Electronic Democracy: Bloggers Have Become a Growing Part of the Political Process

Apr 1, 2008

 

Readers can’t “refresh” this page 20 times a day to see the latest information. And they can’t touch an underlined word to skip to another page to read a supporting document, hear an interview or see a photo.

Print media are losing committed readers to the more immediate, interactive and free news bits available from computers or handheld devices.

The multitasking readers who thrive on multimedia have developed a habit ­of accessing the “blogosphere” — the electronic abyss of personal Web sites — as part of their daily routines.

Weblogs, blogs for short, offer instant gratification, but they come with drawbacks. They can reach unimaginable numbers of people in seconds, although attention can be fleeting. The sites can gather a like-minded following that develops into a grassroots effort, but not all blogs have a regular readership. They allow authors and readers to interact in real time, but a lot of people who participate or interact with blogs are anonymous, potentially compromising their integrity.
Despite the semi-illusive nature of blogs, political insiders and policymakers are taking note.

“I read ‘em,” says Illinois Rep. Frank Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat and House floor leader. He also reads the online comments allowed by his local newspapers for the same instant response. “People will blog where they will not sit down and write you a letter. They will blog where they would be too nervous to actually pick up the phone and talk to you.”

It’s unclear, however, how often blogs actually influence policy. What is clear is that directly and indirectly, Illinois’ political bloggers have become part of the process. They scrutinize the government and the media — and influence the way they interact.

Blogging 101: “Blog” is a noun and a verb. Writers blog. Readers comment. They also click on “hypertext” words that take them to other Web pages and endless links to related resources.

They offer a barometer of opinions held by the typical readers, who are diverse, young and middle-aged professionals in nearly equal numbers of males and females, according to the Pew Research Center’s report of the Internet & American Life Project. Nationwide, more than 12 million Americans wrote blogs and more than 57 million Americans read them in 2006, the most recent numbers available. 

Whether it’s Jane Doe writing a stream-of-consciousness diary in her pajamas or presidential campaign staffers writing minute-by-minute updates during national debates, readers interested in a topic can become almost addicted to looking for updates numerous times a day.

In Illinois, a hefty list of self-acclaimed political junkies write their own blogs.

One of the most read is Rich Miller’s The Capitol Fax Blog, based in Springfield. The site has a near religious following from a variety of readers, from corporate executives to union leaders, who want to know the latest news in state government and politics.

“I always joke that it’s just out of control,” Miller says. “That blog, it’s like my own little CNN. People are just on it all the time, especially during campaigns and interesting times during the legislative session. They’re just constantly refreshing their screens.”

He started his blog in 2004 and has had a Web site since the 1990s. He also publishes an actual facsimile, Capitol Fax.

“When I started out in 1993 with the Capitol Fax, about a third of my subscribers had to buy a fax machine before they could subscribe. You think about how far technology has come.” 

He maintains Capitol Fax and the blog full time and makes money through advertising and subscriptions, although he won’t disclose the amount. 

Miller also runs another site, a conglomeration of Illinois bloggers called Illinoize. Many are open about their identities.

At least one is a state legislator. 

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, writes Open House and is featured on Illinoize. He started his blog a few years ago as a way to share an insider’s view of the legislative process. It’s become a valuable outlet, but at the same time, it’s a risky endeavor.

“A lot of people question why I would do it because politics is a business where anything you say can be twisted to be used against you. I’m now on a very regular basis putting out my thoughts on a number of subjects that are going to stay out there forever. I am conscious of what I write.”

That doesn’t hinder his candor, including his discontent with Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s strained relationship with the legislature. But Fritchey says he writes only to spur thought. “A lot of what I write isn’t to make somebody have an opinion, but rather to make them think about an issue.”

Blogging for him also has become cathartic. In February, he revealed on the blog that he has Bell’s Palsy, causing paralysis on one side of his face. 

Fritchey says more legislators should blog not only because it humanizes them, but because it also allows them to send information to constituents in a way that’s more immediate and dynamic than a press release.

“People basically have a mini news outlet tailored to their interests,” he says. “I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult at this day and age to not have some type of Web presence. And I think it will be as commonplace as having town hall meetings.”

Although few if any lawmakers other than Fritchey write their own blogs, they definitely read them. Miller declines to share the number of people who look at Capitol Fax Blog, but he says most access the site from computers that have Internet Protocol addresses from the Illinois General Assembly.

“If there’s a legislative debate, a lot of legislators are watching the blog while they’re debating the thing. And some of them are commenting.” 

Albeit some of them comment anonymously.

At the same time, readers who watch real-time video of House or Senate floor debate post comments for all to see.

