Memo to Media: Netroots Is Not Just Liberals Bashing Obama

The White House dispatched Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer for a different kind of press conference on Friday in Minneapolis, where he tangled with a prominent writer known only as Angry Mouse. Hundreds of other writers were there, too, since Pfeiffer was headlining a conference for liberal bloggers.

The skepticism facing Pfeiffer is dominating coverage of this year's Netroots Nation, along with broader stories recounting liberals' "frustration" and disappointment with President Obama. But having attended this conference six years in a row (my life is the Internet), I think these stories miss the mark. They fit into a precooked narrative about "Progressives vs. Obama," which is well-known, easy to write and, yes, partly true. Some of the most active and committed liberals in any area are going to have informed critiques of elected Democrats (from the White House on down). But that's not what Netroots is about.

This conference is unusual because it was hatched online by activists, not any funded group with a formal agenda, and then evolved into a large and relevant draw for the upper echelons of the Democratic Party (Pelosi, Reid, Both Clintons, Gore, Dean). But it's not focused on them. Obama felt the need to attend in person in 2007, when he was running for president, along with every other major candidate. But in the off years, when fewer candidates (and the reporters who trail them) drop in, the conference goes on, with three days of programming on policy, organizing, writing, publishing and politics. Most of the time and energy is devoted to wonky, detailed discussions -- not presidential scheming or Obama-bashing.

For example, I'm writing this post from a session on government surveillance of American citizens, with two ACLU lawyers, policy blogger Marcy Wheeler, who made her name during the Libby trial, and Julian Sanchez, a libertarian writer. The ACLU is talking about S. 913, Sen. Rockefeller's bill to create a one-stop ban on Internet tracking; Wheeler is detailing a new law enforcement program to use nail polish purchases in data mining to target potential terrorists. Along the way, they are noting which Democrats need to be pushed on civil liberties, flagging who is in town for the conference (Franken, Wasserman-Shultz). But the goal is to influence policy, with the elected officials as a tool. They're not basking in a meta-political discussion of how "warm" people feel towards Obama, or whether they "have anywhere else to go."

Still, like so many political activities, the press coverage here is doled out inversely. So these wonky panels are packed but undocumented, while the handful of sessions about Obama's relationship with the left looks like a Green Room. There were 42 panels on the first day, for example, but the one titled "What to Do When the President is Just Not That Into You" kept showing up in articles about the conference. There were definitely more nationally-themed fireworks at that talk, but I thought the session on local labor organizing in Wisconsin, for example, was more significant.

Then again, who cares, right? Bloggers talking about reporters talking about bloggers sounds pretty irrelevant. The media and political perception of The Base/The Left matters, however. Gatherings like this -- with 2,400 people, this is one of the largest liberal conferences -- are one of the few times when real people and in-person reporting could substitute for recycled narratives about Obama angst. Maybe that's asking too much.