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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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December 28, 2007 9:51 AM

A student looks at local liberal bloggers

Posted by David Postman

My quarter teaching at the University of Washington has come to an end. Times editor Jim Simon and I taught an advanced political reporting class to a small group of journalism students. It was a great experience for me. I found it difficult at first, but ultimately beneficial, to have to explain out loud what I do and why I do it that way. Simon and I didn’t always agree and we didn’t hide our debates from the students. (I figure they should learn early how wrong editors can be.)

I also learned from the work the students did. They went out and talked to voters about the presidential election and undertook in-depth final reporting projects. Over the next week I will share some of that work with you. I’ve edited them a little for posting here.

Today you can read Will Mari’s story about local liberal bloggers. The piece includes some pretty interesting comments from Democratic political consultants. Mari went to Victor’s Coffee in Redmond recently to talk with 20-year-old Andrew Villeneuve who was eager to explain how he’s going change politics in the Northwest. Read it after the jump.

Villeneuve sits near the window, wearing a baggy grey sweater. A black moustache clings to his upper lip. Speaking with the zeal of a revival preacher, he’s a true believer in the power of the “netroots.” It’s clear that he simply enjoys talking, mostly about his blog. His waves his hands excitedly, punching the air to punctuate his many points.

“It started out as a little idea,” he says, with obvious pride, “and it got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

The “it” is the impressively named Northwest Progressive Institute. It’s essentially a liberal blog and online “think tank” for young Democrats, or progressives, as Villeneuve prefers to call them. Launched in August 2003, when he was 17 years old, the “institute” consists of a blog, an interactive page of links to other, like-minded blogs, and a resource page for activists.

Villeneuve, a student at Bellevue Community College, says he wants to create a practical think tank that focuses on how to turn liberal policy ideas into reality in Olympia.
Villeneuve represents a new breed of left-leaning political bloggers in the Northwest. Newly energized, confident and eager to influence the vote, the bloggers who inhabit the local blogosphere are opening bigger stands in the marketplace of ideas, hawking their wares to whoever will stop and listen.

But exactly how much influence they exert is still up for debate.

Although the local “blogosphere” (a term first coined in 1999 by William Quick) has been active since the late 1990s, its presence wasn’t really felt until the war in Iraq and the 2004 presidential elections turned the casual readers of political news on both sides of the spectrum into avid writers. This was especially true in Seattle, where the majority of bloggers lean to the left.

Although liberal bloggers’ enthusiastic support for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean did not propel him to the White House in 2004, they are quick to claim credit for the Democratic gains in the Congress during the 2006 midterm elections.

They are also quick to dismiss questions about their independence from the Democratic Party.

Villeneuve says his blog and others like it are designed to make their adopted party better, and claim they are not beholden to it. Others insist they are fiercely independent.

Veteran political consultants say this independence can either help or harm their candidates, because bloggers circumvent their usual means of getting media messages out.

“I’m frustrated as hell with the rise of the blogosphere,” says Christian Sinderman, a local Democratic consultant. “Blogs, for me, are this weird nether region … it’s usually stuff that’s not quite good enough to ended up printed somewhere, but it’s not quite nothing enough to end up going into the ether.”

They can be used as a dangerous political weapon, especially when they publish a rumor that can distort reality.

“There’s no editing, there’s no journalistic structure, but then it sort of gets a life of its own, and then it sort of takes off and makes it into a print version,” he says.

But political veterans like Sinderman aren’t shy about using blogs to their candidates’ advantage. The blogosphere can become a powerful fundraising and message machine in its own right.

This was illustrated in local liberal bloggers’ reaction to an Aug. 27 fundraising visit to Bellevue by President George Bush on behalf of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn. According reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, liberal bloggers responded by raising some $123,000 over that weekend for Reichert’s opponent, Darcy Burner.

The last-minute fundraising effort in August for Burner was titled “Burn Bush for Burner” and drew about 3,200 individual donors from around the country, said Burner’s campaign consultant manager, Sandeep Kaushik. It was coordinated and organized by some of the nation’s most popular liberal blogs, including DailyKos.com and firedoglake.com.

“They tend to be partisans, no question about that,” says Kaushik, a former writer for Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger. “At the same time, they’re not part of the party structure.”

Their role in the public discourse is still largely undefined. “They kind of play this weird role that has this superficial semblance to journalism,” Kaushik says.

But for all their potential, it’s easy to get carried away by bloggers’ self-perpetuating hype. “There are a lot of overblown statements about the ‘power of the blogosphere,” he says.

