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June 27, 2007

"Mother Jones invites you to question if the Politics 2.0 revolution really lives up to its hype."

And PressThink asks whether the printing press progressives at Mother Jones have any kind of grip. "They saw the Internet and freaked: this can't be real. Recovering their bravery, they decided to debunk it."

Mother Jones magazine has come out with a special Politics 2.0 package. It has a great collection of interviews with “bloggers, politicos, and Netizens,” including MyDD’s Jerome Armstrong, Howard Dean, Chris Rabb of Afronetizen, Digg’s Kevin Rose, conservative Grover Norquist, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, and Phil de Vellis, the guy who created that “Hillary 1984” video. Absorb them all and you have a tour d’horizon for how the Web is changing politics.

The writing and framing from the journalists at Mother Jones is another story. This will give you the flavor:

Are we entering a new era of digital democracy—or just being conned by a bunch of smooth-talking geeks?

New dawn or techo con game: such illuminating alternatives! Again:

Blogs, social networking, and viral video are redefining where political discussion takes place. But are they just replacing the old machine bosses with a new group of bullies?

And what an irony that would be. (See Meet the New Bosses.) Another:

Is old media dead, or is the blogosphere just a flash in the pan?

Because we know it’s one or the other. Those quotes come from a press release that landed in my box yesterday, provoking me with breezy hype about all the hype-busting going on at Mother Jones, an investigative magazine of the left.

“Mother Jones invites you to question if the Politics 2.0 revolution really lives up to its hype.” (Press release again.) When I later asked Clara Jeffery, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, from whence comes this impulse to debunk (and who provided the bunk that made your de-bunking so imperative…?) she said: impulse to debunk? We weren’t out to debunk. I don’t know what you’re talking about. We said some good things and we said some skeptical things. You have a problem with that?

Which is kinda how the whole interview went.

I thought I was her asking about an editorial decision Mother Jones made: to frame and present its report on “open source politics” not with an idea of its own, or a conclusion reached via reporting, but with the standard myth-busting software journalists load into their prose machines a zillion times a year.

The package begins with a page that is made up like a Wikipedia entry for Open Source Politics. (Of course no one can edit it, except Mother Jones.) This was meant to ease you into the bouncy, crap-detecting spirit of the section and get you to read it, while having a little fun with the form. Thus…

The neutrality of this story is disputed.

Open-Source Politics

Open-source politics is the idea that social networking and participatory technologies will revolutionize our ability to follow, support, and influence political campaigns. Forget party bosses in smoky backrooms—netroots evangelists and web consultants predict a wave of popular democracy as fundraisers meet on MySpace, YouTubers crank out attack ads, bloggers do oppo research, and cell-phone-activated flash mobs hold miniconventions in Second Life. The halls of power will belong to whoever can tap the passion of the online masses. That kid with a laptop has Karl Rove quaking in his boots. And if you believe that, we’ve got some leftover stock to sell you.

Fun, right? I had lots of questions about this part but Jeffery was again mystified as to why I would even ask. Sure, it’s snarky, she said. But the point of the fake wiki page was “to set up the ‘it’ll change everything,’ ‘it’ll change nothing’ tension that runs throughout the package.” And that is how the package is framed. My question was: why? Through several emails and a phone interview, I failed in getting an answer.

Ohmygod this is going to change everything! as against Same shit as always. To Clara Jeffery those are two different thoughts. To me they are the same idea: don’t think it through yourself, use rote forms: the revolutionary and his glorious dawn to come, the reactionary who spits at the new. To her there is some kind of “tension” between these views. To me there is no tension because they are fake alternatives to begin with— just off-the-shelf bi-polar hype-speak from Mother Jones.

If you read their interviews with smart people who know politics or know the Web, they are far more grounded. Take Mike Cornfield of George Washington University, who said:

There’s a big difference between having a technical capacity to do something and having the willpower to organize people and persuade them and make history. There’s just a huge gap there.

Or Jane Hamsher on the kingmaking powers of the online left:

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably don’t need the netroots behind them— they just need us not to hate them.

So I asked Jeffery: if your sources, the people you talked to for this report, didn’t hold such extreme views (“it’ll change everything” or “it’ll change nothing”) and if, after checking into it, twelve writers and editors working for Mother Jones didn’t come down in either of these camps, then why in the world would you use that “tension” to frame the thing? Where did it come from? Couldn’t you find anything better in the reporting you did?

