Blogs, Politicians and the “Face in the Crowd”

Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in one of a series of dismissals of bloggers, summed up their contribution to the information society by the following: “Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That’s not bad. But it’s not enough.”

If, indeed, that it was all bloggers were doing or could do, it would not be enough, but blogging today is much more than media criticism. In fact, there are bloggers who are doing everything that journalists ever did. Indeed that’s the point about the world of “PolicyByBlog”: blogging is a genre, a medium and a technology that can be used by professionals.

I don’t think Keller was making a movie allusion. But to historians of political communication who are also interested in politicians using blogs to reach the people it is worth recalling the implications of the word “chew.” I think of a potent icon of individual populist autocracy gone mad.

crowd.jpgThere were no blogs in 1956 when director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg crafted their famous meditation on the perils of democracy, “Face in the Crowd.” In his best (and first) movie performance, Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas yokel who, by his quick wit and ruthless character, rises to the top of the talk show radio and television game. Of course, he abuses his power, crushing people who stand in his way, and even attempts to hogtie the course of the nation.

In one famous sequence, he adopts the political fortunes of a well-known conservative senator with presidential ambitions. The man is a dignified, thoughtful, old-fashioned politician, modeled perhaps on the late Robert “Mr. Conservative” Taft of Ohio. Griffith tries to turn him into a cracker barrel populist, creating a television show in which the senator mingles with some good old boys at a country general store, chewing “tobacca” and offering political homilies.

In the movie the scene is meant to be both low comedy and high satire. The points were that (a) the pol was demeaning himself with each chaw and (b) the relatively new medium of television–which in 1956 was young as Blogs are now!–offered many opportunities for demagoguery.

Bill Keller was not thinking of Lonesome Rhodes when he portrayed bloggers as news-chewers, but the concerns about populism run amok are the same. I just think that they are misplaced: bloggers are LESS likely to be hypnotized by demagogues than audiences of the television (or the speech era), because blogging is a relatively active, questioning, process and inauthenticity by a politician is both more easy to detect and deflate.

Originally posted November 21, 2005 at PolicyByBlog

Will Hillary “Sister Souljah” the Leftblogs?

UPDATED: Senator Hillary Clinton is still getting very high poll ratings–especially among minority voters which make up majorities or pluralities of the Democratic vote in many states, like, say South Carolina. In irony, she would be unbeatable if the Democratic primaries were held today in the Southern states; but, whether she would win any Southern red state in a general election is questionable. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the only Democrat who can energize the Republican base–to vote against her.

If her main concern is the general election contest, that is winning the middle and swing voters, then she (and her lead live-in political strategist) may be considering a “Sister Souljah” moment, with the symbolic target this time being anti-war left bloggers. An SS moment refers to the time in 1992 when Bill Clinton criticized the black, female rap artist for sounding like “David Duke” for a comment she made about “why not have a week and kill white people?” (Which she said was taken out of context). The political implication was that Clinton came off as a moderate Democrat not beholden to an “extremist” of the left and thus was more acceptable to socio-cultural moderates and conservatives. [Read more…]

Lessons of Sago Disaster–For New Media and Old

Editor & Publisher just put up an op-ed of mine* about the media lessons of the twin disasters at the Sago mine in West Virginia. Again, I think what I say here applies to all forms of media.


By David D. Perlmutter/Editor& (January 05, 2006)

In the wake of the Sago mine disaster, perhaps a new category of Pulitzer Prize should be created to honor the journalists or news managers who caution that a story is not ready for prime time or publication. We must re-evaluate how journalism produces and delivers the “first draft of history.”

“Journalism,” claimed former Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, “is the first draft of history.” But when I set my students, as an exercise, to factually verify initial media reports of major news events they are shocked. From the Tiananmen uprisings and government crackdown to the flooding of New Orleans, they find the same sad tale. The first draft is full of errors.

The need to reevaluate how journalism produces and delivers a first draft of news is made even more imperative by the twin disasters of Sago, West Virginia. First, there was the explosion in the coal mine, which apparently led to the eventual death of at least a dozen trapped miners. The second calamity was the false story that most of the miners had survived and were being rescued.

In perspective, the media did not create the rumor that the miners were safe. Miscommunication, misheard phone exchanges, and optimistic gossip probably lay at the root of the bad information. Officials, too, were at fault for not immediately clarifying what they knew and what they did not. But the fact is, most Americans, including probably people who knew the miners, believed the three hours of saturation news reports on television and the Internet that the miners were “rescued.” [Read more…]

Are Blogs an Echo Chamber?: Do Political Bloggers Only Read Blogs That They Agree With?


Frank Athens of the Washington Posts makes an accusation that one hears often cast against blogging:

“[The most] troubling trait of the Internet [is that] Rather than opening minds, it can close them, thanks to echo-chamber Web sites and blogs. We like to read Web sites and blogs that we agree with and that reinforce our opinions. Aside from the few of you who practice “know your enemy” browsing, how many of you liberals read How many of you conservatives frequent

His implication is that blog consumption is ideologically self-referential: liberals read Daily Kos; conservatives read powerlineblog and so on. And never the twain do meet. (See comment by Jeff Jarvis).

Is this true?

