The very word elicits tension. Or so it seemed at the recent Politics Online Conference 2005, put on last week by the Institute for Democracy & the Internet at the George Washington University. A breakout session titled "Tracking the Buzz through Blogs" demonstrated the intense emotionalism embedded in this new medium, as well as the intellect and diversity of sanity among the men and women (but mostly men) behind the keyboards.
The session's panelists were sane enough: Peter Daou, formerly of the Kerry-Edward campaign, now of the Daou Report, Patrick Ruffini, webmaster for Bush-Cheney '04, Nicco Mele formerly of the Dean campaign, and Ken Deutsch from Issue Dynamics, Inc. Each gave a cogent defense of the medium and discussed its virtues and limitations, with minor polite disagreements peppered throughout their remarks. Mercilessly, each eschewed any political speechifying and treated one another with professional respect.
But during the Q&A, the crowd collectively obsessed about whether bloggers ought to be treated as journalists or not. The controversy stems from a district court judge's recent order that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) take up the matter of certain loopholes in the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which allow for relatively unregulated Internet speech. Bloggers and First Amendment enthusiasts are exercised over the proposition that the federal government might begin to regulate blogs.
The panelists took a generally libertarian view of the question. Let people decide whom to believe, seemed to be the consensus. Trust is king in the blogosphere. Fakers, posers and con artists won't last long. Many attendees, however, were unsatisfied.
"But what about all these anonymous bloggers?" an attendee demanded.
"I know of a case where a guy was posing as 'Libertarian Girl' and he's really a 50-year-old man," offered another.
"I think blogs are dead," piped one surly attendee.
The general response to each of these utterances, and many more like them, was: so what? If you don't like blogs don't read them. The beauty of blogs is in the unfettered way in which they facilitate our First Amendment right. And whether you like it or not, that Amendment protects a blogger's right to be anonymous. And an idiot.
One fellow chose to test the strength of that last assertion. Somehow the subject of Fox News came up and one bloated, goateed attendee went into a frenzy. Snarl-faced and glassy-eyed, he declared, "Fox News isn't journalism! It's a direct arm of the Republican National Committee! They meet with the Republican National Committee every morning!" Even Nicco from the Dean campaign looked uncomfortable.
Turns out the fellow was a blogger with "The Raw Story," a vehemently pro-homosexual blog and webzine, which specializes in "outing" Republican members of Congress. While not a member of the panel, he took it upon himself to insert his opinion on just about everything discussed or mumbled by anyone in the room.
"If you're a rightwinger, you are a fascist," he vociferated to no one in particular.
"I'm a rightwinger," I responded. "Am I a fascist?"
It dawned on me: this clown's free speech was more of a nuisance in this, a public setting than in electronic form on his blog. At least when it's on his blog, I need neither to hear nor read it.
Garance Franke-Ruta from the American Prospect suggested out loud that the blogging industry impose "community norms" to prevent libelous postings, like the ones recently revealed to be the handwork of Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich staffer Joseph Steffen, which cruelly implied Baltimore Mayor (and potential Ehrlich rival) Martin O'Malley was unfaithful to his wife. (Steffen's comments, I should point out, were posted on the aptly named Free Republic, which is not a blog, per se, but a message board.)
I spoke to Franke-Ruta after the session and her concerns are well intentioned. But politicians ought to have no more protections from salacious blog posts than they do from sandwich boards. In the end, the government should no more do anything about them than John Adams should have imposed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
Blogs don't libel people. People libel people.
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