The question—like all my questions—did not compute. She did, however, say that taking two extreme-ified claims and discovering that the truth is somewhere in the middle was a “perfectly standard” treatment in journalism. I had to agree with her on that. But it seemed like a strange explanation. Ours is the same lame frame game you see everywhere in the press, so what’s your problem with it, Jay?

Reality is elsewhere. That’s my problem with it. Here’s what Phil de Vellis said…

There are still gatekeepers. There are just a lot more of them, and new ones all the time.

Observe how this sort of statement doesn’t scream out, “revolutionary alert: there are no more gatekeepers!” Nor does it idiotically contend, curmudgeon-style, that since everything hasn’t been overturned nothing is really different. Vellis says: The political media system hasn’t crumbled, it still stands. But there are changes, and some of them show a pattern that is quite different from the old pattern, so we have to keep an eye on this.

Compare that to Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery in their editors’ note introducing the Mother Jones package, piling irony on irony in their hype-busting prose.

And what of the glorious netroots? Already we’ve seen some of these gate-crashers act more like gatekeepers, promoting groupthink, punishing dissent, and growing drunk on the tribute that old-school pols and the msm now provide them. Not only that, but the blogosphere hardly looks like America yet: as Afro-Netizen’s Chris Rabb notes, those “who could afford to sleep on Howard Dean’s couch in Vermont are the same people who can raise the money to build a digital consultancy or a social networking site.” Is democracy’s best hope just another—if somewhat bigger and younger—elite? Even if the online conversation broadens, not everyone in the crowd is wise, as the digital road rage in comment threads so often proves. And if you thought Willie Horton and Swift Boating were slimy, wait till every last racist smear or dirty lie finds its way to YouTube or Digg.

An outstanding feature of this kind of writing is the question that really isn’t a question because for savvy journalists there is only one plausible answer.

Can revolutionaries hold true to their lofty declarations, or will they inevitably be corrupted by power?

Pop quiz: which of those views is meant to scan “naive,” and which reads “savvy?” Give up so soon? Revolutionaries holding to lofty ideals as they become more established— not likely. And Mother Jones did not find any cases worth reporting. Revolutionaries with lofty rhetoric getting corrupted by proximity to power? Well, yeah— that happens. That’s where the real word is. That’s the savvy view.

“In the world of ‘Politics 2.0’ the masses are forging a more transparent political system—one where bottom-up organizing trumps top-down messaging,” the press release says. “Or so we’ve been led to believe by bloggers and web consultants.”

I asked Clara Jeffery who these bloggers and web consultants were, the ones who were leading us to believe things that Mother Jones just had to challenge. Had she spoken to any? Those true believers she wrote about, did they have names or anything? Again she didn’t understand the question. Why was I asking her about imagery in a press release that some flack sent out?

(Hey, Shel, help me out here, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? Press release goes out. PressThink receives it and has a few questions. Flack passes me along to editor. Editor says: huh?) Jeffery did mention that in this interview a real live revolutionary with lofty declarations could be found.

In March Jonathan Chait wrote about the Netroots in The New Republic, not the same subject but very similar terrain. Unlike the happy balloon poppers at Mother Jones, he at least had an interpretation to offer:

The Democratic leadership and the liberal intelligentsia seemed pathetic and exhausted, wedded to musty ideals of bipartisanship and decorousness. Meanwhile, what the netroots saw in the Republican Party, they largely admired. They saw a genuine mass movement built up over several decades. They saw a powerful message machine. And they saw a political elite bound together with ironclad party discipline.

This, they decided, is what the Democratic Party needed. And, when they saw that the party leadership was incapable of creating it, they decided to do it themselves.

When I asked Clara Jeffery what her interpretation was from all the reporting time her team put in, she had one: “Politics 2.0 is still a work in progress.” (MOTHER JONES CHALLENGES THE POLITICS 2.0 “REVOLUTION;” CLAIMS RESULTS ARE NOT IN YET.) Chait agreed that the results are not in, but didn’t leave it there:

What they have accomplished in just a few years is astonishing. Already, the netroots are the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago. And, by all appearances, they are far from finished with their task: recreating the Democratic Party in the image of the conservative machine they have set out to destroy.

Which may not be entirely accurate but it does cause conversation, and from conversation additional layers of understanding may grow.

