Wash. Post still blind to liberal blogger successes

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The scandal surrounding the purge of United States attorneys under President Bush shows no signs of abating. "I think there will be a criminal case that will come out of this," John McKay, a dismissed U.S. attorney, told reporters last week. "This is going to get worse, not better."

The scandal surrounding the purge of United States attorneys under President Bush shows no signs of abating. "I think there will be a criminal case that will come out of this," John McKay, a dismissed U.S. attorney, told reporters last week. "This is going to get worse, not better."

The White House's sloppy, heavy-handed attempt to fire federal prosecutors in order to make way for administration cronies has morphed into arguably the most important Beltway news story of the year. Thanks to his shifting and illogical explanations, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has become consumed by the story, and now Bush aide Karl Rove also finds himself implicated.

The media man at the middle of the story is clearly Josh Marshall, owner and founder of Talking Points Memo and its offshoot, TPMmuckraker. Collecting string, working the phones, and relying on the collective wisdom of his dedicated readers, Marshall and his small staff helped piece together the scandal long before most mainstream media outlets were even paying attention. Together, the two online sites have unearthed scoop after scoop on the Gonzales saga. Marshall has posted literally hundreds of items on the story he has become synonymous with in recent months.

In a recent issue of Time, Arianna Huffington even singled out Marshall and his team's ground-breaking work and nominated them to be included on the magazine's list of 100 most influential people in the world.

And speaking of Time, it was the magazine's Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney, who in January ridiculed Marshall's suggestion that the firings had dark political overtones, dismissing it as a "conspiracy theory." Two months later though, Carney bravely ate some crow and tipped his hat to online activists for driving the purge saga: "The blogosphere was the engine on this story."

The purge story illustrates yet another chapter in the growth of the blogosphere, and specifically the emergence of the liberal bloggers -- or netroots -- as an influential news source. Yet despite the significance of the story, and its larger media and political implication, it's telling that The Washington Post has shied away from highlighting Marshall's work on unearthing the scandal.

To this day, despite the fact the purge story continues to gain momentum week after week as more incriminating facts tumble out, and despite the fact that Marshall's work has been lauded by the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio, among others, the Post, with its aggressive, expansive media coverage, has not found the time or space to feature Marshall and his team of reporter/bloggers and to spotlight the extraordinary work they've produced. (In total, the Post has printed just a single quote from Marshall regarding the purge story he helped give birth to.)

The Post's heavy-handed indifference to the achievements of liberal bloggers is now well established. Along with the purge story, the Post in recent months turned a disinterested eye toward two other groundbreaking media events involving the netroots.

Last winter Firedoglake, the hard-hitting progressive site, offered up live-blogging from the Scooter Libby trial. Working in shifts at the courthouse, the FDL team live-blogged the whole shebang. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen called Firedoglake "the best site for primary, tell-me-what-happened-today coverage of the [Libby] trial," and noted the FDL bloggers "dominated" the coverage, with mainstream journalists often turning to it for guidance.

During the trial, the overachieving bloggers racked up much-deserved media mentions in the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, Court TV, NPR, C-SPAN, CNN, and the BBC, among others, while The New York Times featured the team in a Page 1 piece. The Post, though -- the hometown paper of the Libby trial -- remained dutifully silent about the bloggers' groundbreaking work. The message was simple: Nothing to see here folks, keep moving.

(Recall that during the 2006 midterm campaigns in Connecticut, when FDL's Jane Hamsher posted a doctored photo of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) in blackface, the Post considered that newsworthy. But when FDL re-wrote the rules of journalism by live-blogging the entire Libby trial, the newspaper yawned.)

Then there was the March cancellation of the Nevada debate featuring Democratic candidates for president, which was set to be sponsored by Fox News. Bloggers and activists, led in part by Matt Stoller, Chris Bowers, and Robert Greenwald, raised objections about Fox News' role. They argued the cable channel was more akin to a Republican propaganda outlet than a legitimate news channel, and that by aligning themselves with Fox News under the serious auspice of a candidate's debate, Democrats were granting Fox News credibility that it didn't deserve. Within weeks of ithe bloggers' initial online salvo, major Democratic candidates began to withdraw from the Fox News debate, and soon the plug was pulled. The bloggers received just passing mention in the Post; the paper never treated the story as a media issue, and it never profiled the players involved or detailed how on earth an ad hoc group of grassroots activists were able to derail a nationally televised debate.

The Gonzales scandal, the Libby trial, and the aborted Fox News debate represent three key turning points in the way the netroots is affecting politics and the press, and yet we hardly heard a peep from the Post, which devotes all sorts of resources to cover politics and the press. And I can guarantee you that if the roles were reversed and it was GOP bloggers who unearthed a scandal involving a Democratic attorney general, got a presidential debate canceled, and re-invented the way political trials were covered, the Post would have swooped in with lengthy Style section features on all the major players involved.

My picking on the Post here isn't about trying to make liberal bloggers famous by getting them lots of press; for all I know, they may not want to be featured in the pages of the Post. Instead, it's about credibility and newsroom double standards. It would be one thing if the Post simply adopted an elitist, hands-off attitude towards all political bloggers, dismissing them as not being newsworthy. But as I've documented, the Post has a long-running crush on pro-Bush bloggers, forever fascinated by their every move and making sure to chronicle their minor accomplishments.

