Fighting words

Can liberal bloggers be both partisan kingmakers and independent journalists? The blogstorm over the John Edwards campaign points to some tough lessons.

Published February 16, 2007 1:10PM (EST)

I was on the convention floor in Boston the night Barack Obama unofficially became a candidate for president, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Up to that point, the Fleet Center was like a stale bag of popcorn, with uninspired party stalwarts going through the motions of nominating Sen. John Kerry, largely because he was a decorated Vietnam veteran and couldn't be smeared as a gutless pacifist (can you say Swiftboat Vets?). Then came Obama. You felt history being made as he described, and then began to heal, the nation's ugly red state, blue state divide. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states," the Illinois senate candidate told the crowd. "We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states." I got teary; so did others around me. I found myself imagining a convention where this son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother was the presidential nominee -- but in 2012 or 2016, not 2008.

Yet 2008 is the year Barack Obama is running, presenting me with a choice: Do I put aside reservations about his inexperience and vote that sense of history? Luckily, I have more than a year to decide. The Democrats have a strong roster of 2008 candidates; I like a lot of them; the choice will be tough. But in my heart I know this: If I had to go into a voting booth tomorrow and pick a Democrat, I'd very likely be moved by the memory of that electric moment in Boston, and vote Obama.

So imagine my surprise at finding a vocal cadre of Salon readers and some bloggers claiming a) Salon is crusading against Obama, because b) we support Sen. Hillary Clinton, when in fact we are doing neither. The evidence? Three controversial Obama pieces in the last month (one of them made more notorious by a headline snafu), plus a scoop last week about the John Edwards campaign firing and rehiring two feminist bloggers after they were targeted by Catholic bully Bill Donohue. (This week both bloggers quit.) The backlash to the Edwards scoop, even more than the outcry over our Obama stories, was puzzling but also enlightening. We weren't the only people who had solid information that Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan had been told they were leaving the Edwards campaign. But if any bloggers knew, they didn't report it. The bloggers closed ranks around the Edwards campaign, some even claiming that Salon had gotten the story wrong. There were suggestions, in Salon letter threads as well as in blogger-to-blogger whispers -- it was loud; we could hear you! -- that we'd peddled misinformation, or perhaps been peddled it, to help Hillary Clinton.

The controversies over our Edwards and Obama reporting gave me a new window onto the ever-changing terrain of politics, media and the Internet as we head into the 2008 campaign. The two different sets of concerns were nonetheless inspired by a common suspicion: Salon must be in the tank for one of the candidates -- in our case, the common supposition was Clinton -- because, it seems, almost everyone else on the Internet is, or wants to be!

Before the Marcotte-McEwan meltdown, liberal blogfathers Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and MyDD founder Jerome Armstrong came under scrutiny, even attack, for their work on behalf of Democratic candidates, especially former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. (Armstrong was on his payroll; Kos was merely friendly, but surprisingly friendly given Warner's centrism.) Then Warner announced he would forgo a 2008 run, as did netroots favorite Sen. Russ Feingold, leaving the field without an official candidate. When the blog-friendly Edwards campaign -- the candidate's wife Elizabeth has reportedly blogged on lefty sites under an assumed name -- hired Marcotte from Pandagon and McEwan from Shakespeare's Sister, it was hailed as a victory for the blogosphere. Thus preventing their firing, or denying it had ever happened, became crucial for building "the movement," as MyDD's Chris Bowers so often describes his blog colleagues' goal.

But what is "the movement," and what are its goals? Is it correcting, challenging, augmenting and maybe someday replacing the staid, arrogant, sometimes corrupt, rarely courageous titans of the mainstream media? Or is it replacing a tired and politically timid field of Democratic consultants with a new generation of cyberspace kingmakers? Of course, there's room for both in the liberal blogosphere. But can individual bloggers do both? Does it mark me as an old-media dinosaur to even ask that question?

Certainly Salon and the lefty blogosphere emerged out of the same fever of outrage and impotence that was the lot for most liberals in the 1990s -- the years of Whitewater, Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde, impeachment, attacks on the "wooden" Al Gore vs. the "natural" George W. Bush, the Florida recount and so on, plus the sickening rise of Fox News. Politics had taken a nasty, surreal turn, and so had the media, with so many mainstream news organizations -- even the so-called liberal New York Times -- abetting the GOP crusade against Bill Clinton. The same frustrations that inspired Salon and led to its growing audience and influence also gave rise to a clamor for a new liberal media infrastructure, as well as for a left-wing noise machine, to counter that of the right. The next few years saw the founding of new, Web-oriented media watchdogs and political organizations like David Brock's Media Matters and John Podesta's Center for American Progress, and blogs like Democratic Underground, MyDD, Daily Kos and Eschaton.

