Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Although rudimentary forms of computer technology had been in service for decades, it was not until the 1960s that a concerted effort was made toward the development of a system that would eventually result in what is today known as the Internet. Backed by the U.S. Department of Defense, innovators perceived that a network of interconnected computer terminals could greatly benefit government projects by facilitating the flow of information. Before the decade had come to a close, a precursor to the Internet, namely ARPANET, was born. A fully functioning Internet came into operation in the 1980s. Yet for years, these communication tools were used primarily by researchers, scientists, and other academics. Consequently, they functioned in relative obscurity. As the Internet began its move into the commercial realm in the late 1980s, however, its public recognition quickly intensified. Still, at first, navigating the network was not easy for the everyday person without technical skill. But soon after the introduction of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the early 1990s, the number of people engaging in online activity grew exponentially. Though the terms “Internet” and “WWW” are often spoken interchangeably, they are not one and the same—the Internet provides the infrastructure to potentially connect citizens around the world, while the WWW is a format of interlinked documents that enables users to easily browse the system. Some scholars suggest that the expansion of the Internet into the fabric of day-to-day life represents nothing less than a full-scale communication revolution. While many others are less bold in their assertions, almost no observer of media would deny that the Internet has had a dramatic impact on modern culture, including politics.
The Potentially Democratic Characteristics of the Internet
The very structure of the Internet distinguishes it from other forms of mass media. Indeed, it is not clear whether the Internet can be considered a mass medium in the traditional sense at all, although it sometimes functions as such. The Internet departs from its media predecessors—including television, radio, and print vehicles—in several ways that carry political significance. These defining characteristics include:
- Users can be both senders and receivers of messages. Unlike a mass medium (television or radio, for example), which typically involves relatively few large institutional communication sources transmitting messages to thousands or even millions of audience members, the Internet allows every participant to both send and receive information. Because the mass media require sizable financial and technological resources for their operation, few people—mostly only those professionally employed in the media industries—are able to contribute to the production of television shows, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, and other media products. On the other hand, any able-minded person with an Internet connection can send e-mail, build a personal Web site, post pictures to MySpace or Facebook (see “Social Networking and the Democratization of Media” below), start a blog (see “Political Blogs” below), or share a video on YouTube (see “Online Video Sharing Sites” below). The number of people reached through these online expressions is often quite small. Yet sometimes, especially when a transmission goes “viral,” even a single user can garner a worldwide audience.
- Interactivity. A person viewing a television show or reading a magazine has limited opportunity to offer feedback to the source of the communication. Phone calls to TV stations or letters to the editor are hardly immediate or efficient responses. Nor do they usually generate much, if any, reply in return. Conversely, the Internet provides the potential for continuous feedback. For instance, people can interact in real time through instant messaging (IM) services. Or a reader can quickly post a comment in reaction to an article on an online news site (see “Online Political Journalism” below). Put simply, the audience has scant short-term control over what happens in the mass media yet can be a co-participant in online communication. Accordingly, one-way transmission can become two-way (or multiway) exchange.
- Lack of hierarchal structure. Unlike the channels of mass media, which are dominated by several huge media conglomerates, such as Viacom and The Walt Disney Company, the Internet, at least in its current formation, is not subject to the overarching rule of any government or private enterprise. Instead, disintermediation, or the reduction in the ability of big media insiders to manage the flow of information, is the order of the day. In other words, people no longer have to rely on “professional” journalists for their news or turn to movie studios, record labels, or broadcast networks for their entertainment. Through the Internet, people can bypass traditional gatekeepers and, for example, learn about events from seemingly countless “citizen” journalists, or gain amusement by calling up any one of the millions of amateur-produced videos posted on YouTube.
The political implications of these characteristics associated with the Internet center on the manner in which online activity democratizes the media environment. No longer must audiences act as passive consumers of the products of mass media. Now nearly every citizen can add to the marketplace of ideas. Today’s Internet users have an unprecedented degree of control of their experience in comparison to their forebears who could only settle for the top-down model of traditional mass media. Moreover, individuals can symbolically join with multitudes of other like-minded people more rapidly than ever before to promote a cause or movement.
Still, not every observer is as optimistic about the democratic potential of the Internet. Some critics fear that the present crop of media conglomerates will discover ways of adapting so they can retain their overpowering grip on the media landscape. Those who present a less sanguine assessment point to the rising influence of advertisers, which are vigorously working to transform the Internet into just another instrument for selling goods and services. Currently, however, advertisers have not developed the techniques to gain consistent success in their appeals to consumers on the Internet. To be sure, the spread of online media has incited panic within the advertising industry. With the plethora of available choices, not only through the Internet but through all the other forms of media as well, the mass audience has become fragmented into much smaller groups. Furthermore, because they have the increasing capacity to use the media on their own terms—to get what they want, when they want it, and wherever they want it—people can readily dismiss the advertising messages that come their way.
The concept of “net neutrality” also relates to the issue of the Internet’s democratic possibilities. Currently, the Internet generally treats every user equally. Yet there is a push among some companies behind the present online infrastructure to institute a fee configuration that would privilege content providers with the means to pay (such as corporations) over those who cannot (such as everyday people). If this development were to prevail, critics argue, then the Internet would simply perpetuate the commercial model that has reigned with other media and do little to bolster a reinvigorated democracy. Thus whether the Internet, still in its infancy, eventually falls under the spell of the corporate world like its mass media ancestors or evolves into a force for democracy—or somehow integrates both possibilities—is very much an open question.
