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Monday, February 06, 2006

What about the Nation and Harpers?

Hey Bob, did you know, on the Internet,
no one knows you're black

Can Blogs Revolutionize Progressive Politics?
By Lakshmi Chaudhry February 6, 2006


Whether a truly decentralized and "leaderless" netroots can function like a political party is debatable, but the latest wave of technological innovation does offer unprecedented opportunities for constructing a progressive movement for the digital age. Such an outreach effort would use the Internet very much like conservatives such as Richard Viguerie used direct mail to build a powerful political force. But in order to craft a genuinely democratic form of politics, the progressive blogosphere will have to overcome its greatest weakness: lack of diversity.
The rise of the blogerati

In Newsweek, Simon Rosenberg, a beltway insider who lost the DNC chair to Dean, described the progressive blogosphere as the new "Resistance" within the Democratic Party, engaged in a civil war to wrest power from a craven and compromised beltway leadership. According to Rosenberg, the leaders of this "resistance" are the top progressive bloggers, more specifically the most popular and increasingly influential Moulitsas. Rosenberg told the Washington Monthly, "Frankly I don't think there's anyone who's had the potential to revolutionize the Democratic Party that Markos does."

Yet both the progressive blogosphere and the "revolutionaries" who dominate its ranks look a lot like the establishment they seek to overthrow.

The report by the New Politics Institute--which was launched by Rosenberg's New Democracy Network--notes: "Clearly, blogging is a world with a handful of haves, and a nearly uncountable number of have-nots. There are likely a few hundred thousand blogs in this country that talk about politics, but less than one-tenth of one percent of them account for more than 99 percent of all political blogging traffic."

For better or worse, traffic numbers have become an endorsement of the political agenda of specific individuals. While A-list bloggers repeatedly deny receiving any special treatment, the reality is that both the media and political establishment pay disproportionate attention to their views, often treating them as representative of the entire progressive blogosphere.

In a Foreign Policy article, political scientists Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell cheerfully note, "The skewed network of the blogosphere makes it less time-consuming for outside observers to acquire information. The media only need to look at elite blogs to obtain a summary of the distribution of opinions on a given political issue." Why? Because the "elite blogs" serve as a filtering mechanism, deciding which information offered up by smaller blogs is useful or noteworthy. In effect, A-list blogs get to decide what issues deserve the attention of journalists and politicians, i.e., the establishment.

But the fact that nearly all these "advisers" are drawn from a close-knit and mostly homogenous group can make them appear as just a new boys' club, albeit one with better intentions and more engaged politics. Aside from notable exceptions like Moulitsas, who is part-Salvadoran, and a handful of lesser-known women who belong to group blogs, top progressive bloggers tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white.

Reach, representation and credibility

The lack of diversity is partly a function of the roots of blogging in an equally homogenous tech-geek community. Nevertheless, women and people of color constitute the fastest rising segment of those joining the blogosphere. Feminist and female-authored political blogs like Feministing, Bitch Ph.D, Echidne of the Snakes, and Salon's Broadsheet made considerable gains in traffic and visibility in 2005, as did Latino Pundit, Culture Kitchen, and Afro-Netizen. Better yet, they're forging networks and alliances to help each other grow. There is no doubt the membership of the blogosphere is changing, and will look very different five years from now. "We're just a step behind, just like any other area," says Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte.

But while the growth of the blogosphere may increase the actual traffic to a greater number of blogs, it also makes visibility far more scarce and precious for each new blogger. As one of the top women bloggers, Chris Nolan, noted on the PressThink blog, "The barrier to entry in this new business isn't getting published; anyone can do that. The barrier to entry is finding an audience."

Elite bloggers can play a key role in generating that audience. As Marcotte points out, "A lot more women are moving up in the Technorati rankings" (Technorati is a search engine for the blogosphere) because A-listers like Duncan Black and Kevin Drum in 2005 made it a priority to promote female bloggers. But when someone like Moulitsas decides to stop linking to other blogs--as he has recently done because he doesn't want to play "gatekeeper"--or when top bloggers repeatedly cite their fellow A-listers, it has enormous consequences. "It's pretty darn hard today to break in to the A-list if the other A-listers aren't linking to you," says Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon.

If blogs derive their credibility from being the "voice of the people," surely we should be concerned about which opinions get attention over others. The question of representation affects not just who is blogging--and with great success--but also the audience of these blogs. What kind of democratic consensus does the blogosphere reflect when the people participating in it are most likely to be white, well-educated men?

Yet when it comes to issues of diversity, A-list bloggers like Moulitsas and Stoller can get defensive, and at times, dismissive. "Take a look at what you have today. Take a look at the folks who're leading the party, dominating the media, or even within corporations. Do you think the top ranks of any of those institutions is any more representative?" responds Stoller, his voice rising in indignation.

Where Stoller openly acknowledges the problem--describing blogs in one of his posts as "a new national town square for the white progressive base of the Democratic party"--and the need to take steps to tackle the disparity, Moulitsas is less generous. In his view, it's simply absurd to demand what he sarcastically describes as an "affirmative action of ideas" within an inherently meritocratic medium such as the blogosphere: "I don't see how you can say, 'Well, let's give more voice to African American lesbians.' Create a blog. If there's an audience, great. If there isn't, not so great." Besides, he suggests, if a Salvadoran war refugee--in his words, a "political nobody"--like him can make it on the Internet, there's nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same.

As for the relative paucity of top female progressive bloggers, Moulitsas is indifferent: "I haven't given it a lot of thought. I find it totally uninteresting. What I'm interested in is winning elections, and I don't give a shit what you look like." It's an odd and somewhat disingenuous response from an advocate of blogging as the ultimate tool of democratic participation.


Hey, I must have woken up white.

First, it's Clay Shirky, not Craig, and Jen can tell you about him in detail.

Second, this is bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.


Because we don't know who is blogging. Not everyone likes to talk about race or gender or feel qualified to.

There is no way to judge who is blogging except by self-identification.

Again, bloggers are being held to a standard that few progressive publications are. The Village Voice was one of the few progressive publications that actually hired minority reporters and covered issues in the minority comunities of New York.

Most others have no black or latino writers and few staffers. Yet, it is the blogosphere which is held to this standard?

And then there is this linking bullshit. Being a link among hundreds is of little help. Having your content linked to is, especially when that content is good. Much of this is about having mediocre content and wanting to become famous for it. You can only find an audiences one way, and it's not by links, it's by being a good writer. There is no other key to success in blogging. Sure, you can be promoted like Instacracker does with right wing sites, but that lasts a day.

How many people post a Kos diary and then link back to their sites, or e-mail us with posts? I had one guy who constantly raised this subject, but then he listened to me about the quality of his work, and when he did good work, it was easy to promote his writing. Good writing will find an audience.

But here's another point: I'm tired of the liberal quota system. The assumption here is that we're bound to promote X number of black writers, X numbers of women writers, and that will create a large number of progressive voices. And that isn't true. No one holds the Nation or Harpers to that standard. Their staffs, and I'd bet that In These Times would fall to the same standard, is filled with well-educated, middle class white men.

Blacks and Latinos and women can be hacks like anyone else. And to hear a lecture on diversity from the progressive press is like hearing a lecture on sobriety from off-duty cops. At some point, you have to call bullshit, like now.

I'll take a lecture on diversity from progressive media, when they have it. When I can walk into the Nation or Harpers or even Rolling Stone and see 20-25 percent of the staff is minority, and women are the main editors. Until then, it's just another call for a blogger ethics conference.

posted by Steve @ 1:46:00 PM

1:46:00 PM

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