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Obama’s Army of Bloggers

social-media-people

National Journal‘s James Oliphant argues that “Progressive Bloggers Are Doing the White House’s Job.”

It’s been a familiar pattern since President Obama took office in 2009: When critics attack, the White House can count on a posse of progressive writers to ride to its rescue. Pick an issue, from the Affordable Care Act to Ukraine to the economy to controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi, and you’ll find the same voices again and again, on the Web and on Twitter, giving the president cover while savaging the opposition. And typically doing it with sharper tongues and tighter arguments than the White House itself.

While the bond between presidential administrations and friendly opinion-shapers goes back as far as the nation itself, no White House has ever enjoyed the luxury that this one has, in which its arguments and talking points can be advanced on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. No longer must it await the evening news or the morning op-ed page to witness the fruits of its messaging efforts.

While this is literally true, I’m not sure it’s meaningfully true. The same argument was being advanced more than a decade ago, when an army of conservative bloggers, myself included, was helping the Bush administration advance the case for war with Iraq, often making the argument much better—and certainly more sharply—than the administration itself.

But, yes, things have advanced since then. Social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have systematized the spread of talking points in a way that didn’t exist in the early days of blogging. Blogging itself has professionalized and consolidated such that it’s essentially indistinguishable from the online versions of newspapers and magazines. And those mainstream publications are much less powerful than they used to be.

Still, the more interesting part of Oliphant’s argument isn’t the mere fact of a corps of partisan journalists and commentators helping the administration but the nature of that help.

Credit the explosion of social media, the fragmentation of news, the erosion of the institutional press. Fortuitously for the president, the modern media landscape not only provides ample space for the expression of pure partisanship, it actively encourages it. Backing your friends and belittling your enemies is a healthy business model, one rewarded by a torrent of clicks, retweets, “likes,” and links. “The incentives are to play ball,” says one former liberal blogger, “not to speak truth to power. More clicks. More action. Partisanship drives clicks.”

The Obama administration had the good fortune to come to power just when the forces undermining the traditional media became truly disruptive, creating a Web-based royalty. And those who came of age, who mastered the new tools, were largely in step with the administration—in many respects mirroring the young Turks in Obama’s ranks who used those tools in similar ways to get the president elected.

The new landscape has allowed the White House communications shop do what it does best: Figure out new ways to bypass the mainstream media. It holds off-the-record briefings, sometimes with Obama in the room, for select progressive bloggers from outlets such as TPM and ThinkProgress. (More than once, a National Journal reporter who previously worked at a liberal outlet has been invited as well.)

The outreach to progressive bloggers is part of a multipronged White House media strategy that also involves briefings with the likes of bureau chiefs, prominent columnists, even conservative writers such as Byron York and David Brooks, although certainly with each group, the mileage varies.

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

The hope, from the White House’s perspective, is that progressive media elites sway the mainstream press. “Obviously, all journalists are reading each other on Twitter,” says Tim Miller, executive director of the conservative America Rising PAC and a former spokesman for Jon Huntsman. “If you’ve got very articulate, passionate bloggers on the left who are making arguments why something shouldn’t be news, that might have a shaming effect on other journalists who might not want to be mocked or who might be convinced by their arguments.”

What’s noteworthy here isn’t the fact of skilled progressive writers and activists flacking for the administration but the degree to which the administration is coordinating the effort and bypassing the traditional media, which is naturally more questioning. But even that’s not a new thing, just a perfection of what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were doing in their day. Clinton, in particular, famously used venues like the Don Imus and Arsenio Hall shows to get his word out and go around the Sam Donaldsons of the world, who would have asked more challenging questions.

At some point, though, a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind:

Certainly, the writers don’t always do the Democrats’ dirty work. Zaid Jilani, a former blogger for ThinkProgress,an arm of the progressive Center for American Progress, said the White House reacted angrily when he wrote a post critical of the administration’s Afghanistan policy. Other progressive writers say they have gotten pushback from Obama aides when they haven’t toed the line on issues such as surveillance and immigration.

