Hacking Politics: Reviewing Hugh Hewitt's Skewed Book "Blog"

Hacking Politics: Reviewing Hugh Hewitt's Skewed Book "Blog"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 28 2005

Talk-radio host and power-blogger Hugh Hewitt gets so many things right in his new book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World, that it’s almost painful to call him on the one truly gigantic thing that he gets wrong. It doesn’t help matters that he’s a genuinely nice guy who not only signed my copy of his book with a friendly inscription, “Thanks for leading it,” he’s kindly agreed to come speak at this May’s Personal Democracy Forum Conference in New York May 16. (Full disclosure: he also showers my brother David and his company Technorati with plenty of praise in the book.)

But if the rise of independent citizen-driven media (a.k.a. blogging) is all about trust—as Hewitt puts it, “how old media—mainstream media—lost it and how new media is gaining it”—then I’m here to say, don’t trust Hugh Hewitt to be your main guide to the blogosphere. He wants you to believe that the blogs are all Right -- wing, that is. And that just ain’t so.

A mere glance at the data and the history of blogging’s impact on politics undermines Hewitt’s argument pretty quickly. But it’s understandable why he’s making it. If 2003 was the liberals’ year to hype their accomplishments online (Dean’s rise, Meetup’s popularity, MoveOn.org’s outside-the-box mobilizations), conservatives have been claiming 2004 as the year they got the net, too. What with Rathergate, the Swift Boat Veterans, the Thune bloggers and the Bush campaign’s sophisticated use of the net, there’s plenty to crow about. But while this could make for a tidy narrative, the truth is more complicated.

Getting It Right

Here’s what Hewitt does get right:

--“The information delivery systems in the United States have just experienced a revolution….Everyone is potentially a journalist, including your executive assistant and the messenger bike boy. Everyone could have a blog and a cell phone that can snap a picture of you to put on it.”
--“People’s attentions are up for grabs. Trust is being transferred.”
--“There is a better way to gain information than watching the tube; quicker, more specific, more emotionally satisfying.”
--“Since the consumers of news and information are hungry for reliable, unfiltered information on which to base decisions, they are open to new trustworthy sources of that information.”
--“Bloggers [perform] a cueing function, prompting people’s actions in hundreds of thousands of ways.”
--“[Mainstream media] can no longer control the battlefield, dictate who gets to participate, when stories are released and who has the final say. The public has the final say. There is no going back, only an endless effort to capture and keep audience based on credibility.”

But Oh So Wrong

But where Hewitt starts off track, and stays, is in his relentless laptop-thumping for blogging primarily as some kind of rightwing populist upsurge. “MSM (‘mainstream media’) went left,” he writes. “Into that void have come first Rush [Limbaugh], then talk radio, and now the bloggers.”

I have no problem stipulating that talk radio is dominated by the Right (Air America’s recent success notwithstanding), and that the blogging explosion is indeed filling a void for Americans tired of older media like TV and newspapers. But what turns people on about reading and writing blogs is not that they’re all center-right; it’s that they’re all bottom-up. (Could it be that Hewitt’s roots in old, big media as a TV news host are showing?)

Early in Blog, Hewitt offers his readers a handy list of blogs that he neutrally recommends as the best aggregators and analysts for them to “begin reading daily as an introduction to the medium.” His top twelve are: Instapundit, RealClearPolitics, The Command Post, National Review Online’s The Corner and KerrySpot, Polipundit.com, Power Line, Belmont Club, Roger L. Simon, little green footballs, Lileks.com and Captain’s Quarters. (Someone else will have to explain why he leaves out Michelle Malkin or The Volokh Conspiracy.) Every single one is on the political Right.

If you total up the traffic statistics for these blogs as reported by SiteMeter and collected by TruthLaidBear, you’ll find that of the nine of those twelve sites whose data is available, they’re pulling about 392,000 visitors on a daily basis. A similar list of nine top liberal and progressive blogs – DailyKos, Eschaton, Smirking Chimp, Kevin Drum, Blog for America, MyDD, Matthew Yglesias, TalkLeft and This Modern World – gets about 547,000 daily visitors. The same is true for linking patterns as tracked by Technorati: right-leaning sites in the Technorati top 100 have about 40,000 incoming sources compared to about 46,000 for left-leaning sites.

The Squeaky Tail Gets All the Grease

Playing the “who’s who on the A-list” game misses a far more powerful fact about the blogosphere that should put to rest the claims of anyone on any point of the conventional ideological spectrum. There’s far more going on in the “long tail” – millions more posts, millions more participants in conversations – than in the tiny group of highly visible sites that so fascinate Hewitt and other members of the big media.

One additional point that ought to humble all of us: the blogos isn’t a continuum, with the lefties stacked at one end, moderates in the middle and righties at the other end. It’s a sphere, full of unique and multidimensional voices who are all one-click away from one another. Jeff Jarvis is a pro-Iraq War, free speech zealot who goes to church every Sunday and voted for Kerry. And he has tons of traffic. Boing Boing, the most popular blog on the Web, is written by hardcore techno-libertarians. Anyone who claims the blogos for one side will be confounded by reality.

The same goes for blogging’s impact on politics. In Hewitt’s potted history, “the founding myths of the blogosphere” are “the crippling of Kerry, the ruin of Rather, the exile of Raines and the demotion of Lott.” Each, he says, occurred “because of bloggers.”

Leave aside the fact that, as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s careful study of Lott’s downfall showed, elements of the MSM (ABC’s The Note and the Washington Post’s Tom Edsall) played a key role in reporting the senator’s praise for segregation in the first place. Leave aside Kerry’s own self-inflicted problems. Leave aside the critical role of New York Times insiders (oops, the MSM again) in pushing for Howell Raines’ ouster. Hewitt chooses each of these episodes because through them he can impute exaggerated power to rightwing bloggers.

Now, I am not saying that rightwingers did not play a big role in humbling each of these men. They did (especially in Dan Rather’s case). But it’s what Hewitt leaves out that really shows his bias. The “blog swarms” around Lott, Raines, Rather and Kerry were not the only signal events of a new kind of people-power based on online citizen networking. The two million people who marched in the streets in February 2003 against President Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq were largely organized online; the Dean campaign’s record-breaking early fundraising, which shook up the “wealth primary,” was largely organized online; the popular boycott of Sinclair Broadcasting that drove the company’s stock price down precipitously in a matter of days in October 2004 was almost purely a blog play. But Hewitt says nothing about antiwar activism online, barely mentions the Sinclair boycott and sniffs hastily past the Dean bloggers with a few dismissive words.

The cumulative effect is as if Michael Moore wrote his next book about the rise of alternative media and spent 98 percent of his time raving about DailyKos, Eschaton, Blog for America, Democratic Underground, The Smirking Chimp, Common Dreams, TalkLeft, Oliver Willis, John Aravosis’s AmericaBlog and The Progress Report without giving anyone else his due.

One real merit of Blog that I should mention, in fairness: Hewitt does provide an abundance of pointers to interesting Christian and evangelical bloggers, a community that I — a secular/Reconstructionist Jew — knew almost nothing about before reading his book. I wish I could say that I trust Hewitt as a guide to the Christian side of the Web, but judging from how his politics skews the rest of the book, I can only say: caveat emptor.

Which, by the way, isn’t a bad principle by which to take anyone claiming to give you the whole picture of the blogosphere. Buyer, beware.

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