This is about how the Post for years has treated right-wing bloggers seriously, despite their track record of chasing childish conspiracy theories, while often dismissing liberal bloggers as partisan and fringe, despite their track record of breaking stories and altering political agendas. (Or does the ability to get a nationally televised, presidential candidate debate canceled not count as altering the Beltway landscape?)

The unfolding purge story, and the extraordinary role a prominent blogger played in it, represented a perfect opportunity for the Post to show it had an open-door policy towards all bloggers. Instead, that door remains shut.

Perhaps the most telling example in terms of the double standard used by the Post comes when contrasting the Post's barely-there coverage of Marshall, and the Post's lengthy and friendly February profile of factually-challenged warblogger Michelle Malkin.

In truth, there is no comparison between the work Marshall and Malkin do. Their lone similarity is that they both fall under the broad umbrella called blogging. Marshall's work is marked by its serious, insightful and factual nature, while the hallmark of Malkin's work centers on name-calling and daffy conjecture.

For instance, during the winter months, Malkin pushed a far-fetched media "scandal" by accusing the Associated Press of manufacturing a "phony" and "bogus" Iraqi police source who was reporting false stories about the daily carnage inside Baghdad. She suggested the phony AP source, Jamil Hussein, proved that all of the AP's Iraq reporting was suspect. (Malkin and company were clinging to the notion that the situation in Iraq was not as bad as biased journalists made it out to be.) In January, the Iraqi government confirmed the police source's existence, thereby ruining Malkin's press-hating conspiracy theory.

Two points here. First, when the Jamil Hussein story imploded, the Post remained silent in real time, never bothering to cover Malkin's high-profile embarrassment. Secondly, it was after the Jamil Hussein humiliation that Post editors decided the time was right for a friendly Malkin profile that gently brushed aside questions about her blogging fiasco.

In other words, when Marshall helped highlight malfeasance at the highest levels of the Bush White House, the Post has thus far taken a pass on profiling him. But when Malkin helped concoct a comically inept tale about how the AP was inventing news sources in Iraq, the Post profiled her as an on-the-rise blogger.

The Wash. Post double standard

Indeed, the Post routinely pays far less attention to liberal bloggers, despite the very newsworthy gains they continue to make. As the Post's muted coverage of the canceled Fox debate, the live-blogging of the Libby trial, and the U.S. attorney scandal illustrates, the newspaper's double standard has become blindingly obvious.

And the double standard is real. I looked at how many times the Post has mentioned prominent conservative and liberal bloggers during the last two years. I came up with a list of well-known, and highly-trafficked, online writers from each side of the political spectrum. On the right: Malkin, Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit), Hugh Hewitt, and John Hinderaker (Power Line). On the left: Duncan Black (Eschaton), Jane Hamsher (Firedoglake), Glenn Greenwald (Salon), and John Amato (Crooks and Liars). According to Nexis, the electronic news database, those conservative bloggers have been mentioned by name in a total of 52 Post articles and columns in the last 24 months. By contrast, the liberal bloggers have been referenced by name just 12 times by the Post during the same time frame.

To this day, the Washington Post has never profiled Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of The Daily Kos, the most popular and influential political weblog in the world. The Post didn't even review last year's influential Crashing the Gate, the hardcover progressive manifesto that Kos co-wrote with fellow blogging pioneer Jerome Armstrong.

Then again, as best as I can determine the Post in recent years hasn't profiled any of the major netroots players. The one lengthy Post feature of a liberal blogger that I can find from the last 24 months was a page-one piece from April 2006 when the Post shadowed lesser-known blogger Maryscott O'Connor, who writes at My Left Wing. The Post portrayed O'Connor as a Bush-hating lunatic. Key phrases from the article: "angry," "rage," "fury," "angriest," "outrage," "crude," "loud," "crass," "inflammatory," "attack."

Even The New Republic, which has had a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the netroots, announced last week in an 8,000-word cover story that the liberal blogs "are the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago." Yet the Post remains standoffish -- unless, of course, liberal bloggers stub their toes in public.

When the liberal online news sites Truthout.org botched its exclusive report last year that Karl Rove had been indicted in connection with the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation, the Post was there. And when the Los Angeles Times suspended the blog of liberal newspaper columnist Michael Hiltzik after he had posted anonymously on his site, the Post was there. (The Post gave that relatively minor story 2,000 words; it gave Firedoglake's live blogging of the Libby trial zero words.)

Even the simplest, pro-netroots story appears to be off limits for the Post, such as when President Clinton invited a dozen-plus bloggers to an extended lunch at his Harlem office last fall. The public gesture from the most powerful Democrat in the country certainly cemented the bloggers' place as major electoral players. The Post, though, never reported on the well-publicized meeting.

It was déjà vu three weeks ago when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton posted an essay about equal pay at Firedoglake as a way to get her message directly to liberal activists. The Post made no mention of that netroots development. But just two days later, the newspaper highlighted the fact that Republican Sen. John McCain had been "using conservative blogs" as a campaign communications tool. Now that was news.

Back in February, I suggested we start the clock ticking to see how long it would take the Post to finally get around to profiling a major progressive blogger. That clock is about to hit the three-month mark and still no significant coverage from the Post. And honestly, I don't think we'll see much in the near future. Because as I noted back then, "Bottom line: At the Post, Bush bloggers matter, liberal ones do not."

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