Another factor is not only a defining element of the Internet but has had a major impact on the very nature of other forms of media as well. The Internet is a product of computer digitization, a process that has eventually penetrated all of the electronic media. By gradually replacing their analog systems with digital technology, television, radio, and other communication vehicles have facilitated the movement toward media convergence. What this means is that once a media product has been digitized—a television show, a movie, a printed document, and so on—it can be accessed in any number of ways. For instance, a television program can be watched on the Internet, on a cell phone, and, of course, on a television. Or a Web site can be screened on the same three formats. Or to take yet another example, a song can be heard on the radio, on the computer, through the television, or on an mp3 player. Here again, convergence provides the flexibility that enables the audience to take greater control of its media experience. Accordingly, power has shifted from the mega-media corporation to the everyday viewer, listener, or reader. Thus digitization, a central component of the Internet that has stretched well beyond the computer, has further democratized the total media environment.
Social Networking and the Democratization of Media
One of the ways in which the democratization of media space has been evidenced is through the emergence of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Linkedln. These Internet destinations allow a member to easily construct a personal Web site and build a network of “friends” with whom the user can communicate online. MySpace was launched in 2003 and quickly became the nation’s most popular social networking site. Older minors and young adults, in particular, embraced the site and were largely responsible for its explosive success. The following year, Facebook was introduced. But unlike MySpace, Facebook was initially designed to service only college students. Later, it was opened up to high school students and, eventually, to the general population. Over time, Facebook surpassed MySpace in worldwide popularity. Linkedln was put online before the other two networks yet, with its emphasis on business rather than social interaction, has never attracted nearly as many visitors as its two rivals. Since the birth of these Web sites, a number of similar venues have surfaced as well, although some of them are targeted toward more specific audiences, often centering on a particular area of interest. Still, MySpace, Facebook, and Linkedln remain three of the most recognized sites of their kind.
Overall, however, these established social networking sites are not major hotbeds of political activity. Most participants mainly use them to casually interact with friends and family, share pictures, promote themselves, and engage in other generally fun interpersonal activities. On the other hand, a user of a site such as Facebook can join a group of other like-minded people under the banner of, for instance, “Christian Democrats” or “Lipstick Republicans.” During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign season, thousands of visitors clicked in to scores of groups in alignment with one of the two central tickets. The names of online organizations associated with the election included anything from “Sarah Palin is NOT Hillary Clinton” to “Obama, the ANTICHRIST.” Yet rarely do such groups lead to serious mobilization that translates into a concerted push for political influence. Instead, members are far more likely to simply toss comments back and forth about the subject that defines the affiliation. Moreover, for every group that at least loosely connects to some political issue there are dozens more that focus on celebrities, forms of entertainment, hobbies, and other kinds of amusement.
Then again, during the 2008 run for the presidency, Barack Obama was the first candidate for the nation’s highest office to make significant use of social networking sites to drum up support. The soon-to-be president drew up personal profiles for both well-known vehicles and venues aimed toward relatively niche audiences.
Online Political Special Interest Groups
Although most social networking sites carry only marginal political import, many other online locations, especially those managed by certain special interest groups, are directly involved in political affairs. One of the most renowned Web organizations of this ilk is http://MoveOn.org. Launched in 1998 during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton to gather signatures for an online petition that asked Congress to censure President Clinton for lying under oath about his sexual affair with an intern and then “move on” to more significant concerns, http://MoveOn.org has evolved into an influential liberal political advocacy group, with membership in the millions. Loyal to the Democratic Party, since its founding http://MoveOn.org has backed many political candidates at both state and national levels. Besides requesting donations on behalf of politicians it endorses and in order to keep itself running, the site attempts to involve its members in several additional ways. For example, during the 2004 presidential campaign season, http://MoveOn.org challenged visitors to create and submit a 30-second commercial that attacked George W. Bush. Entries were judged and the winning advertisement was placed on television. Distributing online polls to glean its members’ opinions on various issues is another common tactic. Furthermore, through constant e-mail contact with its registered users, the group organizes protests and a variety of other grassroots political events, including door-to-door canvassing, phone bank solicitations, and “house parties,” in which individuals volunteer to host small gatherings of people united by a common theme or cause.
While http://MoveOn.org has received both considerable acclaim and scathing criticism, it is by no means the only one of its kind. Representing both sides of the political spectrum, innumerable other special interest groups use the Internet in a similar fashion. Although some of them began online, most of these organizations were created in a traditional manner and then incorporated the WWW into their structures. Several of the most notable include America Coming Together and EMILY’s List on the left, and Progress for America and Club for Growth on the right.
Online Media and Political Campaigns
Probably the first significant use of the Internet by political candidates running for the nation’s highest office occurred during the 1996 campaign season. Throughout the Republican primaries, most of the main contenders created and posted campaign Web sites. After the nomination had been determined, both Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Bill Clinton, who did not face any primary opposition because of his incumbency, included Web sites as part of the media mix in their general election campaigns.
Yet these Internet efforts were rudimentary at best. Before entering the twenty-first century, simply establishing any presence at all on the Web was enough for candidates to indicate they were on the cutting edge of the latest media trends. Indeed, the Internet was still a novelty to much of the population. Furthermore, candidate Web sites tended to be no more than online translations of printed materials, providing information about the politicians but offering visitors little, if any, opportunity for interactive engagement. By no means were these Web sites central components of the campaign arsenal.
