Thursday :: May 28, 2009

Bloggers on the Bus: A Conversation with Eric Boehlert - Part 1


by eriposte

Eric Boehlert who is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush" has published a new book "Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press".

Several bloggers have either conducted interviews with Boehlert or have discussed/reviewed the book - Glenn Greenwald, Laura Flanders at Firedoglake, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerilla, Anglachel, Alegre, Big Tent Democrat at Talk Left Nicole Belle at Crooks & Liars, and Paradox at The Left Coaster.

Bloggers_on_the_Bus_cover.jpg

Boehlert's book is definitely a must-read. It is an extremely engaging, well written book discussing the role that the liberal blogosphere played in changing American politics for the better. He has fascinating profiles of several bloggers and it is written in a manner that is un-putdown-able. He also tackles the difficult subject of the 2008 Democratic primary in a thoughtful and objective manner. As Media Matters CEO David Brock said:

...Boehlert goes inside the liberal blogosphere and provides the most definitive and extensive look at the netroots movement to date. Using the historic 2008 White House campaign as a backdrop, Boehlert also details how bloggers helped set the agenda -- a role once considered to be the exclusive province of the establishment Beltway press corps.

Inspired by Timothy Crouse's landmark 1973 book, The Boys on the Bus, which unveiled modern campaign journalism at the time, Boehlert pulls back the online curtain and helps readers better understand the revolution that's taken place, as well as the unlikely participants who are leading it: students, housewives, attorneys, professors, musicians.

I would encourage readers to buy a copy and read it because I believe it is worth it (Media Matters is also offering an autographed copy free to those who donate more than $50).

I'm not planning to write a detailed review of the book. Instead, I'm going to publish an email interview with the author spread over a few blog posts to cover different topics that are discussed in the book. Today's post includes the first installment of this email Q&A with Eric Boehlert. A big thanks to Eric for doing this!


QUESTION 1 [Eriposte]: One of the things I noticed in the book is that most of your observations on the blogosphere are either based on your own analysis or based on interviews with bloggers. Did you interview any members of the Obama, Clinton or McCain campaigns to get their views on both the left-leaning and right-leaning blogs? If so, what did you hear from them? If you did not conduct any interviews with members of those campaigns, can you explain why?

Eric Boehlert: I interviewed Peter Daou, who was the internet point person for the Clinton campaign, but I waited until after the dem primary battle was over to do that. I tried to interview Joe Rospars, who was Daou's equivalent at the Obama campaign, but was not able to do so, even after the November general election. Joe was willing, but the campaign's communications team never approved my interview requests. 


QUESTION 2 [Eriposte]: As you have explained in the book, much of the media continues to either downplay bloggers or treat them with disdain. So, I'm not surprised you didn't have much by way of media interviews in this book. That said, did you approach anyone in the traditional media to ask for their views on the role and influence of left-leaning v. right-leaning bloggers in the 2008 election, and if so, did any of them provide any comments on this?

Eric Boehlert: No, I didn't approach anyone in the mainstream press to talk [to] them about the rise of the bloggers or their impact. This might sound odd, but honestly I didn't really care what they thought, or if they thought bloggers were sufficiently serious, etc. It seems to me the traditional press for the last seven years has made its feelings known about the bloggers and I didn't really want to spend time/space in the book repeating that. Or turning to them to legitimize the netroots movement.


 

QUESTION 3 [Eriposte]: You discuss the origin of the "netroots" and the left-leaning blogs but seem to attribute it to the Bush-era, especially the 2003+ time period and the rise of blogs like DailyKos, MyDD and others. It is certainly true that widespread blogging by progressive or Democratic activists is probably traceable to that period but I think that provides a rather incomplete picture. The existence of key left-leaning blogs/websites like The Daily Howler (and the now-defunct site formerly known as Media Whores Online) that offered rather stinging media critiques pre-dated the Bush era. Yet, these blogs don't get any mention in your book - a point that Anglachel also noted and critiqued. In fact, my personal entry to blogging was not just a reaction to the excesses of the Bush era - it was to a large extent based on what I had learnt from The Daily Howler and books like The Hunting of the President. I would go far enough to say that the main reason why I started blogging in 2002 was that I felt the media environment in the U.S. was terrible and very rightward tilted and really prevented a lot of facts and truths from being revealed and discussed in public. That's the reason why, when I started my first website (eRiposte), it was meant as a site to post electronic ripostes to fact-free claims in the media (let's set aside the utter lack of originality in the name that I chose). So, the question for you is - was the lack of coverage of the role or influence of, say, Bob Somerby (The Daily Howler) in the evolution of the progressive blogosphere mostly an oversight or ....?

