Story location:

April 7, 2004

Sudden Meaning for the Political Verb: to Link

Careless writing by a major blogger (Kos) brought a turn in the scandal cycle to Blogistan. The Kerry people have decided they will now be held responsible for "comments made by any blogger they link to," writes Atrios. Why? Because any blogger can get you killed. At stake here is the meaning of the verb "to link" in politics. No one knows, and that's... tricky.

People everywhere ought to understand that what they say—if taken seriously—will be held up to public scrutiny and potential attack. —Pennsylvania Rep. Mark B. Cohen (said here.)

Atrios said Sunday he will ask the Kerry campaign to take down its link to his weblog, Eschaton. He also said he will no longer be an official fundraiser for candidates, tracking donations collected at his site. He had set up dedicated donation pages, in order to test what a political weblog with a major audience could do. This was an experiment in Web activism, and it reached a critical moment last weekend, leading to some stark decisions and a powerful post from Atrios explaining them.

This moment began April 1-2 with a comment controversy (very much like a candidate “gaffe”) involving a celebrated blogger, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos, who said something he should not have said, unless he planned to lose the political ads he had been running. (He later elaborated and explained, thusly, while critics called for a stronger apology.)

Here’s what happened: In a comment thread at someone else’s diary on his own site, Kos, a military veteran, said he felt nothing over the deaths of five American mercenaries last week in Falluja, in which charred and mutilated bodies were exhibited by a mob. The dead men weren’t sent there on orders, he said. They weren’t there to re-build Iraq. “They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.”

In the events that followed this provocative remark, literally speaking ill of the dead, the Kerry campaign severed its link to Koz— a political decision. And someone highly effective in the weblog form, in whom certain hopes for Net politics are lodged, a rising star in Democratic circles, and a solid hero to many in Left Blogistan, was suddenly untouchable by the candidate. The comment spread across the blog sphere when those who might fairly be called political opponents picked it up; and Kos went from party asset to liability almost overnight. (For how all this happened see Matt Stoller’s thought-rich and detailed account, and follow-up. See also Instapundit’s links and commentary here.)

Taking in what happened to Kos, Atrios said on Sunday that he had miscalculated on some things. “I thought we were all grownups now” is the way he chose to put it.

Years later, I thought we’d all figured out sort of how this magic new gizmo called the internet worked. I thought we all understood that a [link to a] website does not hold you responsible for all of the content there. I thought we understood that an ad placed on a media outlet—including blogs and other websites—was not an implicit endorsement of all of the content found on those sites.

But events had proven him wrong about what “we” understood. Atrios had gone with the premise that links mean a weak fit, a loose tie, a slight connection. That way things swing freely. But this attractive premise got replaced by the theory of the strong fit, which is needed to explain the actions the Kerry camp took. (Granted, a pretty small action in the scheme of things, but certainly read by all as symbolic.)

“I’m an activist,” Atrios wrote. “Right now I want the Democrats to take back at least one branch of government.” As for the best way a popular blog by a political writer can help in that, he isn’t sure. No one is. It’s an experiment being run live. “For a while it seemed that some complementarity between the independent ‘netroots’ and campaigns and other organizations would serve everybody well.” This is an appealing idea: complementary but independent action. I do my independent thing for the Democrats I favor, you remain aware of me and support what I am doing without sponsoring, endorsing or attempting to control, deal?

“Deal: we’ll link to you and you to us.”

And there is the turn Atrios did not forsee. The “weak” theory of what it means to link (if we’re going to be Net grown ups) can be overturned by events, triggered by those with a strong theory. By “I thought we were all grownups now,” Atrios was putting forward his belief, (he associated it with Net maturity) that to link does not mean to endorse, except in the broadest sense: we’re all Democrats hoping to defeat Bush.

The link creates a certain relationship, yes, around broadly shared goals, which doesn’t mean Eschaton joins the Kerry team, or the Kerry people join in what Atrios, the author, says. This author with boldly stated views wants to help his side. “But, if these people are unable to find a way to not let themselves be tarred-by-association by anything I write, then these relationships just aren’t helpful.”

if we haven’t grown up enough to realize that one stupid retracted comment posted by a blogger in the comments section of someone else’s diary post on that blog deserves absolutely no official written response by a campaign—no matter how offensive it is—then I don’t think we’re grown up enough yet to have…

…what Atrios called, rather inelegantly, that “blog/campaign complementarity.”

Events had played their hand. The Kerry people decided they will be held responsible for comments by bloggers they link to. By this policy—a second theory of to link, the strong view—they can be forced into comment on any offending remark. The upshot is that any blogger in the heat of exchange, a pissy mood, or an incautious moment can get you killed in the news, which feeds off matters the campaign will comment on.

That, in turn, helps feed a second circuit, the attack machines that do exist on several sides, and operate by pumping controversy through any media pipe that will take it. By bowing to that reality, instead of several others it might have consulted, equally factual, the candidate brought the strong theory of a political verb, to link, out of the premise box and into the real. But this is how politics works. And it “shows they’re not ready to really have a blog and interact with the rest of the blog world,” Atrios wrote. Which is sad. “They should just pull down all their links.” Experiment over… for now.