It was not until the 2004 battle for the presidency that online campaigning began to come of age. During the primary period, Democrat Howard Dean unexpectedly catapulted into the limelight thanks in large measure to his team’s ability to exploit the Internet to solicit a vast number of donations and cultivate a force of loyal supporters. After Dean dropped out following an infamous gaffe that destroyed his candidacy, John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, also utilized the Internet more aggressively to raise funds, recruit volunteers, and motivate citizens to cast their vote for him. Republicans, including the incumbent candidate George W. Bush, who would win reelection, and special interest groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, also instituted savvy online tactics. No longer on the margins of political activity, the Internet became a major campaign tool, so much so that many observers identify the 2004 contest as the nation’s first “Internet Election.”
As President Bush’s term in office was coming to a close, his eventual successor, Barack Obama, embraced the Internet like no candidate before and demonstrated just how powerful a resource it could be. Although any single influence is difficult to measure, it appears as though the Obama campaign’s sophisticated Internet initiative played an instrumental role in his victory. Many pundits and observers pointed to Obama’s system of online tactics as the exemplar that not only politicians but consumer marketers as well should emulate. (For a more comprehensive discussion of Obama’s use of the Internet, see Chapter 7.) It is probably safe to assume that, from now on, the Internet will be a vital element of any major political campaign. In comparison to other modes, political Internet advertising features several advantages, which include: (1) it is cheaper to produce and distribute than television commercials; (2) in response to changing conditions, ads and commercials can be revised almost immediately; (3) it raises the potential to target audiences to new levels, even to the extent that an advertisement can be individually customized to reach a particular viewer; (4) it allows the opportunity for audiences to interact with the commercials and ads they see; and (5) at least for now, it is not subject to the same regulatory restrictions as its print and broadcast counterparts. On the other hand, the loose environment makes it more difficult for candidates to maintain control over their promotion and ensure that consistent messages are sent.
Whether or not the Internet usurps the authority that television has enjoyed over the past half century is not at all clear. What is certain, however, is that the online medium has come a long way in campaign politics since it made its appearance in 1996 and was perceived almost as a gimmick.
Online Political Journalism
Newspapers, a staple throughout the nation’s history, have been experiencing a growing threat since the rise of the Internet. People wishing to gather in-depth information and commentary about current events are not nearly as reliant on printed pages of news as they once were. Sales are down. Circulations have decreased. At home delivery, for an increasing number of people—especially the younger crowd—seems outmoded or almost quaint. The Web offers an apparently infinite number of journalistic sources—many, if not most of them available free of charge. Meanwhile, as more and more citizens turn away from the newspaper for the possibilities they find online, scores of advertisers are eliminating or reducing the expenditures devoted to buying newspaper space for their paid publicity—or at least rethinking their positions. Moreover, given the manner in which the Internet has made it easier for people to be not only consumers but producers of media, a whole cottage industry of “citizen journalists” has surfaced, to some extent diminishing the importance and redefining the role of the professional press. The newspaper business, consequently, is facing difficult times, some leaders even showing signs of panic.
One response by major newspapers has been to create online versions of their traditional printed materials. Yet they are grappling with how to make this transition suitably profitable. By conceding the need to embrace the Internet if they hope to appear up-to-date, they further weaken the standing of the newspaper. At the same time, readers who formerly paid for the daily paper have shown resistance to parting with even a nominal fee for news online.
Further complicating the picture has been the emergence of commercial news entities that forswore the printed format right from the start, instead opting to publish directly online. Today, many of these online newspapers or news magazines exist. But two of the most popular ones, which also happen to place considerable interest in political stories and opinion, are Slate and Salon.
Michael Kinsley, a former editor of the print magazine New Republic, founded Slate in 1996 with the corporate backing of Microsoft. One of his goals was to perform a service for his audience by wading through what he perceived was an ocean of online news information, pulling out the most significant issues, and bringing succinct and synthesized reporting of them together under one source. As part of its mission, Slate provides a daily summary of what major newspapers are currently covering. Overall, its emphasis is not so much on uncovering fresh information— digging after “scoops” that it can use to beat the competition—as much as offering cohesive overviews, relatively short features, blogs, and commentaries on the most pressing news of the day. Yet early on, Slate did include one distinctive format—a section of real-time dialogue between staff and guest writers. It also hosts the Web site for the political cartoon Doonesbury, supplying a link to each day’s edition.
Slate is generally regarded as having a mildly liberal political slant. In the 2004 presidential election, the majority of its regular writers expressed a preference for Democrat John Kerry over incumbent Republican George W. Bush, which appears to add support to this interpretation of the magazine’s political inclinations. Interestingly, Slate is not shy about revealing its staff’s biases—it actually publishes the voting choices of its writers and other personnel.
In 2002, Kinsley left the online publication (eventually, though, he began to make writing contributions, a practice he still performs on occasion today). Two years later, the Washington Post acquired Slate from Microsoft. Since June 2008, David Plotz has served as chief editor. A decade before, Slate had experimented with charging a subscription fee, one of the first news Web sites to do so. The plan backfired, however, and the online current-affairs magazine returned to presenting its content for no charge. Consequently, it relies on revenue from advertisers to maintain its presence. Like its traditional newspaper counterparts that had made the move online, it found that too many people, used to not having to pay for most material on the Web, were unwilling to relinquish money for online news.
