Blogging the 2005 Virginia Elections

On Sunday night I enjoyed a chilli dinner with some sharp friends involved with Philadelphia politics not all of whom are as enthusiastic about the Internets as am I. One in particular was skeptical as to the effects blogs can have on a campaign’s ground game, which in his experience is where races are won or lost. Just in time, comes Marc Fisher’s “Blogging on the Hustings” looking at blogs in the Virginia governor’s race. Fisher (who writes and blogs for the Washington Post) does not offer any firm conclusions, but offers some nuggets that I will bring to my next Philly chilli dinner–though I’m wary of applying his observations on political blogs to blogs generally.

One morning at the height of last fall’s campaign in Virginia, my e-mail queue informed me that political journalism had changed: First came a missive from a reader passing along a blog item about a news release from a candidate for the state Legislature. A few minutes later, the blogger himself sent me that same item. And finally, more than an hour after that, the candidate’s campaign sent me the release I had by now read twice….Virginia’s blog roll included an elected county prosecutor, a former candidate for the legislature, several newspaper reporters, a lobbyist, a paid operative from Dean’s former campaign and a 14-year-old boy, who everyone agreed was among the best of the bunch.

On the “are bloggers journalists or aren’t they” question:

“I’m not a journalist and don’t claim to be,” says Chad Dotson, the 32-year-old prosecutor whose Commonwealth Conservative blog was perhaps the season’s most popular pro-Republican site. “But I do some reporting, and I aim to be reliable. This is the Wild West of reporting (and I use that term very loosely), but if I said something completely off the reservation, I would expect that bloggers on the left side would come on my blog and correct and criticize me. It is self-governing in that way.” [my emphasis]

On civility and crossing the aisle:

[Says Dotson:] “I think of it [the blogosphere] as a general store where we sit around and talk Virginia politics, which is what I love.”

Over the course of the campaign, Dotson became friends with Waldo Jaquith, a 27-year-old Web developer in Charlottesville whose blog was as close in spirit to Dotson’s – civil, smart, reasonably reliable – as it was different in politics. (Jaquith is an avid liberal.) The two bonded in their desire to use the form for constructive debate rather than personal sniping. And both broke occasional news….”I’m tired of the name-calling and viciousness,” says [Republican Jim] Bacon, 52. “I deliberately set out to get people of different opinions who could express them seriously. Blogs polarize the electorate and I didn’t want to do that.” Toward that end, Bacon launched Road to Ruin, a second, reported blog dedicated to Virginia’s transportation woes, and hired a full-time journalist to produce stories….The summit [of bloggers of various poltical stripes] was a social success – “There’s a certain clubbiness to the blogosphere, and I like that,” Jaquith says – but came to no conclusions about whether or how to set basic ethical standards for bloggers. Bacon issued a treatise positing that while “bloggers have done a phenomenal job of pointing out the biases, inaccuracies and flaws of the Mainstream Media, the blogosphere has tremendous credibility problems of its own.” He proposed that bloggers voluntarily adopt standards – no anonymity, openly stated conflicts of interest, a commitment to fact-checking.

But Jaquith is clear that blogs operate in a different universe, with different rules: “Bloggers are not a model of bipartisanship or a model of journalism. We jump to conclusions; we say stupid things; we say things that are wrong.”

Bacon’s aim throughout is to show that “people can make a mark on the world. It’s all about people having a desire to express themselves. Newspapers are going through hard times, and reporting staffs are getting smaller and smaller. So who’s going to gather the news? The fact is that blogs rely on the mainstream media totally. All of us have other things to do for a living. But the world feels out of control, and people feel they can’t make a difference. Blogs let them feel they can.”

And some more critical thoughts that will resonate with my skeptical, chilli-eating friends:

(Bloggers loved the attention, but after the vote, some political observers wondered whether the campaigns’ overindulgence of blogs changed the outcome of some races. “Candidates have a unique ability to focus on the wrong thing when it comes to strategy,” says Sean O’Brien, executive director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. “I suspect they overfocused on blogs.”)….The end of the campaign brought a sense of wistfulness to many Virginia bloggers. Several said they didn’t expect the blogosphere to be quite as open and free the next time around. Candidates, corporations, advocacy groups and paid bloggers – operatives hired by interest groups to blog as if they were ordinary voters – threaten to dominate the landscape next campaign season.

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