Sunday, December 31, 2006

War Bloggers

Mainstream media commentary on the blog phenomenon tends to follow a common pattern. After a few breathless paragraphs about the power of the individual the reader is told that much of what appears in the blogosphere is dangerous opinionated nonsense.

What the reader is not told of course is that much of what is published in the mainstream media is dangerous opinionated nonsense. The left and right both complain about conservative or liberal bias but the real bias of the press is to constantly repeat the comfortable prejudices of the Washington beltway, prejudices that bear little resemblance to either reality or the real political concerns of the country.

The mainstream media in the US knows how to package celebrities and trivia. Predictable mediocrity delivers ratings more reliably than taking a risk. That's why the networks show an hour of Letterman and Leno every single night of the week despite the fact that neither manages to be funny for more than ten minutes a night. Both frequently go an entire night without being funny at all. Comedy depends on freshness and suprise, nobody can be funny for an hour five nights a week every week. The shows they host are both carbon copies of the tired formula Bob Hope established in the 1930s when he took his vaudeville act to the radio.

Political reporting and analysis follows the same model. This is why it does not matter how many times or how badly a pundit might be wrong. As Paul Krugman recently observed, if they are a familiar face with predictable opinions they will still get preference over any number of pundits whose predictions were accurate.

The blogosphere is sometimes held up as an example of the antidote to this situation but if you look more closely the blogsphere has pathologies of its own and not just those the mainstream media projects onto it.

In the first place we have to ask why the blogosphere happened when it did. The Web has been a mass media for over a decade. People have used the Web to write online political diaries for a decade. I had a politics site on the Web in 1992.

What has changed here is not the technology, it is the politics. The defining event for the blogosphere in the US was the invasion of Iraq. Until that point liberals opposed to the war could at least pretend that their opinions were fairly represented in the mainstream media. The refusal of the mainstream media to broadcast any views that were even skeptical of the war aims or its chance of success made this impossible. Liberals quickly abandoned the mainstream media in favor of outlets that were willing to report news that did not conform to the beltway consensus: Jon Stewart's Daily Show and the blogosphere.

The UK blogosphere is nowhere near as influential as the US blogosphere despite a party system that is in many ways more conducive. The UK media did not fail in the same way or the same extent as the US media did.

The liberal blogosphere is essentially defined by opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The right wing blogosphere is defined by its opposition to the liberal blogosphere and a Stalinesque repetition of the Whitehouse line, the only deviation from which being the Orwellian view that Napoleon's only failing is his willingness to compromise with his opponents when he should stick fast to his principles.

The outcome of this situation is likely to be profoundly different for the two principal parties. Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga may have fail led in his attempt to unseat Joe Lieberman but any Democrat who aspires to an office they do not already hold needs his support. Barak Obama may be the darling of the mainstream media but his chance of winning the Democratic Presidential nomination is zero as long as Kos is pointing out that two years as a senator is hardly an impressive record of public service. Kos and the netroots are not only the new kingmakers of the Democratic party they are its future. By the 2016 elections expect blogging to be considered an essential qualification for becoming a Democratic candidate.

The same is definitely not true of the conservative bloggers, few of whom even attempt to establish any position independent of the party line. Their role is to endorse, not influence decisions. They are no more kingmakers or future candidates in the party than Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. The warbloggers emerged from a clique that was convinced that the principle failing of the mainstream media was its unfair reporting of Israel.

This situation might have changed if the conservative blogs had begun to act more like the liberal blogs in the wake of the 2006 midterm defeat. But the Iraq war remains the central issue of US politics and all of the conservative big blogs make clear that they will severely punish any Republican who dares make any suggestion that might threaten the security of Israel as they view it.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republican party has never been considered a 'safe' supporter of Israel. The current Neo-con clique is markedly different in this respect from the first Bush administration when James Baker made his famous observation "F*** the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway". The conservative bloggers are mostly supporters of the Likud approach to Israeli politics who are intent on making sure that the Republican party does not deviate from this position in the future. An examination of the political blogs in the run up to the 2006 midterms is instructive: while the liberal blogs were focused on fundraising, campaigning and organizing the conservative blogs were more concerned by the latest events in Israel.

As a result the warbloggers do not create or facilitate an internal party debate as the liberal bloggers do, their aim is to suppress it and they are likely to continue to do so long after the need for a debate is painfully obvious. Over the past decade the Republican party has campaigned on an anti-gay hate plank. They are entirely capable of campaigning on an anti-Semitic plank if they see advantage in doing so. If they are not going to blame themselves for the Iraq fiasco they have few other choices. Things are likely to become very unpleasant.

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