Last June, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, former soldier, one-time Reagan Republican, and proprietor of the wildly successful liberal blog Daily Kos, sent an email to an invitation-only listserv known as Townhouse. Consisting of some 300 liberal bloggers, journalists, activists, and consultants, the list was an outgrowth of weekly strategy sessions held at a D.C. bar—a forum for brainstorming on issues and tactics, and a means of creating a “unified message,” as Moulitsas later put it. Its members were bound by one main rule: Nothing from the list was to be quoted or distributed, which, this being politics, meant that a leak was bound to happen.
In the message that would end up putting Townhouse, briefly, on the outside world’s radar, Moulitsas asked list members to “ignore” a blog item by the New York Times‘ Chris Suellentrop that revealed that Jerome Armstrong—founder of the popular liberal blog MyDD and a close friend and business associate of Moulitsas—had once been implicated in a stock-touting scheme. Suellentrop noted parallels between stock-hyping and bloggers’ touting of candidates such as Howard Dean, who had hired both Armstrong and Moulitsas as consultants during his 2004 presidential campaign. Moulitsas, who had recently coauthored the book Crashing the Gate with Armstrong, told Townhouse members that these revelations were “a nonstory.” “So far,” he wrote, “this story isn’t making the jump to the traditional media, and we shouldn’t do anything to help make that happen.” He urged participants to “starve it of oxygen.”
When The New Republic‘s Jason Zengerle blogged about the Townhouse email, “The Kos” urged readers to cancel their subscriptions, writing, “It is now beyond clear that the dying New Republic is mortally wounded and cornered, desperate for relevance. It has lost half its circulation since the blogs arrived on the scene and they no longer (thank heavens!) have a monopoly on progressive punditry. We have hit their bottom line, we are hitting their patron saint hard (Joe Lieberman) and this is how they respond. By going after the entire movement.” Many of Moulitsas’ followers—Kossacks, they call themselves—then filled Zengerle’s inbox with all manner of invective.
The irony is this: Moulitsas’ reaction echoes the very control-the-message philosophy the blogosphere once rose up to fight. Indeed, challenging the methods of an entrenched political elite was the subject of Crashing the Gate.
Today, top liberal bloggers have become an elite in their own right—one that is increasingly part of the political hierarchy. They’ve joined campaigns and drummed up lucrative consulting work. One, Swing State Project contributor Tim Tagaris, was tapped by the Democratic National Committee to head up its Internet outreach efforts, went on to work on Ned Lamont’s Senate campaign, and is now a member of Senator Chris Dodd’s campaign staff. Berkeley-based Moulitsas is in regular communication with Democratic leadership aides, and, on occasion, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid himself, according to the Washington Monthly. “Politicians court big bloggers now,” says a national political reporter who wished to remain anonymous for fear of blogger wrath. “They have dinner with them. They have lunch with them. They stroke them in the hopes of getting favorable things written about them and harnessing that energy.” Some politicians probably prefer holding court with bloggers rather than old-school pundits, says Michael Turk, the e-campaign director for the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign and, later, the Republican National Committee. “They say, ‘Here’s a way to make people who think like us echo our comments.'”
Almost as soon as the netroots arose, so did the questions—about conflicts of interest, motivation, and disclosure. After the 2004 election, Zephyr Teachout, who with her colleagues at the Dean campaign was widely credited with creating a new model of Internet outreach, noted on her blog that the campaign had retained Moulitsas and Armstrong “largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean.” (Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, has disputed Teachout’s characterization, as has the campaign’s director of Internet communications, Mathew Gross.)
As it turned out, Armstrong took a hiatus from blogging during the campaign, and Moulitsas put a disclaimer on his blog’s masthead disclosing his relationship with Dean, urging readers to “take what I write with the proper grain of salt.” But by then, Moulitsas and Armstrong had formed a consulting firm (since disbanded), whose clients, aside from Dean, they refused to name. And in the end, whether the conflicts of interest were real or perceived didn’t matter: In politics, as in journalism—the two worlds the blogosphere straddles—it’s often the appearance of taint that counts. “I don’t trust the framing of anyone who is regularly writing and speaking about people they are taking money from,” as Teachout put it.
The 2006 midterms saw a new wave of bloggers sign on to campaigns. Among many others, Lowell Feld and Abraham Chernilla (Raising Kaine) went to work for James Webb; Jon Henke (QandO) became the netroots coordinator for Webb’s opponent, George Allen; Matt Singer (Left in the West) worked for Jon Tester’s Senate campaign; and Aldon Hynes (Orient Lodge) and Tim Tagaris were on Lamont’s payroll. On Election Day, Senate Majority Leader-to-be Harry Reid saluted Daily Kos readers in a video message: “In the past five months, you have donated countless hours exposing Republicans and volunteering for Democratic candidates,” he said. (The Kos community had also raised more than $1.5 million for Democratic candidates through the fundraising site ActBlue.) “Without the netroots, Democrats would not be in the position we are in today,” Reid added. “It is as simple as that.”
