Sunday, October 10, 2004

Despre viitorul blogging-ului politic

Am indicat cu ceva timp in urma articolul de mai jos ("Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail" ) al lui Matthew Klam in NY Times (26 septembrie), despre bloggerii politici din Statele Unite, dar revin asupra lui, redind mai jos citeva pasaje care mi s-au parut interesante. Desigur, cele descrise mai jos par de domeniul stiintifico fantasticului in Romania, dar cine stie? Poate in 50 de ani de acum incolo?...

Nine blocks north of Madison Square Garden, next door to the Emerging Artists Theater, where posters advertised ''The Gay Naked Play'' (''Now With More Nudity''), the bloggers were up and running. It was Republican National Convention week in New York City, and they had taken over a performance space called the Tank. A homeless guy sat at the entrance with a bag of cans at his feet, a crocheted cap on his head and his chin in his hand. To reach the Tank, you had to cross a crummy little courtyard with white plastic patio furniture and half a motorcycle strung with lights and strewn with flowers, beneath a plywood sign that said, ''Ronald Reagan Memorial Fountain.''

The Tank was just one small room, with theater lights on the ceiling and picture windows that looked out on the parking garage across 42nd Street. Free raw carrots and radishes sat in a cardboard box on a table by the door, alongside a pile of glazed doughnuts and all the coffee you could drink. The place was crowded. Everyone was sitting, staring at their laptops, at bridge tables or completely sacked out on couches.
........ ...............
A year ago, no one other than campaign staffs and chronic insomniacs read political blogs. In the late 90's, about the only places online to write about politics were message boards like Salon's Table Talk or Free Republic, a conservative chat room. Crude looking Web logs, or blogs, cropped up online, and Silicon Valley techies put them to use, discussing arcane software problems with colleagues, tossing in the occasional diaristic riff on the birth of a daughter or a trip to Maui. Then in 1999, Mickey Kaus, a veteran magazine journalist and author of a weighty book on welfare reform, began a political blog on Slate. On kausfiles, as he called it, he wrote differently. There were a thousand small ways his voice changed; in print, he had been a full-paragraph guy who carefully backed up his claims, but on his blog he evolved into an exasperated Larry David basket case of self-doubt and indignation, harassed by a fake ''editor'' of his own creation who broke in, midsentence, with parenthetical questions and accusations.

All that outrage, hand wringing, writing posts all day long -- the care and maintenance of an online writing persona -- after five years, it takes its toll. I had talked to Kaus earlier in the summer at a restaurant in Venice, Calif., and he had said he didn't know how much longer he could stand it. After the election, he said, he might just give up. Once, he told me, ''I was halfway across the room about to blog a dream I just had, without ever regaining consciousness, before I realized what I was about to do. If the computer hadn't been in the other room, I probably would have.''

In a recent national survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than two million Americans have their own blog. Most of them, nobody reads. The blogs that succeed, like Kaus's, are written in a strong, distinctive, original voice.
........... ............

But what pulls you in is not the data( de pe blog-n.n); it's his voice. He's cruel and superior, and he knows his side is going to win.

The .... phenomenon drew so many new people to the grass roots (or ''netroots,'' as the .... bloggers used to call them) of presidential politics that a kind of fragmentation occurred in what had been, until then, a blog culture dominated by credentialed gentlemen.....

..... Left-wing politics are thriving on blogs the way Rush Limbaugh has dominated talk radio, and in the last six months, the angrier, nastier partisan blogs have been growing the fastest. ...... It's almost as though, in a time of great national discord, you don't want to know both sides of an issue. The once-soothing voice of the nonideological press has become, to many readers, a secondary concern, a luxury, even something suspect. It's hard to listen to a calm and rational debate when the building is burning and your pants are smoking.

But at the same time that blogs have moved away from the political center, they have become increasingly influential in the campaigns -- James P. Rubin, John Kerry's foreign-policy adviser, told me, ''They're the first thing I read when I get up in the morning and the last thing I read at night.'' Among the Washington press corps, too, their impact is obvious.
During the 1972 presidential campaign, Timothy Crouse covered the campaign-trail press corps in Rolling Stone magazine, reporting that he later expanded into his revealing and funny book ''The Boys on the Bus.'' Crouse described the way a few top journalists like R.W. Apple Jr., David S. Broder, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, through their diligence, ambition and supreme self-confidence, set the agenda for the whole political race. This summer, sitting in the Tank and reading campaign blogs, you could sometimes get a half-giddy, half-sickening feeling that something was shifting, that the news agenda was beginning to be set by this largely unpaid, T-shirt-clad army of bloggers.

