says. “That doesn’t come in handy at all when you’re on the ground, at a convention.”
Confessore argues instead that bloggers should do more to distinguish themselves from the old print and broadcast media. “The big question of the day is usually set by the New York Times and the Washington Post,” he says. “But it is not always the right question.” He would like to see bloggers dig harder for their own stories rather than piggyback on those already reported by others.
“As a blogger myself,” he says, “I think they’re highly overrated.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.