Viewed as a “progressive” online publication, Salon leans further to the left of Slate. Salon was founded in 1995 by David Talbot, a former arts and features editor with the San Francisco Examiner, with some financial support from Apple Computer. He relinquished his role as chief editor in 2005 and was replaced by Joan Walsh, who still holds the position today.
Initially, Salon operated as a biweekly source of cultural and political commentary. But to build traffic, Talbot decided to produce an issue each weekday and include new and breaking coverage of current affairs, as well as investigative journalism. In 1998, the online magazine gained attention with original exposés, including a story that disclosed then House Judiciary Committee Chair Henry Hyde had had an affair with a married mother of three children. Today, Salon is continuously updated throughout the week. Like its competitor, Salon devotes space to the arts, culture, and other “softer” news and reviews, while placing considerable emphasis on political coverage and analysis. Yet in contrast to Slate, it features a greater number of longer articles. Furthermore, Salon has achieved a degree of success with charging fees. In 2001, Salon launched “Salon Premium,” which allowed only subscribers full access to the magazine. Soon, though, the news source backpedaled somewhat by extending another means of entering the site to those unwilling to pay. To view content, readers were asked to first look at an advertisement placed by a sponsor. For the most part, this economic model has held steady ever since. Everyone can gain the privilege of perusing most of Salon’s material, yet subscribers enjoy several extra benefits. At the same time, the publication supplements user fees with advertising revenue.
At the moment, there is much speculation by scholars, cultural critics, and other observers as to how journalism and the nature of news will evolve as digital media in general gain an ever-greater grip on the populace. Yet because the future is ultimately unpredictable, there is no consensus among them—only time will tell how news coverage and its reception by the audience will unfold in the age of the Internet.
The term “blog” comes from the word “weblog,” which was introduced into the cultural lexicon in the late 1990s and was designated to refer to a type of diary or journal produced online. What exactly constitutes a blog is sometimes a slippery subject. (For example, are only the people who initiate original postings bloggers, or are the readers who post responses bloggers as well? Does it include only opinion or also straightforward reporting? Is it only an individual enterprise or can it be the product of a group?) Yet in an authoritative book on the topic, Blogwars, David D. Perlmutter defines a blog as follows:
(a) written in the style of a personal essay, journal entry, diary, or memoir, (b) interactive, (c) containing posts of varying lengths in reverse chronological order, (d) embedded with hyperlinks within text, (e) providing permalinks and allowing trackbacks [discussions that are taken up on other blogs], and (f) listing other blogs. (2008, 61)
Not every Web site that is commonly regarded as a blog, however, fulfills all six criteria. Based on its looser, popular conception, a blog can consist of any kind of subject matter—from one person’s regular postings about a trip abroad to a commercial site that focuses on recurrent contributions from multiple participants who analyze and provide information on financial affairs. A political blog, as the expression indicates, is an online journal of political thought and commentary. The most popular blogs extend the opportunity for exchanges between authors and readers. Because blogs can deal with any topic, most of them are not political. Yet for those that are, with their diverse array of individual voices and varying levels of interactivity, certain blogs can give the impression of personalizing political communication. Previously, only the “mass media” (television, radio, books, and so on) were capable of reaching huge audiences. Now a single person, if he or she strikes the right cord, can build a readership of comparable size. Blogging is playing a part in partially supplanting the “top down” model of media, wherein a small number of mighty corporations transmit messages to the citizenry, with a “bottom up” approach in which ordinary people are capable of having a disproportionate impact on the national conversation. In general, bloggers reject the standard “objective” mode of the mainstream media in favor of strong and openly partisan biases.
The Debate about Blogging: Is It Good for Democracy?
Today, there are literally thousands of either amateur or professional writers who are involved in producing material for political blogs—and their numbers continue to climb. Some blogs are published by individuals, while others are the product of a staff of people. Although there are likenesses among them, given that there are so many variations of the form, it is nearly impossible to neatly categorize political blogs. As their presence has grown, scholars and other observers have increasingly joined in a vigorous debate as to their significance, especially in relationship to democracy.
Some observers fear that political blogs—and the Internet in general—will function not to unite the nation, but to divide it into myriad factions and, thus, partisanship will rule the day. For example, left-leaning blogs are more likely to link to other blogs with similar political outlooks and, likewise, conservative blogs tend to offer connections to other right-leaning pages. Moreover, critics complain, the dialogue on political blogs can often lack civility, instead descending into name calling, blatant distortions, and foul language—particularly when someone from one “camp” visits the opposing side. A portion of potential participants, averse to the heat, might opt to drop out of the discussion altogether, striking a blow to democratic engagement. Even instances of identity theft have occurred via blogs, including imposters who pretend to be their political rivals in an effort to discredit or defame their adversaries. In addition, the blogs that receive the heaviest traffic become prime real estate opportunities for advertisers. Once a blog accepts sponsorship, it is open to the same commercial pressures to water down its content as any other advertising-funded medium (for the example of radio, see Chapter 3; for the example of television, see Chapter 4). Another line of critique centers on the supposed confusion that arises when just about anybody with access to a computer can post material online. Unlike paid journalists, everyday people do not have a set of standards to conform to nor are they prone to vigorous fact checking. Consequently, so the thinking goes, readers hoping to navigate the Internet waters for useful political information and interpretation will be deluged by unreliable and erroneous opinions.