A few blocks down Eighth Avenue, thousands of journalists with salaries and health benefits waited for the next speech and the next press release from the Republican campaign. Here in the Tank....
" He explained that he spent most afternoons at Starbucks, and then he would head back to his apartment to blog all night, drinking coffee, sometimes even editing and revising while lying in bed. ''You edit something when you're literally falling asleep,'' he said. ''It can be kind of scary.''

...... It was late, and I was tired and he was disoriented, trying to blog under such circumstances....

"Even before he had finished his Ph.D. in American history at Brown, he was thinking about the impending problem of how to look legit, where to fit in. His father is a professor of marine biology, and Marshall knew, as Cox had known, that academic life wouldn't work. He wanted to be a writer, and he wanted to write about serious stuff, and he wanted to do it with a lot of passion. Marshall's mom had died when he was still in grade school, in a car accident, and he says losing her made it impossible for him to live without believing strongly in something. And he does: he is a guy whose waking state hovers right between irate and incensed, and for him those beliefs require action. Coming out of school, he had a love for history and a handle on American policy issues, and he figured the rest would be simple, job-wise, if only somebody would let him write. Marshall spent three years after his Ph.D. program working as an editor at The American Prospect, the liberal policy journal, and I got the feeling -- not so much from him, because he didn't want to talk about it, but from former colleagues -- that by the time he quit, he had decided that it would be better to starve than to work for someone else. So for a while he starved.

Marshall started the blog in 2000, during the Florida recount, as a release valve, and it's still working that way; oversimplifying weighty issues, reducing them to their essential skeletons, somehow relaxes him. Since February, with the explosion of blog traffic and the invention of blog ads as a revenue source, a few elite bloggers have found themselves on the receiving end of a Howitzer of money, as much as $10,000 a month. Marshall is one of them, and now that the release valve has become a job, albeit a well-paying one, he has to resist the tendency to ruin it. He wrestles with the question of how many posts are enough, since he's a one-man operation and his advertisers have paid ahead of time, and then there are also those obligations to The Hill, where he writes a low-paying weekly column, and The Washington Monthly, another underpaid gig that harks back to his hungrier days.

When I fell asleep in my hotel room, Marshall was complaining that there are no good books on the Crusades. The next morning, he got back into his clothes from the night before. He looked like a wrinkle bomb had hit him.

The big news, the only piece of news, it seemed, about the Democratic convention was that bloggers had been credentialed as news media, sort of, and after so many months ripping the mainstream press coverage of the campaign, a little tingle hung in the air. How would the new breed thrive on the ancient media's home turf, a news event by and for the big news folks? I spent the day at the FleetCenter, in the terrific accommodations the Democrats had arranged for the bloggers: up in the nosebleed seats, Section 320, where 35 of them, the lucky ones who had been credentialed, could fight for any of the 15 bar stools they had been provided, along with some makeshift plywood desks built along the railing. Whoever got there late sat in the cramped, yellow, steeply banked folding seats, no elbowroom, bad lighting, their power cords snaking down the rows to a couple of surge protectors.

.......For the entire time we were in Boston, he never seemed curious about where the bloggers were supposed to sit, and whenever I told him I had just come from there -- at one point I even called from my cellphone, up in the nosebleeds, and waved -- he never went up to visit. He skipped the blogger breakfast that morning, and I had to drag him out to go party-hopping at night -- though when he got there, look out! (Just kidding.)

Marshall often seemed stuck between two worlds. In the blogger world, he was a star, author of one of the most popular and most respected sites. But unlike Moulitsas, who consulted on campaigns and helped develop software for political fund-raising and dreamed of marble statues in his image, Marshall seemed unsure of where blogging was leading. In the mainstream media world, he was not a major player, not yet anyway. He published occasional, well-regarded magazine pieces -- one in The Atlantic, one in The New Yorker -- but nothing earth-shattering. He didn't really seem at home there. Writing for magazines, he said, had become a big pain. Blogging was easier, freer. ''In blogging,'' Marshall said, ''there's no lead, no 'What's my point?''' The blog ad money had fallen from the sky, and it had saved him.

''Now I'm not under any financial pressure to write,'' he said. ''What I backed into, in doing this blog, was freedom. And not having to write things I didn't believe and not having to write ways I didn't want to write.'' It is this unique amount of leeway that has allowed him, over the past two years, to run at his own pace, dig deeper. On his blog, he brings attention to overlooked stories. He wrote about Valerie Plame's cover being blown eight days before The New York Times did. And a paper put out by scholars at the Kennedy School of Government analyzing the fall of Trent Lott singled out Marshall for keeping the focus on a story that had otherwise slipped off the mainstream-media radar.

