Thursday, August 09, 2007

Op-Ed in the Oregonian

The Oregonian published an editorial of mine today. They have a pretty strict 500-word limit, so the version published was a couple hundred words shorter than the original. For the sake of my reader (and posterity), here's the longer version, with my suggested title.

Why We Need Blogs

The evolution of blogs, like everything else in the tech world, has been quick. Five years ago, almost no one had heard of them. Now they exercise enough influence that when a group of national political bloggers held a convention in Chicago last week, it was attended by the Democratic presidential front-runners.

Appropriately, this growing influence has brought increasing scrutiny, but some of the criticism is either misplaced or disingenuous. For days in advance of the YearlyKos convention, Bill O’Reilly smeared bloggers as extreme radicals. (Picking fights with liberals has never hurt O’Reilly’s ratings.) In the offices of the nation’s print newspapers, editors tut-tut bloggers as irresponsible partisans not beholden to journalistic ethics. It’s true that some unscrupulous bloggers spread rumors and invective. But on the whole, blogs perform a valuable function: they increase participation and discussion among voters, reduce the influence of corporate money and single-issue PACs, and erode the power of the consolidated mainstream press to dictate narratives in news and campaigns.

The central criticism of blogs concerns their power. Critics argue that, like single-issue PACs, they use their well-organized minority to dictate terms to politicians, adding to polarization that plagues politics. This is nonsense. Blogs, by their nature, a democratic media form. Even high-traffic blogs like DailyKos are sites where myriad voices discuss politics. In that site’s case, there are hundreds of “authors” and none of them are controlled by any single authority.

When we formed BlueOregon, regarded as one of the most influential Oregon blogs, we recruited a large group of writers and added guest columns. Readers add comments—sometimes scores of them on popular topics. No one controls the content of the posts or comments. And BlueOregon is only one of a dozen or so influential blogs, all with their own writers, readers, and commenters. We do not coordinate among ourselves or, in most cases, even know one another. If blogs exercise power—and they do—it is the power of regular citizens talking about issues that matter to them. This isn’t a perversion of the process—it’s a example of a healthy process.

This democratizing impulse has had profound effects on politics. In an era where money is equated to speech, corporations and well-funded interest groups speak louder than citizens. But blogs have begun to mitigate this. In the first half of 2007, Barack Obama not only raised the most money in the history of presidential politics for the period, he did it through 250,000 small donations. Blogs help promote candidates and encourage readers to give money online.

Blogs also help candidates out of the party mainstream like Ron Paul—a blogosphere darling—raise their national profile. Whether these kinds of candidates ultimately win an election isn’t the final metric, either—that their views spark such deep passion is instructive to the mainstream candidates who do win. The visible participation that blogs facilitate helps guide politicians to popular majority positions, not toward the fringes.

Finally, blogs are an important corrective to a mainstream press too quick to form simplistic narratives of news events and political campaigns. The consolidation of power in the media, highlighted last week by Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal, underscores a troubling propensity in the Fourth Estate. Across all forms of media, the firewall between the newsroom and the sales department is burning down fast. In benign cases this means comprehensive news coverage is scrapped for sexy or bloody news; in other cases, like Murdoch’s media empire, news is used to forward other agendas.

Blogs have been on the front line to challenge sloppy, inaccurate, or missing reporting. It was bloggers, notably Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, who kept digging into the fired US attorneys, ultimately putting Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ job in jeopardy. Because bloggers don’t have limited column space nor advertisers to please, they can doggedly—some might say obsessively—follow news stories they think are being overlooked.

Blogs aren’t a panacea for an unhealthy political environment. They can’t magically make government work efficiently or single-handedly root out corruption. But bloggers are far from the fringe radicals portrayed on the Bill O’Reilly show. They are regular people, who, through this emerging medium, have seen their voices suddenly start to matter. In a democracy, that’s not a bad thing.

Jeff Alworth is a founder and editor of the blog BlueOregon.

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