Bloggers and Pamphleteers
Karl Frisch and Lawrence Lessig on netroots politics
When it comes to politics on the Internet, there are three common stereotypes: angry bloggers from the left, angry rumor mills on the right, and angry independents/conspiracy theorists. But there are a growing number of organizations attending this weekend's Netroots Nation convention in Austin dedicated to using Web 2.0 tools not only to post their arguments but to improve the quality of politics.
A veteran of presidential campaigns for both Republicans (Sens. Lamar Alexander and John McCain, both in 2000) and Democrats (Gov. Howard Dean in 2004), Karl Frisch is now communications director for the nonpartisan media watchdog group Media Matters for America. Physically based in Washington, D.C., and funded by donations and grants, the group scours the media landscape for conservative and institutional half-truths, lies, and misrepresentation, then posts the results online for everyone to see. A vital aspect of Media Matters for America (www.mediamatters.org), Frisch argues, is that while it is avowedly and openly progressive, "we're ideological, not partisan. We've defended conservatives before, and we've criticized liberals."
Frisch sees the site's role as extending beyond just finding factual errors to identifying media sins of omission. He points to several major "wins": cataloging sexism in the coverage of Sen. Hillary Clinton; helping capsize the "unpatriotic" Swift boating smears against Sen. John Kerry in 2004, even as they become what he calls the "slow boating" of Barack Obama in 2008; and highlighting the overlooked role of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's anti-war stance in his presidential primary successes. "It's correcting the public record," he said. "There is no partisan nature or ideological nature of truth. Truth is one-sided."
Reaching out to other Internet progressives is almost inevitable, since they adapted to the Web faster than mainstream conservatives. Just as Republicans co-opted direct-mailing in the Fifties and Sixties and talk radio in the Eighties, Nineties Democrats exiled from the mythical liberal mainstream media moved online. They took advantage of easy access to the Web as an outlet and organizing tool, but it was a slow process for campaigns to catch up with the possibilities.
"1998 was the first time we even considered getting e-mail addresses, and we only got 15, because people didn't know they could be on a campaign mailing list," Frisch recalled. The tipping point came with Dean's landmark Web-savvy 2004 presidential nomination campaign, which set the direction for online campaigning and activist outreach. "Not only were people comfortable giving online to a candidate," Frisch explained, "but you had a campaign that was comfortable integrating the Internet into different aspects of the campaign, like fieldwork and community-building. So a lot of things that we accept as the norm now were developed then and have been perfected since." The new online oversight role for progressives, Frisch said, is just balancing "40 years of conservatives saying the media has a 'liberal bias,' with little to no evidence. That's an intent-versus-content approach. I wish we had as many palm readers and psychics in our movement."
For Frisch, it's not enough to be a corrections service for the media. Instead, the smear, rumor, and misinformation ingredients of so much modern politicking and journalism have to be reversed. "When the train has gone 100 miles an hour down the wrong track, it's not just a matter of stopping the train; it's about reversing direction," he said.
Fixing the Process
Enter cyber-political activists like Netroots keynote speaker Lawrence Lessig. Widely considered the philosopher-king of Web theorists, Lessig is a founding board member of copyright-law reformers Creative Commons and a former board member of online freedom advocates the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Stanford Law School professor has helped push society to look at the Internet as much more than what Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens once described as a "series of tubes." Lessig's latest project, Change Congress (co-founded with another Dean '04 veteran, his national campaign manager, Joe Trippi), has shifted his emphasis from defense of the Web to reforming the political process. The project's cornerstone is a four-part pledge for candidates and voters, requiring commitments to campaign finance reform, public campaign financing, congressional reform, and an end to earmarks (local pork-barrel projects). Like Lessig's earlier work, the success of Change Congress (www.change-congress.org) will depend upon the mobilizing power and societal impact of the Internet. Step one is getting bloggers on board. "What I'm hoping to do is to recruit a whole bunch of these activists from the netroots to this cause," Lessig told me, "because unless we can get activists to get involved, we're not going to get very far."
Lessig hopes he can get bloggers to promote the project and subsequently enforce the pledge through online oversight. Like Frisch, he looks beyond party lines: Three of the five congressional candidates to take the pledge in May were Republicans. In the same vein, he hopes conference attendees look beyond this campaign cycle, with its specific questions and specific candidates. "I hope they take away that there's a really critical need to focus on these process questions," he said. "Focusing exclusively on substantive questions, like global warming and the war in Iraq, is critical, but we're never going to make progress until we solve this process issue of the corrosive effect of money in politics."
Change Congress is far from the only Internet-savvy group trying to reform the process. The D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation (whose former national director, Zephyr Teachout, is another Netroots Nation speaker, as well as another Dean '04 campaign veteran) constructs and funds online tools vital to many political journalists and bloggers, such as Congresspedia and OpenSecrets.org. But Lessig is adamant that, while such online openness is most likely to first take root in the tech-savvy progressive blogosphere, "it's only going to succeed if we convince people in the conservative movement that it's important to them."
Lessig does not expect all bloggers to extinguish their fire-and-brimstone political rhetoric. Nor does he think that would be healthy, as they are the activists a constitutionally assured freedom of the press was designed to protect from the 18th century beginning of the pre-netroots nation. "There was no New York Times; there was no Washington Post; there was no Wall Street Journal – there was the 'blogosphere' in the pamphlets, and they were terrible," he said. "Some of them were obviously great; many of them were lies and malicious and outrageous. But the Framers said, 'We've got to protect this.'"