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South of the James

Conaway Haskins III


The Day After Tomorrow


As the 2006 elections rush to a conclusion, the stars of the season – political bloggers – would be wise to think about what lies ahead for their vibrant, sometimes vicious community.


In early 2006 Virginia's political blogosphere was still regarded as a curiosity. Print journalists begrudgingly acknowledged that blogs and bloggers had impacted the the 2005 statewide and House of Delegates races, but there was no consensus on the likely impact of blogging going forward. No one predicted the fast and furious rise of blogging and bloggers to the pinnacle of politics in the Commonwealth.


Blogs added to the fireworks of the 2006 General Assembly session, helping torpedo the promised goodwill between the new governor and the House Republican leadership by uncovering the off-color comments made by a top gubernatorial staffer and by highlighting Republican opposition to a high-profile executive appointment.


Then writer and political neophyte Jim Webb threw his hat in the ring against Sen. George Allen earlier this year. His primary campaign effort was fueled by a band of bloggers and blog enablers who crashed the gates of the Democratic Party. Those bloggers and their partisan opponents turned media and politics in the stately Commonwealth on its head. To say that blogs played leading roles in the brutal 2006 elections is truly an understatement. The keenest political observers have resorted to doubly crediting and blaming bloggers for fostering the nasty tone of the campaign.


Now, as Virginia’s political bloggers head into the last night before Election Day, with visions of Senate victory parties dancing in their heads, it would seem like a good time for some practitioners to ponder what the future holds for both the craft and the crafters. The question is, "Where do we go from here?"


In the days following the 2006 election, there will inevitably a "morning after" effect, when the winners and losers start down an existential journey of ecstasy or despair. Such is life among the tin-foil posse. Unlike last year’s statewide battles, this 2006 election seems to have generated deep fissures in the “citizen media” community along partisan and ideological lines. The ecumenical nature of the early movement, in which bloggers of all stripes treated one another with courtesy and respect for the good of the order, yielded to a harder-edged partisanship this time around. Even the supposedly more “thoughtful” corners of blogdom (this writer pleads guilty) grew more strident.


To that end, it's worth discussing whether Virginia’s political bloggers can find any added value from maintaining a sense of connectedness that transcends fault lines, and if so, how that can be accomplished.


There are indications that the blogosphere can reunite for the common good. The University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute held its second Summit on Blogging & Democracy in the Commonwealth with assistance from a bipartisan team of bloggers. Then, just a few months later, maverick Democrat Ben Tribbett, conservative Republican Alton Foley and a cast of characters from rural Virginia put on the Blogs United in Martinsville for Free Speech. Both events, one by the “establishment” and the other by the “grassroots,” snagged corporate sponsors, high-profile journalists, and notable political figures.


Waldo Jaquith rolled out the massive and popular vapoliticalblogs.com aggregator, creating a one-stop shop for blogging content, and Dave Mastio blended his mainstream media and blogging experience into the BlogNetNews.com/Virginia site, which showcases both blog content and the MSM stories that they chew on. Richmond’s Terry Rea and Norfolk’s Vivian Paige conspired to hold the “Weekend Without Echoes,” a thoughtful and successful bid to generate reflective and original content – if only briefly - in contrast to the normal snarkfest. Finally, the nonpartisan Virginia Blog Carnival, an early mainstay created by conservative blog godfather Chad Dotson, is still going strong. All of these moves demonstrate that, when motivated, Virginia’s bloggers have the energy, ingenuity and thoughtfulness to collaborate.


In offline conversations with several bloggers from all over the spectrum, I broached the subject of forming a loose confederation of bloggers – with the working name of “Commonwealth Society of Bloggers” (SOBs - pun definitely intended) – that would advance a common blogging ethical code and preserve some semblance of unity across partisan and ideological divides. Put bluntly, the society would cover our collective butts against outside agitators seeking to do us harm.


Such a joint effort is not unheard of. Conservative and Republican bloggers previously formed the Old Dominion Bloggers Alliance, while liberal, progressive and Democratic bloggers set up shop as part of the Leftyblogs.com/Virginia community. Moving to a nonpartisan guild seems like the logical next step.


The past year has seen editorials and news articles attacking bloggers and blogs, legal actions brought against the Black Velvet Bruce Li blog, and Will Vehrs – the veritable Godfather of Virginia bloggers – goaded into the Chief Joseph option. It stands to reason that an organized effort would benefit any and all bloggers who intend to stay engaged after George Allen and Jim Webb (and others) have gone on their merry ways. The association would be organized solely to protecting mutual self interests, not to stop anyone from blogging the way they'd like to.


The threat of General Assembly action seems more distant than in previous years, if only due to the fact that so many legislators read blogs, run blogs, or indulge in blog trolling anonymously. But there are other reasons to pursue a formal agenda. After all, if trial lawyers, used-car salesmen, and political consultants can do it, bloggers ought to at least consider the idea.


Richmond’s libertarian heavyweight, Norm Leahy (One Man's Trash), is a member of the national Media Bloggers Association, “a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting MBA members and their blogs, educating bloggers, and promoting the explosion of citizen's media.” He generally favored the idea of a state-level association, saying, “I think this idea is worth pursuing -- and the 'SOBs' does have a nice ring to it. It does seem to me that I've seen something along these lines elsewhere -- a code of conduct that any blogger could agree to, link to and, it's assumed, abide by. There also is the possibility of adapting the Media Bloggers Association code of conduct for our own uses, or a version of the code which would suit our particular needs. A simple page with a code, an icon and perhaps a list of signatory blogs would be a good first step.”


