Friday :: Jun 5, 2009

Bloggers on the Bus: A Conversation with Eric Boehlert - Part 3


by eriposte

[Previous parts: Part 1, Part 2].

This is the last part 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".

Bloggers_on_the_Bus_cover.jpg

In this third and final part, the focus is almost entirely on the "blog war" of 2008 - which is basically covered in two of the fourteen chapters of Eric's book. In yesterday's post I briefly discussed the issue of self-censorship of some bloggers (more on that from Vastleft at Corrente). In today's post my focus is really on what some of the "A-list" bloggers wrote. (Note that I use terms like "A-list" or "C-list" purely in the sense of delineating high v. low traffic blogs and my definition of "A-list" has no connection to the content that is published).


QUESTION 1 [Eriposte]: Let's shift now to the subject of the Blog War of 2008 - no doubt the most un-favorite topic of my readers. Now, I know this is only a small part of your book and your book is really more about the rise of left-leaning bloggers and how they've changed the face of politics largely for the better. I thought you approached this difficult subject very well and discussed it in a fairly dispassionate manner. Since I'm in the anti-Dick Cheney camp - in that I believe we can't turn the page and look forward unless we actually read the page and figure out how to first fix the mistakes in the page - this is a topic of great interest to me given how the long-term success of the "netroots", in my view, is dependent on how we address some of the issues that came to the fore during the Democratic primary. Let's start with a question pertaining to a comment from journalist/blogger Dave Neiwert, posted in response to your book at Crooks & Liars.

Dave's comment was: "I wanted to commend you especially for the material on the primary fight and how ugly things got in the liberal blogosphere. You managed to write about it fairly and dispassionately. I only would have added one thing: You quite rightly tagged the Obama supporters for the eager adoption of old right-wing crap about Hillary. I would also add, however, that the same was true to a large of the Clinton camp WRT Obama -- especially the "a black man can't win" meme." At one level Dave is right (as he discusses in his post) but at another level, I don't necessarily agree with his comparison. The reason is that your book, as I see it, discusses the left-leaning blogger community and not voters in general. The left-leaning blogger community considers itself to be politically much more aware and certainly much more knowledgeable than average Americans about political candidates and issues and has been a largely self-driven force in the internet-based resurgence of the Democratic party. Dave, on the other hand, was talking about supporters or voters in general. I don't have any doubt that some Clinton voters did believe that "a black man can't win", but in my readings of pretty much all mainstream bloggers who were supporting Clinton (whether here at TLC or at Talk Left, MyDD, etc.) - I did not see anyone make such arguments. Further, there were a few largely, previously unknown blogs (let me loosely refer to them as "C-list" or "D-list" for the sake of discussion) that were run by some unhappy Clinton supporters who unfortunately recycled right-wing character assassination of Obama, but the right-wing type character assassination of Clinton was spread fairly routinely by some A-list front-page bloggers at sites like Daily Kos, Americablog, Talkingpointsmemo, Huffington Post, and so on. Likewise, you quote Jane Hamsher on page 121 referring to "diaries at Daily Kos" in a discussion on some of the unpleasant stuff that was being published. Perhaps this was part of a more detailed statement on her part, but the record is clear that the stuff that was being put out was not restricted to unknown or nameless diarists - some prominent A-list front-pagers were very clearly passing on the kind of stuff one might usually expect from random brainless diaries. So, the question for you is this - based on your objective analysis of the blogosphere during the primary period, do you believe there was a level of equivalence between A-list bloggers supporting Obama and A-list bloggers supporting Clinton in terms of the type of virulent junk that got transmitted in their blog posts?

Eric Boehlert: First, a bit of context. The quote from Jane Hamsher came from in an interview we did relatively early in 2008. (I want to say February 2008.) Whether at the end of the primary she would have expanded her description in terms of who was publishing unpleasant stuff, I’m not sure. But just an FYI, she made that observation before, I think, some of the bigger bloggers themselves really started to unload on Clinton.

Second, a level of equivalence in terms of the junk transmitted during the primary battle? I’d say no, it was not equal. I think the Obama blogs (or the anti-Clinton blogs), and that included readers, used a brand of attack rhetoric that was not found on the other side. I’m not saying there wasn’t nastiness on both sides, or baseless allegations launched on both sides. But I think the level of vitriol and personal contempt expressed for Clinton was rather unique. You mentioned Dave Neiwert’s observation about some Clinton backers pushing the “black man can’t win” meme. Unpleasant stuff from Clinton supporters, no doubt. But it was not, in and of itself, a personal attack on Obama the person. It was an attempt to undercut his electoral chances.

