Bloggers on the Bus: A Conversation with Eric Boehlert - Part 2
This is a continuation of the email conversation/Q&A with Eric Boehlert, the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush" and "Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press".
As I said in my previous post, Boehlert's book is definitely a must-read. (Media Matters is offering an autographed copy free to those who donate more than $50). In this part, I discuss topics such as Twitter, the GOP's lagging adoption of online technologies, the independence of bloggers from their reader base and the role of left-leaning bloggers in the Obama administration. Tomorrow, I will publish the third and final part focused mostly on the "blog war" of 2008.
QUESTION 1 [Eriposte]: You dedicated a chapter in your book to the whole MySpace issue between Joe Anthony and the Obama campaign. You also talk about the successful use of social networking websites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter by the Obama campaign later on in the book. The immense value of these tools for communications and organizing is clear and the Obama campaign used them in a formidable way to rally his supporters. That said, there is an aspect about these types of websites that worries me and I'd like to get your thoughts on this. One of the challenges we've had over the years is the dumbing down of news - the reduction of issues and news to often misleading or incorrect sound-bites with the nuance or details stripped out. In that environment, the person with the most effective marketing or messaging usually wins - whether or not the messaging is in fact accurate. This was in fact one of the reasons for the GOP's rise to power since the 1980s - the use of "fair and balanced" opinion rather than facts and the use of dumbed down talking points about themselves and their opposition, along with a media environment that relies on speed, messaging and brevity to provide fodder for endlessly recycled nonsense. One of the reasons why I valued the emergence of the blogosphere is the more free-form aspect of the medium, where length is not restricted and where there is an immense ability to discuss nuance and details when it is warranted. Of late, with the increasing popularity of sites like Twitter, I do worry about what this might do to the revolution of sorts in news and media that was/is represented by the blogosphere. Are we taking the risk of addicting people over time, yet again, to short-form messaging and making them more impatient when it comes to nuance and detail? I don't raise this issue lightly and I don't mean that somehow Twitter is going to replace blogs - it isn't and it is going to co-exist with the blogosphere. However, as I think about the longer-term evolution or trajectory of capabilities like Twitter - especially in a world where raw data has become extraordinarily plentiful online and there are too many sites and news sources to keep track of - I do worry about the possible consequences. Your thoughts?
Eric Boehlert: I have been thinking lately about what the long-term consequences of Twitter might be on blogging. Its growth is remarkable considering that last Election Day not that many people were even talking about Twitter. But just seven months later I think you’re right to wonder how Twitter might dramatically change the blogosphere. I use Twitter and I like it well enough, but my concerns in terms of blogging is that both Twitter’s content and form of communication could undercut the blogs’ biggest strengths.
By content I mean that, as you yourself have shown, one of the great assets of the blogosphere has been a willingness of people to really drill down deep on topics and publish, if need be, volumes and volumes of information. I’m a bit worried that the 140 character approach of Twitter, and the reading habits it promotes, might dampen the appetite for longer and at times even exhaustive essays posted online.
And in terms of communications, the blogosphere, as a collective, has been able to grow itself into a mass medium of sorts. It’s still dwarfed in terms of audience size by the traditional mass media, but it is a platform that can, and does, reach millions. With the more one-on-one, or one-on-many, approach to Twitter that mass communications aspect gets lost. Now, I realize most bloggers only use Twitter to augment their online work, or to communicate and pass around links. But I do have concerns that if Twitter [continues] its extraordinary momentum...it could, in [a] small but telling way, chip away at what the blogs do well.
QUESTION 2 [Eriposte]: You discuss the McCain campaign's and the GOP's woeful performance when it comes to adopting emerging technologies and capabilities online. I wrote about this almost 2 years ago in the context of online video, saying that a big reason why I think the GOP has been a slow adopter of YouTube is that there is probably a fear factor involved in making their supporters get hooked to online content - especially video - because internet video is such a potent tool for exposing extremism. You have listed some examples in your book on how the "netroots" has smartly used internet video clips to level the campaign playing field for Democrats by exposing the extremist positions of some Republicans. Do you believe, if the GOP continues to espouse extremist positions on many issues - especially positions that are way outside the mainstream of America, that there is any likelihood that the party will seek to make any meaningful inroads into its adoption of the latest online technologies and capabilities?
Eric Boehlert: Hmm, I hadn’t thought about the connection between the Republican Party’s extremism and its inability to harness online technology from a movement perspective. I’ll have to give that more thought. In the meantime, I think the main reason the blogosphere remains a mystery for the Right, and why it’s been lapped online by liberals, is that there’s no adult supervision among conservative bloggers. Most of them have shown that they’re un-serious people and they don’t write seriously about grown-up topics. Instead, right-wing blogs have become a fever swamp of hate and loopy conspiracy theories. Yes, they will, and do attract, a following. But in terms of real political power, I don’t think they have any. I quoted a GOP consultant who told the WashPost after the 2008 campaign, I believe, that most Republican candidates don’t understand the blogs and their campaigns don’t do anything with them. They’re just another cog in the Noise Machine and don’t really bring anything unique to the media table, except perhaps their hallmark affection for nut job conspiracy theories. (See last week’s Dealergate).