What to make of this turn? The comments here present a remarkable range of nuanced and biting commentary on the matter. Here are some impressions and conclusions I draw:

Atrios was right to sever links with the Kerry campaign. He said he didn’t blame Kerry, who is trying to win an election, even though he disagreed with the logic that “link to” equals “endorsement of.” Independent but complementary action between Net actors and Kerry Central was plausible before April 1, but not after.

Our scandal culture is a deeply set formation. By now virtually anyone with a modicum of political awareness knows how to set it in motion. “Scandal” today is a mode of discourse, a tone for talking in, as much as the events that are proximate cause. Cliches like “what did he know and when did he know it?” and the suffix “gate” added for naming purposes are examples of that discourse. So are comparative declarations like this, “Can you imagine if a liberal said anything remotely like that in regard to a crime issue?” which generate the resentment required to keep the cycle going. It’s a way of talking.

But whereas it was once necessary to get the major media to “commit” to the scandal-as-story, now the commitment can come in the blog sphere, as with this entry at Blogs for Bush.

John Kerry’s Blog has now established a precedent where they they will de-link any site they find inappropriate. Well, let’s call them to task… Has the John Kerry team ever looked at Democratic Underground?

This too is an effort to keep the scandal cycle going by saying “here’s another one you didn’t know about.” The logic of de-linking refers the observer to the ultimate threat of political advertising. It shows how the scandal culture and the ads are intertwined with the money race. The fear of negative ads that can (later) be run against you is infinitely expansive, for just about anything can become subject matter for an attack. No meaningful connection—no link—between the candidate’s views and the scandalous thing is required. (The Willie Horton ads in 1988 proved it, this argument says.)

The ads “make” the connection happen at a level beyond argument, and those whose big weapon is argument, like Atrios, are helpless when this fear kicks in. Thus, in severing its link to Kos, the Kerry campaign didn’t try to make an argument; it stated a fact: “In light of the unacceptable statement about the death of Americans made by Daily Kos, we have removed the link to this blog from our website.”

Everyone in the game knows that many ads are run just to generate news clips about them and provide fodder for Washington talk shows; so the fear of ads yet to be be run is also a fear of a news blizzard. Right now this falls disproportionately on Kerry because Americans know less about him. Bring it on is a winning slogan, but the actions against Kos show that it isn’t a realistic operating style.

Over the frightening uncertainity created by scandal politics, by attack ads, by gaffe-seeking behavior in the press, and by opportunism among opponents, candidates try to assert some control, and thus reduce the risks of sudden implosion typified by the Dean scream. The “complementarity” that went bust for Atrios is at odds with this managerial impulse. But because it’s an impulse, an emotion as much as a strategy, moves to exert control often mean losing control, as participants attempt to take charge of the situation when the situation itself is in charge.

“The Kerry campaign is now operating on the standard that they are responsible for the comments made by any blogger they link to,” Atrios noted. There’s the attempt to control for unforseen consequence. “…and in fact will allow themselves to be forced into commenting on any transgressions.” And that’s how control turns into its opposite.

No one knows what a political blog “is” or should be. There are no standards and no patterns to emulate. There isn’t even common sense yet, just different sensibilities, styles, experiments. But while we don’t know how blogs that are also political sites should work, we do know something about how politics—the thing being entered into—works. At Matt Stoller’s post on the Kos matter, the blogger digby wrote this:

I maintain that we are going to have to decide if we are going to work on campaigns, fundraise, write analysis, satire, polemics or screeds and adjust our blogging habits accordingly. If you are going to be in politics, you have to play by the political rules. I don’t see this as being that big of a deal. If you want to be Jon Stewart you don’t get to be Joe Trippi. And if you want to bust spin you can’t be a spinner. It’s just a matter of making choices. There are many ways to contribute.”

Indeed there are; and this strikes me as common sense— post Kos comment. So does Matt Stoller when he writes: “Blogs create memory, whereas talk radio and cable punditry destroy it by turning opinion and analysis into an ethereal product. Both talk radio and blogs provide contextualized, chatty information; only blogs actually write it down.” And in that sense they are a boon to scandal culture.

Finally, while there is much that is ignoble in the patterns I describe, there were moments of honor in Blogistan, too— because of the incident. This defense of Kos by Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft is one. You can almost hear her rising on the floor of a new senate to speak in support, complete with links. I would include portions of this post from Roger L Simon, a Kos critic. (“People are going to continue to rant from behind their computer screens about this. I, for one, will do my best not to.”)

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, who certainly thought there was scandal here, (he said Kos was being “rather a weasel” about fessing up) expressed alarm when the Kos site appeared to go dark. “Kos now appears to have taken down his site. That seems excessive to me. All he really needed to do was to issue a genuine, non-weasely apology.” But the crash of the Daily Kos turned out to be nothing. “Kos is back now — just a server switchover, apparently,” said Reynolds. “That’s good.”