By 2003, the desire for a way to fight the distortions of the mainstream media while also promoting a new kind of politics intersected in the Howard Dean campaign, with its reliance on Internet organizing and fundraising through blogs and Web sites like Meetup. Early on I saw the power of this new Web media juggernaut personally, when I was targeted by the Dean Defense Forces, a group of Dean supporters devoted to correcting what they saw as unfair treatment of their man. When I wrote a piece attacking the Democratic Leadership Council for its slams against Dean, but confided I wasn't sure the former Vermont governor was "electable," I was besieged by mostly friendly (I think vocal lefty Web denizens have changed a lot) but assertive e-mails asking me to either document, or reexamine, my claim that Dean wasn't really electable. It worked: I took a second look at Dean, just in time to swoon a little, before he lost his way in Iowa and screamed a little too loud for television. (I know, I know: The way the networks broadcast the scream made it sound worse than it really was in the hall; you don't have to e-mail.)

The Kerry campaign's lame response to the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth only fortified the lefty blogosphere's conviction that a new and muscular commitment to fighting back was essential. But it also committed some in the "movement" to playing a role in vetting the right kind of candidate. He -- or she -- should be a fighter and ... well, there was little agreement beyond that. Bloggers split sharply on the abortive Warner candidacy, with some insisting he was too centrist for the lefty blogosphere, Armstrong and Kos be damned. Many felt their candidate had to be firmly opposed to the Iraq war, but after the good news of the 2006 election results came the bad news, for the lefty netroots, that favorite Sen. Russ Feingold wouldn't run. That left Edwards and Clinton, and perhaps Obama, as the frontrunners vying for blogosphere devotion.

Clinton hired Peter Daou, who'd run John Kerry's Internet operation and later licensed his Daou Report to Salon (it is now the Blog Report, run by Steve Benen). But given the netroots' distrust of Clinton, especially her failure to firmly repudiate her vote authorizing the Iraq war, Edwards was emerging as a possible blogger favorite, especially after he hired the swashbuckling and unabashedly feminist Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan to blog for him. When I heard the news I found myself thinking, boy, Edwards is really running a ballsy campaign. And then the thought quickly followed: Has he or his top staff ever really read those bloggers?

The posts that got them in trouble were intemperate in their take on Catholicism, but that's not the only thing they've been intemperate about. They are young and brash. Like many of us, they sometimes blogged first and asked questions later. Their blogs are passionate and sometimes funny; the writing is uneven, but the commitment to candor and to street-fighting the right wing are not. If Bill Donohue hadn't come along to make them a campaign issue, somebody else would have. I don't say that to bash Marcotte or McEwan, just to ask whether Edwards' move to hire them was really thought through carefully.

When Donohue began braying, the end was probably near. But as Salon reported the rumors of the firing, we noticed something disturbing: Instead of the blogosphere joining the search for truth, we encountered a decision to close ranks. The bloggers had never been fired; Salon was wrong; everyone move along, there's nothing to see here; please return to your stations. It started to look as though protecting the Democrats, the Edwards campaign and the role of bloggers in the new political firmament -- or some combination of all three -- was much more important. Only Steve Gilliard at the News Blog defended Salon and confirmed he too knew the bloggers had been fired -- and only in a comments section on his blog. "Anyone who thinks they weren't fired are dead wrong," wrote Gilliard. "I spend much of my day communicating with other bloggers ... I had been told they were fired when the Salon piece ran. Then the negotiations began and a LOT of people held their fire ... I have multiple sources on this, but because of who they are, I won't name them." A few days later Gilliard would denounce Salon for our perceived vendetta against Obama, not entirely unreasonably, given the headline mess.

When Edwards announced he was "keeping" the bloggers, the lefty blogosphere declared victory. Edwards' decision, wrote Chris Bowers on MyDD, "increases the power of the netroots as a voice in the Democratic party. They listened to us, not to the establishment, and not to the right-wing. This will help build the movement, and free the Democratic Party from conservative Republican influence in our primaries. We are one step closer to choosing our leaders on our own." But a few days later, Marcotte and McEwan resigned.