Proponents of political blogging present several counterarguments. First, they point out that resistance to a new form of media technology is nothing new. For instance, before becoming fully integrated into society, radio and television, too, had endured more than their share of rebuke. Like it or not, it appears as though the Internet is here to stay and the importance of online communication to both political campaigns and those simply seeking political information will only expand. Similarly, partisanship has been around for generations. Most of the newspapers from the founding of the country and throughout the nineteenth century, for example, were strongly biased in their political perspectives. Second, though fierce partisanship can split people into opposite sides, it can also inspire those of common mind to come together and possibly mobilize in an attempt to evoke change—blogs, without question, facilitate the process of finding comrades who hold a similar worldview and subscribe to equivalent political positions. From this vantage point, blogging invigorates the marketplace of ideas that, ideally, stands as a central characteristic of democracy. As a range of “interest groups” face off in a verbal war, their transaction can lead to social progress. Third, even if partisanship were to be accepted as problematic, there is no conclusive evidence that audiences of blogs are completely shielding themselves from conflicting opinions. Plenty of political blogs indeed link to some sites on the opposite end of the spectrum—or at least reference them in making their own points. Many citizens, exposed to multiple interpretations, will inevitably modify stances over time. In the end, supporters contend, blogging actually democratizes the flow of ideas by circumventing the professional gatekeepers of the past, thereby allowing more people than ever to become active in the political process. In other words, citizens have the power to sidestep the “professionals” and access information directly on their own terms. They need no longer be content with merely consuming the banter of the paid pundits. They can contribute to the fray as producers as well. Depending on talent and marketing ability, however, some bloggers will reach far larger audiences than others. But to worry about too many people having the ability to disperse their ideas, according to those with a positive regard for blogging, is to take an elitist, rather than a populist, attitude.
Big Moments in Blogging’s (Short) History
Regardless of its pros and cons, blogging, it seems, has become a fact of life. The computer itself (through the use of e-mail, Web sites, and other online materials) became a prominent, though underdeveloped, tool in the campaign chest in 1996. Yet blogging as a major campaign component awaited discovery. Beginning with the presidential contest of 2004 between Republican incumbent George W. Bush and his challenger, Democratic Senator John Kerry, the majority of major political campaign strategies have included a blogging component.
Blogging started coming to light in the late 1990s but did not explode into a cultural phenomenon until several years later. Matt Drudge (see The Drudge Report) presaged the rise of the “blogthrough” (a news item first revealed on a blog that quickly becomes so huge that it gains wide coverage on traditional mainstream media) when he disclosed in 1998 that Newsweek magazine had killed a story involving then President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with a White House intern, a scandal that eventually threatened to drive Clinton from office (see Political Scandals).
The blogthrough as a true political force fully arrived in 2002, when former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made what were arguably racist comments during a celebration of then Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday. The big media outlets paid little attention to his remarks. Yet the “blogosphere” rapidly circulated discussion of Lott’s effusive endorsement of Thurmond, who had acquired the reputation of a hardcore segregationist during his run for the presidency in 1948. Finally, the floodgates were opened and mainstream journalism had to respond. The incident likely played a part (although to what extent is by no means clear) in the later resignation of Lott, whose image had been severely tarnished by the coverage of his birthday party speech.
In the early days of blogging, established news agencies tended to be dismissive of them (some still are). Yet once it was apparent that bloggers could have an impact on actual events, journalists were forced to come to terms with them. Soon, mainstream outlets were filing reports about them and citing them as sources, realizing that when a story reached a certain threshold of attention online it could no longer be ignored. A number of major episodes precipitated a storm of blogging that probably had an influence on the way in which they were treated in the traditional news media, including the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the London terrorist bombings in 2005, and the Hurricane Katrina disaster that leveled large sections of New Orleans less than two months later. Yet three blogthroughs especially stand out in bringing blogging wholesale recognition.
The 2004 Howard Dean Campaign. The 2004 presidential race is often pointed to as the first “Internet election.” The person who is generally credited as the initial presidential candidate to comprehensively demonstrate the power of the Web is former governor of Vermont and former chair of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean. In 2003, the Dean team pioneered the use of blogging as part of its online initiative, creating its own blog site along the way. Individual supporters were also encouraged to start their own blog sites and link them to Dean’s. The campaign was instrumental in influencing the mainstream media to acknowledge the growing importance of blogging.
Dean, who in the early stages of the campaign was not identified by the media as a leading contender, presented himself as a “Washington outsider,” a man of the people. The perception caught on and the candidate surprised the pundits by gathering a devoted following of citizens, especially among the young. The Dean staff, headed by strategist Joe Trippi, strove to bypass the established channels of media and reach the population directly through the Internet. Momentum escalated as more and more people spread the word online and organized themselves into a reputable force. Accordingly, an association of Dean bloggers was born. The campaign obtained the sought-after aura of a populist crusade. Dean rapidly catapulted from relative obscurity to celebrity status.
