Papering Over Problems

There aren’t any magic bullets, and accepting that is the first step. A newspaper, at its best, is a guide to the community it serves; the website it puts up should perform the same function and regard online activity – all online activity, not just novelty crap from YouTube, MySpace and Craigslist – as part of its coverage area. Ignoring the online world off your website is as dumb as ignoring the big fire in the next town over. You could see the smoke, your readers could see the smoke, but since it was over there it didn’t get covered. How smart is that?

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Love For Sale

The next time the Direct Marketing Association or the political consultants get together, they need to invite DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas to their gathering.
First, he gets huge press. Political reporters anxious to see this “blogging” thing flocked to Las Vegas last weekend to meet roughly 1,500 laptop totting activists who, if Maureen Dowd’s pet chronicler Adam Nagourney is to be believed, spent a fair amount of time sucking up in person to the folks they spend so much time on-line denouncing.
And secondly, he’s pulled off a trick worthy of PT Barnum. Moulitsas has managed to make political reporters think that he and his 1,500 companions in ASCII are an actual threat to how real political reporting and writing works. Certainly, they’re disruptive, often annoying and they are treating Big Media reporters with little respect, lots of attitude and no shortage of argumentative behavior. All of which is good. No one who loves peace should go into the news business.
But when you get down to it, DailyKos is nothing more than a piece of political direct mail. You go to it, yes. And you can talk to it, yes. And it talks back. But fundamentally, DailyKos exists to serve the candidates Moulitsas thinks are worth backing; to push them forward and denounce their critics (in the press and elsewhere). Nothing more, nothing less. That doesn’t make him a reporter – or even a “media” as he’s so found of saying – it makes him a political consultant. Or a direct mail house – one with a terrible track record, by the way.
Maybe because they do so poorly at the ballot box – only Bob Shrum has managed to build a business off a string of sustained losses – the Kossaks are still trying to have it both ways when it comes to their role in American politics. Used to getting “news” about candidates from opposition research, the Kossaks think that by taking that job away from campaigns, they’re becoming “media.” In that light, it doesn’t matter if their candidates don’t win. It’s the bloggers impact that counts. The Kos bloggers want to storm the barricades – using one of the cheapest tricks in the news business, the spoon-fed dirt-drop – and be welcomed with open arms for their vigor, innovation and “good reporting.” But when it comes to actually understanding the editorial business, they fall short. Crassly imitating the behavior of the pundits they see on television (which they mistakenly think is the zenith of the business) bloggers are flatterers around Big Media stars. Why? So they can become like them. Even a passing reference in a traditional news outlet is worth a lot of traffic and traffic sells advertising and, oh, yeah, it can make you a Big Boy Blogger with influence and power. But once the reporters have pulled out? Well, Big Media is a bunch of clueless boobs who can’t see how wonderful bloggers are and how sorely their work has been neglected.
This is an old story for those of us who have been in and around the tech business. Bloggers, like almost everyone else who has ever discovered the miraculous potential of a piece of software, have decided that they – and they alone, that few, that proud, that chosen (and why are they all men….?) – are agents of profound transformation. They are going to change the world as we know it and their potential power is awe-inspiring, limitless and potentially very lucrative. Similar comments were made about the Segway and were happily reprinted without question or skepticism in Time magazine and other pubs. But can anyone look at a Segway these days without laughing? Don’t get me wrong, the power of self-publishing is everything bloggers say it is (unlike the Segway) but the ways in which it’s being used by this crowd are silly (like the Segway). And often self-defeating (like the ginned-up Segway PR effort).
