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The Right-Wing Blog Operatives

There seems to have been some weirdly negative reaction to Garance Franke-Ruta's article on right-wing bloggers and internet activists, especially on one of my favorite new sites, Personal Democracy Forum. I thought it was a very interesting article, with a lot of good research, as was Michael Crowley's piece on how these blog-operatives bully local media.

The criticism of Franke-Ruta's piece seemed to be mostly provoked by people who thought she was making a big point, which they disagreed with -- e.g. right-wing bloggers bad/left-wing good, or bloggers aren't real journalists. Maybe there was a little too much language indicating she was trying to make a generalized point, but mostly it was just a story -- that is, journalism, check it out -- about some people and the things they did. James D. Guckert, Maryland GOP slime artist Joseph Steffen, the Powerline guys, the Daschle-v-Thune bloggers and some other right-wing operative-bloggers have a somewhat similar M.O. -- they're not quite who they appear to be, they operate somewhat under the radar screen, they are financed in dubious ways, they collaborate in a fairly deceptive way with political operatives. And she put these stories together at a level of detail I had never seen before, allowing me to see some parallels. I'll leave it to her to answer specific charges of inaccuracy, but on the whole, the story was very revealing.

This is related to the issues of political coordination raised in previous posts here. One good suggestion that came up in comments was that there might be a kind of code-of-conduct for blogs, to disclose any relationship with a political campaign. I think that's an idea worth considering. Perhaps Bloglines or technorati or a similar aggregator site that people want their stuff to appear on could mark certain blogs as adhering to a basic code of ethics, or answering certain core questions that a reader might want to know, not limited to political campaign affiliations: Is producing this blog part of your job responsibilities? Do you make a living in a company/industry/campaign that is related to the topics you write about? Do you have other affiliations relevant to your blog? etc. It would be a certification somewhat similar to the "Real Name" badge that can be used on Amazon reviews.

I've come to think that there are a number of reasons blogs can be a superior forum, for both readers and writers, than most op-ed pages. Flexibility of format is one advantage; another is that readers feel they know more about where the author is coming from, which is always the key to reading critically. I can put the opinions of, say, Brad DeLong in perspective, in part because I know his credentials, but also because I feel like I know him a little bit, his assumptions -- certainly far more than I would know from an author ID on an op-ed: "the author is a professor of economics at Berkeley and a former Treasury Department official." Like the vast majority of bloggers, I let enough of my life in that people know what my job is as well as previous jobs. They probably know that I've worked on one political campaign as an adult, and for eight years drew a paycheck from George Soros's Open Society Institute -- so I'm waiting for the right-wing to start labeling this "the Soros-Funded Decembrist," as they recently have started doing with David Brock's Media Matters For America, even though Brock is explicitly NOT funded by Soros or his foundation. (In fact, I'm beginning to wonder who I have to sleep with to make it onto David Horowitz's "Discoverthenetwork.com"? I might have to switch over to the dark side so I can at least get a slot on John Holbo's hilarious DiscovertheNutwork.com)

Anyway, all that aside, I guess this is nothing more than the old "On the Internet No One Knows You're a Dog" problem, but it does seem like the right is a little better at using the medium as an extension of shady attack politics, as opposed to straight-up, DailyKos-style attack politics. Both Franke-Ruta and Crowley capture some of that weird subculture.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 10, 2005 | Permalink


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I would think that there are left-leaning bloggers using similar tactics. The thing to do is, I think, identifying people for what they are,- just like you said.

And, I guess, it is a good idea not ot expect impartiality or even proper journalistic technics, not even of thsoe who are officially accredited. Just thinking Jeff Gannon. Here's my two cents on him:


Posted by: Boris Epstein | Mar 10, 2005 7:09:10 PM

re: franke-ruta article

Not surprising that right-leaning bloggers are more likely to be tied to an existing institution or constituency. The right has always been about top-down command and control, the left is traditionally a bottoms-up freelance operation.

Posted by: peter jung | Mar 10, 2005 11:25:30 PM

Perhaps I'm overly paranoid, but I wouldn't be surprised if, right now, there are blogs being set up to build up bona fides for one side and then to switch sides during the next election cycle.

Posted by: Aaron | Mar 11, 2005 1:30:32 AM

Aaron, it's not like bloggers don't have Christopher Hitchens as an example of the contrarian opportunist to imitate either.

Posted by: David W. | Mar 11, 2005 9:56:31 AM

Here's the thing, Mark...
James D. Guckert, Maryland GOP slime artist Joseph Steffen, the Powerline guys, the Daschle-v-Thune bloggers and some other right-wing operative-bloggers have a somewhat similar M.O.Guckert was not a blogger -- by any reasonable standard, anyway -- nor was Steffen. She didn't even *mention* the DaschleVThune bloggers (the one good example that would have substantiated her story), and Powerline is neither funded by, nor connected to, Republican organizations. Heck, they're less "connected" than you. (mind, I'm no fan of Powerline)

Franke-Ruta's entire piece is an attempt to claim that many bloggers on the Right are "Republican operatives", and that's a Bad Thing....but -- beyond the fact that some bloggers are Republicans -- she just doesn't substantiate that.

