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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Posted: August 9, 2007 03:13 PM

The Rise and Rise of 'Netroots Nation'


MSNBC.com asked yours truly to create a blog back in the spring of 2002. We called it "Altercation," and it was the first mainstream media outlet to publish a blog. Now virtually every mainstream media outlet publishes one. So what is a blogger anymore?

Is blogging about attitude? About unprofessionalism? Is it about partisanship? Is it merely about publishing what you write in little snippets right away and inviting reaction? Is it about not trusting the mainstream media to tell the truth?

The question arises in part because of the extraordinary attention paid to the netroots community at the second Yearly Kos convention, which took place last weekend in Chicago. Given that the top Democratic presidential candidates were all coming, reporters had little choice but to show up. Mainstream media journalists shared panels and parties with bloggers, who, presumably, refrained from physical violence. So what is it exactly, that binds these people together and yet separates them from the fraternity of journalists?

The question has a variety of answers relating to the nature of professionalism, institutional support, a belief in objectivity, social mores, and status. But its lack of a clear answer has generated considerable animosity on both sides, as well as a great deal of insecurity underneath.

As someone who consumed the conference coverage, but was not able to attend the conference, I have to admit that the mainstream media turned out to be much fairer and more thoughtful than I would have expected. In terms of covering the gathering straight up, the surprise front-runner turned out to be The Washington Post, an institution that, as Eric Boehlert has chronicled, has a masochistic tendency to fall willingly into the arms of right-wing bloggers without any apparent interest or concern for their far more influential left-wing counterparts. The Post published two stories about the event. One an impressed, if brief, assessment from political reporter Chris Cillizza, and the other an (honest) critique from Jose Antonio Vargas. (The absence of coverage from Howard Kurtz, an admiring chronicler of the conservative media, may help explain the balanced coverage.)

Cillizza's piece, headlined "The Net Roots' Moment in the Sun," highlights the professionalism and influence of the bloggers without hitting on the usual nerd clichés, noting that "While the party establishment seems to have moved toward the Net roots, the coalition of bloggers remains proudly and defiantly independent of the structures of Washington, including, yes, the media. (One popular panel was titled "Blogs and the [Mainstream Media]: From Clash to Civilization.") ... Like it or not, the Net roots appear to be here to stay."

Vargas, on the other hand, presented the bloggers' own critique of their homogeneity, noting both "that the median political blog reader is a 43-year-old male who has an annual family income of $80,000," and that bloggers like KidOakland are already making efforts to increase the perspectives at the crowd. But perhaps most interesting is a sidebar on an overheard conversation between two political reporters: "'Are politicians trying to reach the bloggers? Or are they trying to reach us -- journalists -- 'through the bloggers?'"

Among the smarter print media covering the event, there was an air of self-awareness about the mainstream media taking their turn to cover the blogs, instead of the opposite. Jay Rosen at PressThink notes how many journalists -- people like Ron Fournier of the AP or Jay Carney at Time -- are using the rise of the blogosphere as an excuse to critique and question their own work, even if they are, as Rosen notes, five or six years late.

The decision by The New Yorker to send forth its star scribe, Hendrik Hertzberg, into its ranks to lose what he called his "blogging virginity," is yet another milestone in the conquest -- or at least infiltration -- by blogs of all forms of media: a long-time progressive scribe in the print world making his foray into the blogosphere. Hertzberg termed the iconic Markos "Kos" Moulsitas as "an updated version of the soldiers who came home after World War II, went to school on the G.I. Bill, led the citizens' organizations of the moderate left (the American Veterans Committee, the National Student Association, Americans for Democratic Action, etc.), and infused postwar America liberalism and the Truman, Stevenson, and Kennedy campaigns with their restless energy. That might explain something about what he has accomplished with Daily Kos."

And yet the resistance of the old guard continues. Not one of the Sunday shows saw fit to host a blogger to say a few things about the political scene in the wake of the conference. The Los Angeles Times, which has written so admiringly of Matt Drudge on its front page, was not nearly so generous to the netroots, though it did cover the Democratic debate in a way that all about accused the candidates of pandering. Ditto The Politico's Ben Smith, who gave voice to some of the mainstream media's hostility to blogs.

"They're so painfully craving any type of mainstream acceptance that they're prone to the crassest kind of flattery and pandering, which weakens them," said a senior aide to a Democratic campaign of the bloggers. Recalling a lavish party then-candidate Mark Warner threw at the 2006 YearlyKos convention in Last Vegas, the aide noted: "Mark Warner bought them off with a fountain and some chocolate strawberries."

Strangely, a search for the word "pander" on The Politico's extremely bloggy website doesn't bring up articles about republican candidates' hobnobbing with radical radio show hosts, extremist religious bigots, or attending anti-choice conventions. Whodathunkit? And while everyone enjoyed the free drinks provided at the Time party, the magazine's reliable black kettle, Joe Klein, worries that "an awful lot of anger, vitriol and disdain ... spews out of some of these blogs."

But the YearlyKos convention -- now to be known as Netroots Nation -- didn't please all bloggers, who worry about losing their mojo. TeddySanFran, blogging at Firedoglake, came away unhappy with the convention's slickness and the mainstream media's attitude, calling out Politico.com's Mike Allen for, well, pandering to bloggers, then turning around to mock them with Tucker Carlson. He even gets in a dig at blogger-turned-print journalist Ezra Klein for defending the mainstream media. His conclusion? "I want the revolutionary, angry, Establishment-challenging, rabble-rousing netroots back. If Netroots Nation sees its new mission as pleasing Traditional Media, or allying with it, or making nice, or merging the two into some amalgam that pleases anyone in the Establishment: then it's not my Netroots Nation."

Whether the netroots is losing its "blogging virginity" or converting the mainstream remains to be seen. It's still a young medium and its elder statesmen were unknown to all of us just five years ago. All in all, it's an amazing accomplishment, and an important experiment in the revitalization of both journalism and democracy.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress, a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His weblog, "Altercation," appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Originally posted at the Center for American Progress.