Salon Radio: Eric Boehlert's new book about political blogs

How has the advent of blogs changed politics and journalism?

By Glenn Greenwald
Published May 19, 2009 2:35PM (EDT)

(updated below w/transcript)

Eric Boehlert has just released a truly superb, illuminating and entertaining new book:  Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press.  As the title suggests, the book examines the impact which the blogosphere has had on both journalism and political activism, and it is, in my view, by far the best book yet to examine the rise of political blogs.  Boehlert is my guest today on Salon Radio to talk about the issues raised by this new book.

In order to dispel stereotypes and myths propagated about bloggers (mostly by establishment journalists eager to demonize what they perceive as their competitors), Boehlert focuses on 8-10 bloggers, and writes in detail about their background and what brought them to blogging.  There is a chapter that focuses heavily on the fight over FISA and telecom immunity, which also includes a discussion of the work I've done (and provides a lot more information and details about me than, frankly, I expected or desired).  Today, Salon has published a partial excerpt from that chapter, and it thoroughly highlights how that fight was waged and what it reflects about the ability of bloggers and their readers to affect our political debates.

Boehlert's book is a very balanced and provocative examination of the role blogs now play, and he devotes an entire chapter -- perhaps the most interesting one -- to the acrimonious civil war that erupted during the Obama-Clinton primary fight.  He also examines what role bloggers now play in light of Obama's victory.  One of Boehlert's specialties, as a Senior Fellow at Media Matters and author of the equally excellent Lapdogs, is the profoundly corrupted establishment media, and the book does an excellent job of describing the dynamic between establishment journalists and blogs.

The discussion is roughly 25 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  A transcript will be posted shortly.  Bloggers on the Bus is just released, is highly recommended, and can be ordered here.

[On a related note, the writer of the Economist article I referenced in my post yesterday about the blogger/journalist relationship -- Adrian Wooldridge -- responded with a fairly gracious email, which can be read here].


UPDATE The transcript is here.

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Eric Boehlert who is among other things a senior fellow at Media Matters, and he has a new book out just this week which is just truly excellent; I've read just about the entire thing, and the title is Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press. Eric, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Eric Boehlert: Thanks for having me.

GG: I want to begin with this somewhat general question which is: there's lots of debate and even dispute over the significance of the political blogosphere and the impact that has on journalism and the media, on politics, and lots of people say that the impact is very substantial, others say that it's somewhat negligible. You've written an entire book about how...

EB: Right.

GG: ...blogs have altered the state of politics in the media. What are the most substantial ways that you think blogs have changed both politics and the media?

EB: I'd start with the press. I think the blogosphere has completely revolutionized not only the way that news is delivered, but the content that really drives the press criticism that the liberal bloggers have done, starting right before the war and through the entire Bush administration. I mean media criticism used to be university academics, publications that came out once a month, once every other month, and there was one or a handful of media critics who were in the mainstream. But what the blogosphere did is open the gates to this whole new generation of media critics who, not just in media criticism, okay, so what, that's not that important, but more importantly held reporters accountable in a way they hadn't been held probably ever. And they held them accountable on the war and throughout the Bush administration and things like that.

So, I think the blogosphere made journalism at least be accountable in some way. In the larger sphere, obviously, the Internet itself has revolutionized the way information is exchanged. And in terms of politics, if you talk to liberal bloggers, they chuckle at the idea that they're all-powerful because they can pick off the number of initiatives that they've tried to advance that have been completely shut down and ignored within the Democratic Party. That being said, I think they have been incredibly influential - and this is really what they set out to do. Create a voice of liberalism in America. A lot of people who started in 2002, 2003, they just could not find an outlet where there was a true unapologetic liberal voice, and they wanted to create one and they did that. They still had that voice and it was missing for decades within Democratic politics and they have helped Democrats I think who lots of them became ashamed of any liberal leanings or progressive leanings, to understand that it wasn't political poison, that you could win elections by embracing that. So I think those are the two key ways, even before the 2008 campaign unfolded, the way the blogosphere has really affected press and politics in this decade.