The Mother Jones editors had a great story about politics and the web within their grasp, but they were too busy fabricating myths they could bust up later— and so they missed it. Jerome Armstrong told them: right now there’s a generational conflict being played out within the campaigns. In 2004 the “big” operators around the candidate weren’t focused on the Internet, and didn’t see why they should be. And so at times the kids and outsiders could show the way to new uses, bypassing legacy thinking at the top.

Now in ‘08 all the old hands have woken up to the Internet and through embrace and extend they have tried to exert control over that department, colonizing it for the kind of command and control, push-the-message politics where (boomer) knowledge is ancient and decisive. “I know people on all these campaigns that work on the Internet and they’re frustrated as hell,” said Armstrong. “That’s throughout the Democratic Party.” But I bet you could find a similar dynamic on the Republican side.

“It’s a generational gap between the decision makers that lead the candidates and campaigns, and the campaign managers, who are directors of the different departments.” Somebody will do that story (a good story!) but it won’t be the printing press progressives at Mother Jones. They saw the Internet and freaked: this can’t be real. Recovering their bravery, they decided to debunk it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

“There is no Boss Tweed of the blogosphere, and I don’t think there ever will be.”

Daniel Glover, National Journal’s Beltway Blogger reacts to the treament of his ideas by Mother Jones. He was interviewed for the package, and was also asked to write for it. His quotes about bloggers being thin-skinned made it into Daniel Shulman’s piece, Meet the New Bosses. What didn’t make it in? “The fact that I disagreed with his very thesis — that an elite group of mafia-type bosses in the liberal blogosphere controls lesser bloggers and intimidates traditional power brokers.”

Glover says he saw signs of a “pre-determined thesis.” He says my objection to the tone of the package “is a legitimate criticism.” And he says blogger reactions to Mother Jones show that the thin-skins and knee-jerk reactions remain. In other words: a must read post.

And don’t miss the comments where (in a civilized discussion) Daniel Schulman says: pre-determined thesis? Impossible, and insulting. Co-editor Monika Bauerlein says “Dan Schulman is too good a reporter to go into a piece with a predetermined conclusion.” Impossible! But Glover sticks to his guns. How does he know? Because he heard the pitch for the piece himself when Mother Jones asked him to take it on as a freelancer, and he saw his views coveniently ignored when they didn’t fit the thesis.

Shulman then comments at PressThink: “[Glover] said that while some bloggers command bigger followings than others, no single blogger is setting the agenda so to speak. I agree and you’ll notice that I don’t suggest otherwise in my story, (nor will you find the words ‘gatekeeper’ or ‘boss’ anywhere in the body of my piece.” Headline to his article:

Meet the New Bosses

News: After crashing the gate of the political establishment, bloggers are looking more like the next gatekeepers.

Glover’s interview is not one of the ones you can find in the Mother Jones compendium: Interviews with Bloggers, Politicos, and Netizens on Politics 2.0. Why would that be? Explained here.

“No, we did not set out to debunk politics 2.0,” explains Mother Jones co-editor Monika Bauerlein at another must read post in comments (July 1.) “We did set out to debunk some hype that we saw within that universe.” (That’s a change—but a welcome change—from what had been a position denying any such intent; thus, my italics.) More:

No, we are not the victims of a rogue press agent. We approved the press release. It is a work of marketing, which doesn’t make it bad or false or “from another planet,” but which does mean that it highlights elements of the package that are assumed will get people’s attention and get them to look closer. The closer look is what’s intended; a press release is a tease, not a summary.

“And yes, there is similar ‘revolution-or-snake-oil’ framing in the heads and deks for the package.”

MoJo blog replies. What is Jay Rosen For? by Josh Harkinson. I thought this part revealing.

[Rosen is] writing from the perspective of an avid blogger who is familiar with the ins and outs of the Politics 2.0 world (I think) and doesn’t seem to realize that some of our readers, especially of the print magazine, are not. People with less exposure to that world need to understand the big questions at play—What’s the deal with this grand Politics 2.0 talk?—before they will see a reason to read about it. So we use that question as a starting point and then flesh it out with more nuance.

Yes, the big questions…. Perhaps that’s why in the print edition of Mother Jones the cover package is entitled, “Politics 2.0 smackdown.”

Points to Mother Jones for engaging with the blogosphere. And here.

