Bloggers mature, the New York Times stumbles

I'm impressed by the liberal blogosphere's relative neutrality in the Democratic primaries, but depressed by the Times' hiring neocon propagandist Bill Kristol.

Published December 30, 2007 7:27PM (EST)

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, no one can tell you who's going to win in either party, but our own entirely unofficial Salon poll has been fascinating. We're working on a feature asking dozens of contributors to tell us who they're supporting for president before the Jan. 3 caucuses (look for it Jan. 2) and I'm struck by how many people either haven't made up their minds, or say they haven't. (I know I haven't; I'm glad I have until the Feb. 5 California primary.)

The vast majority of people on our Republican list didn't bother to answer, God bless them, so I can't reliably tell you what's operating on that side of the aisle, except shame. That's easy. But among Democrats, one thing I'd never have predicted a year ago is the neutrality of so many liberal blogosphere leaders. Much was written in 2007, much of it wrong (I weighed in, perhaps also wrong, here) about the attempt by liberal blogfathers to play Democratic powerbrokers in 2004 and 2006, and it was assumed there would be a 2008 sequel. But the real story is that the biggest names of the lefty blogosphere -- Markos Moulitsas, Duncan Black, Jane Hamsher, Jerome Armstrong, Matt Stoller, less surprisingly (because I think of them primarily as journalists) Digby and Josh Marshall and our own Glenn Greenwald -- have decided not to publicly endorse. I don't know what they're saying privately, but from what I can see publicly, most are spending their time trying to dampen conflict among hot-headed readers who stridently support one of the Democrats. Where earlier this year I saw a threat of netroots mobs marching in lockstep behind their leaders to support one or two anointed candidates and savage anyone who backed others, that didn't happen. (There are folks behaving that way, you can see them in the comments sections of all the liberal blogs as well as on Salon, but they appear to be leaderless.)

Probably my vision was clouded by some bias there: I have always hoped the liberal blogosphere would emerge as a corrective to the mainstream media's laziness and pack mentality, and bloggers trying to replace political kingmakers didn't jibe with my perhaps narrow idea of bloggers as truth-tellers. It's still possible some of those mentioned above will return to a king or queenmaker role in another election cycle. And it's possible that will be a fine role to play. But given what's at stake in this election, as well as the relative quality of the Democratic field, the respected bloggers could be crucial in making sure trademark circular firing squads don't decimate the party's fractious base. There's an integrity and maturity in the role leading liberal bloggers are playing on the eve of the first 2008 votes, and it's exciting to see.

Not so exciting is watching an institution known for integrity and maturity look so untethered from its moorings. Yes, I'm talking about the New York Times' hiring of neocon William Kristol as a weekly op-ed columnist. It seems a scared, defensive move in a world where an aggressive Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal and has vowed to take on the Times. So they got one of Murdoch's boys, it's true. Or they sort of got him, because it looks like he'll keep his gigs at Murdoch's Weekly Standard and Fox News. So they're sharing him? I don't get it.

I'll leave it to Crooks and Liars to document Kristol's sad history of being wrong on everything (about the likelihood Sunni and Shi'a in Iraq could all get along, on the urgency of a strike against Iran's probably non-existent nuclear program, about the Times itself deserving prosecution for its" totally gratuitous revealing of an ongoing secret classified program that is part of the war on terror.") Hey, we're all wrong sometimes. But Kristol has been consistently, spectacularly wrong for a living. He bears a special responsibility for selling the Iraq war using any means necessary, and for savaging war opponents to this day as traitors who don't care about national security. And I can't help but think in the long run that he hurts the paper. The main thing the Times has, as a brand -- and believe me, it's a lot -- is its association with and dedication to the truth. Kristol is anti-truth.

Friends at the Times remind me that liberals felt the same way when the paper hired Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire as its house conservative. Maybe. But the paper is taking its liberal readers for granted with this move. For one thing, the traditionally reliable liberal stable of Times columnists is far less so these days: Tom Friedman supported the war, and Maureen Dowd can't decide which Democratic couple she hates more, the Clintons or the Obamas, and has become impossible to read. Also, it's worth noting that liberals had fewer choices back in the day Safire joined the Times. The blogosphere is thriving at least partly because of the blind spots and missteps of mainstream media institutions, and Kristol is another one. I honestly hope I'm wrong about how badly this move hurts the Times.

(An earlier version of this post was garbled by a coding error.)

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections