A Role for Bloggers After All (I)

Post-Convention Blogging Report

There has been lots of talk about blogger “coverage” of the convention. Some had expectations that there would be breakthrough, inspired commentary; others wondered at our amateurish appearance and prose. So why were we invited? No one has yet stated what, to me, is the obvious. (Perhaps there has been a conscious decision to avoid being crass – but if that’s the case they wouldn’t have invited me.) Money. There it is. Expectations of brilliance and innovation are fine, but bloggers raised lots of money for the party. And volunteers. Money and volunteers. And publicity. After the rise of Howard Dean, bloggers were going to be in the Show. Money and volunteers and publicity. There it is.

I came to the convention with few expectations, but arrived to find myself part of the story. The first event I attended was a blogger gathering at a bar on Sunday night, and there were reporters there interviewing us because bloggers at the convention was a STORY! NEWS! One of my first convention posts included a picture of a TV news crew filming a reporter interviewing a blogger who was interviewing the reporter. With a war on and other serious things they could be covering, this struck me as absurd, which led me to think that the whole phenomenon of blogging might have already outlived its usefulness.

But that changed. I came to believe that there is a very important role for the webloggers in the political process.

I think is the most important ongoing value of the new phenomena of blogging is that bloggers offer observations without the media filter. This is not better or worse than what we get from the media. The value is the difference. This is a resource for political professionals. Bloggers are able to give the political leadership a way to tap into opinion that is there but is not yet salient. I think bloggers offer Washington and local leadership an additional channel for learning what the public is thinking – or, even better, what the public WILL BE thinking. The huge number of weblogs and the number of people choosing which blogs to read on a given day offers a true “marketplace” method of learning what that segment of the public considers important.

While I think it is important that our readers have access to this perspective, I think that this is especially valuable to the political class.

Smart People – Marketplace

I read somewhere that there are over three million weblogs! Of course, many of these have about nine readers, but it says something about the 36 webloggers who received credentials to work at the Democratic convention. The webloggers who were at the convention were there because they have risen through a “marketplace” of internet users deciding to read their weblogs instead of other weblogs.

Through this marketplace process the “Convention Bloggers” have reached a point where they were noticed and invited to the convention. Some of the webloggers were invited for obvious reasons – large numbers of readers (and generating large donations to candidates and the party.) Some of these weblogs might have traffic numbers that seem less than impressive, but have contributed in one way or another to the process. (There were hundreds of weblogs at the same “level” as Seeing the Forest, and I am not claiming to have any superior insight or readership here. I also got lucky, no question about it.)

Possibly relevant to their invitations, these are weblogs that are read by members of Congressional and party staff, and elected officials. (I learned from different sources that STF is read by very well-placed people in the political structure. I have been surprised to find STF listed at Gary Hart’s weblog, then Howard Dean’s, then John Kerry’s and so many others.)

Here is what I am getting at: The bloggers I met at the convention were all people who are very smart, who make very sharp observations, who communicate well through written words and who have an audience.

This is fine, but the question here is, isn’t this the role of the media? You read over and over that webloggers are not part of the media culture. But what does this mean, and is this a good thing, if true?

The media culture.

Webloggers were given press passes for the convention. This meant we had access to special areas set aside for the media to get their work done, and special access to events, through separate entrances, special seating areas, etc.

I have experience working with the media, but not as the media. My first experience inside the media culture was going to the Press floor at the convention, and then into the Press Filing Room. It was immediately clear that this is a very thick culture – thick like how cop culture is thick. And a think culture will have an effect on a person. Everyone wants to fit in to any group they find themselves in, and walking into this area as “one of them,” picking up the little glances, trying to read the expressions, looking at how they were dressed and when they talked or didn’t or any of the thousands of other ways humans get signals immediately made me very self-conscious. It was clear I was an “outsider.” A young person entering this culture and wanting to rise up in the profession – and in hierarchy of the group – is certainly going to be strongly influenced.

I was immediately immersed rather than slowly introduced. I was standing next to Sam Donaldson and Wolf Blitzer and talking to David Corn and E.J. Dionne in the first hours and days of my media life, which I doubt the journalism student experiences. So I think my observation of the likely effect of the power of the culture has merit.

One observation of the culture was the respect paid to each other and to the people they interact with – candidates, officials, etc. These are people you are going to be working with tomorrow – every tomorrow. AND many of these people are in positions to assist or harm your career. It would have to be very difficult to break through this and ask embarrassing questions, and I think this may have something to do with why they do not. If you are able to, the Republicans work to make sure that you don’t get the opportunity. And it was confirmed to me at what you would probably agree are the highest levels of the profession, in Washington right now if you DO manage to get past all of this and ask embarrassing questions, the Republicans WILL work very hard to harm your career.

Press people are very, very arrogant. Some of this is actually from consciously defending their role as public servants — informers of the public. This is a very important role in a democracy and there are always undemocratic elements challenging that.

The media culture has the quality of a clear “inside” and “outside,” or “us and them” aspect of the experience. A press badge actually means you cross certain lines – like to the “press area.” So you have the physical separation from “regular” people. Another thing you have is special access. I went to an event where Howard Dean and Michael Moore were speaking, and when I arrived the line was many, many blocks long to enter an event that was already full. But I was able to walk right in and get a seat. This is necessary, because each reporter reaches hundreds or thousands of people, but it also means that you are a person of special privilege.

These are things that are absolute requirements of getting the job done – and the job is supposed to be informing the people. But they also necessarily will affect the story you write.

Professional Training

There are several things a professional journalist learns. One is the importance of removing yourself from the story. Another is to attempt to have objectivity. (Nedra skipped that class.)

The culture, special status and training all add up to filters applied to what is written.

Here Come the Bloggers

So along come the bloggers, offering a voicing of what regular people are thinking – well, some of us, anyway – without the filters that journalistic professionalism demands.

It Helped Dean

Dean’s campaign was reading blogs and was able to understand that there was widespread feeling that had not yet reached the point of being understood by the political structure. To understand this, think back a couple of years to the frustrations of all Democrats with the Party leadership. But this is a two-way street. Politicians respond to the public. The Party leadership HAS responded. But two years ago they were not receiving the information.

In Washington’s “inside the beltway” environment they really do have trouble understanding what people are feeling. The Dean phenomona demonstrated to them — the ones paying attention — just how far they have been from their constituencies. (I was told that two years ago a very high official in the Kerry campaign had said there won’t be a single vote that comes from the Internet.) Blogging provides a way for elected officials and staffs to guage public opinion, at least of those actively informed enough to be reading blogs – a second channel from the media, which when functioning is extremely important.

So, special role of Blogging #1 – we provide observations without the filters that the mainstream media uses. I am not saying this makes our observations better, just different, and this is important. I think bloggers are a special kind of information filter. At the convention I realized that bloggers serve a much more important role in the political process than I had thought before the convention.

This is the end of Part I of my post-convention blogging report. More to come.

UpdatePart II is up.