Interview with "Bloggers on the Bus" author Eric Boehlert
[Cross-posted at vastleft.com]
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions about your new book, Bloggers on the Bus.
As one of those "eclectic outcasts" you referred to in your book — those who had concerns about Barack Obama's candidacy and/or positive things to say about Hillary Clinton's — Chapters 8 and 9 on the "Blog War of 2008" were, of course, of special interest to me.
That thought-provoking material, and the vivid portraits of several different bloggers throughout the book, made for what I consider a must-read for progressive bloggers and their readers. Congratulations on a terrific follow-up to Lapdogs!
I've flagged the direct questions with asterisks, but there are incidental questions here and there and a bunch of context-setting commentary that prefaces the questions. Please feel free to opine about any and all. Without further ado...
1. In prior interviews, you've alluded to 35,000 words you had to delete to reduce page count.
* Can you tell us a little about what was deleted?
Mostly just additional portraits about some of the bloggers I featured, such as John Amato and Howie Klein and Digby, etc. The back stories in terms of the lives they lived before blogging were, to me, quite fascinating, but needed to be trimmed in the end.
* Any chance you'll be putting the excised content online?
2. You note that Jim Gilliam of Brave New Films "concluded that the most effective way to alter the national conversation was through film. That’s how Americans communicate best."
Some of the top videos popularized via the blogs during the primaries imparted little (will.i.am's "Yes We Can") or no (Obama Girl's "I Got a Crush... on Obama" and "Vote Different," the reworking of Apple's "1984" ad) real political content, as they were "altering the national conversation." They were emotional appeals, like a soft-drink commercial.
This was quite far afield from John Amato's unblinking news captures, Digby's wonky essays, and Atrios's news-centered snark.
* Did any of the bloggers you spoke with observe that the mix of netroots content was, perhaps, moving toward infotainment?
That didn’t really come up, although it’s an interesting point. I think all bloggers fret about their traffic and how to keep it on the upswing and how to keep people coming back regularly. But I think the “Crush” video you mentioned was pushed more by the mainstream press online than bloggers themselves. “Vote Different” got more blogosphere play, but I thought its message was more serious, even though, as you mentioned, it was built around an emotional appeal.
* Should we expect that, typical of evolving media, the blogs are facing an inexorable transition from no-frills wonkiness to slickness (cf. Huffington Post), at least at the "A-list" level?
I wouldn’t assume that. I think the big sites are still quite serious, if not wonky, and that their readers want it that way.
* I couldn't help but find the "Vote Different" video, which you discuss at length — the one where a monstrous projection of Hillary Clinton's face is heroically smashed by a hammer — a harbinger of what was to come in the blogs and the activist community. Had you considered/intended this parallel?
I had not, but good catch because things def. got smashed up.
3. You wrote about a popular video that inaccurately called Sarah Palin a one-time member of the Alaskan Independence Party. A more-remarkably incorrect video caused a pronounced, brief, and conveniently timed stir: the faked Mickey Kantor video. Released days before the Indiana primary, it put words in the mouth of a Clinton advisor, making him appear to badmouth Indiana voters. When it was proven fraudulent, there was precious little inquiry on the blogs into questions like:
Who created the video, and how did it get so much attention? Were its creators well-connected with high-traffic bloggers?
What are the legal implications of distributing fraudulent materials in order to help to swing an election?
What ought the left blogosphere learn from the incident, to avoid being a conduit for disinformation?
* Isn't this the kind of meta-journalism story that bloggers and media pros ordinarily love to dwell on, both as a scandal/detective story and as a "teachable moment"? How did such a juicy story slip so quickly down the memory hole?
There were so many stories from the primary season that should’ve been a big deal and instead got flushed down the memory hole (as Bob Somerby puts it), and this was def. one of them.
4. You talked with a number of A-list bloggers about the Blog War, and they acknowledged some remarkable things. In your recent interview with eriposte (Parts 1, 2, and 3), you said this (emphasis added):
Eric Boehlert: One of the most interesting things bloggers have told me (often off the record) about the primary season was how clear it became that their readers really did dictate what the bloggers wrote. For years, bloggers and their readers had been in heated agreement about Bush, about Iraq, about the MSM. But in lots of cases they were not in agreement about who should be the Democratic nominee and bloggers mentioned to me how strange and uncomfortable that schism was, and how in the end many of them did just punt. Meaning, they got tired of fighting with their readers and simply didn’t write certain things because they knew it would create a pie fight within the site. They’re not especially proud of it, but they have conceded that they did alter what they wrote.
Please help clarify what this means. For each of these statements, was there at least one of the bloggers you interviewed for whom it was true?
