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Printing Press Progressives at Mother Jones Try to Debunk the Political Web

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Mother Jones magazine has come out with a special Politics 2.0 package. It has a great collection of interviews with "bloggers, politicos, and Netizens," including MyDD's Jerome Armstrong, Howard Dean, Chris Rabb of Afronetizen, Digg's Kevin Rose, conservative Grover Norquist, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, and Phil de Vellis, the guy who created that "Hillary 1984" video. Absorb them all and you have a tour d'horizon for how the Web is changing politics.

The writing and framing from the journalists at Mother Jones is another story. As Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice: put it, their treatment became "enmeshed in the Hollywood idea of 'high concept': where things are painted in simplistic, starkly contrasting, immediately recognizeable terms." This will give you the flavor:

Are we entering a new era of digital democracy--or just being conned by a bunch of smooth-talking geeks?

New dawn or techo con game: such illuminating alternatives. Again:

Blogs, social networking, and viral video are redefining where political discussion takes place. But are they just replacing the old machine bosses with a new group of bullies?

And what an irony that would be. (See Meet the New Bosses.) Another:

Is old media dead, or is the blogosphere just a flash in the pan?

Because we know it's one or the other. Those quotes come from a press release that landed in my box Tuesday, provoking me with breezy hype about all the hype-busting going on at Mother Jones, an investigative magazine of the left.

"Mother Jones invites you to question if the Politics 2.0 revolution really lives up to its hype." (Press release again.) When I later asked Clara Jeffery, the magazine's editor-in-chief, from whence comes this impulse to debunk (and who provided the bunk that made your de-bunking so imperative...?) she said: impulse to debunk? We weren't out to debunk. I don't know what you're talking about. We said some good things and we said some skeptical things. You have a problem with that?

Which is kinda how the whole interview went.

I thought I was her asking about an editorial decision Mother Jones made: to frame and present its report on "open source politics" not with an idea of its own, or a conclusion reached via reporting, but with the standard myth-busting software journalists load into their prose machines a zillion times a year.

The package begins with a page that is made up like a Wikipedia entry for Open Source Politics. (Of course no one can edit it, except Mother Jones.) This was meant to ease you into the bouncy, crap-detecting spirit of the section and get you to read it, while having a little fun with the form. Thus...

The neutrality of this story is disputed.

Open-Source Politics

Open-source politics is the idea that social networking and participatory technologies will revolutionize our ability to follow, support, and influence political campaigns. Forget party bosses in smoky backrooms--netroots evangelists and web consultants predict a wave of popular democracy as fundraisers meet on MySpace, YouTubers crank out attack ads, bloggers do oppo research, and cell-phone-activated flash mobs hold miniconventions in Second Life. The halls of power will belong to whoever can tap the passion of the online masses. That kid with a laptop has Karl Rove quaking in his boots. And if you believe that, we've got some leftover Pets.com stock to sell you.

Fun, right? I had lots of questions about this part but Jeffery was again mystified as to why I would even ask. Sure, it's snarky, she said. But the point of the fake wiki page was "to set up the 'it'll change everything,' 'it'll change nothing' tension that runs throughout the package." And that is how the package is framed. My question was: why? Through several emails and a phone interview, I failed in getting an answer.

Ohmygod this is going to change everything! as against Same shit as always. To Clara Jeffery those are two different thoughts. To me they are the same idea: don't think it through yourself, use these rote forms: the revolutionary and his glorious dawn to come, the reactionary who spits at the new. To her there is some kind of "tension" between these views. To me there is no tension because they are fake alternatives to begin with-- just off-the-shelf bi-polar hype-speak from Mother Jones.

If you read their interviews with smart people who know politics or know the Web, they are far more grounded. Take Mike Cornfield of George Washington University, who said:

There's a big difference between having a technical capacity to do something and having the willpower to organize people and persuade them and make history. There's just a huge gap there.

Or Jane Hamsher on the kingmaking powers of the online left:

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably don't need the netroots behind them-- they just need us not to hate them.

So I asked Jeffery: if your sources, the people you talked to for this report, didn't hold such extreme views ("it'll change everything" or "it'll change nothing") and if, after checking into it, twelve writers and editors working for Mother Jones didn't come down in either of these camps, then why in the world would you use that "tension" to frame the thing? Where did it come from? Couldn't you find anything better in the reporting you did?

The question -- like all my questions -- did not compute. She did, however, say that taking two extreme-ified claims and discovering that the truth is somewhere in the middle was a "perfectly standard" treatment in journalism. I had to agree with her on that. But it seemed like a strange explanation. Ours is the same lame frame game you see everywhere in the press, so what's your problem with it, Jay?

Reality is elsewhere. That's my problem with it. Here's what Phil de Vellis said...

There are still gatekeepers. There are just a lot more of them, and new ones all the time.