Having spent most of his career in the mainstream journalism business, Jim Bacon (Bacon's Rebellion) is well-versed in the utility of media trade associations. He often thinks about the long-term growth of blogging, and he is “all in favor of establishing a confederacy of bloggers to look after blogger interests. He agrees that a code of conduct is a good starting point. 


"After the first (Sorensen) blogger conference, I started agitating for a statement of basic standards as a way to establish the blogosphere as a credible alternative to the Mainstream Media -- don't libel people, don't repeat unverified rumors, that sort of thing," Bacon says. With input from readers, Will Vehrs drafted a draft of editorial guidelines. "I gave it some spit and polish, and posted it on the blog."


The Bacon's Rebellion guidelines did not generate many imitators. Bacon knows that organizing bloggers is more difficult than cat-herding. Bloggers are by nature individualists, he says. They are anti-hierarchical. They don't like to be told what to do. But he still thinks an association could prove valuable. "At a minimum, an association of bloggers could continue to put on blogger summits and allow for the continued interaction of the bloggers face to face.”


Anne Dalton Boothe (Bad Rose), who helped plan the Martinsville event, was game for such an effort, offering, “I'm all for an ‘honor among thieves’ society. Count me in!” Her partner in crime, Alton Foley (I'm Not Emeril) notes, “Anne and I have already begun planning next year’s event. The more virtual manner (for an association) sounds intriguing.”


Anne and Alton were joined by Ben Tribbett (Not Larry Sabato), arguably Virginia’s most influential and (in)famous blogger and the lead instigator for the Martinsville alternative to Sorensen. The Not Larry Sabato creator said that the prospective guild, “sounds like an awesome idea. Let me know how I can help!”


Republican notable, Shaun Kenney (ShaunKenney.com), who has regularly called for unified codes of ethics of conduct in the past offered that, “If anyone is interested or inclined to help, I have reserved a URL -- www.blogcodeofethics.com/org/net for precisely this purpose - a voluntary code of ethics with a button of some sort one could post on their website… self-imposed.”


The idea of everyone adopting similar standards is admittedly a challenge, particularly as bloggers enter and exit the darker side of politics and policymaking.


Recognizing the difficulty, Vivian Paige asserts that the idea “sounds good” but she warns that “It's going to be hard to get the diehards on both sides (of the partisan divide) to come together.”


Practically speaking, sentiments seemed to coalesce around the notion that the association would exist virtually, possibly as a web page containing pertinent basic information and providing an outlet for feedback and group discussion.


Charlottesville’s Waldo Jaquith (Waldo Jaquith) explains that in his mind, “such an organization could viably consist only of a webpage containing a set of principles or standards which any Virginia blogger may or may not choose to endorse. In endorsing them, bloggers may display a little icon on their sidebar indicating their membership, such as it is. If such a group ends up becoming something bigger or more interesting, great, but something as simple as what I've described would be a snap. I think it would make a good launching point for more.”


Other elements could include links to other joint activities and events and a “membership” roster. For it to be successful, at least at the outset, such an association would have to minimize costs to maximize its impact as most bloggers are not compensated for what they do.   


Looking toward the future, Terry Rea (SLANTblog) sees a grander vision for Virginia’s community of public affairs bloggers. As an acknowledged senior statesman and experienced alternative media practitioner, Rea takes a more intellectual bent. He says, “I have given some thought to the concept of blogging standards, how a group of bloggers might work in concert to establish such, how to organize them. Every time I’ve thought about trying to pull some of the bloggers together -- bloggers with something to say that I’ve seen as working under some self-imposed code of ethics -- I have thought that we’d need more than a desire to play fair to make us a group with a purpose. To me, the Commonwealth SOBs would have to be about more than just a desire to push away from tacky bloggers who specialize in dirty tricks, knowingly cheat to gain advantages, and those who really have nothing worthwhile to say. I think the SOBs would also have to have some common desire to create/encourage presentations on its site that are aimed at benefiting the world beyond the blogosphere. Ultimately, I’m more interested in trying to reach the general public with provocative ideas that didn’t have to go through the mainstream media’s filter than I am in merely trying to teach the blogosphere to be good.”


In the end, for any kind of bloggers trade association or ethics forum to develop, the community at large must take it up and it must be voluntary. Any attempt to impose top-down thinking and structure on this grassroots medium will be met with resistance, and ultimately failure. It requires the dedication of a few generous and committed souls, and maybe an alpha dog or two to push the envelope when necessary.


Those who are skeptical of the necessity or the utility of such a group would be wise to note that associations of this type are wholly part of the American democratic experiment. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive… If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”


Bloggers have seen their craft flourish in Virginia, turning a quirky, museum-piece political system into a hotbed of “netroots” activism in just a few short years. If we want to keep that system moving forward and protect ourselves from encroachment, maybe we should consider bowling together and not alone.


Back in August in a moment of reflection on the Martinsville bloggers conference, I commented that “in the free range marketplace of ideas that the blogosphere represents, the invisible hands will continue to exercise the power of the mouse-click in determining which sites are worth reading and which ones should be cast on the scrapheap of digital irrelevancy. The Wild West element that makes political blogging and bloggers infuriating is also what… affords fresh eyes on politics and policy. For those who call for ethical codes or better self-policing, such elements will eventually evolve, though they should be as unrestrictive as possible so as not to choke out fundamental creativity.”


Given where the practice of blogging has come from, where it is now, and where some of us want it to go, it seem like a good time for that creative and visible evolution to get moving.


-- November 6, 2006
















About Blogology. Conaway Haskins periodically profiles players in Virginia's vibrant blogosphere.


About Conaway Haskins. Conaway Haskins is a nonprofit executive & freelance writer in Chesterfield County. Read his profile here.


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