“It’s a very conscious effort to build a power structure,” says Gross, the former Dean staffer who’s now advising John Edwards. “These are people who are not just blogging, but who are thinking very sophisticatedly about what the Republicans did for 20 years to get to the point of being able to dominate the cultural discourse.”
In many ways, says Gross, “it’s the oldest story in the book. The establishment sort of loses its bearings, loses its compass, and from the bottom people come up, get involved, and make their way into the centers of power.” He laughed. “Then in 20 years someone’s going to come along and lop off all our heads.”
Or perhaps a little sooner. “The consultancies, the Jerome Armstrong ‘scandal,’ the tnr kerfuffle—all these things are cropping up because the power of the blogosphere is undeniable and will NOT go away,” wrote Maryscott O’Connor, of My Left Wing, in a post titled “Something Is Rotten in Blogmark,” shortly after the Moulitsas-tnr spat. “This is what happens when you crash the gates. All of a sudden, you’re not just a pajama-clad kid in his parents’ basement; once you’ve demonstrated your power and influence, people start demanding accountability and transparency. They want to know, for instance, that you aren’t pushing a candidate MERELY because you (or your friends) have been paid by that candidate to do so.”
When I reached O’Connor this spring at her home in Sherman Oaks, California, she said the Townhouse flap had been on her mind recently. A 39-year-old stay-at-home mom, she has earned a devoted following with her intemperate, gripping screeds on her blog and on Daily Kos. (A month after we spoke, Moulitsas banned her from the site over a copyright violation.) O’Connor speaks like she writes, in stream-of-consciousness bursts, and she told me she had begun to feel there was a “schism” in the blogosphere. “I think that certain bloggers, the big ones, think politics is sexy,” she said. “They want in, and they’re getting in. They’ll do anything to get in, almost. They want a seat at the table. They want to be in the inner circle of the Democratic Party.” A member of Townhouse, she was at first reluctant to talk about the list but changed her mind midway through our conversation, predicting that her comments would get her banished. “It’s fucking Skull and Bones, man,” she said. “The very secretive, behind-closed-doors nature of it is anathema to everything that blogging is supposed to be about: accountability. We are supposed to be showing the way, not skulking around behind closed doors, coming up with strategies. Those are the people who we’re trying to fight. I know about ‘the real world’ and all that shit. But we’re the idealists, aren’t we?”
As the medium is co-opted and incorporated into both Democratic and Republican hierarchies, more controversies are bound to follow. Already there’s evidence that “sock puppets” are showing up on blogs—political pros masquerading as grassroots posters. In one incident uncovered by the conservative blog Red State, an operative with ties to John McCain’s political action committee authored posts on the blog praising the Arizona senator and criticizing rival Rudy Giuliani. Meanwhile, Patrick Hynes, the consultant who founded Ankle Biting Pundits (formerly Crush Kerry), was the first well-known blogger of the ’08 cycle caught failing to disclose a conflict: He wrote posts on his own blog supporting John McCain and knocking Mitt Romney, but never told his readers that he was under contract with the McCain campaign.
As bloggers attain power and influence, they will undoubtedly find themselves subject to the same withering scrutiny they’ve bestowed on other powerful people. And they won’t take it quietly. During the Townhouse fight, Zengerle was slammed both politically and professionally, with some comparing him to the infamous New Republic fabricator Stephen Glass. “It was like, how can we discredit Zengerle?” he says. “The same way that if you’re running a political campaign you would say, ‘How can we discredit John Kerry?'” K. Daniel Glover, editor of the National Journal‘s Technology Daily and author of the site’s Beltway Blogroll, was the target of similar vitriol in December after penning a New York Times op-ed that explored bloggers’ financial connections to campaigns. “You might think that with the kind of rhetoric bloggers regularly muster against politicians, they would never work for them,” he wrote. “But you would be wrong.” He also noted that “few of these bloggers shut down their ‘independent’ sites after signing on with campaigns, and while most disclosed their campaign ties on their blogs, some…did so only after being criticized by fellow bloggers.”
“There was quite a nasty reaction to my op-ed,” says Glover. “I’ve been surprised at how thin-skinned bloggers can be. You compare that with how they treat the mainstream media and how they’ll go after them and attack them, but when anything at all is said about the blogosphere, they go off half-cocked.”
Part of the problem, says Armstrong, is that journalists wrongly apply their own ethical standards to nonjournalists. “From my perspective, I’m like, what are you talking about? You know I’m a Democrat. If I wasn’t working for the person, I’d still be advocating for them. I’m a full-time partisan operative.” Back in 2005, Armstrong set out his own ethics rule of thumb: “What the campus blogethicists don’t understand is that we are at war out here every day on the front lines as partisan Democratic activist bloggers against a Republican machine that uses whatever means it takes to win. So, if it’s not against the law, I don’t want to hear about it, because in the political arena, the first thing that matters in elections and campaigns is winning, with the only accountability being the electioneering laws of Congress. Only after winning do we have a chance at enacting a progressive agenda.” Moulitsas chimed in on Daily Kos: “Anyone that tries to tell me how to act will get a big middle finger shoved up their face.”