My favorite Big Media cocktail party story is the one about the Kossak who sharply, repeatedly and publicly criticized an influential editor’s judgement, pretty much calling into question everything but his hair color. A few weeks later, the blogger wrote to see if the Big Media editor would accept his work, making no mention of their public contretemps. The editor wasn’t looking for an apology (well, maybe…) but he flat-out balked at the assumption that harsh, sustained public denunciations would be taken as just another day at the office. Journalism is a pretty competitive business but there’s a difference between having sharp elbows and wielding a switchblade and bloggers, as a rule, don’t know the difference. They often employ their tools at the wrong time with the wrong people. Special note: No matter how nice any one is to Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman, they are not going to say something nice to NYTimes Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins so your latest post can get an op-ed spot. Promise.
There’s something else bloggers at Kos and other outlets are trying to brush aside. They’re sloppy about money and funding. They can – they have and they will again – be bought. And they will continue to sell their wares – political endorsement and fundraising ability – at a higher and higher price, thanks to ruling by the Federal Elections Commission that keeps them from having to account for any money they spend on behalf of candidates. This is a scandal in the making.
A few years ago, bloggers costs nothing more than a few cheap-o BlogAds. Writers were happy to repay the favor with a nice mention, maybe a fund-raising post. Today, the entry fee is an appearance at a Los Vegas convention and a big party with free sushi and lots of other goodies.
Think I’m making too much of this?
Listen to Moulitsas talking last night on MSNBC’s Countdown (sans – sigh – Olberman). Asked who made the biggest splash, Moulitsas didn’t hestitate. “Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia did create a big sensation. He had a big party. Some criticized it as being a little too lavish. Others, like me, said ‘You know what? There’s so much stupid money being wasted in politics, it’s about time they spent it on meeting some regular people.’ And, at the end of the day, bloggers are regular people. We’re not media elite, we’re not political elite, we’re just people sitting in front of our computer really passionate about politics and if they want to spend a few bucks on us, I say bring it on.”
Ummmm. Since when is a non-practising attorney living in Berkeley, CA and running a website that’s given him a six-figure income a “regular person”? How about a 23-year-old law student living with her parents in Chicago? Or Armando Lorens-Sars, an attorney with a list of corporate clients as long as his arm? “Regular people” pulled into Las Vegas today for the United Auto Workers annual meeting, a session that promises to carry grim news to one of the best-compensated unions in the country, once the backbone of the Democratic Party across the Upper Midwest. Those regular people are not sitting in front of their keyboard and feeling passionate about politics. They’re staring at their family budgets and their depleted bank balances, wondering how they’re going to pay for health insurance and worried that the pension plans they were once promised could disappear entirely. These are regular people and I’ll bet Mark Warner didn’t stick around to buy them sushi. Think anyone from DailyKos thought to hang around that meeting with their fellow “regular people”? Probably not. Which as far as I’m concerned tells you all you need to know. DailyKos and many other bloggers are a group that aspire to be media and political elite; their big interest is in sucking up to those who they think (wrongly) can welcome them into the club.
There are more questions to ask about Kos. My friend Micah Sifry points out that Moulitsas’ reasons for supporting Warner, who is running on the “not Hillary” plank for the Democratic nomination, amount to nothing more than Moulitsas’ endorsement of Warner’s hiring the “right people.” On one level, that’s a charming note of support for Kos’ book co-author, Jerome Armstrong, who has been retained by Warner as a consultant. But it might be something else, too. It may just be a recognition that the Warner campaign – the first candidate Kos singled out when he was asked about the Vegas gathering – is money in the bank for Moulitsas and company.
What’s even more troubling? Most bloggers – partisan to their core – don’t see Moulitsas’ statements as contradictory or incriminating. They think this is business as usual. They’re right – if you’re a political consultant. In that job you’re supposed to take money from your client, the candidate, for your work – which is to get him or her elected. But if you’re “media” – mainstream, traditional, new, or old – this sort of talk ought to raise a few questions about what your job is, how you’re doing it and where your loyalties lie. What – exactly – is the relationship between DailyKos and the candidates it supports? And when are they going to stop being coy about it?