* The blogger admits to turning a blind eye toward unfair content or behavior that benefited Obama
* The blogger admits to being an active participant in or promoter of unfair content or behavior that benefited Obama
* The blogger didn't have a preference but pretended to prefer Obama
* The blogger preferred Hillary but pretended not to have a preference
* The blogger preferred Hillary but pretended to prefer Obama
For the sake of completeness, I could turn that list around and ask if any A-list bloggers were bullied into supporting Hillary, but I've seen no evidence for that. If I've got that wrong, please correct the record.
* Were there any other dimensions of the bloggers' "confessions" that are worth noting, to measure the distance between their conduct during the primaries and their true feelings about the candidates, process, culture, etc.?
Just that some, looking back, say they didn’t really feel like they could write honestly about the primary battle because their pro-Obama readers so strongly disagreed with them and that as a lib blogger it was a new and unpleasant experience to be fighting with their own readers.
5. Your book doesn't mention a single A-list blog where Obama supporters were swarmed upon and driven off by Obama-hating posters, commenters, and/or moderators. Where fictions comparable to the "darkened photo," "the Drudge photo," "as far as I know," and the racist implications of the term "fairy tale" were treated as definitively damning (to Obama).
Several bloggers you quote gave the implication that the Obama and Clinton bases were equally culpable in the blogosphere meltdown, or that the Hillary side "started it" or was worse.
* Is this a legitimate position, or is it what we call an "equivalation," a false balance? That is, are they writing a history where Belgium invaded Germany (or where "there's enough blame to go around" to both countries)?
Well, I wanted to include, and quote, both sides of the 2008 blog debate. But I think your point is a factual one and that I’m hard pressed to recall a single phony story, akin to the Drudge photo, for instance, that surfaced online and which targeted Obama.
I just saw a comment in a discussion you're having on TPMCafe that wonders about this omission.
Check one, please:
a) You're a Hillary-obsessed dead-ender, in league with the evil PUMAs, hiding a mountain of damning evidence?
b) There were no A-list blogs where Clinton supporters made participation untenable for Obama supporters in any way close to resembling what occurred in Obama's favor?
* Seriously, is there any more to this than choice "b," above?
[see answer, below]
BTW, I'm not suggesting, with this line of inquiry, that no pro-Clinton blogger or commenter anywhere ever overstepped a line. We encountered a few such contributors on our C-list blog and canceled their accounts. And there were some pro-Clinton sites that we didn't find consistently credible or fair enough to spend much time at. That doesn't mitigate that the prevailing experience on the big blogs was unidirectional: Hillary Clinton was routinely smeared, and her supporters were driven off the blogs, and such an experience basically didn't happen to Obama supporters at any of the major blogs.
* Is that a fair characterization?
I can’t say definitively what experience all Clinton supporters had online, or if Obama supporters were run off specific sites. But what I did mention in the book was that the anti-Clinton tone online was much more vitriolic and personal. At times it didn’t seem that people even cared about her positions, they just couldn’t stand to see the sight of her and lashed out in very emotional ways. Again, I can’t say categorically that that never happened with regards to Obama, but in general, I did not see those kinds of attacks. I didn’t see bloggers and their readers express their deep, unabiding contempt for Obama as a person, the way I saw that stuff directed towards Hillary.
6. In the book, you take the position that the "no drama Obama" campaign wasn't behind any of the incendiary shenanigans.
But how are you sure of that, given the pattern of well-publicized and artfully timed, ginned-up controversies, often with direct involvement by Obama staff or surrogates?
In the RFK-quote smear, for example, the fire was fueled at the outset by an Obama spokesperson's condemnation of Hillary's innocuous statement. And at its climax, the Obama campaign distributed — to the entire news media — the transcript of Keith Olbermann's ten-megaton rant on the topic.
* Doesn't the "who, them?" assumption bear at least a little scrutiny, at least before announcing an "all-clear"?
I would say speaking in very general terms, the Obama campaign was not noted for its nasty tone or that behind the scenes we heard reports of aides or flaks bad mouthing Clinton. Did they do their best to spread bad news about her as well as dubious reports? I would say yes, as most campaigns do. But again, in terms of an overall vibe, I never got the sense that the Obama camp was unleashing the hounds. That seemed to happen independently online.
7. I think one might get the sense from your book that sexism was the overarching issue in the Blog War, based on the frequent reference to that topic in both the blogger quotes and the commentary.
As I see it, there were several significant, largely interlocking breakdowns of reasonable standards of discourse (and, especially, of progressive discourse) during the primaries, with sexism very much among them. I recently took at stab at summarizing these.
