Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Wonkette, Kos, Powerline Live in Bethlehem PA: Blog the Vote!

[UPDATE: I made a few corrections in response to a reader. FURTHER UPDATE: Here is the Morning Call's coverage of its own event.]

Theme for the evening: Where's the link? (explained below)

This was an impressive this event overall. The Morning Call is not really a paper one thinks of as being cutting-edge, but clearly they have some engaged folks working for them these days. The event was held in what is normally a concert hall on the south campus of Moravian College (right in downtown Bethlehem), and was sponsored by the Morning Call newspaper under the rubric "Blog the Vote."

The Morning Call may be on the ball, but Bethlehem sure isn't. The room was only about a quarter full. There were about five or six laptops out (free Wi-Fi) that I could see. Also, most of the crowd was older -- the average age was 45-55 -- but that's typical of a baseball/school night. The average age in Bethlehem, despite the presence of two colleges, is probably about 50 -- it's virtually a retirement community. The whole component of politically active young people one thinks of as active in the blog-world... well, they don't live here.

There were no major blow-ups. The only significant tension in the room was early on, when Kos talked about his statements in March about the contractors (he called them "mercenaries") who were killed in Falluja, and then strung up in public for display. Kos (Markos Moulitsos Zuniga) was raised in El Salvador (hence his dislike for mercenaries), and also served in U.S. armed forces during the first Gulf War -- though he wasn't actually called to go to Iraq. Also a little tense was the discussion of Sinclair Broadcasting. Kos supports the movement against their advertisers; Jon Hinderaker of Powerline tried to make it an issue of free speech, saying that the left is very wishy-washy when it comes to free speech that says things they don't like. IMHO Hinderaker's wrong: free speech is not the issue here; what's really at issue are FCC regulations about equal time, and about Sinclair's accountability to its advertisers. Wonkette also sided with Kos here, and against Sinclair.

But overall, the vibe was remarkably comfortable. Though Kos had referred to his co-panelist Jon Hinderaker of Powerline as a 'wingnut' before the event, in person all three were quite a bit tamer than their online personalities would suggest. No references to wingnuts or moonbats! The normally potty-mouthed Wonkette tried to avoid repeating the name Jon Stewart called Tucker Carlson on national television! (Kos stepped up and said it)

They also pretty much agree on what blogging is, and how it works as a medium.

In addition to what I record below, topics covered include: Rathergate (which Powerlineblog apparently broke -- I didn't know that before), the current left-blogger movement against the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the tawdry spectacle of post-Presidential Debate "spin alley," Jon Stewart on Crossfire, the hidden slang meaning of "Santorum," what it was like to blog the conventions, campaign finance reform, voter fraud scam stuff, community-building through blogging, the limitations of blogging vs. 'real' political organizing, the cross-over between radio/TV talk shows and blogging, and why blogger credibility or responsibility is a non-issue. In short, a potpourri that was exactly what you would expect.

Kos (which, to my surprise, is pronounced "koss" rather than "Chaos") revealed that he's thinking of writing some books, and also told some interesting stories about his early involvement in the Dean Campaign. But he also says he feels that blogging is made for him -- it's his ideal medium. Wonkette says she's happy doing what she's doing for now, too, even though she did do a stint for MTV at the DNC back in July. Hinderaker is a lawyer, so he probably doesn't need to blog. But I got the feeling that he definitely wants a job in politics down the line.

Wonkette and Kos disgreed on Jon Stewart. Wonkette thought that Stewart's repeated claims that he's just a comedian begin to ring hollow ("He can't keep just saying that his lead-in show is a show where puppets make crank calls"). In fact, his performance on Crossfire shows he does take himself just a wee bit seriously. And after calling Crossfire "bad for America," as he did on Friday, it's likely that the mainstream media will start thinking of him as less of a court jester and more of a "figure." Kos, in contrast, buys Stewart's line that he's just a comedian. I tend to agree with Wonkette -- Stewart can't make serious criticisms of the system of individuals in it and then wiggle out of accountability on the basis of "Crank Yankers." But then, I'm not sure that this little tempest in a teapot will be on anyone's mind in a week or two.