GG: One of the things that has changed from the time that you were just describing, which was sort of the advent of the liberal blogosphere in 2002-2003 until now, is that it used to be extremely easy to distinguish between bloggers and journalists, because bloggers were people who would write on-line, there was a format that they used, they would use links, they would write these shorter arguments and ideas, whereas journalists were people who wrote for print magazines or newspapers or went on television. And now, with the reliance of newspapers and magazines on on-line traffic, most quote-unquote "journalists" themselves are now writing what even they call blogs, and what look like blogs in every sense.

Do you think there are still meaningful distinctions, since that format distinction has eroded between what makes someone a blogger as opposed to what makes someone a journalist? So when you write a book about bloggers, what is that qualifies somebody to be a blogger, as opposed to, say, a journalist?

EB: Yeah, I think journalists obviously wanted to get in on the game; the realized the advantage of having more of a working conversation with the readers, the way Time magazine started and virtually every, as you point out, every major media outlet has started a blog, and it's a way to get the news out quicker, but I think more importantly to have an interactive conversation with readers. But no, that is, you're right, and I think of someone as just sort of going online now, they would have a hard time distinguishing between a writer at The New York Times's The Caucus Blog, and a liberal blogger, because it seems the same. But if you delve beyond just the by-line and the post it becomes obvious.

And for me, the way I differentiate it in the book was, a liberal blogger is not just someone who writes, not just a media critic, or not just somebody who does reporting on health care and things like that. They're part of a net roots movement and they're part of a political movement. And one of the things that's distinguished the liberal blogosphere from the conservative blogosphere is liberal bloggers have moved beyond just being writers; they've become political activists, they've become fund-raisers, they're trying to help pick candidates, particularly for primary challenges within the Democratic Party. They're also pushing out policy initiatives, and writing has become only one thing that a lot of liberal bloggers do. They see their goal as advancing this political movement and what started out as being the main thing they did, which was post 5-6 items a day, again that's just part of a larger movement, this net roots movement, and that, that's not something people like the Time magazine blog or any of the mainstream media blogs; they don't get into that politics stuff. They're just writing on-line. Bloggers I think are doing much more.

GG: Right. Now, one of the aspects of your book that has already generated a lot of attention, and I personally found it extremely interesting and illuminating, because I know many of the bloggers who you discuss in the book, and - full disclosure - one of the chapters discusses some of the work I've done as well with regard to the FISA fight and my role in blogging as well, is one of the things that you do is you focus on describing a lot of biographical information about several bloggers, and give a richer understanding of how they came to the point in their lives where they became political bloggers and what they did before that, what motivates them, what their circumstances are.

Why was that something that you spent as much time as you did focused on? What is it you thought that was revealing about that?

EB: Well, actually, I mean, I had to cut probably 30 000 words in the book, and as I added more details about the bloggers - and this was all, it wasn't like I was digging through garbage, this is all from interviews I did with the bloggers, and things like that - but when I was writing the book, that was to me was by far the most interesting part. The reason I focus on that was because the blogosphere has been around for going on a decade, yet if you look at the mainstream press and the treatment of it, bloggers are almost universally presented as these faceless people, the 'angry liberal.' They've created this, i think, as I mentioned, this very influential political and media movement, but really no-one takes any time to explain who they are. I mean, Markos has been profiled at the Daily Kos pretty regularly, he's had a successful book out, he's got this monstrous web-site, but there's more than one blogger in America that helped build this thing. As I pointed out in the book, The Washington Post, which is extremely media-centric with it's coverage, up until a couple weeks ago it had never written a feature on a liberal blogger. To me, that's not a coincidence, and I think the mainstream press just doesn't really want to take the time to illuminate who these people are. I think they're eating their lunch from the mainstream press, and they don't really want to acknowledge or do anything like that.

