October 2, 2006

Bloggers Hit the Campaign Trail at What Cost?

The very title of the new book by liberal Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas—Crashing the Gate—reflects the blogosphere’s jaundiced view of the insider political establishment: it’s a “Beltway Mafia” composed of interest groups, political consultants, and journalists.

According to many bloggers, the dreaded mainstream media, (or MSM) have failed to reflect the voices and needs of citizens and are really just another establishment interest group. Consequently, the blogosophere has assumed the mantle in many eyes as the more authentic independent watchdog providing checks and balances on corrupt and well-entrenched institutional power.There is little doubt it has injected more voices into the public debate.

But with the crucial 2006 political season now entering the homestretch, bloggers are taking an increasingly active role in several key races, and that raises a new troubling question. Are bloggers straying from their self-proclaimed roles as critics and scrutinizers of the establishment and becoming instead de facto appendages of political campaigns?

That phenomenon began in earnest in 2004 with the the Deaniacs, liberal bloggers who helped make Howard Dean the leading presidential contender for the Democratic Party, that is, of course, until the primaries began. In the same year, conservative bloggers were given credit for helping South Dakota Republican John Thune triumph over Tom Daschle, then the top Senate Democrat.

This year, bloggers already played a key role in helping largely unknown anti-war cable executive Ned Lamont engineer a surprise primary defeat of incumbent Connecticut Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, who had fallen from being the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2000.

The relationship of bloggers to campaigns has become an issue in the hotly contested Virginia senatorial race where incumbent Republican Senator George Allen is battling former Navy Secretary James Webb. After Lowell Feld — a blogger who is paid by Webb’s campaign — posted a controversial item linking Allen with white supremacists, a Webb spokesman was forced to acknowledge that “Lowell doesn’t speak for the campaign,” according to a report in the Washington Post.

Even if bloggers are not formally on someone’s payroll their partisan efforts may raise questions both about blogging and campaign ethics. Indeed, the line between official campaign work and blogging for the campaign outside an official capacity is not always clearly drawn.Conservative critics have charged that Feld and his business partner, who have been blogging on a site not formally affiliated with Webb’s campaign, may be guilty of breaking election finance laws because blogs are a way to disseminate political messages without campaigns having to actually pay for them.

Aside from the legal questions, all this raises the issue of whether bloggers are abandoning an independent referee’s role for a chance to jump onto the playing field and become active campaign partisans. For his part, Bill Mitchell, an online editor at The Poynter Institute in Florida, says the primary ethical prerequisite for bloggers is simply to disclose their interests and allegiances. “I believe they can still be effective if they’re clear about their own loyalties and about the various stakeholders in the blog,” Mitchell told the Project.

However one views this phenomenon, the trend toward making blogs an active element of political campaigns seems likely to continue and grow. Potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently hired a blog outreach adviser. And the National Journal has reported that another White House hopeful, John McCain, has lured Howard Dean’s former webmaster to his campaign staff while his PAC is using a well-known conservative blogger as a consultant. Indeed, the story on how the alliance between bloggers and politicians evolves over the next few campaign cycles will be one to watch. And most likely to blog about.