Eric Boehlert: Yes, I read Anglachel's critique of 'bloggers on the bus,' and thought she raised an important point. She might not know that in my 2006 book 'lapdogs: how the press rolled over for bush,' I called Somerby's work "fearless, exhaustive, and brilliant," and told readers that if it weren't for his tireless work, 'lapdogs' wouldn't have been possible. So I'm a huge fan of the Daily Howler and with 'lapdogs' did my best to shine a spotlight on Bob's work. But for 'bloggers on the bus,' I didn't really see Daily Howler as part of the activist liberal blogosphere that I often focused on in the book. Meaning, Daily Howler does not raise money for candidates or push policy initiatives or urge readers to get involved in blogswarms. Bob does media criticism, and it's some of the best on the planet. But I don't see his site, and I doubt he sees his site, as a place for political activism in the model of Daily Kos or Firedoglake, etc. That's really the only reason that the Daily Howler and Media Whores [Online] were not mentioned. That, and the fact I had to cut 35K words prior to publication.

Eriposte: That’s what I figured since I know you’ve discussed Somerby’s work before, but I thought I’d check. 


QUESTION 4 [Eriposte]: One of the things I really like about your book is the discussion of the backgrounds and past lives of some of the left-leaning activists and bloggers. I felt it added a lot of color to the book and injected more life into it. One of the topics you discuss is the fascinating ad created in early 2007 by Phil de Vellis - "Vote Different" - which was intended as a stinging criticism of then Senator Hillary Clinton. I'm not trying to pick on de Vellis here, but I want to use your discussion of that ad to bring up a broader dynamic that is not specifically discussed in your book - something that is integral to the notion of a "netroots" based on reality

Back in 2007 and even through part of 2008, it was clear to me that there were numerous so-called progressive "netroots" activists who actually knew little about the totality of the voting record of Senator Clinton and succumbed to repeating both stereotypical criticisms of her - stuff that used to generally originate from Republicans - as well as rather predictable portrayals of her as a triangulating centrist who could not be trusted to vote progressively on many issues. The latter portrayal had at best partial merit in a few limited cases but nothing that I would consider extraordinary or significant when reviewing her and her opponents' actual voting as well as fundraising records. In some cases, it was pretty clear that some of the activists simply assumed and freely asserted that Hillary Clinton of the 2000s, and specifically Hillary Clinton of 2007/2008, was a copy of her husband Bill Clinton of the 1990s as if they were one and the same person and had no differences of opinion on various issues. Further, unlike the case of Sen. John Edwards, where some of the same activists repeatedly portrayed Edwards as a credible and progressive ChangeTM candidate because he had changed some of his rhetoric or positions not too long before the start of the Primary, there was a clear effort by these people to make Sen. Clinton seem like she was Bill Clinton of the 1990s regardless of any changes she (had) made to her rhetoric or positions. The ensuing dynamic of course was that hordes of "netroots" activists were ready to portray Sen. Clinton's voting record in a highly inaccurate manner without bothering to even minimally fact check their sweeping assertions. In fact, until I actually looked at her voting records in some depth and compared it to that of the other Democratic candidates, I had seen hardly anyone on the "left" - even front-pagers on most of the so-called A-list progressive blogs - show any particular interest in carefully examining or revealing (if others had published such analysis) the existing voting records of the various candidates, before either making judgments of their own or to help their readers make more informed judgments about the candidates. For a community that prided itself on being reality-based, and founded in part to combat the lack of critical information or the spread of misinformation in the traditional media, why do you suppose this was the case? Why do you think we ended up in a situation where the notion of a reality-based community took a backseat to what was at best indifference or at worst shoot-from-the-hip or make-stuff-up commentary?

Eric Boehlert: "Irrational loyalties," was how one prominent blogger described the situation from the 2008 primary season. That blogger was taking a swipe at both camps, but I think the larger point stands. I'm still not sure why the debate from the spring of 2008 generated into what it did, and I'm not sure many bloggers today really want to look back and search for answers to that question. I don't think there's any question that the blogosphere, at least for a while there, became  unrecognizable in terms of walking away from the high intellectual standards it had set for itself in previous years. Obviously, the campaign season was going to create various splits since the blogosphere was not going to automatically coalesce around one candidate. And as I mentioned in the book during 2007, the split was between Edwards, Obama and Clinton and the debates online were mostly rational and earnest and intelligent. But then Edwards got out of the race in January, 2008, and pretty much all hell broke loose right after that and the old blog rules sorta went out the window. Today, online backers of Obama and Clinton say the other was to blame (i.e. they started it.)


