3/10/2005

Blogged down

From Garance Franke-Rute of the American Prospect:
During one especially hectic week in mid-February, the Internet took three scalps in what appeared to be unrelated events. Liberal bloggers forced Talon News White House correspondent James D. Guckert, a k a “Jeff Gannon,” to resign after it was revealed that he was writing under a false name for a Republican activist group (GOPUSA), that he was not really a journalist at all, and that he had posed nude on the Internet in an effort to solicit sex for money. Conservative bloggers, meanwhile, created a firestorm after Eason Jordan, the chief news executive for CNN, made controversial remarks during an off-the-record panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggesting that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in war zones. Jordan was forced to resign. Finally, in Maryland, Joseph Steffen, a longtime aide to Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich, was fired after reporters exposed him as the author of e-mails and anonymous Web-site postings encouraging rumors about the marriage of Baltimore’s popular mayor, Martin O’Malley, a potential ’06 challenger to Ehrlich.
All unrelated stories, except for the Internet angle, right? Well, no. Scratch the surface and the same names turn up in each scandal, revealing the events of mid-February to have been part of an ongoing and coordinated proxy war by Republican political operatives on the so-called liberal media, conducted through the vast, unmonitored loophole of the Internet.
“Are bloggers journalists?” is a question that’s been kicking around for a few years, and both bloggers and journalists answer it by saying no. Journalists insist on the distinction because most bloggers don’t do original reporting or double-check information for its accuracy. Bloggers, for their part, often see themselves as polemicists and activists and chafe at being held to journalistic standards.
But these three episodes -- combined with last year’s Dan Rather controversy, when conservative bloggers contributed mightily to the CBS anchor’s downfall -- still represent something new. Not only are most bloggers not journalists; increasingly they are also partisan operatives whose agendas are as ideological as they come. Using the cover of anonymity (many bloggers use pseudonyms), the cacophony of the relatively new medium, and the easily inflamed passions of the Web, these partisan political operatives are becoming experts at stirring up hornets’ nests of angry e-mails to editors, mounting campaigns to force advertisers to pull out of news shows, and, most disturbingly, spreading outright false information. The irony is that, at the same time this is happening, many in the mainstream media have decided it’s finally time to take bloggers seriously. But people who blog about politics and journalism aren’t just a 21st-century media story; they’re part of an ongoing political story with roots stretching back more than 40 years.
...Later, along has come a new group of bloggers who aren’t mere “citizens” at all. On the left side, some of these became deeply enmeshed with political parties, “527s,” and campaign advocacy groups -- and are now a new generation of no-holds-barred partisans and major party fund-raisers, the liberal equivalent of George W. Bush’s “Rangers” and “Pioneers.” On the right, a number of these bloggers were already political operatives or worked at long-standing movement institutions before taking up residence online. They are, at best, the intellectual heirs of L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center and Reed Irvine, who founded the ultraconservative, media-hounding nonprofit organization Accuracy In Media (AIM) in 1969 as part of the first generation of post–Barry Goldwater right-wing institutions. At worst, they're the protégés of conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie and dirty-tricks master Morton Blackwell, who has tutored conservative activists since 1965, most recently mocking John Kerry at the Republican national convention by distributing Band-Aids with purple hearts on them.
Which brings us back to Jordan. He was brought down not by outraged citizen-bloggers but by a mix of GOP operatives and military conservatives. Easongate.com, the blog that served as the clearinghouse for the attack on CNN, was helped along by Virginia-based Republican operative Mike Krempasky. From May 1999 through August 2003, Krempasky worked for Blackwell as the graduate development director of the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Virginia–based school for conservative leaders founded by Blackwell in 1979. The institute is the organization that had provided “Gannon” with his sole media credential before he became a White House correspondent. It also now operates “Internet Activist Schools” designed to teach conservatives how to engage in “guerilla Internet activism.” Indeed, Krempasky could be found teaching this Internet activism course one recent February weekend to about 30 young conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. Krempasky then offered to help all the attendees set up their own blogs.
The tactics Krempasky promotes are directly descended from those advocated by the late Reed Irvine of AIM, whose major funder was, for the past two decades, Richard Mellon Scaife. In the late ’80s, Irvine had started the campaign to “Can Dan” Rather, coining the phrase “Rather Biased.” Last fall, Krempasky was operating the main anti-Rather site, Rathergate.com, and using Irvine’s slogan as a rallying cry to organize a vast letter-writing and e-mailing campaign “to contact CBS and express themselves,” as he put it in an interview with Bobby Eberle of GOPUSA, an activist Web site founded by Texas Republicans and now owned by Bruce Eberle (no relation), the proprietor of a conservative direct-mail firm.