Still, the online endeavor was not immune to substantial flaws and, consequently, its impact should not be overstated. For one thing, it was not as interactive as it could have been in theory. Despite the will to energize the citizenry, a politician also understands the need to control the central messages of a campaign. To allow an Internet strategy to become a bona fide free-for-all could backfire. Not to mention that there are not enough hours in the day for every participant who posts an entry to be addressed by someone at campaign headquarters. The Dean team, then, struggled to walk a fine line between mobilizing its backers and not letting the presidential run take on a life of its own. In short, the campaign was not utterly populist, a discovery that eventually alienated some Dean enthusiasts. Many people offered suggestions to Dean’s Web site but received no feedback—or merely a rote response—in return.
In the end, however, Dean’s online effort was indeed a novel, if not revolutionary, political development. Moreover, the candidate’s swift fall from grace cannot be attributed to blogging. One of the most talked about events of the 2004 presidential race in general was Dean’s infamous “scream” speech in Iowa. Just after he had lost that state’s primary caucus battles, Dean mounted the stage in hope of rallying his troops. Although it came across as merely an enthusiastic address by those present at the live meeting, when shown on television, because of the faulty way in which it had been recorded, Dean came across as maniacal, as someone far too volatile to be trusted with the presidency. For days, the television news media played clips from the speech and discussed its damaging effect (and, by endlessly playing snippets and casting them in a negative light, probably helped to make the oration’s destructive blow a self-fulfilling prophecy). Following the Iowa contest, the first of the primary season, Dean immediately fell in popularity and never recovered.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. A group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, created for the goal of discrediting Democratic Senator John Kerry’s heroic service in Vietnam, initially circulated its rumors on the Internet. Soon, its distorted accounts migrated from there to a series of televised commercials that received extensive news coverage. The Swift Boat smear campaign is often identified as being one of the significant factors that contributed to the defeat of Kerry by incumbent George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. (For a full account of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the role it played in Kerry’s downfall, see Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.)
Dan Rather and “Memogate.” In September 2004, on an episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes II, longtime news anchor veteran Dan Rather delivered a story that questioned incumbent President George W. Bush’s 1970s service in the Alabama National Guard, alleging that he had improperly abandoned his military duties to work on a political campaign. To support this position, Rather presented supposed copies of evaluations written by one of Bush’s former Guard supervisors. The revelation, if true, could have proven particularly controversial, given that Bush was currently running for reelection.
Immediately after the telecast, bloggers, especially on the conservative Web site Free Republic, started challenging the legitimacy of the memos Rather had shown on the program. The accusation arose that the documents were, in fact, fake. Writing on powerlineblog, Scott W. Johnson and John H. Hinderaker contended that such was the case—their post, “The Sixty-first Minute,” was eventually widely cited by the mainstream media and helped powerlineblog garner the “Blog of the Year” award from Time magazine.
Once the charge that the Rather memos were forgeries spilled into conventional media coverage, the storm escalated. CBS finally admitted that it could not fully verify the documents’ authenticity. Dan Rather, who had been a journalist for over 50 years and had worked for CBS for over 40 of them—with nearly a quarter of a century spent as the network’s lead anchor—was fired soon afterward. Although the reasons for Rather’s termination are likely multifaceted, it appears as though the blogosphere, indeed, was a major factor in destroying the venerable newsman’s career. Interestingly, the allegation that President Bush had cheated on his military responsibilities was never demonstrated to be false (or true for that matter)—only the credibility of the memos used as the main evidence to back the claim were called into dispute.
The three historical episodes spelled out above strongly indicate that the 2004 presidential campaign season represented a watershed moment for blogging. By the end of the election, it seemed that the format had definitely arrived as a player in the political landscape and could no longer be brushed away or ignored. From there, the blogworld continued along the path of professionalization, functioning as another force to be reckoned with in the realm of journalism at large. Most bloggers remain amateurs. Yet a significant number of them—especially those who receive heavy reader traffic—are paid and taken seriously by both common citizens and the mainstream media.
Categories of Bloggers
Although candidates running for office have increasingly employed blogging as a tactic, the vast majority of political blogs are not directly associated with parties or politicians. A good many of them are produced by everyday people with a passion for politics. (Still, it must be mentioned that, at least currently, not every person has equal access to the Internet because of differences in socioeconomic status. In this sense, then, blogging is not utterly populist, nor does it unequivocally represent the voice of “the people.”) The bulk of these bloggers, however, reach just small audiences. Only the rare talent rises to the level of attracting a mass following. Some of the most notable blogs, in this regard, include RealClearPolitics, Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire, and Wonkette; the conservative sites, Red State, Town-Hall, and Little Green Footballs; and the liberal site, MyDD. Yet three names that have especially made their mark are Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, and “Kos” (real name, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga), writer of the Daily Kos. See Part II for entries on these sites.
Blogging by Traditional Journalists. In a sort of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality, scores of mainstream news agencies now include blogs by some of their staff journalists as part of their output. For example, all three of the major network television news divisions—CBS, NBC, and ABC—feature blogs that are written by their correspondents for their Web sites. Newspapers, too, have incorporated blogging into their online sites. The New York Times, for instance, carries many blogs, including several written by their regular columnists, such as Paul Krugman and Nicholas D. Kristof. Readers are also invited to “blog” about the op-ed pieces they read. In addition, a number of conventional news outlets have even co-opted former independent bloggers, further blurring the distinction between the traditional field of journalism and the blogosphere. All of these blogs are designed to come across as more timely and spontaneous than the media organizations’ traditional reports and columns. Extended current events can provide excellent occasions for blogging. For example, on the night of an important primary election during the 2008 presidential campaign, the New York Times assigned a writer to post updates on a blog throughout the evening.