Comments can be troublesome when random readers post off-the-wall rants or attack each other or get carried away with rumors. Miller bans a list of words and even some commenters from appearing on the site.

On the other hand, commenters also can contribute to intelligent debate.

In a February “Question of the Day” feature, Miller asked his readers to consider a state constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, that would lower the voting age in Illinois to 17. Fifty-four comments were posted, among them from people calling themselves “Wordslinger,” “Dan S, a Voter,” “VanillaMan,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Liberal Louisa.” 

Many supported the idea of allowing 17-year-olds and even 16-year-olds to vote, while a few warned of a slippery slope and extended the debate to the legal ages for military service, driver’s licenses and alcohol consumption. It also was pointed out later that 17-year-olds would be able to vote in local and state elections but not in national elections, where the voting age is still 18. 

Without proof of a correlation, the proposal won approval less than a week later from a House committee and advanced to the full chamber for future debate.

And so goes the ambiguous nature of blogs: They generate lots of buzz but offer little evidence of actually turning online discussion into legislative action.

Other popular sites, including the California-based Daily Kos written by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, aim to advance liberal Democratic ideals and even lobby for or against policies at the national level.

Political journalists also are entering the fray.

Ben Smith, senior political writer and blogger with national multimedia source Politico.com, spoke from his cell phone while multitasking on the Democratic presidential campaign trail.

He posted until 9 p.m. Sunday, February 24, and started at 9 a.m. the next day and posted nine entries before noon. Some posts attracted as many as 199 comments.

“You’re just so directly responsive to your readers,” he says. “You write something that’s not true or inaccurate or you get something wrong, you’re going to be told that immediately in the comment section. There’s no room for bull----.”

The interactive nature of blogs is what holds so much promise, according Bill Dennis, a.k.a. Peoria Pundit, who has his own blog and also is featured on Illinoize.
A self-described liberal, he focuses on filling in holes of news stories related to state and local government. He practices what’s dubbed “citizen journalism,” which he believes is revolutionizing and democratizing media. “In an era in which they buy and sell media organizations like pork bellies, blogging is going to be the savior of the public’s right to know.”

His day job is to provide over-the-phone technical support for companies that put Internet connections in hotels, and he makes a little money from allowing advertisements on his blog. A former mainstream media journalist, he blogs for a hobby — not to promote his own version of news events but to share his perspective and let readers come up with their own conclusions.

“Bloggers came along, and boom, millions of people, tens of millions of people, have their own printing press and can reach everybody in the world. A guy like me can sit back in my house, sit in front of a computer that I bought used at a recycled computer store, and reach thousands of people every day. How is this not great for democracy? I just don’t get the complaints about it.”

Journalism professor Eric Meyer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one who warns that citizen journalism can have an insidious, even viral effect on public knowledge. 

“It’d be like you hired somebody to go around and paint graffiti in restrooms that have messages on it that had some commercial undertone to it.”

He teaches graphics and design and online publishing but says blogging may not live up to the hype. Just as the fax machine and desktop publishing were supposed to democratize the media, he says he believes those promises were based more on what people hoped for than on what actually developed.

But, he adds, political blogs can be effective when they generate discussion or when journalists read them and write their own stories.

While Meyer questions the life expectancy of blogging, he says there is one ripe opportunity for the medium to affect policy, and that’s in political campaigns.

Case in point: the past two presidential races. The Internet has become a significant fundraiser, something championed four years ago by then-Democratic hopeful Howard Dean. His campaign, spearheaded by manager Joe Trippi, raised millions in small, individual donations online, according to Trippi in an interview published in the 2005 book, blog! how the newest media revolution is changing politics, business and culture by journalists David Kline and Dan Burstein.

Trippi says in the book that because of their fundraising abilities, blogs can “change the whole country.”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project Report isn’t as optimistic. Its November 2006 article, “The Internet and Politics: No revolution yet,” says while political campaigns raise a significant amount of money online, they typically use it to pay for more traditional campaign methods of advertising, direct mailers and phone calls.

Furthermore, the report says the effect of the Internet on politics is less about the candidate’s ability to use the Internet as a campaign tool and more about the grassroots efforts coordinated through the Internet: “Activists’ use of e-mail and Web sites; small donors’ contributions online; bloggers’ passion to tell stories and debate issues; and amateur videographers’ quest to record ‘gotcha’ moments. Perhaps that is the most fitting contribution this technology can endow to democracy.”

So the information in the blogosphere is immediate but fleeting, interactive but anonymous, barometric but microcosmic. It can serve as a voice for the people, and at the same time can serve as an echo chamber for those who already agree.

In all cases, blogs already have the attention of the policymakers. What those policymakers do with the information remains to be seen. 

 

Illinois Issues, April 2008