By contrast a lot of the attacks on Clinton’s candidacy were strictly personal in nature. For instance, I don’t remember reading lots of allegations online that Obama was a monster out to destroy the Democratic party. Or that he was an egomanic. Or that he was a sexist. But the inverse—that Clinton was a racist monster trying to rip the party apart for her own personal gain—became quite common by the spring of 2008.

Of course, a lot of that looked pretty hollow when one of Obama’s first acts was to appoint the ‘monster’ as his Secretary of State; a move which made the online claims against Clinton look rather foolish. And I think people realize that now. But there isn’t much interest in going back and examining the phenomena. And examine what drove the hate rhetoric.

[Eriposte note: Eric and I exchanged some additional notes on this topic. The gist of it is that his comment about Obama not being labeled a sexist really applies to the A-list pro-Clinton blogs - there were much smaller and mostly low traffic pro-Clinton blogs that did accuse Obama of being a sexist. In contrast, the references to Clinton being racist were rather common in the front pages of some A-list blogs.]


QUESTION 2 [Eriposte]: In page 121 of your book, you cite one of my favorite bloggers on the net - Glenn Greenwald - as saying the following: 'The anger "really is indistinguishable from how the right hates her," noted the influential liberal writer Glenn Greenwald, who blogged at Unclaimed Territory. "If you go over to Daily Kos, you would think you were reading Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. The level of hatred towards Hillary by a lot of pro-Obama bloggers is really extreme and even kind of disturbing and creepy."' I was not able to find this quote online - was this from an interview or one of Glenn's posts? Was it during or after the end of the primary?

Eric Boehlert: That came from one of the interviews I did with Glenn during the primary season. I’d say February or March.


QUESTION 3 [Eriposte]: On page 123, you mention Markos' hyper-aggressive post in response to the "strike" diary by Alegre (where she had protested some of the hate-filled anti-Clinton screeds that had become a bit commonplace in Daily Kos diaries during the primary). In the book, you quote Markos saying this to you at that time: "My site is for fighters. It's designed to gin up passions. I'm not about to tone it down because someone might be offended somewhere. The reason Daily Kos has been as successful as it has been is because it's a place for passionate activists, not conflict-averse weenies." I found this observation from Markos somewhat enlightening because I never went to Daily Kos just because it is a site that stirred up passions or was designed for "fighters". I used to read Daily Kos because I felt that, in general, a reality-based view was being advocated in a passionate, unapologetic way. After all, if it is just "passion" and "fighters" that I am looking for, I could just as easily listen to hate radio or read some of the terrible "conservative" blogs. So, the question I have for you is - do you believe that the quest for passionate and unapologetic activism online has to compromise on civility and reality? [In some ways, this is an analogous question to the oft-discussed issue of whether progressive talk radio has to mimic right-wing hate radio in order to be successful].

Eric Boehlert: No, I don't think passion and reality are mutually exclusive. In fact, the liberal blogosphere perfected that marriage for years while dissecting the the bush administration. What changed during the primaries, I think, was the target became a Democrat, and that there was a temporary loosening of the netroots' standards.


QUESTION 4 [Eriposte]: Let me expand the theme from the previous question. In page 137, you describe Markos' response to the abject smear - the debunked claim - that the Clinton campaign had darkened Obama's face in one of their ads. You quote Markos as saying that he stood by the story even after it had been debunked: "I have absolutely no regrets or qualms about what I did". You also discuss one of the most extraordinarily shameful and regrettable incidents during the general election where Daily Kos became a major source of the fabricated claim - also pushed heavily by Andrew Sullivan, no surprise there - that Gov. Sarah Palin's son (Trig Paxson Van Palin) was allegedly the child of her daughter Bristol Palin. What struck me then was Markos' comments to Howard Kurtz when he was asked why he let this fabrication initially go unchallenged given that it was not based on any real evidence. Kurtz quoted Markos as saying the following: "I feel a little weird about the questions being asked," he says. "But I also feel a little weird about saying, 'Shut up, people.' It takes a lot for me to step in and squash what's on Daily Kos.""[Progressive Lee Stranahan, whom you cover in the book, of course exposed Markos' double standard]. Markos also made this statement to Kurtz: "..."Our people are doing the vetting. Even if some of it is hitting dead ends, other ones are striking direct hits," Moulitsas says. His role, he adds, "is to sit back and let the citizen journalists do their job, and I amplify the stuff that shakes out."" When I consider all of this - namely, an emphasis on "passions" and "fighters" over reality or facts, the willingness to let (selective) junk be published even if some of it is "hitting dead ends" through "vetting", the unwillingness to apologize for or correct one's claims when they have been exposed as false - it bears a striking resemblance to the political and talk show Republicanism and "conservatism" we have seen for more than two decades. (Personally, it is/was surprising to me to see that Markos was that willing to tarnish the brand he built through hard work and activism over the years). So, the question for you is the following - as you look ahead, what are the principles you would like to see adopted amongst the "netroots" so that the "netroots" can credibly challenge the rumor-mongering and shoot-first, asks-questions later mentality of many op-ed columnists, cable TV and radio hosts and even some print "journalists".