One of the major consequences of established journalism outlets joining their independent competitors in the blogosphere is that the news cycle is continuously shrinking. The accent is increasingly on immediacy over other considerations. One of the drawbacks to this approach, however, is that the news—especially as presented through blogs—is more prone to inaccuracies. Even minor blemishes—such as spelling errors—that readers would generally not expect from a professional resource have grown in number. Still, the focus on speed appeals to the person hungry for the most current information that is available on a news story.
The Functions and Influence of Blogs
The role and influence of blogs has been a matter of much dispute. Yet as blogs keep expanding in number and commanding ever-greater attention, even detractors are being forced to come to grips with the idea that this new form of journalism is here to stay. Accordingly, media scholars have been attempting to evaluate the impact of blogs. Because the blogosphere is such a fresh development, however, reaching hard conclusions is no easy task. How blogging will continue to evolve and affect journalism is anybody’s guess. On the other hand, a number of ways in which blogging is functioning can be at least tentatively described.
In relationship to political campaigns, a blog can enable a candidate’s team to bypass traditional media channels and relatively inexpensively appeal directly to possible voters, providing a means of, for instance, raising money or energizing a base of followers. One of the main uses of the Web, particularly blogs, in this regard, entails bringing people together for a common purpose. Political campaigns can exploit online resources in an attempt to organize people in support of their goal, while everyday individuals can employ them to organize themselves. Political power often enlarges as numbers increase. Some observers contend that online “communities” are the modern equivalent of the coffeehouses and other public settings of yesteryear, where common citizens would gather to discuss and debate the issues of the day. Yet others counter that a “virtual” community lacks the richness and reasonable manners of a face-to-face collective.
Bloggers in general, according to David D. Perlmutter, an authority on the phenomenon, “can serve the public as informants, investigators, collators, and compilers, and revisers and extenders of political information” (2008,110). Because the sheer quantity of information on the Web can be overwhelming to the average reader, the blogger who surveys and synthesizes material into a digestible overview of some of the most important current political affairs is conducting a beneficial activity.
When they are present at a live event, bloggers, with their quickly derived postings, can bring audiences into the scene, supplementing the information that flows from traditional channels. Sometimes, faced with fewer pressures from corporate executives and advertisers, they can even cover topics and details that large news agencies are loathe to touch. Likewise, bloggers occasionally give voice to certain people or groups that are often marginalized in mainstream media.
Some bloggers engage in investigative reporting, that is, deeply follow a usually controversial story over time in an effort to bring truth to light. The standard media organizations, with their focus on objective “balance,” have reduced the amount of coverage they devote to this style of reporting. It is also time-consuming and costly, two factors profit-driven, corporate news agencies would rather avoid. Although most bloggers do not have the financial resources to properly perform investigative journalism, nonetheless, by carefully and responsibly scrutinizing a large amount of secondary (existing) reports and other materials, especially talented practitioners are capable of exposing troublesome issues and activities that many readers wish to learn about.
One of the most fundamental ways in which bloggers have changed the nature of journalism is by undermining the clout of the so-called “experts.” No wonder they have been attacked, in particular, by the mainstream media, although major news agencies are increasingly coming to terms with blogs, as evidenced by them rolling out their own versions. At the same time, though, “everyday” intelligent and well-informed people can work as analysts and critics, thus opening political debate to a far wider range of points of view. Mainstream news companies have often been accused of allowing only pundits who hover near the center of the political spectrum to express their opinions. Bloggers fall on the extreme ends of the left-right political divide—and everywhere in between. Consequently, they considerably add to the “marketplace of ideas” that is a central tenet of the U.S. political system. Yet not all observers celebrate this development. Proponents claim that bloggers help democratize the political process and stir greater citizen involvement, while critics complain that the cacophony of online commentary only degrades the nation’s political discourse and spreads confusion.
Related to the bloggers’ challenge to the traditional media’s authority is the part that some of them play as political watchdogs. Here again, the “old” media organizations have often been blamed of late for allegedly not taking enough of an adversarial stance toward political figures. For generations, one of the most expected functions of the journalism profession has been to hold the powerful to account. Many critics contend that, due to a number of pressures, including the need to gain access to the corridors of government, the mainstream media have turned into political bedfellows, operating as mere stenographers for officeholders rather than as questioners of their policies and practices. Likewise, owned by corporations and funded by advertisers, traditional news media are generally unwilling to passionately confront any of the ignoble activities of big business. On the other hand, a lot of bloggers truly relish this responsibility. Episodes such as highlighting Trent Lott’s divisive comments and putting Dan Rather’s evidence of President Bush’s alleged abandonment of military duty to the test are instances of bloggers fulfilling a watchdog role. To a growing degree, they have demonstrated the capacity of pushing news stories that might not have been covered otherwise into the mainstream media—or at least bringing them to surface more quickly than would probably be the case if the conventional news agencies were left to their own devices. Bloggers have from time to time beat the established media to an important “scoop.” Thus, the political blogosphere not only adopts a skeptical attitude toward government and the corporate world, but also toward the very field of journalism. The blogging realm, unsurprisingly, is not without its serious flaws and irresponsible practitioners. Yet an optimistic outlook of the impact of blogging would suggest that, despite its problems, it is carrying out a crucial service for the public—and maybe even journalism itself. It could be that as they become more and more intertwined, political bloggers and mainstream news agencies will realize they both need each other.