Still, Jilani worries that some endorse the White House’s positions not because they always agree with them, but because they don’t want to give the GOP any fodder. “That’s a hard thing to separate,” he says.

Joan Walsh, an editor-at-large at Salon, brought this tension to a head last year when she slammed Klein for being too critical of the Obamacare rollout and, in essence, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. “On one hand, yes, it’s important for Democrats to acknowledge when government screws up, and to fix it,” Walsh wrote. “On the other hand, when liberals rush conscientiously to do that, they only encourage the completely unbalanced and unhinged coverage of whatever the problem might be.”

Unbalanced. Interesting word for a card-carrying member of the progressive media to use.

Administrations have long bullied the press, making it very uncomfortable for them to report damaging news and granting or denying access on the basis  of propensity to put a positive spin on information. The re-emergence of partisan media in recent years has made that even more visible, with Republicans more likely to give interviews to Fox News or the Washington Times and Democrats favoring MSNBC and more liberal papers.

But we’ve reached a point where other journalists are joining in the process, making loyalty to the team more important than truth, accuracy, or even fidelity to one’s ideological viewpoint. That’s bad for the country and, ultimately, even bad for the team.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    I disagree with Oliphant – I believe that even If this White House was “doing its job” the blogging media would still exist and be as engaged, energetic and mobilized as it is now. This is the world we live in today, it’s not going away. We’re not going back to that time where newspaper editorial boards had the influence that Oliphant seemingly imagines that bloggers have now.

    Also, all things not being equal, I have to ask: is the Progressive Army of Bloggers somehow equal to the Conservative Media Complex? I sincerely doubt that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    But we’ve reached a point where other journalists are joining in the process, making loyalty to the team more important than truth, accuracy, or even fidelity to one’s ideological viewpoint.

    A prime example is Lara Logan. I doubt she will ever be seen on CBS again but predict a great future on FOX news.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think it was

    the good fortune to come to power just when the forces undermining the traditional media became truly disruptive

    I don’t think that gives the administration enough credit. I think the Obama Administration came to power because of those forces. They harnessed those forces. Consider, for example, its unique GOTV campaign.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. superdestroyer says:

    @al-Ameda:

    In reality, the left side of the media is much more savvy, more intelligent, and more organized. There is no reason to watch MSNBC in the evening hours because anything said on that network has already been echoed at Thinkproress, Salon, Slate, Vox, etc. Liberals seem to work harder and think further ahead than conservatives.

    One of the reason that the Democrats have become the dominant political party is that 90% of the Ivy Leaguers are liberal Democrats, It would make sense that the new media would be just as liberal since it is made up of the same Ivy Leaguers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 8

  5. superdestroyer says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    GOTV is just about as overrated at campaign money. The best GOTV effort of the Democrats is the massive use of scare tactics to energize blacks to get out to vote. Since the Democrats know that blacks automatically vote for Democrats, all the Democrats need to do is get blacks excited about hating Republicans.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 18

  6. wr says:

    Completely ignored here is the fact that the rise of the progressive bloggers was almost entirely a reaction to the way the right wing was able to disseminate its bullshit through its paid media and then into mainstream sources all the way through the Clinton administration.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 33 Thumb down 1

  7. Rafer Janders says:

    But we’ve reached a point where other journalists are joining in the process, making loyalty to the team more important than truth, accuracy, or even fidelity to one’s ideological viewpoint.

    Um, I can find hundreds, thousands of examples of conservative media making loyalty to the team more important than truth or accuracy.

    I cannot, however, find the same on the liberal side. Sure, liberal bloggers espouse liberal viewpoints, but they generally don’t have to lie or make up facts to do it. The truth, oddly, has a liberal bias….

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 1

  8. Rafer Janders says:

    Joan Walsh over at Salon provides the smackdown to Oliphant’s hackery. Read the whole piece, but this sums it up:

    Thus were genuine public policy positions advanced by Democrats equated with the sideshow of faux-scandal mongering and race baiting that the GOP uses to mobilize its base. I called it another example of lazy, false-equivalence journalism.