While they may not be tools of the party, they want to help elect certain kinds of Democrats, namely, “progressive populists” that care about issues that matter to them, such as ending the war in Iraq, providing universal healthcare and promoting environmental initiatives that include bans on clear-cut logging and stronger restrictions on development.

As a pressure group on the Democratic Party, Kaushik says bloggers push their own agenda, and that doesn’t always agree with the party leadership, combining elements of a political movement with the behavior of a traditional constituency group.

“They’re not at the point yet where they can really swing a race,” he says. His challenge is keeping Burner from becoming too closely associated with the local liberal blogosphere, which overwhelmingly supports her. “Part of my job is making sure people know the blogosphere is not the campaign,” he says.


But liberal bloggers in the Northwest aren’t content to simply chat in cyberspace about their dream candidates and how they’ll someday work to solve public policy problems.

They work to get them elected now.

“That’s where the public policy becomes electoral, because you can’t have public policy unless someone’s going to implement it,” Villeneuve says.

His blog has actively supported Gov. Christine Gregoire and Burner. Villeneuve says his focus is on Washington state and that the presidential race is better left in the hands of national groups like MoveOn.org.

At Drinking Liberally, an informal gathering of blogger-types and local political aficionados that “promotes democracy one pint at a time,” Michael Hood of the liberal BlatherWatch blog admires Villeneuve’s energy.

“I’m glad he’s on our side,” Hood says. Villeneuve is chatting in the corner with his hero, David Goldstein (“Goldy”) of the outspokenly liberal HorsesAss.org. The P-I’s Joel Connelly holds forth at a long table, surrounded by a ragtag bunch of bloggers.

Standing in the darkened bar of the Montlake Ale House -- where the pints really do flow liberally -- Hood and his full white beard, round spectacles and fleece vest over button-down shirt strikes a contrast to the boyish Villeneuve.

Hood is a freelance writer whose blog “monitors” local conservative talk radio. He says Villeneuve is an example of an effective blogger. But when it comes to the issue of the blogosphere’s independence from the influence of the “mainstream” media, he’s fairly circumspect.

“It’s hard to know who’s independent and who isn’t,” he says.

The tendency is for the new media to become like the old, a process that’s already underway with the rush by journalists to set up their own blogs and podcasts. Journalists and bloggers have developed a sort of adversarial, quasi-symbiotic relationship, “fraught with dangers of the journalistic kind,” Hood says.

“Some people are undoubtedly paid shills,” admits conservative blogger Patrick Bell, who writes for respectfullyrepublican.com. Partisan bloggers on both sides sometimes take talking points verbatim from campaign press releases, he says. “Of course, this is also a very common refrain of bloggers when they get in ‘spats’ or ‘dustups’ with ideological foes: ‘you’re just a paid functionary for XYZ,’” Bell says.

Bloggers will be actively “pitched” by media consultants or other people with an axe to grind against a candidate during the campaign season, he said, adding, “then there’s the dirty tricksters and ‘tipsters’ who anonymously submit content to bloggers.”

“Journalism always has had a problem with circular cannibalism, everybody feeding on each other with a product that comes out all in one pile,” Hood says. He also points to another hazard as a real danger facing the blogosphere:

“Without editorial oversight, the facts are secondary many times to partisan spin and shock value [and] hyperbole.”

Downing his pint, he continues.

“There’s not too many Republicans on this side of the mountains,” he says, admitting that it feels a little one-sided in Seattle. While Rush Limbaugh made politics entertaining and created the impetus for liberal blogs, he laments that the “political discourse is driven by what makes people pissed off enough to call a radio station.”

But that might be changing, argues Kaushik. The fact that there is a new level of political dialogue on the Internet is a positive, especially in an age of media consolidation, shrinking newspaper staffs and the resulting lack of political news coverage and analysis.

Bloggers of both political orientations are fairly sophisticated when it comes to the finer points of policy, and influence the thinking of members of local government and journalists.

“I think it’s had a positive effect in terms of jumpstarting some serious discussions about some issues,” Kaushik said.

Villeneuve says that liberal blogs provide the political left with an alternative media to compete with the dominance of talk radio. And he says the job of the mainstream media, what he prefers to call the traditional media, to play referee between the left and right.
“Their job is just to report the news,” he said. And if they don’t do that, Villeneuve says he and his blogging brethren will.

He leans forward and his voice takes on a serious edge.

“Once we have an idea, we’re able to go an audience and say ‘here’s our idea.’ We don’t want to have to go to other people who control the gate and say, ‘please put our idea out there.’ We want to be in control … That’s why we have a blog.”

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