Thursday, February 22, 2007

Let’s Not Lower the Bar for Candidates’ Campaign Bloggers

By Stuart Rothenberg

"In an interview, Mr. Hynes said that the Internet was a place where overheated language and vicious personal attacks were often tolerated, even encouraged,” wrote New York Times reporter John Broder in a Feb. 14 article about the blogging controversy that hit Democratic presidential hopeful and former Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) campaign.

Mr. Hynes is Patrick Hynes, whom the Times described as “a conservative blogger and political consultant” hired by another presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to be his campaign’s “blog liaison.”

Former Edwards blogger Amanda Marcotte offered a similar view when she wrote in a Feb. 16 article that blogs allow “everyday citizens to engage in politics in the language and manner that is comfortable for us, if not for the establishment.”

“To my mind, however, it would be a terrible thing if bloggers did heed the advice to mind our manners and ape our betters if we want in,” she continued, “since this is supposed to be a democratic system that respects the right of everyday, common people to participate in politics.”

If the medium is the message, then too often the message of blogging is anger and a lack of civility. And you can be pretty certain that discourtesy isn’t going to produce thoughtful political discourse, comity and reasonableness.

I’m not talking about columnists, reporters and other serious observers and writers of politics and policy (and, yes, even some bloggers) who happen to write on the Web. They use the Internet to distribute their writings just as they use newspapers and magazines, and while they may write with a more informal, conversational style on the Web, they observe certain standards of writing, decorum and civility no matter the medium for which they write.

For people like two of my former Roll Call colleagues who now write for, Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane, the Web is merely a distribution vehicle and an opportunity to report on and react to events as they happen, rather than waiting for their next print deadline. They may write blogs, because their editors think that’s cutting edge, but they really are reporters who are reporting in real-time on the Internet. (I write on the Web, too, but I certainly don’t consider myself a blogger.)

The problem is those “bloggers” who see themselves as populist bomb-throwers whose job it is to smash all conventions, including those standards of decorum that most mainstream journalists not only follow but believe are necessary for a reasoned discussion. If Marcotte’s comment is any indication, they believe that all “everyday, common people” eschew civility and reason. Sorry, but that’s not the case. Not by a long shot.

People like Hynes and Marcotte can, of course, write whatever they want. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held responsible for their comments or that mainstream reporters should pay much attention to them.

Hynes, commenting on the controversy involving the Edwards bloggers who offended some people with some of their previous postings, then said, “I would caution against holding candidates responsible for what their bloggers and blog consultants have said in the past.”

It sure sounds as if Hynes believes that bloggers should be treated differently than other campaign staffers, apparently because the nature of their work requires them to engage in vicious personal attacks and otherwise ignore conventions of reasonableness.

I’ve seen plenty of campaigns that have been attacked for hiring consultants who produced a particular ad, made an impolitic statement or engaged in a dirty trick that was eventually discovered. Most bloggers seem to think that it’s OK to rake those folks across the coals — even when their ads aren’t blatantly inappropriate to some of us — but let’s not look at what bloggers have written to see if any of their past comments are inappropriate.

In the case of Hynes and the two former Edwards bloggers, Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, we are talking about staffers whose job it is to write on campaign blogs, which is nothing more than campaign press releases, often aimed at the net roots, as well as some in the media.

Essentially, Marcotte’s and McEwan’s jobs were to puff up their candidate and tear down his adversaries. What’s new about that wasn’t their job, it was the medium in which they were doing it.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that. Campaigns have been hiring people to generate enthusiasm and manipulate the media for years. But since campaign bloggers are no less campaign staffers than press secretaries, a campaign ought to take responsibility for hiring those people, including any embarrassing past behavior.

Marcotte and McEwan’s writings — including references to President Bush’s “wingnut Christofascist base” and a far more offensive reference to the virgin birth — probably would have gotten them fired immediately by Edwards if they had been in a traditional staff position. But candidates are so nervous about upsetting the net roots that they apply a different standard to bloggers.

Broder quotes Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network as saying, “It is difficult to apply the old ways campaigns were run in the late 20th century to this wide-open, citizen-led politics.” In some ways, of course, that’s true. But it’s also true that people still need to take responsibility for things that they say and do, and that civility is a precondition for the serious discussion of politics and policy.

Some rules of the game certainly have to evolve as new technologies change the way people communicate. It’s also true that political activists and campaign operatives broke rules well before the Internet developed. But that doesn’t mean campaigns and journalists should throw their hands up and say there are no rules.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 20, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.