This is a small thing and may not mean much to Kos when words like “weasel” have been entered into the record. But its says something to everyone when Reynolds, sometimes called the King of Hits, gives a genuine sigh of relief that a competitor of sorts is back— competing. Newspaper journalists have been known to hold wakes when a competing daily in town dies, and they are genuinely sad when that happens. This matters because the CEO and shareholders of the “winning” company are definitely not saddened when the other newspaper goes down. That’s just capitalism, right?

Right. But while capitalism is always that, not everything in newspapering is “just capitalism.” The journalist’s wake says so. And in politicking by blog not everything is partisan. No habit has done as much damage to the world as the habit of thinking that one principle meets and conquers all givens, and that one thing is always going on. Signs that this is not so, when it most seems so, are always welcome. Scandal culture runs deep; I said that. And there are scandalous things in politics, so it’s not like we don’t need the culture. But there are things that run counter to the it’s automatic part of scandal. During scandal time those things are most needed.

So what is the real meaning of the political verb: to link? Atrios—who, like Kos, Reynolds and others, is a new kind of “influential”—is asking himself that now. But it’s an uncontrolled experiment, and from that point of view, a clarifying result is a success. “Recent events have made me rethink the way we do things around here,” he said. “I think it’s time for a few policy changes.” That’s politics at the weblogs today— in the wild, on the fly.

Aftermath: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Julian Sanchez surveys the Kos matter, in a post called Outrage Kabuki at Reason Online:

“One might even say the Internet makes outrage easy. In that vast sea of rapidly composed missives, every day presents dozens of new opportunities to be appalled, and that special moral satisfaction that comes only from a good bout of righteous indignation guarantees that each will find an audience. Those for whom political allegiance provides a sense of tribal community already delight in the ritual display of contempt for the worst of what the other side comes up with—each Michael Moore and Ann Coulter doppelganger forming a node in a feedback loop with no end in sight.”

Iron Bear at Who Tends the Fires writes Rumors of Our Discourse are Greatly Exaggerated:

DailyKos is a prominent pundit who’s managed to become a political commodity. He’s perfectly free to say “Screw them, they’re just mercenaries and who cares?” Michael Friedman is prefectly free to express his speech by writing Kos’ advertisers: that’s excercising his right as a consumer to let a commodity—politicians—know that they’re being assciated with another unsavorable commodity. Kos’s supporters are perfectly free to think it’s silly and outrageous and to say so. I’m perfectly free to write unflattering filks about it.

On April 4, Kos assessed the damage as follows:

So I said something pretty stupid last week. I served up the wingnuts a big, juicy softball. They went into a tizzy, led by Instapundit. And for a while, I was actually pretty worried.

But the final tally was — about 30 hate-filled emails, about 15,000 hate-filled visitors, and the pulling of three advertising spots that are going to be replaced in less than a week. (I had two emails today about people wanting to advertise despite the controversy.)

But see the comments for the reactions of supporters.

Ross Mayfield at Many to Many on links-as-votes and “vote links,” a technological fix for the problem: “is to link to endorse?”

Atrios emails, clarifying his policy: “I’m not going to stop trying to raise funds. I’m just going to sever anything resembling an ‘official relationship’ - which basically just means the donation tracking pages. So, I’ll encourage my readers to give, we just won’t know how much they’ve given.”

UPDATE April 10. Ed Cone reports on another attempted “link” scandal: “In the wake of Kerry’s craven delinking of Kos, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is trying to smear blogging Oklahoma Democrat Brad Carson by pointing out his links to Kos, Brad DeLong, and Juan Cole.”

The Tulsa World carries a front page story quoting Dan Allen, communications director for the NRSC: “I think this speaks volumes as to the type of people Carson would associate with if he were elected to the United States Senate.”

But Carson has not disavowed the links (which came in posts at his weblog.) He posted this reply: “Let me say this: about half the sites I link to are conservative, about half are liberal. They are all interesting reading….If you are one of my supporters, please read a varied list of sources, both liberal and conservative, so that you can better understand the world around you. If you are one of the NRSC’s kind of folks, only read material that reinforces your political perspective.”

FURTHER UPDATE, April 11. Carson, it turns out, did give in to pressure and remove a reference and link to Kos from a March 16 post listing blogs he likes. This is what it used to look like. And now it looks like this. See the comments thread here for discussion, much of it supportive of Carson but seemingly unaware that he removed the Kos reference without saying why.

Thus, we have a Us Congressman and Senate candidate removing, under pressure from the press and the Republicans, a reference to Kos in a post listing blogs he likes, but then appearing to stick up for “freedom to link” principles and—so far, at least—leaving the apparent contradiction unexplained, while accepting praise from readers for his courageous and witty stand. And this action came not against a blogroll with “official” links, but a mere reference in a post. Certainly a turn in the scandal.

And here’s Carson in the comments section of his blog: “This issue right now is not about the war — because I supported it — but about the right of people and media sources to say what they want, EVEN IF I disagree.”

EVEN FURTHER UPDATE, April 11: Now the Kos link from March 16 is back, after Ed Cone and I inquired. Brad Luna, an aide to Carson writes: “Jay — Thanks for the heads up and bringing it to our attention. Miscommunication on our end. It’s all set straight now.” (See my earlier comments here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 7, 2004 6:42 PM