Observe how this sort of statement doesn't scream out, "revolutionary alert: there are no more gatekeepers!" Nor does it idiotically contend, curmudgeon-style, that since everything hasn't been overturned nothing is really different. Vellis says: The political media system hasn't crumbled, it still stands. But there are changes, and some of them show a pattern that is quite different from the old pattern, so we have to keep an eye on this.

Compare that to Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery in their editors' note introducing the Mother Jones package, piling irony on irony in their hype-busting prose.

And what of the glorious netroots? Already we've seen some of these gate-crashers act more like gatekeepers, promoting groupthink, punishing dissent, and growing drunk on the tribute that old-school pols and the msm now provide them. Not only that, but the blogosphere hardly looks like America yet: as Afro-Netizen's Chris Rabb notes, those "who could afford to sleep on Howard Dean's couch in Vermont are the same people who can raise the money to build a digital consultancy or a social networking site." Is democracy's best hope just another--if somewhat bigger and younger--elite? Even if the online conversation broadens, not everyone in the crowd is wise, as the digital road rage in comment threads so often proves. And if you thought Willie Horton and Swift Boating were slimy, wait till every last racist smear or dirty lie finds its way to YouTube or Digg.

An outstanding feature of this kind of writing is the question that really isn't a question because for savvy journalists there is only one plausible answer.

Can revolutionaries hold true to their lofty declarations, or will they inevitably be corrupted by power?

Pop quiz: which of those views is meant to scan "naive," and which reads "savvy?" Aw, give up so soon? Revolutionaries holding to lofty ideals as they become more established-- not likely. And Mother Jones did not find any cases worth reporting. Revolutionaries with lofty rhetoric getting corrupted by proximity to power? Well, yeah-- that happens. That's where the real word is. That's the savvy view.

"In the world of 'Politics 2.0' the masses are forging a more transparent political system--one where bottom-up organizing trumps top-down messaging," the press release says. "Or so we've been led to believe by bloggers and web consultants."

I asked Clara Jeffery who these bloggers and web consultants were, the ones who were leading us to believe things that Mother Jones just had to challenge. Had she spoken to any? Those true believers she wrote about, did they have names or anything? Again she didn't understand the question. Why was I asking her about imagery in a press release that some flack sent out? Jeffery did mention that in this interview a real live revolutionary with lofty declarations could be found.

In March Jonathan Chait wrote about the Netroots in The New Republic, not the same subject but very similar terrain. Unlike the happy balloon poppers at Mother Jones, he at least had an interpretation to offer:

The Democratic leadership and the liberal intelligentsia seemed pathetic and exhausted, wedded to musty ideals of bipartisanship and decorousness. Meanwhile, what the netroots saw in the Republican Party, they largely admired. They saw a genuine mass movement built up over several decades. They saw a powerful message machine. And they saw a political elite bound together with ironclad party discipline.

This, they decided, is what the Democratic Party needed. And, when they saw that the party leadership was incapable of creating it, they decided to do it themselves.

When I asked Clara Jeffery what her interpretation was from all the reporting time her team put in, she had one: "Politics 2.0 is still a work in progress." (MOTHER JONES CHALLENGES THE POLITICS 2.0 "REVOLUTION;" CLAIMS RESULTS ARE NOT IN YET.) Chait agreed that the results are not in, but didn't leave it there:

What they have accomplished in just a few years is astonishing. Already, the netroots are the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago. And, by all appearances, they are far from finished with their task: recreating the Democratic Party in the image of the conservative machine they have set out to destroy.

Which may not be entirely accurate but it does cause conversation, and from conversation additional layers of understanding may grow.

The Mother Jones editors had a great story about politics and the web within their grasp, but they were too busy fabricating myths they could bust up later -- and so they missed it. Jerome Armstrong told them: right now there's a generational conflict being played out within the campaigns. In 2004 the "big" operators around the candidate weren't focused on the Internet, and didn't see why they should be. And so at times the kids and outsiders could show the way to new uses, bypassing legacy thinking at the top.

Now in '08 all the old hands have woken up to the Internet and through embrace and extend they have tried to exert control over that department, colonizing it for the kind of command and control, push-the-message politics where (boomer) knowledge is ancient and decisive. "I know people on all these campaigns that work on the Internet and they're frustrated as hell," said Armstrong. "That's throughout the Democratic Party." But I bet you could find a similar dynamic on the Republican side.

"It's a generational gap between the decision makers that lead the candidates and campaigns, and the campaign managers, who are directors of the different departments." Somebody will do that story (a good story!) but it won't be the printing press progressives at Mother Jones.

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Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University, and writes the blog PressThink,, where this first appeared. During the 08 campaign, he'll be collaborating with the Huffington Post on OfftheBus.Net. What is it? "Campaign coverage by people who aren't in the club. Or on the bus." See Arianna's post on it.