The Associated Press last week got a preview of how this presidential season is going to unfold, and how online liberal activists aren't going to stand down when the press takes cheap shots at Democratic front-runners.
After AP reporter Nedra Pickler wrote a news story highlighting how some fringe Republican operatives were raising questions about Sen. Barack Obama's patriotism, angry readers dispatched nearly 15,000 electronic letters protesting the piece. Why? Because instead of providing balance and context, which is what good journalism does, the article simply offered a platform for Obama's opponents to roll out their smears, to broadcast their dark doubts about the senator's character.
That kind of media shortcoming has become predictable; reporters love to quote partisan Republicans about how deficient Democrats are. And in the past it would have likely produced angry denunciations online within the liberal blogosphere -- a blog swarm, perhaps. In fact, within hours of the article being posted on the wires, John Aravosis at Americablog condemned the news agency for the way it regurgitated "right-wing lies about Obama lacking patriotism." (Aravosis was simultaneously irked by an interactive poll posted at CNN.com that asked readers if Obama was sufficiently patriotic.) Even without an organized effort, it's likely the Pickler article would have prompted scores of blog readers to send off a fistful of angry missives to the AP.
But nearly 15,000 letters sent in just a matter of days in response to a single news wire article? That's something else entirely and could mark the dawn of a new era in progressive media activism. The phenomenon has received very little mainstream media attention (journalists probably don't want to encourage this sort of thing), but make no mistake: It was a very big deal.
In part because it's become clear that if there's going to be an effective media pushback during this White House run, it's going to have to come from online. Even progressive pundits within the mainstream press corps remain reluctant to step out and criticize their colleagues in any meaningful way. That is still very much a closed Beltway club.
Also, this White House campaign is going to be the test case to see whether the more fully matured liberal blogosphere is able to alter the mainstream media landscape at all, whether it's going to be able to knock the press off some of its favorite, predisposed biases against Democrats. From the looks of the eruption the AP created, progressives have already made enormous strides since the 2004 campaign.
Indeed, Sen. John Kerry's former campaign aides must see this kind of rapid response and think about what might have been if they had an army of online activists ready to battle the press when reporters and pundits took cheap shots trying to defame the Democratic front-runner back in 2004. And poor Al Gore. Imagine if 15,000 letters to newspaper were dashed off the week the inventing-the-Internet fairy tale first began to take root in the press?
What prompted the organized outpouring of angst last week against the AP was when the website Firedoglake took action, embraced a new organizing tool, tapped into a wellspring of enthusiasm for Obama, and pointed angry readers not in the direction of the AP itself, but toward their local newspaper clients. Why? Because newspapers are more responsive to complaints filed by nearby readers, and because the newspapers pay the AP's bills as newswire customers.
The riddle, though, was how to help readers contact hundreds of individual newspapers nationwide. "It's like trying to wrestle an octopus," says Jane Hamsher, founder of FDL. The solution centered on customizing a software tool that allowed online activists to effortlessly contact their local daily. The tool FDL modified was created by the online communications firm Blue State Digital. Readers simply entered their ZIP code into an on-screen box. The next screen displayed the local newspaper (or newspapers) in their region to be contacted and asked readers to enter their name and other personal information to be sent to the newspaper. The screen provided readers with pre-approved text (i.e., "I hope that in the future we can expect reporting that focuses on the candidate's positions rather than trying to call into question how much they love the country they tirelessly serve.")
If they wanted to, though, readers could personalize, or create, the letter themselves. Approximately half the letter writers in the FDL campaign wrote their own text. With the third click, the reader's letter was sent to the newspaper.
FDL's call to action was posted February 25 and was quickly trumpeted by fellow bloggers, who urged their readers to participate.
The results, according to FDL, as of March 3: 14,252, letters sent to 649 different newspapers located in all 50 states, and from 1,735 ZIP codes. That included more than 1,500 letters to The New York Times, 1,400 to both USA Today and The Washington Post -- not to mention 52 to The Denver Post and 21 to the Florida Times-Union.
Why the overwhelming reaction from a single newspaper article? "It was such a clear example of something getting picked up from the right-wing attack machine and laundered into the mainstream press," Hamsher told me, referring to the Pickler article. "It was the perfect storm because it was right at the time when we were ready to roll out the [organizing] tool. She just picked the wrong day to write that story. And the wrong target, because there is all this enthusiasm for Obama, and people wanting to get involved."