QUESTION 5 [Eriposte]: Continuing the train of thought from my previous question, let's look at the same issue from a slightly different angle. Pew had conducted an interesting poll back in April 2007. You can click through and review the results - focus in particular on the section titled "Ideology of the Candidates". One aspect of the results was certainly unsurprising in that Republican voters tended to view Sen. Clinton as far more liberal than Democratic voters viewed her - thanks in large part to the Republican Noise Machine. Interestingly, Democratic primary voters viewed her as being a bit more liberal than Sen. Obama and Sen. Edwards and they also believed that Sen. Edwards was slightly more conservative than both Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton (which was actually generally consistent with their voting records). To me, that suggested a strong disconnect between the statements and caricatures about Sen. Clinton's voting record that was fairly prevalent amongst the "netroots" (including amongst prominent movement leaders or activists) versus what most Democratic primary voters believed at that time. I did not devote much blog-time to this during the primary itself, but it was a topic that I had intended to discuss at some point but never got an opportunity to. This disconnect was pretty evident in some of the blogs - especially Daily Kos. As you point out in your book, Sen. Edwards had been the odds-on favorite at Daily Kos for a while (at least before he dropped out of the race), even though the Democratic primary electorate back in 2007 viewed Sen. Edwards as being slightly more conservative than Sen. Clinton. Now, one of the arguments might be that Sen. Edwards had changed his stances or rhetoric on so many issues by 2007 - but Sen. Clinton had also changed her stance or rhetoric on some key issues. Do you have any thoughts on what was behind the disconnect between Democratic primary voters and the so-called reality-based "netroots" community, many sections of which, as I pointed out above, was often woefully uninterested or uninformed about the actual voting records of the various candidates? Since you have been focused on the media for long, do you believe the media had anything to do with it - or do you think there were other reasons?

Eric Boehlert: I think large sections of the blogosphere viewed Hillary Clinton through a 1990's prism in which the Clintons, and particularly Bill, were seen as triangulating politicians who turned their back on the liberal wing of the democratic party;  who turned their back on the unions and liberal activists and embraced a more centrist approach. As you have written about in detail, the Clintons did that because they were facing a country moving to the right and a political landscape where the republican party was on the rise. Basically, the Clintons were fight[ing] for their political survival and the survival of the democratic party. But I think in 2007-2008 that context was often left out and liberals online, especially their activists readers and diarists, automatically, sort of a knee-jerk way tagged Hillary Clinton as a center-right politician, even though I'm not sure that was accurate.


QUESTION 6 [Eriposte]: The very first chapter of your book is titled Fox News and "WTF?". It was, like everything else in the book, a fascinating read. However, I was surprised that, unlike your earlier (also splendid) work, there is very limited focus on the traditional media in explaining the rise of the "netroots". I am sure the omission was not intentional - perhaps you were time and length-constrained. However, one thing that I see very often is "netroots" activists who are all consumed by the right-wing media (or Fox News) that they seem to have either no memory or understanding of the principal source of fake scandals and media fraud during the Clinton presidency and the 2000 election campaign - i.e., the political "reporting" from traditional media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, and so on. Time and again, there is a focus on not providing legitimacy to Fox News (which is fine), but hardly any concern about legitimizing some of the political shops of the traditional media outlets which were responsible for most of the damage done to President Clinton, to Vice President Gore, to Sen. John Kerry and to then Sen. Hillary Clinton. I am curious why you did not delve deeper into this subject because one of the reasons the trajectory of the Democratic primary evolved the way it did was that much of the Obama-supporting "netroots" became one with the traditional media and closed the Daou triangle against Sen. Clinton (except during those limited occasions when Sen. Obama became the target of the media). This topic is important to me because it has significant implications for the future of any "netroots" based movement to change the trajectory of this country - so I'd like your thoughts on this.

Eric Boehlert: As I mentioned earlier I had to cut 35K words, so that's going to be more sort of umbrella cop-out. But the point you raise about delegitimizing mainstream press outlets who routinely do damage to democrats, and not just focusing on fox news, is an important one. As is your point that at times during the dem primary large portions of the blogs were in unison with the mainstream press in terms of attacking Hillary Clinton; blogs were on the same page as Maureen Dowd, for instance, in terms of attacking a democrat (Clinton) in a way we've probably never seen before. It seemed like an anomaly and right after the dem primary season was over, the blogs once again distanced themselves from the mainstream press and became far more critical of it. But if that phenomena plays out again in years to come it's going to undercut the blogosphere's ability to call out the traditional press in the future.

Eriposte: The point you raise in the end is really critical. To me, the “netroots” can no longer claim to be better than the traditional media anymore, especially if “irrational loyalties” (#4) are going to play such a big role in their coverage of important issues. There is simply no way any more to pretend that the traditional media are somehow more untrustworthy than the blogosphere due to the implicit or explicit loyalties of the former, whatever they might be. 

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