And again, if you're going to look at a movement that's made up of interesting players and what I found when I was writing the book is the stereotype of the blogger today, maybe sort of over-educated male just out of college, Ivy League, just typing away. But for me, by far the most interesting bloggers were the older bloggers who really had a life experience and some of them who came to blogging later in life, this is their second or third chapter, and to me it was fascinating to discover what they had done previous to blogging, how they brought their life experience. And you have to understand, sort of the pioneers and the early people in the blogosphere completely, I think, completely rag-tag collection, an eclectic mix of people who had no hand, in terms of journalism, no hand in terms of politics. These are housewives, musicians, and movie producers, and people you would not expect in any way to be leading a political movement. And it really did happen by accident - they had no money, there was no planning, it was just really built, created out of pure frustration and they all met each other on-line, and I think through some probably hard work and some smarts and insight, they've been able to build to what it is today. But the people, again the people behind it, you never could've imagined these would be the people leading this very exciting political movement.

GG: One of the things that struck me the most as I got to know more bloggers is the ordinariness of them, and at the same time, the extraordinariness of them, to enable them to develop an audience and develop a voice and reach an impact without it being attached to or a part of any kind of corporation or media organization, or anything like. And the disparity between the stereotype of bloggers perpetuated by media figures who perceive them as competitors, and the reality of who they are was just so vast. Just describe a couple of the bloggers in your book you thought sort of illustrate that point and what you found so surprising about who really is behind this whole dynamic of the rise of the blogosphere.

EB: Well, Digby is a classic; Digby writes out of the blue; she lives out of Santa Monica, California. And at first, everyone just assumes Digby was a man who's written in this sort of elbow on the bar, lot of, the F-bombs were flying early on. It was a real just in your face critique of the Bush administration and the media, and lo and behold we find out a few years later Digby is actually a woman, and she's a middle-aged woman, and people - I interviewed her and she said immediately the way people interacted with her on-line became much different when people knew she was a woman, which was very revealing to her. But to me the most interesting thing was she had no idea she had this talent and she's an amazing writer, she was immediately embraced and selected as best writer on-line and she had never done any writing like this. She had written, she had worked in the movie industry on the business side doing library management. The only thing she was really writing or reading over were contracts. She read all kinds of books, she'd been in political debates her whole life, but mostly with her friends and family and never written publicly about this. But once she started she said the stuff just sort of poured out of her and she was as surprised as anyone. And she was immediately addicted to the reaction she was getting online and she's been hooked ever since.

Another interesting one to me was Howie Klein, who lives up in the hills by Hollywood in Los Angeles. Howie had been an extremely successful record company executive; ran Reprise Records which is a real jewel of the Warner Brother empire, made records with Green Day and Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton, and had lived an extraordinary life and he's sort of the **dullard figure from the late '60s to today. But anyway he woke up one day in 2005, 2006, he was out of the music business, didn't know what to do, and heard that Arianna Huffington had started this site, and he went over and he read it, and he started posting on it, and pretty soon he started his own blog, and now he's become very influential in terms of fundraising for liberal candidates and helping pick candidates and this is someone who a couple years ago didn't know what a blog was and again, someone who lived his whole adult life without really any connection to partisan politics. And now what he does 14 hours a day in front of his computer.

GG: Now, and just so people know, there are probably 8-10 bloggers whose backgrounds and lives are examined in that way, and like I say, I think the narrative that you create the way weave that tapestry throughout, the point you were making about how blogs arose is really one of the most unique and interesting parts of the book.

Now, let me ask you - there's a chapter that you devote, and I think it's likely to be the most controversial chapter in your book, including maybe even especially among readers of liberal blogs, the liberal bloggers and the like, to what you call the primary war in 2008, meaning the very acrimonious sort of civil war between Democrats, progressives, and liberal bloggers over what essentially began as the competition between John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and ended as the Clinton-Obama contest for the Democratic primary nomination. What was it about the role that bloggers played in that primary war that you found so notable and surprising and did you think it was a change from the role that bloggers have played previously?