Given that each of these can be illustrated with incidents described in your book, I don't mean to suggest that your coverage of the Blog War was stuck on one note.
* But do you agree that it's tempting, and misleading, to file the whole affair under "sexism" or "race vs. gender"?
I tried not to cover the blog civil war under the headline of sexism. In fact that’s why I broke that out into a separate chapter because I thought there were (at least) two interesting dynamics at work: the breakdown in civility re: Obama/Clinton, and then the rise of sexist rhetoric within the lib blogosphere.
If nothing else, doing so seemingly justifies for some whitewashing all that happened by patting themselves on the back for deleting a post with "bitch" or "c**t" in it now and again.
* How would you define the "very important track [that] had been jumped during the heated campaign season," as disaffected Kos blogger Lee Stranahan calls it in your book? That is, what were the significant problems that manifested themselves?
The biggest was simply the vacation the blogosphere, or portions of it, took from being a reality-based community. The fact that the previously high factual standards that bloggers and readers had set for themselves could so quickly be jettisoned was surprising and disturbing for a lot of people.
A follow-up question on that:
* Did you see much of this happening from Obama skeptics / Hillary supporters in a way that was at all comparable to what was happening in the other direction? I ask because we often see — including in some of the quotes in your book — claims that the non-Obama camp acted the same or worse.
I did see some of that (although not as much) happening from Obama skeptics/Hillary supporters online. The "whitey tape" instantly comes to mind, for instance.
[See note at end]
8. In the context of the countless and often furious calls for Hillary Clinton to fold her tent, which began the night of the Iowa Caucus or soon after, you quote Digby describing the typical glass-ceiling dynamics by which a well-qualified woman is advised to step aside: "... this is really for the good of the company. It's best for everybody.' The appeal is made along the lines of 'The family needs you to do this.'"
More generally, this is the language of corruption, isn't it? The "we wash our own laundry here" that Serpico was ominously advised?
Unfortunately, the Serpico reference isn't quite as far-fetched as one would hope for. From your book: "The truth is a dangerous thing," said [Mayhill] Fowler two months after the hullabaloo and still shaking her head in amazement. "Boy, I sure learned that."
Fowler, as you noted, was a maxed-out Obama supporter who grudgingly shared with her Huffington Post editor a tape that proved damaging to Obama. In the aftermath, she and her daughter received death threats.
I've been warned more than once to stop blogging critically about Obama "or else," and I've grown accustomed to friendlier kinds of persuasion, like being painted as a racist and a hate-speaker.
So, blogging against the grain ain't beanbag, is it?
I don't know if you fancy yourself a Frank Serpico, who answered back "The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry - it just gets dirtier." I'm going to guess not.
But your book plainly does air some laundry that most of the left blogosphere doesn't want anyone to see. And I have to congratulate you on doing something that was pretty brave -- bucking the wishes of your own tribe, the progressive scribes.
* Did you struggle with whether to include the content about the Blog War?
Not really. I didn’t see how I could write serious book about blogs/2008 campaign and not address it. Plus, as a writer you go to where the tension/conflict is because that, by definition is more interesting.
* Did you worry that it was "going to cost you" in some way?
Sure. It would have been easier to write a book about how wonderful and glorious the blogosphere is. And frankly, for the most part I think it is. (I started the book as a fan and ended the project as a fan.) But to ignore the blemish would have been rather dishonest.
* And do you think it has?
Yes. For instance, I don’t think the book has ever been mentioned on the front page of DailyKos, which seems odd for a book about the rise of the liberal blogosphere.
9. At watchdog site, Media Matters for America, where you're a Senior Fellow (and which, BTW, is a resource for many items in one of the posts linked in #6, above), you wrote arguably the definitive debunking of the "as far as I know" smear — a canard that convinced many Democrats that Hillary Clinton was slyly suggesting that Obama wasn't, as it were, properly Christian.
Yet, I can't find anything on Media Matters that debunked the RFK smear, in which a Democratic senator / presidential candidate was falsely accused on news program after news program and in news article after news article of just about the vilest thing one could imagine: that she was looking forward to the assassination of her rival, the potential first black president.
* Did Media Matters publish something about it, and I just missed it in my search?
I didn’t see anything.
* If not, why wasn't this occurrence considered news-critique worthy? Is it for reasons comparable to what silenced Digby on that very topic and others?
I don’t know why that specific incident wasn’t covered. But Media Matters likely called out more people for producing awful, inaccurate anti-Clinton journalism during the 2008 race than anybody, so it certainly wasn’t for fear of offending anyone.
10. I'll preface my next set of questions with two quotes (emphasis added), the first from Atrios (Duncan Black) this past week, the latter from your interview with eriposte.