It was the fervent Obama supporters from the diary section at the top-rated liberal website DailyKos who really made the project a success, says Hamsher. Tapping into the energy of the Obama fan base was a key goal of the letter-writing campaign. "All of a sudden you have all of this passion from people who are new to the political process. If we can put them to work and help educate them about the nature of the right-wing attack machine and use their energy, and channel it into tools, we can really make life difficult" for journalists who fail to maintain accepted standards, says Hamsher. "This is what actually got me into blogging; the potential to find a way to pull this kind of thing off."
Of course, there would be no need to pull this kind of thing off if the press didn't stack the deck so often. And let's be clear: The AP article at the center of the campaign was awful, from top to bottom. For instance, the first accusatory headline that the AP used for the article was dreadful: "No flag pin, no hand over his heart: Is Obama exposed?"
Exposed to what, and by whom?
Hours later, according to Nexis, the headline was changed to the much more factual "Conservatives say Obama lacks patriotism." The premise of the story was still tilted and suspect, but at least readers knew from the get-go that questions about Obama's patriotism were simply the conservative spin on the candidate.
Unfortunately, AP then changed the headline again to the more vague "Obama may face grilling on patriotism," which seemed to be the one most often used by news organizations that picked up the story. (Aside from print newspapers, the story ran online at National Public Radio, MSNBC, Fox News, USA Today, and AOL News, among others.)
The article went downhill from the headline. Here was the first sentence:
Sen. Barack Obama's refusal to wear an American flag lapel pin along with a photo of him not putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem led conservatives on Internet and in the media to question his patriotism.
Since when should news organizations sit up and take notice when right-wing operatives hatch election lines of attack via the Internet? Since when does that qualify as news?
The third paragraph:
"The reason it hasn't been an issue so far is that we're still in the microcosm of the Democratic primary," said Republican consultant Roger Stone. "Many Americans will find the three things offensive. Barack Obama is out of the McGovern wing of the party, and he is part of the blame America first crowd."
It is simply not acceptable, especially for the by-the-book AP, to allow a half-cocked partisan like Roger Stone to take a wild, insulting swipe at a Democratic front-runner. Period. And it's certainly not OK to let that kind of allegation go without a direct response from the candidate's camp, a response that should appear in the very next sentence, which Pickler and the AP failed to do.
In fact, the vast majority of the article was made up of bogus right-wing allegations against Obama, with a campaign surrogate given just a few sentences to respond.
Why on earth would the AP quote somebody like Stone, who, when not denigrating Obama, fronts a Clinton-hating group that goes by the name C.U.N.T.? And why would the AP, elsewhere in the Obama article, quote a far-right radio shock jock just because he goes on Fox News and, as blogger Georgia10 noted at DailyKos, rants about how Obama perhaps had some connection to the terrorists who orchestrated the September 11 attacks? That's who the AP turns to for insightful campaign quotes?
Pickler's work was abominable. But it also was not new. Blogger (and Media Matters Senior Fellow) Duncan Black singled out her work for, um, distinction years ago. Then, during the 2004 campaign, Pickler proved herself to be particularly proficient at planting GOP talking points about the Democratic nominee (i.e., pampered and out of touch) right in the middle of AP news articles:
- "John Kerry went on vacation with the fabulously wealthy ... [By contrast] Bush spends his down time as more of an everyman, preferring to spend vacations at his Texas ranch clearing brush."
- "But there's a formality in the way that Kerry speaks, even when he's saying something as casual as ['I've got your back']. He says the phrase slowly and carefully pronounces each word, so it doesn't sound like it would if it came from a friend or a teammate who made the promise in a huddle."
- "Records of John Kerry's Vietnam War service released Wednesday show a highly praised naval officer with an Ivy League education who spoke fluent French and had raced sailboats -- the fruits of a privileged upbringing that set him apart from the typical seaman." [Emphases added.]
By the way, the number of times during the 2004 campaign that Pickler used the phrase "privileged upbringing" to describe Bush, the son of a millionaire U.S. congressman? Zero.
Back in 2004, it was frustrating for progressives who wanted to send a message to the APs and the Picklers of the world that shoddy campaign reporting would not go unchallenged. Now, thanks to new online technology and the rallying force of the blogosphere, and after nearly 15,000 letters landed in the in-boxes at newspaper coast to coast last week, that message has been delivered.
There will be many more sent in the months to come.