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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Right and left

Kos, with a jacket and tie on

A different noise

In the first of his weekly columns for Guardian Unlimited, Markos Moulitsas tells how US liberals have fought back against rightwing domination of the media since their 'goring' in 2000

Tuesday September 28, 2004

It was the year 2000, and Democrats were running on a record of peace and prosperity stewarded by the capable, if morally imperfect, Bill Clinton. It was a race that should have been won by their candidate, Al Gore. In fact, it was won by Al Gore, but the Rightwing Noise Machine kept it close enough to be stolen by the Republicans and their allies at the supreme court.

What is the Rightwing Noise Machine? Conservatives in the United States have spent the last 30 years building a vast infrastructure designed to create ideas, distribute them, and sell them to the American public. It spans multiple think tanks and a well-oiled message machine that has a stranglehold on American discourse. From the Weekly Standard, Rush Limbaugh, Wall Street Journal, Drudge Report and Murdoch's Fox News, to (more recently) the mindless drones in the rightwing blogosphere, the right enjoys the ability to control entire news cycles, holding them hostage for entire elections.

Gore learned this the hard way, as he faced a campaign of character assassination pushed by the right and abetted by a lazy-to-hostile press corps: Gore said he was the inspiration for Love Story. Gore invented the Internet. Gore exaggerated. Gore was boring. Of course, all of this criticism was flat-out wrong or grossly out of proportion to the alleged infraction, but it didn't matter: the media landscape offered no respite. In the US, talk radio was and remains a bastion of rightwing lunacy. Television coverage had become an extension of the Republican party, not just because of the influence of Fox News, but because conservatives had "worked the refs" so diligently that mainstream media outlets piled on their conservative "pundits" lest they be accused of "liberal bias". The political internet was dominated by the virulently rightwing Free Republic - still the largest political site to this day.


The year 2000 was a wake-up call to many partisans like myself. Surveying the landscape, we could sense the flexing of the Rightwing Noise Machine's muscles, even if we were ignorant of its ultimate size and reach. We had witnessed the goring of Gore, yet sat by, helplessly unable to fight back. We saw the Democratic party get outmanoeuvred in Florida, legally and rhetorically. We looked around for a "liberal media", yet found nothing of the sort.

It would be really sexy and dramatic to claim that a few brave blogger souls set out to build an alternative media structure, but that's not really true. We set out to write for ourselves, to provide an outlet for the angst we felt in a politically hostile environment - where criticising the president on domestic policy was somehow unpatriotic. And we weren't alone: there was a huge audience out there hungry for this content. And suddenly, the seeds of a liberal media blossomed online.

Liberal groups are fighting back, working to build a parallel infrastructure. My blog receives 350-400,000 visits every day - double that of and comparable to the Guardian's print run. Daily Kos and other bloggers like Atrios, MyDD, TalkLeft, and Juan Cole have become a liberal counterweight to the mainstream media and the Rightwing Noise Machine. We don't have parity, but we're working on it.

We all hope to have an impact in 2004, but there's reality: conservatives have spent 30 years building their infrastructure. We can't be expected to counter that in one year. We do things with an eye to the future, all the while doing our best to spare our country (and the world) four more years of a Bush administration.

This is great news, athough Instacracker also has a column.

Here's my point: the right online became less effective as the left bloggers started.


Because, with the exception of a few sites, most are poorly written and badly run. The natural drift of writing is left. The internet had reversed that because of the number of technically-minded liberterians and conservatives already working with technology.

I don't think you can say Gore was just jumped by the media. His campaign, frankly, sucked. Donna Brazile was not up to the job and she let her candidate get jumped over and over by the media. The professionals stood around and watched Gore get hammered. Then, they didn't fight in Florida.

What no one in the Gore campaign wanted to admit was that Lieberman was a liability. He lost a debate to Dick Cheney and was an observant Jew. That simply hurt them in key states where Christ is king. Anti-semitic feeling isn't much on the surface, but it was an issue and the Gore campaign ignored it. When a lot of people went into the voting booth, Bush was a Christian, and Lieberman clearly was not. Not that anyone would admit that openly, but it hung there like a pink monkey on your drapes.

Blogs started to rise as traditional websites started to crash. They were too expensive, too top heavy and required too many people. Blogs, otoh, are much cheaper to run, and have solid content management systems to use. Instead of playing with code, you can actually build a site, type into it and be published within an hour. Before then, site design was a laborious business taking weeks. I rebuilt the NewsBlog in six hours on a Sunday. NetSlaves took weeks to redesign and several people to do it.

The reason Frei Republik, while large, is mostly irrelevant, is that it has become a place to vent. Nothing serious happens there any longer. Just nasty comments by unhinged people.

Blogs work because they're directed, focused and organized, yet cheap to run and allow for interaction. Of course, the more people use it, the more it costs, but the scalability issues can be solved with money and code, as Kos is finding out.

The liberal reaction started with MoveOn in 1998, but it wasn't until last year that blogs really became prominent as voices of the left. Why? Because the barrier is lowered to the point that people with limited technical skill can now concentrate on writing. Once all you had to do was type, then a lot more people could participate.

What the Internet discovered was this vast pool of money on the left. It wasn't just a few large donations, but millions of small ones. Paypal and Amazon have as much to do with the growth of blogs and left politics as blogger. Why? Because, despite their flaws, average people now had access to electronic transfer payments. If I borrowed $20 from Kos over dinner, I don't have to send him a check or wait to see him again. I can sit in New York and send him money electronically in seconds. And while people may only have $5-10 to spend, you get enough people, and that's a lot of money, as Amazon can attest to.

Because campaigns can tap into this cash, and get their message right into newsrooms and bloggers have a lot of fans in the old media, what happened to Gore simply cannot happen again.

Why has the right missed out on the blog explosion? Well, because most conservative blogs aren't really conservative. They just aren't as much fun. They boot people who disagree all the time, they get things wrong, demonstrably wrong and rarely admit error. Also, with people like Glenn Reynolds and Andy Sullivan, they have a real problem standing behind their words. The quality of the writing isn't as good either in most cases. A lot of their content is reduced to score-settling. There's a reason Kos and Atrios have grown exponentially over the last year, they put up interesting content which most conservatives cannot match. Reason is problably the best written of the right of center blogsites, but hasn't had that kind of growth.

Also, there is a massive splinter in the conservative movement. No one would accuse Reynolds or Sullivan of religious devotion common in conservative circles. Because they aren't religious fundamentalists, a lof of their potential audience is put off by their secularism and Sullivan's homosexuality. Kos and Atrios, being men married to women, do not have that problem:) But by the same token, overtly religious bloggers espousing fundamentalist theology clearly limit their audience among online readers. Because conservatives demand strict ideological conformity, deviations start flamewars.

The first conservative site to break from that mold will find significant success. But they're going to have real problems establishing a Kos-like community, which many want to do. Just like they're having problems building useful 527's. Not because they can't, but because they have to have a great deal of control. Kos works because he trusts people to respect his community and keep it running. When you see conservatives who can do the same, then Kos will have a real counterpart on the right.

What I am begining to think is that a lot of this campaign is being missed by the old media. And what they do catch is being seen on blogs first.

This is a very different campaign than any before it. The number of independent players has exploded. Blogs, well-funded 527's with field teams, the BBC, the Guardian and the Bush campaign has been slow to react. It's less dramatic than reshaping politics overnight, because it's really updating old tools. But the potential for a participatory democracy will only grow as more people come online and participate.

posted by Steve @ 1:17:00 AM

1:17:00 AM

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