David Perlmutter, author of the new book Blog Wars, is a professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism & Mass Communications. Perlmutter, who was a recent guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, sat down in Washington in early August for an interview with Care2’s Clint O’Brien to talk about how blogging is reshaping media and changing the way citizens think about politics and social causes.
Clint O’Brien: What inspired you to write this book?
David Perlmutter: Blog Wars began as an idea as early as the mid-90s. In 1996 a friend and I did a study of presidential campaign websites. Basically, what we found was that they were pretty much static bulletin boards: speeches, statements, pictures just posted up there. No real interactivity. At the same time, I had been writing a lot on new communication technologies such as satellites, digital media, cell phones, and so on.
In 2003, I started paying attention to the nascent campaign for president of an obscure ex-governor of Vermont named Howard Dean. His name recognition nationwide was in the single digits; he was not very prominent or powerful within the Democratic party; and except for some gay and lesbian groups, he had no real base or constituency. His war chest was pitiful. Yet the Internet visionaries around him, like Joe Trippi and Jerome Armstrong, tried something really new: to get supporters of his views and ideas to self-mobilize, to create support groups, fundraising, canvassing on their own without top-down central direction. Blogging was their main forum for such activities.
For someone [me] who grew up in an era when sources of political information were few and narrow (the newspaper, TV news) and when venues for ordinary people to speak up about politics were also few (local town halls, letters to the editor), the Dean campaign was a truly exciting revolution. Like all new ideas and technologies, it was not perfect, but it did give birth to the political world we have now.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from writing this book?
2008 is the year in which all the new technologies, techniques, concepts, innovations of so-called new media are being tried. I am surprised at how open to innovation so many campaigns and consultants are. Think how far we’ve come so fast. New media of course isn’t; freshmen at my university have never known a world without the Internet, e-mail or cell phones. That’s one of the main reasons, by the way, that the changes are occurring so quickly.
While I was in Washington recently, I visited a former student of mine who creates Web videos for John McCain. His wife took me to headquarters and we arrived there after 7 p.m. As far as I could tell, everyone there was under 25, and all of them were probably planning to work until 4 a.m. Boomers manage campaigns, but Millennials do all the day-to-day work, and new tech is as natural to them as the wheel and fire to their elders.
Have you gotten any notable reactions from bloggers who either loved what you wrote in the book or disagreed with you?
It helps that I tried very hard to get my facts right. In any book, the author will make mistakes, and I have at least a dozen corrections to make for the next edition. Also, I tried to be nonpartisan, respecting the work and achievements of bloggers on the left and the right, and most reviewers recognized that. On the other hand, the two most common criticisms of the book are that I didn’t explore as thoroughly as I should have the reasons for a left-right split online and, as I should have expected, I got some sniping, because I failed to mention this or that blog.
Which blogs do YOU read regularly, and why? Are you a carnivore, reading opinions that just make you more confident your opinions are correct? Or are you an omnivore, reading opinions of people who disagree with you?
I am inconsistent about my blog reading. I try to skim the major political community/multiblogs across the spectrum (Kos, MyDD, Redstate, Townhall) but I also like to hop around, find new blogs. When an issue hits the news I try to go specialty blogs (Saudi Arabia, Supreme Court, etc).
I tell my students that they should have an open mind, and I use a food analogy to explain what I mean. In nature, overspecialization in diet, while it helps in the short run, is a sure route to extinction. If you eat only eucalyptus leaves or bamboo shoots, you are in trouble if the climate changes or people come along and cut down your forests.
In a book I wrote about the history of war images, I made the case that human beings have been so successful because we have not only adapted to almost every possible climate on the planet but also are capable of eating almost everything as well, from whale blubber to termites to stinky tofu to even a McDonald’s hamburger. But no one should be a complete omnivore, stuffing anything that comes along or flies into the mouth.
So, it’s a huge mistake for a person with conservative opinions to read only rightwing blogs, for example. You should force yourself to read the opinions of people with whom you disagree but–and this is why I advocate being a multivore, not an omnivore–you should have well developed scales and standards of credibility, authority, accuracy and fairness about what you read. So if you are, say, a leftwing blogger, read the rightwing blogs that seem to try to get their facts right and express opinions drawn from those facts.
What is the future of blogging, anyway? Are they all going to be small cottage industry players, or will they get to be big business? Is Huffington Post big business, financially speaking? How about Daily Kos? Others?
I think all futures of blogging will come to pass. First, blogging is just part of a wave of social/interactive media. A lot of people with MySpace sites, for example, don’t think of them as blogs. YouTube looks like a video blog to me, complete with posts and comments, but others don’t see it that way. I believe that there will be massive community blogs with thousands of participants creating material and millions of participating responders.
In fact, I’m trying to coin a new term to describe the situation where online everybody is both a sender and receiver of information (when you do a Google search, you are adding data to Google). The term is INTERACTOR. I see a future where there will be small independent interactors, corporate interactors, government interactors, advocacy group interactors, and many other kinds.
Should we worry that, considering how most blogs don’t report actual news (they just opine on the news), and how many mainstream news companies are laying off reporters and cutting way back on their coverage — that soon there won’t be enough actual news being gathered to fuel the Blog Wars?
This is a large, complicated issue. But in brief, one of the great problems of journalism today is that it is abandoning journalism. It’s a trend in journalism schools that a vast majority of our students don’t want to be reporters–they want to be opinion-offerers, shapers and makers.
That said, there are a lot of blogs that are entering the niches of local reporting, beat reporting, factual and investigative reporting, that are being abandoned by traditional media as being too expensive. Yes, a lot of blogs offer their opinion on the Iraq war, but there are also a lot of blogs finding and reporting original information.
I’m particularly interested in the phenomenon I call the “nonmedia-fit expert.” There are people who are indeed experts–police detectives, obstetricians, retired State Department officers, accomplished scholars–who are never called by the New York Times or CNN and probably wouldn’t be entertaining on television or provide snappy 10-words quips. But they are smart, they know their stuff, and they are blogging.
Since you were a guest in May on The Daily Show, please tell us, so what is Jon Stewart really like? And did you bump into Stephen Colbert backstage?
Mr. Stewart was a gracious gentleman who put this nervous professor at ease. Back in 2005, the Daily Show made fun of “citizen journalism.” Now they see its value–or rather citizen journalists have earned respect. Getting a bottle of Grey Goose vodka in the swag bag also helped. I never saw Colbert.
What is your next book going to be about?
My next book is definitely not Oprah-accessible. It’s about promotion and tenure in academia. Actually, the adventures of professors trying to advance up our ladder are pretty exciting, but perhaps not to anyone outside of the business.
Other than that infamous high school yearbook page, what is something else about you that most of your students and fellow professors at the University of Kansas would never suspect?
The only time I ever visited a fortune teller–on a lark–she told me that in one of my past lives I was an adviser on the civilian staff of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. It just goes to show you the absurdity of fortune telling, because I was actually on the military staff of the Roman dictator Sulla.
Originally posted August 31, 2008 at PolicyByBlog