A Fake News Sensibility

A few months ago, I joked that Jon Stewart should follow the habit of the pretentious “real” TV shows and offer transcripts. Earlier this week, I decided that wasn’t so funny after all. Stewart’s not consistent, and he’s often not as humorous as he (or his somewhat rabid audience) thinks he is, but those are minor failings on an interview show. When he gives a damn, it shows.

As a result, he regularly does something that almost no one else on TV does: He gets to the heart of the matter. Watching him rag on Sen. John McCain for giving a speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University was pretty good TV. A few days ago, he did it again, in a discussion about the state of the news business with New Yorker editor David Reminck.

Now, nothing said in this conversation would come as a surprise to regular news junkies or even sensible, politically sentient Americans. But that’s exactly why it bears repeating. When editors and reporters like David Remnick talk about it being easier to cover Russia than the White House, we as an open society have decided to duck out on one of the basic precepts that forms our government. What he’s saying – nicely – is that many people in Washington are afraid to talk about their government and what they and it do.

But Remnick also has a few words that ought to be heeded by my compadres here on-line; the folks who call themselves “media.” His observations – reporters are not given to self-organization, the news business is competitive and reporting and stenography as separate undertakings are welcome. Aping the behavior of TV pundits is not journalism. It is, as Remnick says, theater. Good, solidly grounded political commentary isn’t about us, guys, it’s not about the press room, it’s not about the briefings, it’s about the stories. Anyway, after the jump an edited version of their brief chat.

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Wanted: Original Thinking

There are some days – this is one of them – where working on-line feels like volunteering at a nursery school for extremely intelligent determined children with bad manners and lenient parents.

Yes, I’m talking about the war over Ben Domenech. Spot-on gave Domenech one of its soon-to-be-coveted HotSpots yesterday because, well, because we think any time a publication stretches a bit it ought to be rewarded. Far too much American journalism is mind-numbingly predictable and the Washington Post, having gotten plenty of flack (like this from Spot-on’s Josh Trevino) over Dan Fromkin decided to take a walk on the wild side. Good for them. Good for all of us.

Today’s HotSpot goes to our pals at DailyKos. Turns out that Ben might not be the original thinker he’ll need to be to cut it at the Washington Post. At best, he and his pals at William and Mary were a little sloppy in the attribution department but it’s college journalism and well, let’s just say that the press corps hasn’t been setting the best example for young men of Domenech’s generation. There’s some other stuff that’s more damning than the college writing but, ultimately, the decision about what to do is the Post’s to make. It’s their publication, they can do with it as they please; readers will behave accordingly.

The problem with this real honest-to-God problem of plagiarism is the criticism that greeted the news of Domenech’s hiring. It was so harsh – again, here’s Trevino – that it has made this new discussion seem like piling on. Which, in a funny way, makes the reasons for Domenech’s Post gig more compelling; a lot of the protests were nothing more than jealousy and, in some case, outright snobbery. Domenech’s not a journalist; and yeah, he should have had to “earn” his gig at the Post like all those hard-working Liberal commentators holding down less prestigious gigs around Washington. But he didn’t and that’s not the end of the world. Have you gotten the memo about how the news business is changing? I can send you my copy if you need to brush up….

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Fantasy Island

Have you noticed that this site is a Karl-Rove-free zone?
Why? The raging summer controversy over Rove’s role in identifying Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent is of great and massive interest to many, many people I know and respect as journalists. It is of no interest whatsoever to anyone living outside the Washington, D.C. beltway or off the island of Manhattan. It is a high-stakes game of inside baseball gone public. And it is boring.
It is boring because it is predictable. Even I have been having trouble getting interested in this mess. It’s that much of an inside game. Of course, Rove was the source. And of course he denied it. And of course the White House is embarrassed. But this whole mess is just another good example of why most folks think that the national press and politicians deserve each other. They see the Rove controversy as a family spat that will be settled in time for everyone to make nice at the family Christmas party. A pox on both their houses, is the thinking.
They’re right. The Affair Rove is a perfect example of how Big Media and politicians in elected office – regardless of party – feed off each other. No one individual is at fault here. It’s a corrupt system nurtured in part by systemic weaknesses in the media business, weaknesses that can be disguised by reciting supposedly absolute rules about sources, or information or how we do our jobs. The only absolute in this business is that there are no absolutes.
Here’s an example of what’s true: In spinning Time writer Matt Cooper, Karl Rove was doing his job, he was dissing a critic of the administration going to a rival publication – Time magazine – to throw a little dirt on the New York Times editorial board. Cooper had to have born this in mind when he sent a memo to his editors saying that Rove had spoken to him on “double secret” background. That’s ridiculous — Cooper was putting Rove’s name in the memo for anyone to see and read. But Cooper, too, was doing his job: Telling his boss what the White House thought of former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s New York Times op ed piece and “warning” them about that editorial. Was Rove being sleazy? Yes. How about Cooper? Well, he was showing off, that’s pretty clear. But both men were doing their jobs, playing their roles; that of powerful insiders, armed with information unavailable to the outside world. To some extent, they’re still at it.