Meanwhile, virtually the *entire* prominent Left side of the blogosphere consists of people who are *paid* by explicitly Liberal/Democratic activist organizations.

But she ignores that. She goes so far to ignore that, that she calls David Brock a "former republican activist" -- because, I suppose, the fact that he's *currently* a Democratic activist is just beside the point.

That's a strange story to tell, Mark.

Posted by: Jon Henke | Mar 11, 2005 10:50:29 AM

Meanwhile, virtually the *entire* prominent Left side of the blogosphere consists of people who are *paid* by explicitly Liberal/Democratic activist organizations.

Really? Since I was one of the people interviewed for that article, I'd really like to see a paycheck from these "explicity Liberal/Democratic activist organizations." I've never received a paycheck -- or been offered one -- from one of these groups in my life. And I never will.

Posted by: SusanG | Mar 11, 2005 9:58:25 PM

Note the "prominent" modifier, Susan. With due respect to a worthy blogger, I'm talking about the Heavy Hitters. Not the tail. Meanwhile, who is a paid activist on the Right side of the sphere?

Posted by: Jon Henke | Mar 11, 2005 11:06:09 PM

Mr. Henke: You state the following:
Meanwhile, virtually the *entire* prominent Left side of the blogosphere consists of people who are *paid* by explicitly Liberal/Democratic activist organizations.

Okay, put your money where your mouth is: tell us exactly who is getting paid and who is paying them.

Posted by: John Logan | Mar 11, 2005 11:37:59 PM

* Daily Kos: Run by prominent Democratic political consultant Markos Moulitsas Zúniga.

* TalkingPointsMemo: written by acknowledged liberal journalist Josh Marshall, who writes for—and is paid by—multiple explicitly liberal publications.

* Atrios: written by acknowledged partisan Democrat and paid liberal activist Duncan Black.

* Political Animal: written by acknowledged partisan Kevin Drum, who is paid by the liberal Washington Monthly.

* Brad DeLong: written by a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy in the (Democratic) Clinton administration.

* BlogForAmerica: Blog initiated by the campaign of current Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean.

* Matthew Yglesias: written by acknowledged partisan who is paid by the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

* MyDD: written by (paid) Democratic Political consultant Jerome Armstrong.

* Pandagon: written by paid Democratic partisan Jesse Taylor, who is paid by Democratic activist group Jerry For Ohio.

* Oliver Willis: written by acknowledged Democratic partisan who is paid by liberal activist group Media Matters.


Posted by: Jon Henke | Mar 12, 2005 9:43:12 AM

The first thing to note about this list is that none of these organizations, with the possible exceptions of "Jerry for Ohio" and "Media Matters for America" are "activist organizations." (Perhaps those two could even merge into one: "Jerry Springer Matters."

What's also interesting about this list is that with one or two exceptions
-- DeLong, who is a highly respected academic economist before he is
anything else and whose employer is the University of California, and Marshall, and ignoring BlogForAmerica because I've
never read it and you couldn't pay me to, all of these people have the
jobs they do in journalism or politics BECAUSE of the respect they developed through their blogs. None of
them are political operatives who then decided to use a blog to push
their message or the media. And while The American Prospect and the
Washington Monthly are generally liberal magazines, they are magazines
first, populated by journalists ranging from pure reporters to opinion
journalists, and the Monthly in particular is historically
unpredictable, endorsing school vouchers, for example.

These examples are more comparable to the bloggers at National Review
Online or The American Scene, or Andrew Sullivan, not the
operatives-turned-bloggers that Franke-Ruta wrote about. That's a
significant distinction.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Mar 12, 2005 5:51:15 PM

I'm not terribly impressed by the "they were bloggers before becoming operatives" distinction. Seems irrelevant to me.

Beyond that, there's still the question: *which* "operatives-turned-bloggers" did Franke-Ruta write about? Other than Mike Krempansky (sic), whom I've barely heard of, I didn't see any examples. Maybe they're out there, but her article certainly didn't make that case.

Posted by: Jon Henke | Mar 12, 2005 8:23:35 PM

suggestion...a kind of code-of-conduct...to disclose any relationship with a political campaign....Perhaps Bloglines or technorati

YES. I think this is a much-needed advance.

How can we make it happen? Technorati tags? (I'm a luddite; do only blog posts get tagged, or can one have "about this blog" tags?)
Do you know who else might be interested in working on something to suggest to, say, Technorati?
(a set of standardized tags would be nice, but allowing for extensions of course)

Issues that said tags should address would include:
Financial ties
Political ties
Social ties
Contract with readers -
on disclosures
on changing the above "ties" info when appropriate
on intent re allowing said ties to influence the commentary (i.e. if I get funding from group X, will/won't I feel free to therefore shill for them)
on commitment to fairness (will I deliberately misrepresent/omit info that doesn't support my position)
on correcting past errors, but in a visible manner

and so on.

this isn't very organized - feel free to improve or replace...but it would be wonderful if this info could be provided in a relatively standardized way, so that readers could know what they were in for (and patterns would become obvious)

Posted by: Anna | Mar 18, 2005 3:54:50 PM