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Anti-Blogger Rhetoric: A Sign of What the Blogosphere Is Doing Right

4 years ago
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If success breeds contempt, then bloggers are finally making it big.

Consider this study in contrasts: During his first White House news conference last year, President Barack Obama called on a liberal blogger, Sam Stein, and CNN recently hired conservative blogger Erick Erickson to provide on-air commentary. On the other hand, despite such inroads, "bloggers" in general have increasingly become scapegoats and bogeymen for the mainstream press and politicians.

For example, while praising print media last year, Obama juxtaposed the traditional media with the New Media by voicing reservations about the ethics of blogging: "I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding," he said.

Sarah Palin Could it be that the president (who until recently was thought to be tech-savvy) is not happy with the online criticism he has received? Perhaps any modern-day president, regardless of party, would be unnerved by the power of the nascent New Media -- and of citizen journalists -- to gin up dissent.

To be sure, the anti-blogger demagoguery is bipartisan. The "just a blogger" trope has been used by Democratic and Republican politicians to discredit unflattering stories that originated in the blogosphere.

While defending South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley from accusations she had an affair with a prominent South Carolina blogger, former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska said: "Nikki categorically denies the accusation that was spewed out there by a political blogger who has the gall to throw the stone, but then quickly duck and hide and proclaim he would not comment further on the issue. Quite convenient."

It's no surprise that Palin would defend Haley -- she recently endorsed her. And I have no idea whether the allegations are true or fabricated. What caught my attention was Palin's use of the term "political blogger" as a pejorative -- as if that, in itself, discredits the critic.

This seems to be a trend with Palin, who now mocks bloggers with regularity. During an interview on Fox News, she criticized the media for taking cues from "some blogger probably sitting there in their parents' basement, wearing their pajamas, blogging some kind of gossip or -- or a lie."

She ought to know better. The "pajamas" reference was famously employed as a dismissive insult against conservatives by former CBS News executive Jonathan Klein, who ridiculed bloggers questioning Dan Rather's bogus Air National Guard memos, saying: "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at '60 Minutes'] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

In that instance, the mainstream media finally did take their cues from bloggers, and in so doing finally got the story right. The blogosphere was hardly intimidated. Out of that episode grew a conservative online outlet, Pajamas Media, run by Roger L. Simon, and Klein himself is now president of CNN, which recently hired Erickson to provide commentary.

On yet another occasion, Palin referenced "bored, anonymous, pathetic bloggers who lie to annoy me."

In fairness to the former vice presidential candidate, she has every right to be angry with some bloggers. She and her family have endured scurrilous attacks, including one from a liberal blogger who "broke" the bogus story of her divorce. Worse yet, right after her nomination as John McCain's running mate, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic invented a new type of "birtherism" when he went on a bizarre and misguided quest to prove Trig was not really Palin's baby. Sullivan went so far as to demand a paternity test.

On the other hand, it was blogger Adam Brickley (my former intern) who began the "Draft Sarah Palin" blog -- and was widely credited with helping to bring her, then an obscure governor from a distant state, to the attention of the McCain campaign. One could argue that Palin owes her fame to a blogger.

According to Maegan Carberry, who has been both a mainstream reporter at the Chicago Tribune and a blogger at Huffington Post, part of the problem is a failure to distinguish between the different types of bloggers: "Are we talking about the Josh Marshalls or Erick Ericksons? Are we talking about the Chris Cillizzas? Are we talking about the proverbial kid in PJs in his parent's basement?" she asks. "I appreciate the need to establish a trusted brand, which is harder for individuals than decades-old institutions."

Ultimately, bloggers must establish their own credibility if they are to be trusted. As such, they have an incentive to strive for accuracy. But should the accurate and honorable ones face constant criticism that should rightly be aimed at the irresponsible ones?

