I just got a chance to read Salon Editor Joan Walsh’s post-mortem on the Edwards blogger scandal, and while she comes at it from a slightly different perspective, I was struck by the thoughtful, challenging questions she raises. I was particularly interested in her accounting of Salon’s initial report that the offending Edwards bloggers had been fired — which the Edwards campaign vigorously denied — and the liberal blogosphere’s response to that news.
. . . [A]s Salon reported the rumors of the firing, we noticed something disturbing: Instead of the blogosphere joining the search for truth, we encountered a decision to close ranks. The bloggers had never been fired; Salon was wrong; everyone move along, there’s nothing to see here; please return to your stations. It started to look as though protecting the Democrats, the Edwards campaign and the role of bloggers in the new political firmament — or some combination of all three — was much more important. Only Steve Gilliard at the News Blog defended Salon and confirmed he too knew the bloggers had been fired — and only in a comments section on his blog. “Anyone who thinks they weren’t fired are dead wrong,” wrote Gilliard. “I spend much of my day communicating with other bloggers … I had been told they were fired when the Salon piece ran. Then the negotiations began and a LOT of people held their fire … I have multiple sources on this, but because of who they are, I won’t name them.” A few days later Gilliard would denounce Salon for our perceived vendetta against Obama, not entirely unreasonably, given the headline mess.
When Edwards announced he was “keeping” the bloggers, the lefty blogosphere declared victory. Edwards’ decision, wrote Chris Bowers on MyDD, “increases the power of the netroots as a voice in the Democratic party. They listened to us, not to the establishment, and not to the right-wing. This will help build the movement, and free the Democratic Party from conservative Republican influence in our primaries. We are one step closer to choosing our leaders on our own.” But a few days later, Marcotte and McEwan resigned.
Maybe I’m the one who’s naive, but the whole episode made me wonder: What does it mean if liberal bloggers aren’t warriors for the truth, but rather for candidates? What does it mean for media, and what does it mean for politics? Why did either John Edwards or Amanda Marcotte enter their relationship so seemingly unready for what was likely to happen (assuming anyone in the Edwards camp had read Pandagon)? Either Marcotte would blunt her commentary, and lose the constituency Edwards was attempting to court, or else she’d alienate a whole lot of other people, and Edwards would spend the whole campaign defending her. That was clear to me from the start, and I’m not that smart. Why did anyone assume otherwise?
Going forward, I suspect most major campaigns will learn from the Edwards campaign’s mistake, work from the assumption that anything their online staff has said in the past can and will be used against their candidate (just like any other staffer), and be more diligent in their vetting and careful in their hiring.
The more complicated issue, and one that will take much longer to sort through, is the line between journalism and activism that many bloggers apparently want to hopscotch across at their convenience. Walsh is right to highlight the need for transparency in her piece, especially when bloggers are getting paid by campaigns. But to me the issue goes much deeper than that, and raises real questions about accountability, both for bloggers and the campaigns for which they advocate and volunteer.
Take, for example, blog-celeb Jane Hamsher’s dual role in the Connecticut Senate race. By all practical measures, Hamsher was part of the Lamont campaign, albeit on an unpaid basis — she moved to Connecticut to get more involved, traveled with Lamont’s entourage, participated in strategy sessions, and helped raise money for them. Yet after Hamsher embarrassed Lamont by posting a doctored blackface photo of Lieberman on her own blog site, both the Lamont campaign and Hamsher tried (unsuccessfully) to deflect blame by claiming she had no association with the campaign and was just a blogger. (The New Republic has perhaps the most instructive review of this episode.)
In the future, as more and more bloggers get involved in campaigns, be it as volunteer organizers, researchers, or fundraisers, and exercise more and more influence, the Hamsher defense will be even less persuasive. That’s just as it should be. Bloggers have every right to wear two hats, as long as they are open about it, but they have no right to a double standard. Just like any other outside fundraiser or prominent volunteer, they have to be prepared to accept responsibility for their actions on behalf of candidates, as well as their independent writings, once they are in the arena. So do the campaigns with which they are involved.