On responsibility and credibility, Kos made the best points about why bloggers don't have to worry about those issues so much, since popularity rules: blogging is a free market of ideas, and people will vote with their clicks. All three panelists all agreed: major bloggers as a whole are actually more accountable than the current mass-media, because everything has to be documented (motto: Where's the LINK?). And when mistakes are made, they are instantly corrected.

Each of the three bloggers on the panel made the point somewhere along the line that the real hope of political blogging (even satirical political blogging) is that people will become more critical about what they hear and read in the media. Everything can turn out to be wrong, whether it's the New York Times or Rising Hegemon.

Wonkette was the most interesting on her experiences at the conventions, especially the DNC in Boston, which she and Kos were both covering. Surprisingly, they found themselves to be the center of the story ("Look, there are bloggers here!"), rather than part of the apparatus that actually cover the event. She was also quite good on recognizing that the conventions may be theater -- but audiences (aka, "voters") actually expect just that. And they want to be entertained. Audiences/voters judge conventions by how well they're organized: "why would you vote for someone if they can't even make the balloons fall on time?"

Hinderaker's best point was on campaign finance reform, which he opposes on the grounds of the first amendment. The most recent round of reforms (McCain/Feingold) have led to, well, more of the same. What is the real difference between soft money contributions to political parties and the ads by the new '527' groups, which can be funded by billionaires on either side? Kos -- in a certain kind of way -- agreed with Hinderaker, with the qualification that he thinks the reforms are an improvement, because now the money is going directly to the ideas and the ideologies of interest, rather than to the political parties. 527s may have the same effect as 'soft-money' ads to people who watch TV in swing-states like Pennsylvania -- but they make a world of difference when it comes to the potential for corruption inside politics.

Enough said; here is a very partial and inaccurate transcription of tonight's event at Moravian.

[All quotations are approximate.]

First question: How did you start blogging?

Wonkette: It's unusual in that I was asked. I was Nick Denton sent me an email: "how would you like to blog for money?"

Hinderaker: We're Three guys who are all older, and lawyers.

Kos: [missed this: he felt urgently he wanted to express himself in response to the build-up to the Iraq war in 2002]

Second question: Credentials.

Wonkette: I don't call myself a journalist. I think of what I do as more commentary and analysis. I hate facts. I hate calling people, I hate being here right now.

I would much rather stay home in my room and make fun of people. There are people like Josh Marshall who are journalists but who like to blog. What blogging has done is open up journalism to something more fluid.

People shouldn't believe what they read just because it's written by a journalist. They should bring critical faculties to bear.

Powerline: There's an enormous amount of diversity in the world of blogging. At powerline what we do is comment on the news. We're commentators.

Kos: I did journalism for a couple of years and I dont' want to go back. I'm an activist. I use it as a tool for activism. Some people may use it to let people know what they're baby's up to. It's a tool, nothing else.

Question 3: Filtering, editing. Don't you guys need editors?

Wonkette: Just because something's bland, doesn't mean it's true.

One thing people appreciate about blogs is their passion and their immediacy. Of course, things could also be wrong.

But they can also correct what's wrong. I think on the balance the lack of editing on a blog is made up of the thousand editors you have outside your home.

Powerline: I debated this with Jonathan Kline on a TV show a few weeks back. There are some things as bloggers we can do that newspapers can't. At powerline we never just spout our opinions. We link to a source, and you can verify and decide whether you agree with our interpretation of it.

And there was much more. But as I said, I got tired of typing!

Still, it was a pretty fun evening. Probaby the most fun I've had in town since I got to have dinner at a table with Salman Rushdie a year and a half ago.

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