Clearly, Palin has been both attacked and supported by bloggers. As such, one would hope that she wouldn't paint with a broad brush. Instead, she and others seem to relish going after bloggers the way Spiro Agnew enjoyed blasting the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

But it's not just the politicians who are guilty of this. Mainstream journalists have increasingly gotten into the act, as well. On MSNBC's "Hardball" recently, Howard Fineman said he believes Rand Paul's now infamous Civil Rights Act gaffe had "something to do with the Internet age and the blogging age," adding that there are "a lot of blasting position papers out there. It's a lot of saying, 'I feel great because I've made this statement.' But the fact is, nobody's cross-examining you" about that statement.

Aside from the fact that Paul's comments had nothing to do with blogging, Fineman (who works for Newsweek, which is in danger of going out of business) clearly thinks bloggers just spew opinions without any accountability to readers. For better or worse (and trust me, I could do without some of the comments people leave on my blogs), online writers and bloggers are much more accountable to readers than was the case in the supposedly halcyon days of traditional journalism. It is a mistake to yearn for a time when the only hope a reader had of responding to a "serious" journalist was submitting a letter to the editor and hoping it got published.

As Tim Fernholz, staff writer at The American Prospect magazine, explains: "Many public figures, especially those in the older generation, confused the medium and the message, equating anyone who publishes solely on the Internet with the craziest people who publish solely on the Internet. It's as if someone read the Weekly World News and then criticized The New York Times for also being printed on paper -- two totally different products, but ignorance leads to broad brushes."

Other bloggers see the media criticism of bloggers as sour grapes. "At least with newspapers, magazines and TV, they had producers and editors they could count on to keep the blemishes covered," said Andrew Griffin, an Oklahoma-based conservative blogger who was a reporter for various outlets, including a Gannett newspaper in Louisiana. "But now, bloggers and online journalists -- the responsible ones, anyway -- are covering the hard news stories that the Big Paper editors ignore or don't have time for. We have broken stories at my two websites that to this day have been ignored by the local Big Paper and the lapdog TV stations."

In recent weeks, Bill Clinton voiced concern over anti-government rhetoric, and Rand Paul voiced concern over anti-BP rhetoric, yet nobody -- not even the bloggers themselves -- seems terribly concerned about all the anti-blogger rhetoric. As Erickson, who runs the popular conservative blog RedState, told me: "Bloggers have always been under rhetorical attack. It's no different from people attacking the media in general -- everyone paints with a broad brush. It comes with the territory."

This all makes me wonder if, ultimately, the "blogger" brand will be destroyed. Will bloggers be forced to find a new name for what they do -- just as many liberals now insist on calling themselves "progressives"? Is blogger the new lawyer? Will we have to say, "No, Buffy, I'm not a blogger. I'm an online opinion journalist!"?

Of course, bloggers have no union reps to defend them, and there is no Blogger Anti-Defamation League or watchdog group to turn to. And because many political bloggers are more loyal to their ideology than to their profession (or avocation), bloggers rarely defend others of their kind. Case in point: When CNN hired Erickson, the liberal blogosphere went nuts. And when Jane Hamsher, founder of the progressive blog FiredDog Lake defended Erickson as an "honest broker," the left turned on her, too. More recently, conservative bloggers ravaged Will Folks, the blogger who wrote that he had had an affair with Nikki Haley.

Still, some actually see these attacks as a positive sign. "Criticisms of a blogger's credibility further justify their entrenchment in our country's conversation, because once you become a scapegoat in the news cycle it means influential people are paying attention," Maegan Carberry told me. "If something isn't credible or relevant, high-profile figures would not acknowledge it at all."

Chuck DeFeo
, chief executive of Campaign Solutions, a top online strategy firm (and formerly my boss at Townhall.com), agrees: "As bloggers have expanded their audience and their influence, their ability to impact public opinion has become as strong as some in the mainstream media. With that influence comes the likelihood that some in power not only won't like what you have to say but, more importantly, they now need to respond."

Of course, not everyone would say the attacks are a form of flattery. What is clear, though, is that the hostility toward bloggers isn't merely relegated to politics. Just the other day, Yahoo! chief executive Carol Bartz publicly told a tech blogger to "f--- off." Those words are not unusual for a blogger to hear, mind you, but what is unusual is for someone to say it while on stage. And it's not a convincing argument.

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