    This piece tops it.

    For the record, I’ve lost friends over my willingness to criticize Barack Obama, going back to the 2008 primary. Only yesterday, the true-blue Obama precincts of Twitter were raging against me as an enemy of the president.

    I don’t so much defend the administration as defend the country from Republicans who cynically turned on their own ideas – the individual mandate, cap and trade legislation, immigration reform – once a Democratic president embraced them. I’m almost equally appalled by lazy Beltway wags who can’t see the radicalism of today’s GOP and reduce everything to their own “both sides do it” false equivalence.

    In other words, I’m not doing the White House’s job. I’m doing my own. It’s sad how few journalists bother these days.

    http://www.salon.com/2014/05/09/super_dopey_hack_gets_journalism_wrong_a_response_to_james_oliphant/

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  9. steve says:

    The left may or may not have an advantage with bloggers, I suspect they do, but the right owns talk radio. Cable news also goes overtly to the right. I think the two sides just have different preferences in media. Without data to back it up, so it is just an opinion, it seems like the right is driven much more by personalities. The left seems to be more influenced by key sites that are multi-authored.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  10. Rafer Janders says:

    @steve:

    Without data to back it up, so it is just an opinion, it seems like the right is driven much more by personalities. The left seems to be more influenced by key sites that are multi-authored.

    The right also favors technologies — TV and talk radio — that are one-way and passive, where the user can only listen and can’t respond or fact-check in real time. The left favors the Internet, which allows users to read at leisure, respond, post comments, fact-check, and provide links to verifying information.

    I will leave it to the reader to surmise as to why this is…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    To back up my point, just look at the commenters on this site. Sure, the liberal commenters can be harsh, strident, dismissive, partisan, etc. etc. But what they aren’t, as a whole, is dishonest. They do a good job of sticking to the facts, linking to verified news sources, and in general not making stuff up.

    You can’t say the same about the regular conservative commenters, who’ve been caught out in blatant lies time and time again, on pretty much an hourly basis.

    If you have to lie all the time to support your position, then it’s probably not such a great position.

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  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rafer Janders: As usual Joan nails it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    @Rafer Janders: And Rafer Janders nails it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  14. stonetools says:

    @wr:

    Completely ignored here is the fact that the rise of the progressive bloggers was almost entirely a reaction to the way the right wing was able to disseminate its bullshit through its paid media and then into mainstream sources all the way through the Clinton administration.

    Bingo. I call bulls!t on the idea that the liberal bloggers are anywhere near as hackish as the right wing bloggers. See Johnathon Cohn for a good analysis of the way right wing bloggers (including a certain D. Mataconis) will absolutely refuse to publish any good news about the ACA.

    As for me, I’m old enough to remember when Jane Hamsher of the FDL famously described the ACA as a “sh!t sandwich” and a giveaway to insurance companies. I remember Paul Krugman excoriating the Obama Administration for a too small stimulus. I certainly remember lots of criticism from left wing bloggers about the Administration being insufficiently bold and liberal on gay rights issues, among many other issues.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  15. superdestroyer says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Joan Walsh would have a point if she could point to the times where she critiiczed Jesse Jackson Jr, Kwame Kilpatrick, or other corrupt Democrats. To claim she is doing for the country but then to never find anything wrong in what any Democrat does shows how she really feels.

    In a few years I assume Ms. Walsh will be ecstatic when the U.S. is a single party state and the Democrats can do whatevery they want without worrying about being punished at the polls.

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  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Joan Walsh would have a point if she could point to the times where she critiiczed Jesse Jackson Jr, Kwame Kilpatrick, or other corrupt Democrats. To claim she is doing for the country but then to never find anything wrong in what any Democrat does shows how she really feels.

    And here’s another good example. In the Joan Walsh piece I excerpted above, she writes “For the record, I’ve lost friends over my willingness to criticize Barack Obama, going back to the 2008 primary.” And yet superdestroyer glosses right over this, despite having read it and referencing the piece, to claim that Walsh never finds “anything wrong in what any Democrat does.” It’s a flat-out lie.