QUESTION 3 [Eriposte]: Ian Welsh wrote a response to one of the arguments in Anglachel's discussion of your book where Anglachel tried to explain why some of "netroots" bloggers favored Obama over Clinton despite Clinton's more overtly progressive policy positions during the primary. Ian's basic argument is that: "What Obama did wasn’t to manage the A-listers, he cut past the A-listers with direct outreach to their readers and captured their base from them. The Netroots didn’t turn pro-Obama from the top down, it turned pro-Obama from the bottom up.....As with the old joke about political leadership, they saw where the crowd was running, and they ran to the front of the pack and pretended to lead." Ian also acknowledges there is some truth to Anglachel's argument, but what interests me is the following. The Obama campaign certainly deserves to be congratulated for building a strong support base. But what does this mean for bloggers in general? For example, let me take Ian's argument to its logical conclusion. If a blogger is faced with a readership supporting a candidate different from his or her own choice, there would seem to be only two options for the blogger - either support the readers' favorite or don't criticize the readers' favorite candidate too much during the election. Doing anything else would obviously risk a significant loss of existing readership (of course, one might find new readers as well, but it is much harder to build a new reader base). How do you think this is going to impact the independence of bloggers and their ability to vocally support a candidate if blogging is a key source of income for them? In a situation like this, how do you think bloggers might be able demonstrate the kind of independence and avoid the kind of "false balance" that they routinely feel is missing in the traditional media.
Eric Boehlert: One of the most interesting things bloggers have told me (often off the record) about the primary season was how clear it became that their readers really did dictate what the bloggers wrote. For years, bloggers and their readers had been in heated agreement about Bush, about Iraq, about the MSM. But in lots of cases they were not in agreement about who should be the Democratic nominee and bloggers mentioned to me how strange and uncomfortable that schism was, and how in the end many of them did just punt. Meaning, they got tired of fighting with their readers and simply didn’t write certain things because they knew it would create a pie fight within the site. They’re not especially proud of it, but they have conceded that they did alter what they wrote. And that for them it was a real eye-opener because they had spent years educating their readers about politics and the press and creating certain narratives together. And then during the primary season, some bloggers felt like their readers just completely ignored those shared lessons (and of course, the readers would say it was the blogger who ignored those shared lessons) that left the bloggers with the uncomfortable choice of essentially rejecting their readers or editing what they wrote. Today, some will admit they opted for the second choice.
QUESTION 4 [Eriposte]: Another question related to the previous one. In your discussion towards the end of the book you cite some Obama supporters mentioning the fact that the Obama campaign never really did any kind of outreach to their blogger-supporters. As you highlight, the Obama campaign was focused on building a large support base independent of the bloggers, a base that was notably less partisan and ideological in comparison to the left-leaning blogosphere. In your discussion, you said: "During the campaign the implicit message from Obama's supporters, who were never asked to rally around specific liberal policies, was that they had faith in the candidate's ability and judgment, and that once he became president he would choose the correct course for the country. It was a campaign built on inspiration and change. But did that represent a sustainable movement?" This is an important question and I do remember there was a fair amount of debate on this - if not online, at least offline in emails and listservs, etc. The question for you is this, do you see any kind of meaningful role for the A-list bloggers in shaping the trajectory of the Obama administration in a much more progressive direction, especially on topics like national security and the financial crisis? I don't mean tidbits here and there - I mean major, substantive changes of the kind we were hoping for last year. The left-leaning blogs have shown themselves to be rather potent in helping make the Republican party irrelevant, at least for the time being. How relevant do you think they are likely to be in the other endeavor, as you look ahead the next 6-12 months?
Eric Boehlert: I think the blogs are still very much the underdogs when compared to Beltway institutions like lobbyists and consultants and think tanks and other well-established entities designed to shape policy inside the Beltway. So no, I don’t suspect they’ll have a huge say in shaping the trajectory of Obama’s administration. Although, they’ll obviously have a bigger say than they had in shaping the Bush agenda, which is to say a driving force of the blogosphere for years was to make sure a Democrat was in the WH and they were successful. What will be different with this Democratic administration though, as compared to the previous Clinton one when it comes to its agenda, is that there will be an organized voice on the left pushing Democrats in that direction. If you think back to the Clinton years and when the WH triangulated, Clinton did that for many reasons, not the least of which was because Republicans were on the rise and it may have been the only way for a Democratic administration to survive, let alone thrive. But when the WH veered toward the middle or even to the right on specific issues, there was very little organized pushback from the left. It seems to me Democrats knew there was almost no political price to pay for moving away from (or abandoning) liberalism. But now with the Obama WH, I think it’s clear, and already should be clear from several examples (i.e. torture photos, etc.) that when the WH moves to the center or to the right, it’s going to catch holy hell from the left. It might not stop Democrats from moving in that direction, but I think for the first time in a long time they understand, at least in the back of their mind, that there might be a price to pay for it, which is significant in and of itself, and that's because of the blogosphere.
QUESTION 5 [Eriposte]: I did find it strange, that for someone who is very meticulous about his research, your book had no footnotes and no section with references (outside of the blogger comments and news media articles you mention explicitly in the body of the text). Any reason for that?
Eric Boehlert: Good catch. I had extensive footnotes for my first book, “Lapdogs,” and had planned them for “Bloggers.” But honestly, I just ran out of time (and a bit of energy.) We turned this book around in 8 weeks, meaning it was published eight weeks after it was edited. The normal turn-around time in publishing is closer to six months. So it was quite intense, work-wise, and before I knew it the window to put the footnotes together had closed.