Monika Bauerlein comments at the Huffington Post version:

Jay, thanks for spreading the word about our package—we’re delighted you’re helping get the word out. And when folks actually read it, they’ll see that it’s a pretty wide-ranging exploration of how technology is transforming politics, how politics is transforming the netroots, and lots of other questions. Why you’ve gone on a crusade to take this down as some sort of fake exercise in myth-busting (or why myth-busting would be a bad thing, especially for progressives, anyway) is a mystery to us, but feel free.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman, now with the Committe of Concerned Journalists, emails. “Seems to me that we need to find a way to bring the public into the act of journalism in a more effective way than we have thus far.”

Here’s what I love about blogging: you ring people up with a question, they drop by to answer you. Shel Holz, ace PR-in-the-Web-age blogger, (“Shel, help me out here…”) in the comments:

Jay, that was exactly what you were supposed to do. Were I the flack who sent out the release (a questionable tactic in the blogosphere to begin with), I would be gratified to learn that it had motivated you to seek an interview. And if the interview had gone the way you described, I would spend a sleepless night wondering if the client was worth the billables. One wonders how much time the client has spent learning how to talk to the press (or bloggers), all the more distressing given she is a member of the press herself. This suggests nothing about the rightness or wrongness of Mother Jones’ point of view on Politics 2.0, merely its approach to addressing those who responded as desired to its outreach efforts.

Thanks for asking.

Micah Sifry in The Nation, Sep. 2004, The Rise of Open-Source Politics.

Micah Sifry in the comments defends his statement at the MoJo blog, “there are no gatekeepers anymore.” Clara Jeffrey at the MoJo blog contests Sifry on the “cream rises,” calling him naive to think that. Blogger Hubris 3.0 by MoJo reporter Daniel Schulman warns us: “The egalitarian blogtopia Sifry knows and loves is changing—and not always for the better.”

Mike Cornfield emails:

They swung their counter-establishment bat at the already flimsy (straw hombre) idea that the Internet will bring about a democratic revolution. A lot of interesting quotes tumbled out, mixed in with some not so interesting ones and a lot of facts and factoids. For what it’s worth, I was pleased to be among the many interviewed, and they quoted me accurately and excerpted me fairly. But I didn’t see anything extraordinary in the contents, positive or negative.

Off the shelf pressthink will do that for ya.

Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice: “Rosen’s reaction to the Mother Jones piece is in a way reacting to our whole culture being enmeshed in the Hollywood idea of ‘high concept’: where things are painted in simplistic, starkly contrasting, immediately recognizeable terms.”

Clara Jeffery hits the blogs for some dialogue with those who linked to my post: “As the editor of Mother Jones, I would ask only that you and your readers take a look at the package itself, and not just Rosen’s windy and self-promoting screed.”

In These Times from 2006, Can Blogs Revolutionize Progressive Politics?

Matt Stoller emails: “[Reporter Daniel] Schulman sent me questions about the slippery line, ethically speaking, of bloggers working for campaigns. I emailed him and asked him to google ‘blogger ethics panel’, and he didn’t get the point. There are lots of conflicts of interest in politics and journalism, the internet just makes them transparent. This is actually much more consequential for old political figures whose conflicts of interest are now on display than it is for bloggers, who are accountable directly to their audience (nothing keeps you on your toes like having thousands of people shouting at you every day).”

Schulman in the Mother Jones article, “The New Bosses.”

Moulitsas has been on paternity leave and didn’t respond to interview requests. When I emailed Townhouse list owner Matt Stoller to talk about this story, Stoller replied tersely: “Google ‘blogger ethics panel.’” (A running blogosphere joke, the query brings up various tales of mainstream media hypocrisy.) Then he posted my email on MyDD as the inaugural message in a series he calls, simply, “Annoying Email.”

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones replies in the comments:

Much of your argument against our Politics 2.0 package presupposes that the extremes of thought on net politics—“revolutionary” or “irrelevant”—do not exist. I will grant that people who are truly informed on the subject don’t hold black and white views, but the rhetoric that they and the press employ frequently comes off as, totally unambiguous, and results in a mistaken impression that things really are that simple. It is thus unfair to say that we are setting up two straw men. The straw men are already there. Yes, knocking them down is easy, but it’s also a way to, in the process, explore a lot of interesting issues raised by politics 2.0 with more complexity and nuance.

I like that: the straw men are already there; heck, let’s use ‘em! Josh also reminds me that Mother Jones has had a web site since 1993 and is “edited and written these days mostly by Gen-X. kids.” Never heard of a young curmudgeon? I know quite a few.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 27, 2007 5:04 PM