Moulitsas has been on paternity leave and didn’t respond to interview requests. When I emailed Townhouse list owner Matt Stoller to talk about this story, Stoller replied tersely: “Google ‘blogger ethics panel.'” (A running blogosphere joke, the query brings up various tales of mainstream media hypocrisy.) Then he posted my email on MyDD as the inaugural message in a series he calls, simply, “Annoying Email.”
So who, wonders Maryscott O’Connor, will crash the gate-crashers’ party? “Once you get a taste of money and fame and power and adulation, how do you stay true to what got you there in the first place?” Everyone wants to win, she is quick to add. But: “When you play their game, you become everything that you were trying to beat. They’re becoming,” she says, a tremor of genuine horror in her voice, “Republicans.”
Any candidate is going to respond to a fundraiser, and a lot of these blogs are major fundraisers for the party. Not necessarily on the level that a Hollywood mogul is, but politicians respond to people who raise money. You don’t want to alienate Kos or other big players because if you’re on their good list, you’re going to be able to raise more money.
Phil de Vellis
“Hillary 1984” creator
Before all this stuff, there were a few guys—guys like Joe Klein, David Broder, The Capital Gang—who could say if a campaign was run well or not. Now you’ve got millions of people essentially doing the same thing. So for candidates, talking to David Broder isn’t a make-or-break thing. They can talk to Markos, or they could talk to local bloggers in Iowa. There are still gatekeepers. There are just a lot more of them, and new ones all the time.
It’s true that Josh Marshall and Markos Moulitsas are very influential, but they are constantly held accountable by their audience. If Markos makes a mistake, right there in the blog comments people are bashing him. He can’t stray that far from accountability, the way that editors of the old gatekeeping institutions—whether it was the New York Times or The Nation—were inherently insulated. It’s no coincidence that you see a flowering of new voices and people earning their status on merit rather than going to the right college.
There is a constant struggle between these three models of politics: the group model, the party model, and the expert model. With the Internet you see a flourishing of group politics, which is healthy because it encourages civil society and ground-level participation.
It’s not that you should necessarily do what the blogs tell you, but you need to prove that you are listening. Anyone who is good at running a company occasionally listens to the customer-support lines and gets a reality check, and that is what politicians should do. The best communications technology is the ear.
The Internet is not just a tool, it is a community of human beings who are tired of what I call the “one-way campaign,” which began essentially during the Kennedy-Nixon debates, where everything is on television. Well, it’s not about communicating our message to you anymore; it’s about listening to you first before we formulate the message.
In this next election cycle, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably don’t need the netroots behind them—they just need us not to hate them. But beyond 2008, they won’t be able to marginalize the netroots, because it’s not one blogger—it’s not Markos, it’s not Atrios—it’s the way the base communicates with each other. The Democrats are still trying to play this Big Tent bullshit over a center that doesn’t exist. As they wake up and smell the coffee, they’ll realize they have to play to the base. The place the base goes to organize, get its opinions, is increasingly online.
The blogosphere has done a really bad job in general of finding a common space between disagreeing parties. It probably does contribute to the further partisanization of American politics. Wikipedia represents the alternative model, one where people from different political backgrounds could work together. But it depends on the willingness of the candidates and the campaigns to try to come up with a purple strategy as opposed to a red-vs.-blue strategy.
creator of flash mobs
A lot of techno-utopian types—the kind of people who would crow about Politics 2.0-type stuff—they have a hammer, but they don’t really know what their nail is. To me, the innovation of the netroots really has nothing to do with the Internet and everything to do with the way they’re forging an aggressive vision of liberal politics.
When campaigns hire a blogger, they get a lot of expertise. But the glow wears off pretty fast. Everyone knows they’re not independent anymore. Once I get an email from a blogger I know is working for a campaign, I treat it as campaign spam, because that’s what it is.
There is an elite class of political bloggers who are on par with the pundits on the Sunday-morning talk shows. On the Democratic side, they seem to be largely male. When people think of women blogging, they think of mommy bloggers, right? But these women also talk and care about politics. I don’t think that the small cadre of elite political bloggers are thinking about why there aren’t more women in their ranks.
I think it’s a meritocracy. You have to put in the time to figure out how the blogosphere works. If you’re willing to do that, I don’t think being female is any barrier. In fact, I think it’s an advantage at this point. The A-list bloggers are hungry and looking to give exposure to women who write really well. Most of those criticisms of male A-list bloggers shutting out women—I really don’t have any other word to call it except just “bullshit.”
Blogs have primarily been opinion outlets, and occasionally offered analysis that counted as news, like the typographical analysis of the Dan Rather National Guard memos. But I think we’re going to see blogs come into their own as a true reporting medium between now and the election.
Look at what Josh Marshall has been doing on Talking Points Memo, where he’ll tell his readers to call up their congressperson and find out if this person voted up or down in some voice vote where there is no record of it. Because they’re supposed to tell their constituents how they voted, even if they wouldn’t feel bound to tell journalists. There’s radical potential in that.