    Sure, she criticizes Obama — but does she criticize Kwame Kilpatrick?!?! Going after obscure African-American politicians seems to be the true mark of seriousness….

    (Note that I had to Google to find out who Kwame Kilpatrick even was. And again, I leave it to the reader to surmise as to why all the names superdestroyer chose were of African-Americans….)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  17. CB says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Dude. Hardly anybody defended those guys. And if they did, they should be ashamed. What you certainly didn’t see was the Democratic establishment defending them. I wouldn’t go quite as far as RJ and say the left has a monopoly on truth, but its definitely not anywhere near a close call.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  18. Pinky says:

    Both sides need to patrol their own. There are right-wing sites that I not only avoid, but I talk down whenever I get the chance. Criticism from the other side will usually fall on deaf ears. You’ve got to call out the hacks on your own side.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  19. jukeboxgrad says:

    Anyone who thinks that liberals always back Obama has obviously never heard of Glenn Greenwald.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  20. superdestroyer says:

    @CB:

    Do you really think that if three Republican state Senators in Texas were under investigation for corruption that the left would ignore it. Yet, the left is ignoring the corruption issues in California now that it has come under one party rule.

    Ms. Walsh criticism is that President Obama is not liberal enough. That is far different than criticizing sitting politicians who are corrupt and are Democrats. Look at the reporting on Michael Grimm and the mentioning of him by Ms. Walsh to the ignoring of the corruption of Jesse Jackson Jr.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  21. Kari Q says:

    @superdestroyer:

    I don’t know where you get your news, SD, but Yee in particular has been big news in my area. He’s hardly being “ignored” unless by that you mean that they have demanded his resignation, refused to defend him, suspended him from the senate, and there has been extensive coverage in the media. Calderon and Wright are getting less attention, probably because they are not local. But Yee has gotten lots of attention.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  22. Grewgills says:

    @Kari Q:
    SD is immune to facts, maybe if you wave something shiny or brown.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    In among all your complimenting each other, you forgot how overwhelmingly modest you are.

    Also among your qualities you forgot to mention were absent-mindedness when it’s convenient. For example, it seems like all of you have forgotten the following incidents:

    1) The general agreement to cover up the Monica Lewinsky scandal, to the point of gleefully parroting the Clinton administration’s slanders of her and Newsweek’s spiking of their story — which was leaked to Matt Drudge, and led to the explosion of the truth. (Nowadays, Drudge is bigger than ever and Newsweek is dead or essentially dead — I can’t be bothered to check.) At that point, protecting President Boyfriend was more important than the truth.

    2) Dan Rather and CBS buying whole hog into the fake Texas Air National Guard memos, trying to throw the election to Kerry and introducing the country to the wonderful phrase “fake but accurate.”

    3) Alleged moderator Candy Crowley of CNN leaping to the defense of New President Boyfriend during the Obama/Romney debate and helping Obama pretend that he had been honest and forthcoming with the American people over Benghazi.

    4) Changing the tone of the White House Correspondents Dinner from “let’s all bust on the president to his face for the evening” into “let’s team up with the president and bust on his political enemies for the evening” — a policy that, I’m sure, will be rescinded when there’s another Republican president.

    5) The recasting of Sharyl Attkisson from “award-winning investigative journalist” to “willing tool of the right wing” because she wouldn’t go along with CBS’ spiking her stories that embarrassed President Boyfriend. You know, maybe if they’d kept her around, she’d have kept Lara Logan from being duped by that a-hole over Benghazi…

    Just five examples off the top of my head. But that’s five more than all of you can seem to recall…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  24. Pinky says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Leading horses to water and all that.

    An article like this won’t compel anyone to reflect on their own side’s problems, but it might nudge them. Accusations from across the aisle won’t – really, they’ll probably just make them more combatant. Let people on the left reflect. People on the right should take the time to do so as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  25. bill says:

    @superdestroyer: and another reason that “air America” failed- there’s already too much competition in that “thought” process. npr does a good job of sounding hokey, but they’re side of the story always leans liberal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0