.....If only he could turn his back completely on the old way, concentrate on nothing but the blog; but letting go of institutional approval and the security and camaraderie that goes with it is like jumping out a window. He can't decide between loving the big media, linking to it, hoping they'll pick up on stories, and hating it, despising it, insulting it, trying to convince you, or himself, that it's the worst thing in the world and that it's ruining American democracy.

Marshall did a little more heavy sighing and wrinkled himself up some more, rubbing his sour face, and launched into what was really irking him at this moment. ''Going it alone is harder than it looks,'' he said. He had been fairly aggressively attacking the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and had attracted plenty of fire himself. ''I've gotten tons of hate mail over the last few weeks,'' he said. ''You get a very thick skin for it. But it's hard. There's something on the karmic level. You feel the level of hate, and when you get a hundred of those, it's exhausting. Normally I'm oblivious to it, but lately it's getting to me a little.'' He had blocked mail from certain e-mail accounts, and yet, he said, ''even though I haven't answered them -- some I haven't answered in a year -- they're still writing. This one guy has subject headings like 'Why you're an idiot today.' Certain people read the site to counteract their heart medication.''

In the aftermath of what was maybe the worst week of Moulitsas's life, friends asked him if he might not consider choosing between his two roles, as a clearinghouse for activism and an outlet for information. But the site continued to grow, fund-raising chugged along for his candidates, and he wanted me to know that his survival was a big finger in the eye of anyone who said a blogger couldn't be two things at once.

But there was another role Moulitsas hadn't quite mastered yet: his place in the established machinery of the Democratic Party. Moulitsas is a rabid Democrat, devoted to the idea of the party, but he also feels a deep distrust for the party system, and so do many of his readers. Moulitsas has always been an outsider. He was born in Chicago, but moved to his mother's native El Salvador at age 4, and as the civil war there heated up in the 1980's, he remembers stepping over dead bodies. He only returned to Chicago after rebel soldiers passed along photos of Moulitsas and his brother to the family, an invitation to leave or lose their sons. Moulitsas speaks of himself, at the time of his return to Chicago when he was 9, as a tiny geek with a big mouth who couldn't speak English and who quickly learned to say things to bullies, in his heavy Spanish accent, that were just confounding enough for him to make a getaway before the bully realized he had been insulted. In high school, his American experience didn't improve. ''I had to eat fast and run to the library to read, because I didn't have any friends,'' he said. After graduation, at 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was 5 foot 6 and weighed 110 pounds. Like everyone else, he carried a 65-pound pack on those 15- and 20-mile marches. He had been pushed around all his life, but in basic training, within spitting distance of his drill sergeants, he learned to fight back.

.....For Moulitsas and for a lot of other people new to politics in 2004 -- amateurs who liked the thrill ride Dean had taken them on -- the idea that the rules had changed seemed entirely obvious. What was important to these new activists, he told me, was winning -- winning the presidency, winning back the Senate, winning as many Congressional seats as possible. Soon after we met, Moulitsas tried to convince me how important it was for the old guard to start seeing politics through the eyes of the bloggers. That meant rapid response, he said, smart use of technology, constant two-way communication with the voters and grass-roots fund-raising. He told me the story of a flash advertisement that the D.N.C. had posted on its Web site. Moulitsas hated it. ''It was horrible, the worst thing I'd ever seen,'' he said. ''So I blogged a post saying, 'That's the biggest piece of garbage I've ever seen in my whole entire life''' (although he used stronger language than that). ''What the hell were they thinking?'' he asked. ''I was embarrassed to be a Democrat. So then I get phone calls and e-mails, 'Well, why didn't you talk to us?' I'm like: 'What's there to talk about? The thing's a piece of garbage.' And then they say: 'It was done by a volunteer. If you attack them, then volunteers aren't going to want to do stuff like that.' I'm like: 'Good! 'Cause it's a piece of garbage.' I'm like, Here's the way it goes. O.K., from now on, keep this in mind: whenever you put up anything on this site, think, How are the blogs going to react?'' He was smiling, but all the veins were pulsing in his neck. ''You can pout all you want,'' he said, ''but I'm not here to make friends with you guys and go to your little cocktail parties. And that piece of garbage is going to lose us votes.''

Although the D.C.C.C. raises a lot more money for Congressional candidates than Moulitsas does, candidates have caught on to the fact that Moulitsas's help can be invaluable. While we were sitting up there in the blogger nosebleed section, his phone rang. It was Samara Barend, a young community activist running for Congress in upstate New York. When Moulitsas hung up, he told me she was calling ''either to get my endorsement or to get me to write about the race.''