Atrios: "There was that primary business, of course, though the less said about [that] the better."
Eric Boehlert: "I'm still not sure why the debate from the spring of 2008 generated into what it did, and I'm not sure many bloggers today really want to look back and search for answers to that question."
No matter the cause to which we ascribe the 2008-primary blogosphere rift, isn't the bloggers' near-universal "see no critique, hear no critique, speak no critique" posture quite remarkable — especially from idealistic media critics who pride themselves as reality-based muckrakers?
Previously "get over it," "STFU," and the "move along folks, nothing to see here" attitude were reliably derided in the left-blogosphere. But not when it came to this happening on their own turf. In my experience, attempts to review and reflect on what happened are met with the most bilious responses imaginable. There is no implication too vicious or absurd to levy at someone who raises this topic. In the best case, one gets "I just can't talk about this."
Given that you had candid interviews with several high-profile bloggers, perhaps you can shed some light on this.
* What don't they want people to know/remember/understand about what happened — and why?
I think it’s pretty simple: the blogosphere acted in a way that lots of people who have been part of it for a long time were surprised and upset about. It didn’t really live up to its previous standards and it’s somewhat natural for people not to want to dwell on those stumbles.
* Are they, in your estimation, trying to avoid coming to terms with what happened, themselves -- and why?
No, that's not the sense I get. Instead, more just not wanting to live through the unpleasantness within the larger community.
* Are there important lessons that could and should be learned by looking back?
Sure. My feeling is that people think the 2008 turbulence online represented a once-in-a-lifetime situation and that the ugly fracture that occurred won’t happen again. But if nothing is learned from 2008 I’m pretty sure it will happen again (I have no idea what the circumstances and players will be) and participants will act surprised all over again.
* Do, or did you, have any hope that airing this "dirty laundry," might lead to some positive developments in the blogosphere and progressive community in general? Please expand on this.
Again, since I was writing about the blogs and 2008 I felt like I had to delve into the primary tension. (Although the topic only accounts for two chapters in the book.) Whether my focusing on it would lead to positive developments or not, I wasn’t sure.
11. In a couple of your interviews, you've described left-of-center blogging in the post-election world as having about 25% of the bloggers criticizing Obama from the left.
* Do you expect this percentage to increase?
Hmm, I think what I said, or what I meant to say, was that lib blogs would probably spend 25% of their time critiquing Obama from the left, 25% cheering him from the left, and 50% defending him from right-wing nut jobs.
[Vastleft note: Just for the record, since I appear to have mis-paraphrased him, I presume that Mr. Boehlert is correct in his description of his prior statements re: percentages, which I believe came up in one or two audio interviews available online.]
* If yes, will increased criticism of Obama by mainstream bloggers eventually lead to more reflection about the Blog War, or will that topic forever be treated as off-limits in polite company?
No, I think it’s been flushed down the memory hole.
* * *
Again, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and for providing a rare and valuable record of a remarkable, and I think significant, occurrence in the blogosphere.
And, while the focus of this interview is on the part that Glenn Greenwald calls "perhaps the most interesting," the whole of Bloggers on the Bus is a very captivating look at the motivations, minds, and lifestyles of several different left-leaning bloggers, and I recommend it highly to all of our readers.
* * *
Responding to a follow-up on question #7, Eric cites the "whitey tape" controversy.
I received his answer shortly before "press-time." I've just sent him these thoughts on that topic, and will update with any responses he may have to them...
The "whitey tape" episode, seems to me, illustrates the contrasting ways the progressive blogs handled questionable attacks on the two prospective first families.
Security consultant Larry Johnson, a Daily Kos exile, posted at his No Quarter blog about a purported recording of Michelle Obama railing about "whitey."
Whereas, post-Edwards's exit, anti-Hillary memes of the most dubious rationality, taste, and provenance got major traction at the big blogs (in the comments sections, at the very least), the consensus view on the "whitey tape" was that:
- It should be ignored or condemned as a fabrication until and unless it was proven real
- It almost certainly didn't exist
- Larry Johnson was walking the credibility plank by writing about an allegedly provocative tape he acknowledged never having heard himself
At Correntewire, where most of the commentary ran contrary to the pro-Obama / anti-Hillary blogosphere norm, the tape story was subject to a healthy skepticism.
Also, there was a curious sidelight where BooMan, who was interviewed for Bloggers on the Bus, produced a transcript of the famously "non-existent" tape (which he also hadn't heard), with Michelle Obama quoted as repeatedly saying "why'd he," not "whitey." Trying to wrap my mind around that little-discussed development just makes my brain hurt.