EB: In the simple sense, the blogs have been almost completely united since their creation in their opposition to George Bush, to the war, to the Republican Party. There was a natural unifying theme. And yes, there were always these intramural sparring matches between bloggers in terms of - some of it was personality clashes, but some of it was issue-based. What was a key priority, what should be at the top of the queue in terms of what blogs were pushing. But during the primary, this was a non-stop brawl for months on end the liberal blogosphere had never dealt with. I mean, it was obvious there was going to be a break in that some people were going to support Clinton, some Edwards, some Obama. But then when Edwards got out, something in the dynamic changed, and it became this just very raucous name-calling, really brutal couple of months. And as I point out in the book, in the liberal blogosphere, there had always been this very collegial relationship that bloggers always seemed to understand that everyone was being intellectually honest with each other, and that there weren't bogus arguments being made within the liberal blogosphere. It was the reality-based community, the famous umbrella they came under, mocking a quote a senior Bush administration gave to The New York Times once, who dismissed the press saying, you're part of the reality-based community. That's what the blogs always embraced.

But then during the campaign, the primary campaign, a lot of that just got tore up; there was lots of name-calling, lots of vicious arguing back and forth. Really, for the first time, bloggers were accusing the other side of lying, of using bogus arguments and whole thing went up in smoke for a couple months. And, it went from growing pains to growing spasms, uncontrollable spasms. They really did on for months on end, and there's still hard feelings to this day, absolutely was something that the blogosphere had never had to deal with before. And friendships absolutely were frayed and some of them were ruined, and people still look back bitterly. I'm getting emails about it, from bloggers who were upset about certain things, and they're launching into these arguments about super-delegates and things none of us have talked about in a year. So it's still very fresh, right beneath the surface.

GG: Yeah, absolutely. Now, one of the points that you touched upon and examined is the I guess I would describe it this way, which is, when I think about the reason there is such a thing as the liberal blogosphere, I think about it as having two principal causes: one is frustration with the establishment media and the perception that it was failing to perform its functions and kind of a reaction to that, but the second, at least equally important feature was frustration with the Democratic Party.

EB: Right.

GG: ..and the belief that the Democratic Party was failing in its functions and was far too accommodationist and similar to Republicans and really weren't embracing in fact were running away from progressive values as exemplified most but by no means only by their embrace of the invasion of Iraq and all those first-term Bush policies. And so much of the blogger criticism, and the blogger mind-set for so long has always been devoted to at least to criticizing Democratic Party leaders as much as anything else, and demanding that in exchange for support by bloggers, that there be some accommodation to progressive values on the part of the individual leaders, and yet one of the anomalies that you point out is that so much of the liberal blogosphere lent itself to cheering on and then becoming a part of the team supporting Barack Obama, even though he was very candid and the honest about the fact that he didn't really have much of an interest in supporting bloggers or accommodating their agenda, and in fact if anything, he sort of used bloggers and the blogger political mentality as a foil against which he could inveigh in order to demonstrate his centrism or his independence or whatever.

Did you consider the blindness of large parts of the blogosphere to support Obama to be a departure from how they had previously related to political leaders, and how is that relationship now that Obama has won, in terms of how bloggers relate to him?

EB: Well, it was definitely a phenomenon. There was definitely a bandwagon effect. Because if you go back to late 2007, early 2008, January 2008, there was still a pretty long laundry list that the liberal bloggers had posted with concerns about Barack Obama. There were laundry lists about Hillary Clinton was pretty well known, and wasn't really much of a secret. But one of the surprises during the 2007 campaign, was the stand-offishness between Obama and the bloggers, and even up until February 2008, when The Republic published an article essentially the headline was, why liberal bloggers don't trust Barack Obama. Again, when Edwards got out, something very dramatic happened online, and there was clearly a bandwagon effect.