.........Moulitsas's ''friendly relations'' with particular candidates got him into a public fight with Zephyr Teachout, who became briefly famous last winter as the guru of the Dean Internet campaign, which in fact employed Moulitsas for several months. Over the summer, she complained in several online forums, and to Moulitsas directly, that he and other bloggers were blurring the lines between editorial and advertising, lines that had always been sacred in journalism. According to Teachout, they were posting comments in support of candidates for whom they were also working as paid consultants and not explaining that conflict of interest, or at least not fully enough for Teachout. In an online discussion with Jay Rosen, who heads the journalism department at N.Y.U., she wrote, ''I think where we essentially disagree is that transparency alone is enough.''

....For Moulitsas, the bigger problem these days is his own success. When we met up again at the Republican convention, we walked around ground zero, and he told me about his rising page views. ''I was losing sleep over how I'd survive the traffic,'' he said. His daily readership had surpassed 350,000, and by most counts he had become the most-read political blogger in the country. He told me he had hired a full-time programmer to take over the technical work of running his site. ''I never intended to be here,'' he said....

Moulitsas said that people had been coming in from Brooklyn and other places just to shake his hand, because they knew he would be at the Tank. ''It's weird,'' he said. ''It makes me uncomfortable. People who achieve a certain amount of celebrity plan it. They expect that public attention will be part of the package.''

Away from the Tank now, he could relax for a moment and reflect. ''I'm really self-conscious of how the blogger community perceives me,'' he said. ''I feel guilty that I don't link to more bloggers, I feel guilty that I'm more successful than other bloggers. I feel guilty that I make as much money as I do now, that I get more traffic. Rather than enjoy it, sometimes I feel really guilty about it. It's silly.''

As we neared Wall Street, Moulitsas said: ''The other angst I have about blogging is that because I depend on the income, it has become a job. You'd think I'd be happy. I make a living off of blogging! But it's interesting how, once it becomes a job, there's a certain angst that I'm kind of afflicted with. I can't quit.''

When the bloggers first arrived in Boston for the Democratic convention, some of them had high hopes for what they would be able to accomplish there -- that together they would cough up an astounding Rashomon collective of impressions and insights, interlinked, with empowering conclusions. With their new form of journalism, at once smaller and larger than the mainstream, they planned to bring politics back to the people. But those first few posts, so highly anticipated by their fellow bloggers, the ones who didn't score credentials, were more about the bus ride from the hotel, the heavy security in the parking lot; their seats in the rafters were terrible, they had trouble getting floor passes and, anyway, out on the floor, who would they talk to? Were they supposed to pretend to be regular reporters? Up in the nosebleeds, the delegates overran their special section, and it got so hot at night you could die, especially with a nice warm laptop baking your thighs; the WiFi kept fading, cutting them off from the world, from their Googling and pondering; from up in the cheap seats, the stage was minuscule, the speakers' faces were dots, the sound didn't travel. The only thing the bloggers really had the inside scoop on were the balloons hanging a few feet away from them in the rafters, in huge sacks of netting.

The bloggers had spent this year hammering the mainstream media for failing to tell the ''real story'' of Howard Dean or John Kerry or George W. Bush. And they hammered at the campaigns, too, for failing to make their message clear, for failing to adapt to surprises on the road, in the glare of all that attention. But now they were finding the campaign trail could be rough. Zephyr Teachout sat down next to me on the night of Kerry's speech and started needling the bloggers. ''Look how hard it is to work when the conditions are awful, when you're star struck, when it's hard to find anecdotes that are good,'' she said.

And as a seasoned reporter myself -- after two whole conventions -- I can safely say that you get about as many insights into the hearts and souls of the candidates on the campaign trail as you would watching a plastic fern grow. The ever-increasing scrutiny of candidates because of cable and the Internet has only made more evident how impregnable and unfathomable our political machinery has become. Political reporters hanging around drinking and smoking at the conventions said that the bus had changed a lot since 1972. You spend all day watching nothing, fake deli-counter photo ops with six camera crews, and you get yelled at if you walk into the camera shot -- that is, if you dare to go near the guy you're covering.

The news media helped create the modern campaign, and now they seem to be stuck in it. The bloggers, by contrast, adapted quickly. By the time the Republican convention rolled around in August, they had figured something out, staying far, far away from that zoo down at Madison Square Garden. They had begun to work the way news people do at manufactured news events, by sticking together, sharing information, repeating one another's best lines. They were learning their limitations, and at the same time they were digging around and critiquing and fact-checking and raising money. They still liked posting dirty jokes and goofy Photoshopped pictures of politicians, but they had hope, and more than a few new ideas, and they were determined to make themselves heard.


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