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Blogged Down

By From the February 2009 issue

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After the 2004 election, conservatives loved blogs. “As CBS News can tell you, the rise of the Internet… is the latest and perhaps most explosive change that is shrinking liberal media dominance,” wrote Brian Anderson in his 2005 book, South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.

It was a blogger, Charles Johnson of LittleGreenFootballs.com, who proved that the “memos” that were the basis of CBS’s hit piece on President Bush’s National Guard service were produced on Microsoft Word, not a 1970s typewriter. Conservative bloggers also gave respectful attention to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who challenged John Kerry’s campaign narrative portraying him as a war hero. The mainstream media had, for the most part, uncritically repeated that narrative and almost unanimously dismissed the Swift Boat Veterans as liars.

It would overstate the case to say that bloggers cost John Kerry the election, but it is surely accurate to say that he lost despite having the support of the mainstream media, and that the efforts of bloggers contributed to that outcome.

In 2008, by contrast, the liberal media’s candidate won big. Journalists rooted hard for Barack Obama, as some of them acknowledged after the election. “It’s the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war,” Time’s Mark Halperin said at a November 21 panel. “It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage.” The same week, in a column titled “A Giddy Sense of Boosterism,” Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz opined that in reporting on the president-elect, “we seem to have crossed a cultural line into mythmaking.”

To be sure, Obama’s victory was the product of many factors apart from media coverage. Voters had soured on Republican leadership, as they showed in the 2006 midterm elections. Obama ran a brilliant campaign, most impressive for dispatching the Clinton machine in the primaries. He had the good sense to refuse taxpayer financing in the general election, giving him a huge financial edge. John McCain was unpopular among his own party’s conservative base, and while Sarah Palin largely overcame this disadvantage, her poor performance in early interviews made non-conservative voters uneasy.

Still, it shouldn’t have been this easy for the Democrats. The conservative blogosphere was supposed to have kept the MSM honest, challenging its partiality toward liberal candidates. “Debunking humbug--especially liberal humbug--is one of the web’s most powerful political effects,” Anderson wrote in 2005. That had certainly been true in 2004. What went wrong in 2008?

One difference between the two elections was that, to anyone familiar with Kerry’s long history in public life, his campaign narrative was an obvious fraud. A man who made a name for himself three decades earlier as an anti war extremist, slandering fellow veterans as war criminals, could not plausibly put himself forward as a “war hero.”

By comparison, Obama’s novelty worked in his favor. Until his impressive keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, hardly anyone outside Chicago had even heard of him. This gave him--and sympathetic reporters, if you’ll pardon the redundancy--a more or less free hand in telling his story. Thus Obama was able to present himself successfully as an idealistic, intelligent, cool-headed man capable of governing competently and helping America transcend racial and ideological divides.

There were facts about Obama that contradicted, or at least raised questions about, this narrative. Foremost among these were Obama’s connections with dubious Chicago figures: real estate developer turned felon Tony Rezko, terrorist turned education scholar Bill Ayers, and anti-American crackpot preacher Jeremiah Wright. The mainstream media doubtless would have pursued these connections relentlessly had Obama been a conservative Republican. (In fairness, the Wright matter did receive a thorough airing during the primary season, though this meant that it could be dismissed as “old news” by the fall.)

Conservative websites did raise these and other questions. But so many of them engaged in irresponsible rumor-mongering and conspiracy-theorizing that it called into question the entire enterprise. In October, for instance, as the McCain campaign was trying to make an issue of Obama’s friendship with Ayers, American Thinker.com published an article by one Jack Cashill speculating that Ayers might have ghostwritten Obama’s acclaimed biography, Dreams from My Father:

For simplicity sake, I will refer to the author of Dreams as “Obama.” Without question, he contributed much of the book’s raw material, especially the long-winded accounting of events and conversations, polished just well enough to pass muster. The book’s fierce, succinct and tightly coiled social analysis more closely matches the style of Fugitive Days, a much tighter book.

 

Fugitive Days was Ayers’s widely panned 2001 memoir. Other bloggers claimed Obama was a secret Muslim. They spun elaborate theories about young Barack’s school days in Indonesia, his stepfather’s native land, where he lived with his mother for a few years beginning in the late 1960s.

THEN THERE WAS THE citizenship canard. Obama was born in Hawaii just under two years after statehood, so he fulfills the constitutional requirement that a president be a natural-born citizen. (Ironically, McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone while his father was stationed there in the Navy, is natural-born only by virtue of a statute extending the definition to include his circumstances.)

Detractors claimed that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate was phony and that he was actually born in Kenya. Some anti-Obama bloggers pinned their hopes on a lawsuit filed by Philip Berg, a Pennsylvania lawyer who had earlier brought legal actions alleging that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were to blame for the 9/11 attacks. A federal district court summarily dismissed Berg v. Obama for lack of standing.

On the Friday after Election Day, blogress Joan Swirsky excitedly claimed that the Supreme Court was about to act:

Justice David Souter’s Clerk informed Philip J. Berg…that his petition for an injunction to stay the November 4th election was denied, but the Clerk also required the defendants to respond to the Writ of Certiorari (which requires the concurrence of four Justices) by December 1. At that time, Mr. Obama must present to the Court an authentic birth certificate, after which Mr. Berg will respond.

If Obama fails to do that, it is sure to inspire the skepticism of the Justices, who are unaccustomed to being defied.  

This was almost entirely humbug. It was true--and wholly unsurprising--that Souter had denied Berg’s request to postpone the election. It was also true that December 1 was the deadline for responses to Berg’s petition for certiorari (i.e., his request for the high court to hear an appeal). But Obama was not required to respond, and he did not. The dismissal of Berg’s case was based on well-settled law, so there was no reason to expect the high court to agree to review it. Even if it had, the only question before the justices would have been whether the dismissal was in error. Under no circumstances would the Supreme Court have demanded evidence of fact, such as an “authentic” birth certificate.

Bob Bartley, the legendary editor of the Wall Street Journal, observed late in his life that the trouble with the web is its lack of editors. This shortcoming was glaringly on display during last year’s election. It is the reason the conservative blogosphere in 2008 turned out to be not all it was cracked up to be in 2004. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.