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