Among the Believers: Beating Up on Big Media

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Mark Warner kept referring to the party he threw last weekend for the attendees of the Yearly Kos convention as the "first date" between the presumptive Presidential candidate and the liberal blogosphere. It was perhaps a infelicitous metaphor, given both the seediness of Las Vegas and the ridiculous excess of the party itself. Reportedly thrown at a cost of $50,000, the gathering made the observation floor of the Stratosphere hotel positively groan from the weight of the sushi tables, ice sculptures and open bars. There was a Blues Brothers cover band (if it is possible to cover a cover band), an Elvis impersonator and, puzzlingly, a chocolate fountain. If you get a chocolate fountain on your first date, do you go back for a second?

Many marveled that Warner would spend so much on bloggers — bloggers! — especially given that the progressive Internet movement has yet to claim a significant general election victory. But from publicity perspective, the campaign got a significant bang for its buck. "Think about it," said a Warner staffer, "If we threw this kind of thing for the DNC [Democratic National Committee], it would be just another party." As it was, the event's buzz reverberated throughout the community and into the mainstream media.

Warner was the first Presidential hopeful to commit to coming to Yearly Kos. Jerome Armstrong, the co-author of "Crashing the Gate" with Yearly Kos namesake Markos Moulitsas, is the governor's Internet consultant and unofficial blogger liaison. Clearly, the Warner campaign has great hopes for leveraging what convention-goers call "the netroots." Yet to judge by Warner's actual speech, the netroots are just another constituency, a Democratic special-interest group to be placated by a campaign promise or two. Aside from a warm-up that referenced the night's festivities, Warner delivered his time-tested stump speech to the crowd, its paeans to the need for education and national security indistinguishable from what he might say to the Milwaukee teacher's association or the Charleston VFW. This lack of special treatment—or absence of pandering—is either a sign of respect or confusion.

It would be easy enough to pander. Howard Dean, chairman of the DNC, had earlier given a red-meat speech that had the crowd roaring up for a standing ovation multiple times, despite the early hour (8:30 a.m.) and all those hangovers. He told the assembled activists that the DNC now has an "Internet department" where "we read you every day;" he thundered against Republican "sleazebags" and joked about how he would not be so welcome at a "quote 'mainstream press' event." Indeed, bashing the traditional press became such a reliable applause line that its invocation became like Catskills comedian's shtick: "And how bad is that mainstream media? Bad, huh? Am I right, folks? Am I right?"

They say, however, there's a thin line between hating someone and wanting to be someone. Sure enough, the panel on political journalism is an uncomfortable mix of criticism and instruction. On the one hand, political reporters were excoriated for their kowtowing, wishy-washy coverage, and blasted for letting their preconceived notions dictate the "master narrative." On the other hand, the four bloggers on the panel — the fifth was Matt Bai, who writes about politics for the New York Times Magazine — talk about blogging in a way that implies that they're re-inventing the journalistic wheel. "To have good sourcing you have to maintain relationships," says one. And as for letting a master narrative guide one's writing, there are few narratives more over-arching than the presumption that most mainstream journalists are corrupt, weak-willed shills who hobnob with sources at cocktail parties and protect the establishment at the cost of our basic rights. Except, that is, for the new master narrative: empowered netizens speaking brave and uncomfortable truths to power.

Bai tried to disabuse the audience of this stereotype. "Everytime I talk to a blogger, I hear about these cocktails," he said, wondering where his invitation was. Considering the lavish party Mark Warner had thrown for them the night before, perhaps bloggers should not be so hasty with accusations of schmooze. Still, schmoozing is basically harmless if it doesn't affect what one writes — and if bloggers are re-inventing the journalist wheel, they're still getting around to that one. At the Q&A Warner held with bloggers after his speech, the questions were respectful and sincere. The first one was about whether Warner was correct in asserting that Iran is a greater threat to our national security than Pakistan. A better question might have been, how valuable is the opinion on such matters when it comes from a one-term governor of Virginia?

That's probably not fair to either Warner, who's been working hard to buff up his foreign policy chops, or the bloggers. But the ersatz press conference seemed of a piece with the chocolate fountain the night before — elaborate, fussy, and meant to impress but ultimately messy and not very filling.

Of course, the bloggers of Yearly Kos have a ways to go before they are either as feted (or as fetid) as they believe mainstream journalists to be. And as seriously as they seemed to take the conference, they don't take themselves as seriously as mainstream journalists do, either. On the conference's last day, someone brought an industrial roll of aluminum foil and dozens of attendees spent the afternoon walking around in elaborate tin-foil hats. If Judy Miller of the New York Times had thought to pack along a similar prop when she was embedded in Iraq — or practiced a similar sort of skepticism about her sources and her reporterly ego — perhaps the mainstream media wouldn't be as reliable a punchline at these gatherings today.