...Power Line, another conservative blog deeply involved in the Rather controversy, helped push the Jordan story as well. Described by Time magazine as “three amateur journalists working in a homegrown online medium [who] challenged a network news legend and won,” Power Line was voted Time’s “2004 Blog of the Year.” In reality, its three writers are all fellows at the conservative Claremont Institute who attended Dartmouth College in the early 1970s and now work as attorneys; two of them have been writing articles as a team for conservative publications such as the National Review and The American Enterprise for more than 10 years.
...While conservatives have created an online echo chamber in part to further their decades-long assault on the mainstream media, liberals have begun using the new medium to pursue and unravel these conservative connections. “When you read in the mainstream press stories about the blogosphere, there are some things that come up over and over,” says Kevin Drum, who writes the Political Animal blog for the liberal Washington Monthly magazine. “It’s about hounding someone out of their jobs.”
The Gannon scalping is different from the Jordan and Rather controversies in two very important ways. First, whereas the conservative bloggers were out to destroy journalists with distinguished careers who’d made serious missteps, the liberal bloggers on Gannon’s trail were seeking to expose an out-and-out fraud. Second, while some of the conservative bloggers going after Jordan and Rather were mistaken for regular citizens by the mainstream media, the liberal bloggers were very much out in the open.
But “Gannongate,” too, has ties to political operatives. The story was sparked by Democratic congressional aides, who complained to their friends in the liberal blogosphere on January 26 about the “Talon News guy” who, in a question to the president in the White House press conference that morning, had falsely accused new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of “talking about soup lines” and said Democrats “seem to have divorced themselves from reality.”
The progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, run by former conservative activist and American Spectator writer David Brock, jumped on the story after Rush Limbaugh boasted that he’d been the source for Gannon’s claims about the Democrats. The group sent out a release asking questions about Gannon and Talon News. Susan Gardner, 46, a mother of four and former editor of now-defunct community paper the Sun City News in Santa Barbara, California, read about Gannon on the liberal blogosphere, including a tip that Gannon was not the Talon reporter’s real name. Gardner recalled seeing the Talon News name in a story about journalists subpoenaed in the Valerie Plame case. On January 28, writing online as “SusanG,” she posted a question on the “Diaries” section of DailyKos, the widely read liberal blog run by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, now also a major Democratic fund-raiser. Gardner’s question: “Did the White House dribble the Plame leak through its own fake mouthpiece news source?” When she got flooded with more than 500 replies, she quickly organized the volunteer reader-researchers adding facts to the story into an organized team. Brian Kelly, a 52-year-old actor in upstate New York, became Gardner’s partner, writing as “NYBri.” (Kelly had previously volunteered on the John Kerry and Howard Dean campaigns.) The two deputized hundreds of research assistants and co-reporters, made assignments, confirmed facts, and dug through the Internet’s vast array of electronic records, posting new tidbits of information until other blogs and mainstream outlets picked up the story. The narrative got pushed into sexual territory by John Aravosis, a gay-rights activist who worked as a legislative aide for Republican Senator Ted Stevens from 1989 to 1994...Meanwhile, another former Republican, Karl Frisch, 26 -- better known as “Carl with a K,” his Internet handle while working for the Dean campaign in ’03 -- pushed the story from Capitol Hill, where he works as a spokesman for Representative Louise Slaughter on the House Rules Committee.
But there’s another a key difference between the effort against Gannon and conservative blog firestorms: The targets of the liberal blogosphere are conservative activists; the target of the conservative blogosphere is the free and independent press itself, just as it has been for conservative activists since the ’60s. For the Republican Party, pseudo-journalism Internet sites and the blogosphere are just another way to get around “the filter,” as Bush has dubbed the mainstream media. “The way I look at this,” says Daily Kos’ Gardner, “[Gannon] is just one more piece to a bigger puzzle that we’ve seen for the past couple months -- attempts by the Republican media complex not necessarily to fight the media but to become the media.”
But unlike traditional news outlets, right-wing blogs openly shill, fund raise, plot, and organize massive activist campaigns on behalf of partisan institutions and constituencies; they also increasingly provide cover for professional operatives to conduct traditional politics by other means -- including campaigning against the established media. And instead of taking these bloggers for the political activists they are, all too often the established press has accepted their claims of being a new form of journalism.
This will have to change -- or it will prove serious journalism’s undoing.

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