Eric Boehlert: The principles ought to be the "reality-based" ones that served the netroots community so well for so long. And if you look around the blogosphere in 2009, I think they are mostly (back) in place, which gives bloggers the foundation they need to call out rumor-mongering and other nefarious MSM practices. 

Eriposte: I have to say I am not really convinced that some of the major blogs have returned to a "reality-based" model on a consistent basis. It is easy to look "reality-based" in comparison to the woeful "conservative" blogs or news media. I think there is more work to do to reach that end goal and I am not very confident that we will in fact attain that goal, especially in light of #6 and #7 below.


QUESTION 5 [Eriposte]: In the book, you point out something rather interesting - namely, that the local Alaska blogs were more likely to be accurate when discussing, reporting or analyzing news about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin than some of the major national blogs. You cite examples where the local blogs did a great job vetting and exposing Palin without the shoot-first, ask-questions later philosophy that was adopted by some of the national left-leaning blogs. Why do you think the local blogs were more disciplined about avoiding dubious conspiracy theories and uncritically spreading fake stories about Palin without reasonable fact checking? Is there something we can learn from that?

Eric Boehlert: I think over the years a lot of the Alaska bloggers had already heard the nuttier Palin conspiracies floating around, so when they surfaced in late August 2008, the bloggers immediately recognized them as hoaxes. Also, you have to remember that within the first 48 hours of Palin's VP announcement, lots of lower 48 liberals, including some bloggers, feared that the Alaska rising star might be the game-changer who could put McCain over the top. Keep in mind, at the time Obama was only polling 2-3 pts ahead of McCain. But because the Alaska bloggers were so familiar with Palin and were so convinced she was in way over her head, they didn't 'panic' the way some others may have. (And yes, some of the bloggers knew Palin personally. Phil Munger told me about the first time he met Palin two decades earlier when she was serving as a young mom on the Wasilla zoning board; Munger remembered her because it was obvious she was the only member who had actually read his construction proposal prior to the town meeting.) 


QUESTION 6 [Eriposte]: You also discuss the issue of sexism amongst some of the top bloggers and provide perspectives from Markos, John Aravosis, Chris Bowers, Melissa McEwan, Susie Madrak, Jane Hamsher, Digby and others. I have to say your treatment of this subject was also pretty impressive. It is clear from some of the defenses offered by those accused of sexist behavior that they haven't quite grasped the fact that sexism is not just about people calling women "b****" or "c***" or other epithets. In my view there was a clear lack of recognition amongst some of the top male bloggers who were supporting Obama that they had set gaping double standards for evaluating Obama and Clinton, with Clinton being the one who disproportionately suffered from the double standards. Do you feel that there is any hope for a better understanding of what some of the female bloggers have raised regarding the issue of sexism, especially Melissa McEwan, who along with other bloggers at Shakesville did a rather incredible job during the election keeping track of both race-related attacks on Obama and sexist attacks on Clinton?

Eric Boehlert: As with most internal flash points during the primary, I don't think much regarding the issue of sexism within the liberal blogosphere was settled last year. Most people didn't even want to discuss it, or acknowledge it, in real time, and there's been very little mention of it since. Well, I shouldn't say that because many Clinton bloggers have continued to write about it. But there hasn't been much in the way of any kind of sustained dialogue.

Eriposte: The book has a lot of comments from female bloggers and is worth reading. I can't emphasize the importance of people understanding the issue of double standards. One way to understand this is by considering the topic of racism. Overt racism (through the use of words like n******) is just a very small portion of what constitutes racism. Most people are not overtly racist, but some people hold certain beliefs or act in certain ways that either perpetuate racist stereotypes, promote the suppression of minority races or create double standards for judging people of different races, often without even realizing what they are doing. Sexism is not very different from this and it is sometimes more pernicious because it is often independent of skin color. Another important aspect to consider, and this is not generally sexism per se, is the fact that men and women could experience the same thing in very different ways and Digby's post on this subject - based on a recent Supreme Court discussion - is worth reading.


QUESTION 7 [Eriposte]: How many of the left-leaning A-list blogs have reviewed or discussed your book on their front pages so far? Are there additional left-leaning blogs that have invited you to do interviews or blog chats?

Eric Boehlert: How many? Not as many as I would’ve thought ;-) Confirming once again that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him/her blog. I did an online chat with Crooks and Liars and will be doing one this Sunday with FDL.


I'd like to thank Eric again for taking the time to respond to my questions.

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