First, Athens’ unstated premise is that “neutral platforms” like, say the Washington Post, are superior content providers because they offer an internal marketplace of different, competing ideas, each given equal weight. Well, I’m not sure how many people, left or right, truly believe that the Washington Post, or any television network, delivers, impartial, fair, balanced or objective coverage of the issues of the day. And, as posted here, and commented on by others, partisanship, not objectivity was the norm in the era in which our Founders first safeguarded a free and open press. [Read more…]

Blogging and Religion

Earlier this month, Kevin Denee of The Restored Church of God posted an article on the church’s website concerning the evils of blogging. While Denee focuses his attention on teens, he concludes that even adults should refrain from using blogs altogether. Given that the blog as a medium has an infinite variety of potential formats and subject matter, it is worthwhile to investigate why Denee is so vociferous in his opposition. On face, his logic seems akin to demanding that people abstain from using knives, as they could be used for nefarious purposes.

Before delving into the article, it is worthwhile to note that this essay should not be viewed as a personal attack on the religious beliefs of Mr. Denee or the church. Rather, it is intended only to question some of the assumptions and accusations leveled by Mr. Denee on blogging as an immoral method of communication.

It is interesting that Mr. Denee posted his personal thoughts on blogs to the internet for others to read. Rather than stopping at this possible contradiction, we will assume for the sake of discussion that Mr. Denee would make an argument about “using the master’s tools” to tear down the plantation.

The definition of “blog” is up for debate. Whereas the term began strictly as shorthand for “web log,” many now include websites that simply offer links to published articles and news releases. Denee takes that liberal definition a step further: “Social networking pages and actual blogs are slightly different, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish the difference between the two. Therefore, in the case of this article we will consider them all blogs.” [Read more…]

Remnants from Rumsfeld: The War of Ideas

a.k.a. “Bush and Rumsfeld and Iraq and Troops and “Terror! or Insurgen!” and “Mess”

In what was dubbed a “referendum on Iraq,” voters in the midterm elections were characterized in mainstream media as casting votes not necessarily for a particular candidate, but against the war in Iraq. And while in some cases such a blanket statement is inaccurate, the very fact that it is was mentioned with such recurring frequency suggests it played a materially significant role.

The GOP was battered with barbs from both the right and the left in the weeks leading up to the election. The generic charge was that they were “out of touch” with reality. One of the chief targets of criticism was the recently-retired Donald Rumsfeld. In what may be viewed as an appropriate parting gift, The BBC reported the Department of Defense established a new program at the Pentagon to “boost its ability to counter ‘inaccurate’ news stories and exploit new media.”

The program is designed to counter “inaccurate” stories and is said to target “weblogs and…employ ‘surrogates,’ or top politicians or lobbyists who could be interviewed on TV and radio shows.” Rumsfeld had commented earlier this year that he was concerned about “the enemy” manipulating the media, calling it “the thing that keeps me up at night.” [Read more…]

Perils of Interactivity, Cont. (Obama MySpace)

I just finished my final draft of Blogwars: The New Political Battleground (Oxford University Press). As I have said, writing a book on blogs is like reporting NASCAR with stone tablets–so much happens so fast. One topic of current interest is the nature of interactivity: what are its benefits and drawbacks for politicians?

Of course, in the bloglands, you can’t pack the rooms with your supporters, shut out hecklers, and enforce message discipline. For example, candidate Barack Obama pioneered the use of MySpace as a campaign tool, but look at what happens when you open up the gates of interactivity to anyone, from kooks to your sworn enemies to supporters who embarrass you by their support. Among the July 2007 commenters on the Obama MySpace site, one “Namaste” from the hip-hop music producers at StreetLabStudio signed on to say, “Fallin’ thru ta show ya some luv and say wassup!! Have an Excellent, Blessed Day!! ‘lid…..never follow.” Fair enough, but does the accompanying video graphic of a nude woman jiggling her buttocks help or hurt the Senator from Illinois in his march to the White House? Then there’s the scary LostInQueens who signed on to assure the candidate, “you can count on my vote.” His graphic is a masked man pointing a gun at the viewer.

And MySpace sells ads: In one ad on Obama’s page, the conservative magazine Human Events offers readers a free report on “the real Barack Obama,” detailing issues from “his radical stance on abortion to his prominence in the corruption scandals that has been virtually ignored by the mainstream media” and asserts that “Barack Obama is not fit to be Senator — not to mention the next President of the United States.”

Do politicians need such interactvity?

–David D. Perlmutter

Originally posted August 2, 2007 at PolicyByBlog

“Facebooking Your Way Out of Tenure” at Chronicle of Higher Education

My essay “Facebooking Your Way Out of Tenure” appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2009. [online]. It is part of my regular column, “P&T Confidential.” The essay (first of two parts) looks at how the vast new world of online social networks–Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, Twitter, etc.–has affected many parts of our lives, including promotion and tenure for academics. In part one I deal with how Facebook can negatively influence the way people, including those who will decide on your tenure bid, think about you. In part two, next month, I will outline tenure-friendly Facebooking activities.


Originally posted July 3, 2009 at PolicyByBlog

Perlmutter on “Facebooking for the Tenure Track”

My essay on “Facebooking for the Tenure Track” appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 4, 2009. [online]

Originally posted September 19, 2009 at PolicyByBlog