But it bears repeating that blogs are in their infancy and how they unfold is grounds for speculation. It is highly unlikely that the blogosphere will completely supplant the traditional news profession. What does seem clear at this point, however, is that blogging has indeed changed the rules of the game. Various observers even posit that the most influential posters—such as Kos, who, like others, is actually courted by politicians and is sometimes hired as a consultant (see Daily Kos)—are joining the ranks of the media elite and mutating into part of the very establishment they had originally intended to defy, becoming a new wave of gatekeepers in the process. Belying their grassroots reputation, some blogs have been charged with planting “sock puppets,” i.e., professional advocates posing as ordinary citizens. Certain groups, in particular, have been accused of enforcing group unity to the extent that it closes down lively debate.
Yet the blogosphere is a highly complex and contradictory domain. Hence, its influence will almost surely be variegated and felt at different levels. As blogging takes its place beside the already deeply assimilated forms of media that came before it, the interaction between them will touch politics and popular culture in ways that remain to be seen.
Online Video Sharing Sites
Another recent online development to further contribute to the democratization of the media environment is the rise of online video sharing sites. At these venues, any user can upload a video for visitors to see and share with others. Thus participants can operate as both producers and consumers of media content. The most popular site of this type by far is YouTube.
Launched in 2005, YouTube quickly exploded in popularity. Soon after it came on the scene, literally millions of videos were being posted and screened online. By 2006, YouTube had been purchased by Google. The quality of the material ranges from amateurish home videos to professional-grade productions that have been appropriated from third-party sources (generating a number of copyright controversies along the way). Accordingly, most of the pieces, usually relatively short in length, receive rather limited attention. Yet some videos, particularly those that are rapidly passed on from viewer to viewer via e-mail and other online channels, a process known as “going viral,” can gain an audience over time that easily matches those achieved by the big broadcast television networks.
The great majority of the uploaded offerings are not political in nature. Then again, YouTube is sometimes used for political purposes. For example, during his 2008 run for the presidency, Barack Obama started his own channel on YouTube. At the same time, many everyday people also added fuel to the fire. One of the most notable videos, anonymously posted by a supporter of Obama, transformed the legendary Macintosh “1984” Commercial into a spot that poked fun of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the “Obama Girl” became an overnight sensation with a music video uploaded on YouTube that featured a scantily clothed woman revealing why she had a “crush” on Obama.
Related New Media and Politics
Coinciding with the evolution of the Internet, other related forms of new media that owe their very existence to digital technology have also grown into cultural phenomena. In the United States, the cell phone, which has been available for decades, is not only used to make telephone calls but to access the Internet, screen videos, and send text messages as well. Marketers have discovered that text messaging, in particular, can be an advantageous tool for reaching customers. By extension, politicians, who during campaigns must take on the role of marketer in addition to their many other responsibilities, have also begun to put text messaging to work. As a case in point, just as it had with the Internet, Barack Obama’s campaign team demonstrated political skill during Obama’s run for the presidency with a well-developed mobile phone program that involved supporters through text messaging and other tactics, an approach his Republican rival, John McCain, never matched. Furthermore, text messaging can be utilized to mobilize people in grassroots movements. Although this potentiality has not firmly caught on in the United States, it has occurred elsewhere. In 2001 in the Philippines, for instance, thousands of citizens used text messaging to coordinate large-scale protests that led to the peaceful overthrow of the then current president, Joseph Estrada, with his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, replacing him, an event commonly known as the Second People Power Revolution (the first had occurred before cell phone technology had become established).
One of the latest media applications to have sparked a stir in the realm of popular culture makes combined use of Internet and cell phone technologies. Twitter, a type of social networking application and “micro-blogging” tool, enables registered members to keep in continuous contact with a list of “followers” by sending a stream of “tweets,” or short text-based messages no more than 140 characters in length. In turn, members are able to receive tweets from the subscribers they follow. Participants can access Twitter through either the Web on any computer or a properly equipped mobile phone. Logging on to Twitter via cell phone is especially popular with users because its portability is compatible with the nature of the service. Based on the company’s original concept, each tweet is designed to answer the simple question, “What are you doing?” Subscribers can post replies to the question—and read their fellow members’ updates—as many times a day as they wish. Moreover, they can stay in touch not only with friends and family but also with celebrities, corporate marketers, and other well-known figures who make themselves available through Twitter as a public relations tactic.
Again, as with nearly all of the social networking systems, most tweets do not convey anything of particular political importance. Yet like its digital relatives, Twitter offers people the possibility of using it for political purposes. For example, citizens can receive tweets from participating politicians. Not surprisingly, given all of the new media devices it fruitfully employed, the Barack Obama team also sent out tweets from the campaign trail to interested Twitter members during the candidate’s 2008 run for the presidency.
What other forms of new media or online vehicles emerge in the days ahead is anybody’s guess. Since the dawn of the Internet, the communication environment has been going through rapid change, with innovations breaking out in quick succession. Most of these inventive developments swiftly come and go. But every once in a while one catches hold of the public imagination and moves beyond being merely a fad of popular culture to become a media fixture. Two scenarios do seem likely to continue indefinitely, however. The digital technology that supports the Internet will persist in creating the conditions in which people can interact with media and one another wherever they want and whenever they want. And all of the new media products that stick will find their way into the world of politics, involving both politicians and everyday citizens alike.