Maybe I'm the one who's naive, but the whole episode made me wonder: What does it mean if liberal bloggers aren't warriors for the truth, but rather for candidates? What does it mean for media, and what does it mean for politics? Why did either John Edwards or Amanda Marcotte enter their relationship so seemingly unready for what was likely to happen (assuming anyone in the Edwards camp had read Pandagon)? Either Marcotte would blunt her commentary, and lose the constituency Edwards was attempting to court, or else she'd alienate a whole lot of other people, and Edwards would spend the whole campaign defending her. That was clear to me from the start, and I'm not that smart. Why did anyone assume otherwise?

What did Edwards think he was getting? And what about Marcotte? Lefty bloggers congratulate themselves on being less compromised and corrupted than fancy MSM reporters; on creating a new independent realm of punditry and reporting. Do a lot of them really aspire to flack for a candidate, as well? Of course there are liberal bloggers who seem mainly about independent journalism -- Glenn Greenwald, now with Salon, comes to mind, as does Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo and Firedoglake's coverage of Plamegate -- and aren't looking to hook up with candidates. But others seem comfortable blurring the lines between independent commentary and partisan kingmaking. And while it's true that journalists have historically gone off to work for politicians, they don't keep their writing job when they go on the other payroll. Plus, their colleagues and competitors in other media organizations don't see themselves as having a stake in the former journalist's new political perch, and thus don't tend to cheer them on, or look away from exposing problems that might emerge with their new employer.

Meanwhile, what do blog readers think they're getting? Bloggers are all about transparency, and to be fair, Kos, Armstrong, Bowers and others at MyDD have been "transparent" about their work for candidates (and so was Salon about Peter Daou's political ties, though when he formally joined the Clinton presidential campaign, we had to separate). But what about other bloggers who haven't hung out a shingle; should readers assume their résumés are with Obama and Vilsack and Richardson? Are they for sale to the highest bidder? Or, to put it in a better light, to the candidate they decide is best for America?

Back at Salon, I'm not unhappy with the scrutiny of our stories on Obama, Edwards and Clinton. We plan to cover the hell out of both Democrats and Republicans this cycle, and I think that's the best way for Salon to contribute to the debate. As some readers observed about our Obama story this week, the mild probing we've given the Illinois senator is nothing compared to what he's going to face from the right-wing noise machine (and already has faced, with the Insight magazine and Fox News madrassa smear and the latest heavy breathing about his black nationalist pastor). Should the Democratic candidates only hear the murmured whispers of love from liberal-leaning media (along with howls from bloggers working for Democratic rivals)? I don't think so.

I know that much of the alarm about our piece on Obama's tough congressional race against Rep. Bobby Rush centered on an early draft of a coverline that used the word "uppity" to describe the brash young Harvard grad. As we explained in our correction, an editor here used the word ironically without registering how racially charged it was; others decided it was too loaded and changed it -- in every field of our publishing system, except the cover. We caught the mistake almost as soon as it went up, but a Daily Kos diarist was faster and caught the original with a screen grab that ran on lots of blogs. We were horrified, posted a correction and apologized to many readers, but as the flood of e-mail continued, I was once again struck by the blog-inspired conviction that we had deliberately slurred Obama, perhaps because of a bias for Clinton, rather than having given offense unintentionally.

I also know some anger at Salon's Obama coverage goes back to Debra Dickerson's piece on Obama's "black" identity three weeks ago. It wasn't exactly what I'd expected from Dickerson, given her impatience with fixed racial categories and hierarchies and outdated approaches to civil rights, when I assigned her the piece, but I was proud to have it. The fact is, some black leaders are privately and publicly debating Obama's racial bona fides -- and you read why first, in Salon. Some people even asked why we ran a piece about an ugly race riot in Springfield, Ill., that gave rise to the NAACP, on the day Obama declared his candidacy there. It was intended to suggest that Springfield had far more significance to the racial history of America than simply being the hometown of Abe Lincoln; I was happy many of you learned that history for the first time in Salon.

And the fact that Obama was a smug untested Harvard grad not ready for national primetime when he ran for Congress against former Black Panther Bobby Rush -- well, you very well might have read that first in Salon, too -- back in 2004, in an otherwise positive Scott Turow piece. Obama's capacity to grow from that early place of privilege is one of the great narratives about him, one that should give us hope that he can grow into a great president. But we'll have plenty of time to find out, and you can trust us not to flack for any candidate, but to search out the information you need to help you make up your mind.

And if you think I'm wrong about that, I trust lots of you will let me know.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Howard Dean John Edwards