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Dear, Dear Kevin

Kevin Drum, Mr. Political Animal, wonders if he should attend Blogher, the woman-run conference on blogging scheduled for the end of this month. He’s a little worried. Given the history here, I can’t say I blame him.
This gives me a wonderful chance to state the obvious about this conference: IT IS NOT FOR WOMEN ONLY. Not only are men welcome — a statement that it seems absurd to have to make – but some are planning to attend. So you will have company, Kevin.
This gives me the chance to make another observation: If you are a man who likes code and software and things that plug in, and is perhaps having trouble finding a girl who likes Java (and knows it’s not just a coffee) and undersands your inner Geek, this might be the PERFECT place for you to spend a summer afternoon.
The ratio at most tech conferences is hugely biased toward men. That will assuredly not be the case here.
Anyway, here’s what I left as a comment over at Drum’s site. Chime in down there. Let’s see if we can’t move the man.

Kevin, this is such a no-brainer, I’m ashamed of you.
Blogher has a terrible name, I agree (and I’m on the advisory board) but it’s a fabulous chance to hang around with a bunch of smart, tech-savvy women who are going to be spending a lot of time talking about blogging and writing on-line and, well, Kevin, some of them even have cats.
And I think you’ll be very surprised to see that this is NOT a convention about “why it’s unfair that men run the world.” Nor is it a “sisterhood-only” event. It’s for EVERYONE.
If I were you, I’d fly up Friday, take a cab from the SJ Airport to the Westin, crash the BlogerHer speakers’ dinner (you can come as my date, big guy), kick back and have a good time, realizing that the on-line movement pioneered by guys like you has thrived, spread and is now opening up to a whole new generation of writers who should be encouraged, welcomed and praised.
What’s NOT to like about this Kevin? Huh? What?

Registration for the conference — which is close to being sold out — ends on July 25. So hurry, boys, hurry.
UPDATE: Mr. Drum – who said his mother told him to come – will, in fact, be joining us at BlogHer. Dan Gilmor won’t but says he wishes he could. Uber nerd Craig Newmark has also given BlogHer his endorsment. And the Pope of the Internet Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has sent us thousands of views. Thanks, guys.

Oh, Boy Do We Got Mail

Lots of mail in the in-box this week. And a few snarky comments around the web, too.
So, here’s the deal on Grokster: Wishing there were no record companies or movie studios with lots of money to sue people doesn’t mean 1)they’re corrupt jerks who are out to ruin your personal music or movie enjoyment pleasure or 2)things are going to stay this way.
That doesn’t, of course, mean you have to like the current circumstances. But the point of the Grokster post was to say, essentially, that if Silicon Valley wants change, it’s going to have to work for it.
A lot of what was said about that piece on the web and in email was captured by Liza Sabater over at CultureKitchen.
“So, will this make car, liquor and beer makers liable for drunk driving?” Liza asks. No. It won’t. This is what I call a good dumb question. To some extent, we already know the answer. Bartenders – the people who serve liquor – have been held liable in drunk driving incidents. So have party hosts. And gun shop owners have legal obligations and responsibilities. The Supreme Court was pretty clear on this point: It’s not the technology, per se. It’s what you encourage people to do with it.
Mr. Simon writes in a bit more cryptically:

Uh. I think you got two things wrong:
1. The end of file sharing programs
2. America loves Hollywood
The RIAA and MPAA better get with the program.
More theft = more sales.
Think about how the MPAA railed against Sony video recorders. Claiming it would ruin business. Well thefts were up and business boomed.
What we have here is 30+ years of content industry stupidity repeated at every new technological intersection. In fact it didn’t start 30 years ago. It started with Edison’s invention of the gramaphone which was supposed to ruin the music industry. Or playing tunes for free on the radio was going to ruin the gramaphone industry. Or the cassette recorder which was going to ruin the music industry or boom boxes which could dupe tapes which was going to ruin the music industry, etc. etc. etc. Why all that bad stuff never happened? Why is it that every advance that made music easier to steal increased the size of the market?
There is some rampant stupidity going on here. However, it is not the tech geeks who are in charge of the stupid brigade.
BTW if suing becomes significant then file sharing will go further underground. Just like the drug war.
Hollywood is like the oil companies. The product is popular; the companies selling it are not.

Can you tell he’s an engineer?
Well, I’m not so sure the Geeks are so smart about this stuff. I mean, who won? But I do think filesharing will be forced underground to some extent if lawsuits accelerate. Hollywood and the studios are playing a delay game – politically and in the marketplace – until someone comes to their rescue. The smarter play might be to figure out how to do that.

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FEC Comments

Well, I’m stuck on the other side of the country so I can’t lend my two cents to the Federal Election Commission hearings on regulation of Internet communication. Like the Grokster decision, the FEC’s rulemaking is another case of politics colliding with technology.
And, like the Supreme Court decision on Grokster, no one’s happy about the FEC, either. Most of the comments on this site have centered around the arrogance that a lot of bloggers have about conflict-of-interest habits that press folks follow. As a result of that post, I got this thoughtful note from PE Byrd. It’s edited a bit and I don’t agree with Byrd about everything he says. But his comments on the ways in which Big Media have shirked their responsibility is a good one.

Some points/questions re: KOS. I respect what KOS has done – a lot of hard work – and he is committed. He is a hot head – and perhaps for justifiable reasons, but I don’t think he has the right end of the stick here.
1) He is clearly working to build to new media company – the blog/community is the first thing – he’s added advertising, he will probably add video, etc. At some point he does look like a new-style media organization. He does have a point that he is entitled to the same treatment as the traditional media.

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You Know What Shakespeare Said…

Ever since this on-line thing web logging began, there’s been a lot of talk about the quality of comments and commentary on the web. Generally speaking, reporters and salaried journalists aren’t exactly pleased to see their work reviewed, dissected, mulled over, analyzed and generally taken apart by folks working on-line. Their on-line critics haven’t held back. Not one bit.
There’s plenty of reason for all the slamming, that’s for sure. CBS’s sloppy work on the memos about President Bush’s National Guard service, The New York Times willingness to take the word of the administration and its plants when it came to Saddam Hussain’s progress acquiring and developing nuclear and other dangerous weapons are two of the best examples. And yeah, okay, that little scammer Jayson Blair.
But there’s something else at work here, too and to my reporter’s eye, it’s notable. Many of those who are the harshest in their denouncements of the media – many of the Big Boy Bloggers – have one thing in common.
They’re lawyers.

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TV Guide

Something interesting is going on with local TV stations and the on-line world. A few weeks ago San Francisco’s KRON had a bunch of us virtually ink-stained wenches over for chips and diet coke.
J.D. Lasica shot some footage along with the KRON gang and a few folks have mentioned that they’ve seen me on the tube talking about this thing I do here at Politics From Left to Right so I thought I’d put the links up so you guys can share in the fun.
KRON is looking for folks to help them better cover the San Francisco Bay Area. They made no bones about that. They’re copying some of the work that’s been done – under the guidance of consultant Terry Heaton – in Nashville.
It’s interesting to see TV folks nosing around this area. On-line video – as J.D. is demonstrating on his own site and at – has a lot of promise. And the very structure of TV station hiring – it relies on contractors as much as employees, a very different set-up from the way newspapers operate – creates a different sort of environment. For stand-alone journalists working in any medium, this could be very, very good news.
That’s a bit off in the future, however.
More immediately, if you want to hear more about stand alone journalism you can tune into “San Francisco/Unscripted” this evening at 7:30 to hear and see me chatting with the show’s host Art Bruzzone. It will air again on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on Comcast San Francisco’s channel 11.