I think a lot of it was liberal bloggers and liberal activists saw the coalition that Obama might be able to bring together, and they had been literally dreaming about for decades, bringing in independent, searching a youth registration, and turning some of those purple states blue, North Carolina, the upper midwest. I think that was very alluring to them, and they did jump on. But even, as you were involved with the FISA debate, even in July of 2008, liberal bloggers were pretty up front about the fact that this, that Obama still had major differences with them, and so it was different, it was complicated. It was much more nuanced type of relationship than the bloggers had had in the past with politicians. Now that he's in office, again, it's obviously much different when the party that you essentially support is in power, it's more complicated and nuanced.

I think it's been somewhat easier because bloggers have essentially been playing defense for Obama, just because the right becomes so unhinged with their claims that he's a Marxist and a socialist and take your guns. So I think bloggers automatically have gone into a defensive role, because of the way the right had reacted in such a bizarre way. But, I think that takes up half their time; the other half of the time is spent I think trying to push liberal initiatives, whether it's health care, or labor issues, and that's tricky and complicated, and we're only four or five months into this process, this relationship. And the other part of the time remaining I think is essentially a cheer leading, and being a booster for Obama.

So, it's a new relationship, it's a different relationship, and it'll be interesting to see how it played out, but I think it's safe to say, even though the conventional wisdom is Obama was the Internet candidate, and he won the Internet in 2008. He really embraced the Internet, but didn't really embrace the bloggers, which is an important distinction.

GG: Okay, so, last question. There's a chapter of the book that you devote to the fight over retroactive immunity and FISA, and obviously a lot of my readers and the people listening to this were heavily interested in and involved in that fight in a way that readers of bloggers become indispensable, integral parts of these sorts of disputes, and there's an excerpt in Salon running today that has part of that chapter. And one of the things you say is, in order to understand the net roots, you must understand the fight over FISA and retroactive immunity.

What do you think it was about that fight that illustrated the potential of bloggers to affect our political debates? Why is it you consider that to be such an important case study in understanding how bloggers have changed politics?

EB: Yeah, I think it was important because it was an issue the mainstream media didn't really care about that much. It was an issue most politicians didn't spend a lot of time and energy, at least publicly, discussing. From the get-go within the blogosphere, I think it was about, because there are a lot of attorneys who blog, and I think there's a real natural affinity for concern about public communication and wire-tapping and on-line communications, that it was basically this was tied into the a lot of it was tied into the anti-war movement, this idea that the government was targeting people who were opposed to the war. So all of those things I think added up to a real keen and deep interest in the issue, and I think the FISA issue show how the blogs came to take these issues seriously. It is sort of an adult audience with an adult appreciation of law and politics, and it's appreciation we don't often see reflected in the mainstream public discussion about politics. This was an issue that people outside the blogosphere, it just was not on anyone's radar. But, there was a deep-seated concern about it, and a coupled times the whole thing just could've been quietly resolved in the back halls of Congress and the White House, but it was bloggers and their readers that time and again, with virtually no money, and none of the usual Beltway resources at their disposal, but were able to raise holy hell time and again, and convinced Democrats it was an issue that needed to be taken seriously.

So I think it's a good case study because it showed what the blogosphere is interested in, it takes it seriously, it takes issues that aren't necessarily sexy or hip headlines, and they stick with it, and I think it showed how they can effect a political dialog, even despite the natural interests of Democrats not to want to talk about this, not to want to deal with it. And if hadn't of been for the blogosphere, this issue wouldn't be resolved years ago, exactly as George Bush had wanted it to be resolved, but they changed the dialog, and they forced these people to pay attention to an issue that politicians and the press had no interest in paying attention to. Or if they were going to pay attention to it, they were all reading off the same sheet, and nobody disagreed at all.

GG: Yep. Well, Eric, you've written obviously one of the first books, and I think one of the best book on what political blogs are and what they do. It's a really engaging read, it's entertaining, it's thought-provoking as well. The book is Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me.

EB: Thanks for having me.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

Glenn Greenwald

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