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Second thoughts on blogger conference calls
Posted by: McQ on Sunday, February 05, 2006

Steve Clemons is having them.
In the standard press conference, I — as a blogger — knew the rules. We were there not to be co-opted but rather to hear the Senators and to pose questions. We weren't there as sycophants. Our job was to push the angles and report truthfully. We weren't there as enemies of McCain and Frist, but as competitors regarding how to frame and tell the story of the political debate.

In contrast, the lines inside political blogger conference calls are fuzzier.

I have approached every blogger conference call I have been in with the norms and attitude of a journalist.

I have kept notes and believe that all the content on the call was fair game for reporting. Unless stated otherwise, I treat everything said as "on the record".

However, it seems increasingly clear to me that those on the call — both the Member of Congress and the bloggers — are engaged in an informal collusion of interests. This may be too harsh a term. The Senators and Members look at bloggers as being co-participants in a political operation. The Members want to share their priorities and objectives with bloggers so that they can become the "noise machine" for the Dems. Some bloggers want to be NGO-like on one hand, advocating the Democratic Party's line on some issue — while on the other, they want to be seen as journalists reporting on something they "got" from a Reid or Kennedy call.

On some levels, I'm OK with that. In the Bolton Battle, I certainly worked hard to advocate his defeat, to publicize as best I could the many problems in his work portfolio, and his attitude that made him inappropriate to represent the interests of Americans at the United Nations. But as a journalist with a view, I worked closely with Republicans and Democrats. Both sides fed me material. In fact, more came from Republican sources, far more, than Democratic.
When we had our last conference call with Sen. Tom Coburn, I talked with Dale immediately afterward. He asked, "what do you think", and my first response was "I know that he (Sen Coburn) was soliciting our help and I knew, going in, that was the purpose of the call. But I'm a big boy and I can handle it."

Or said another way, I have no particular loyalty or requirement to report positively about Sen Coburn or his particular issue if I find them to be objectionable. Nor would the fact that I might be denied future access to Sen. Coburn be a worry of mine.

I'm a blogger. I'm not a journalist. I don't live and die on whether or not I have access to this or that politician or any politician at all. I've gotten along just swimmingly these past two years without talking directly to them and, most likely, will do so in the next few if I don't talk to another.

Look at the 3 teleconferences QandO participated in with the candidates for the House Majority Leader's spot. Anyone who thinks that these gentlemen weren't trying to influence us because we might be able to influence others isn't dealing with a full deck. Why else agree to the conference calls?

But does that mean we have to report glowingly about all we heard and essentially act as shills for politicians? Ask Rep. Blunt if he feels we were shills for him, fireants and all. Or for that matter, ask Rep. Boehner.

Maybe these things are different on the left (that's where Clemons has participated in his conference calls), but other than Blunt's clumsy "don't write anything we might both regret and would keep us from working together in the future" attempt at intimidation (and that's a paraphrase), I found nothing in particular about any of the conference calls which caused me to second guess participating in them.

Yes, politicians are soliciting support. Big surprise. But it is up to the blogger to decide if they can or can't support the idea or issue. And it is also up to the blogger to then blog about it, either to the affirmative or the negative. But if a blogger thinks that it is important to blog in a manner that assures they continue to have access to the politician, then that blogger may as well give up blogging and apply for a press job in the politician's office.
Again, I think it's OK for like-minded journalists and politicians to share views, even share objectives for the country and world — but the implied norm of the call feels as if there is an obligation of the bloggers to watch the Senator's or Rep's back — to write not necessarily truthfully about the call, but to "frame" or "shape" the call in such a way that fits a politically acceptable groove.

In Japan, there is a word, giri, that means "mutual obligation". Giri can exist between journalists and politicians, between subordinates and seniors in a company, between different households in a community, between bank regulators and banks.

Quite simply, if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. If I do something for you, then you owe me something in the future.
It would be foolish of me not to believe that some bloggers will find the draw of access to politicians more enticing than committing themselves to writing honest opinion and analysis pieces. But the rest of the blogosphere is ruthless in that regard. If a blogger starts scratching a politicans back in hopes of maintaining access to that politician, he or she will eventually be called on it. Remember the Harriet Miers nomination and those who carried water for the administration. It's my guess that a similar dynamic would be evident if a blogger was thought to be a shill for a politician. Unlike journalists who live and die on access, who desire and strive for an insider's persepective, most bloggers live on the outside of that world and always will. It is that outsider's view which lends a much needed "real world" aspect to what the blogosphere produces daily in terms of opinion and analysis and it contrasts sharply with the inside the beltway, "inside baseball", old boy's club atmosphere of much of the MSM's reporting.

So while I've been flattered to be included in talking with some of the political movers and shakers in DC, it won't stop me for a minute if I think criticism is due. But there is one difference, and it is indicated by the desire of politicans to talk with bloggers. Maybe, just maybe, it also indicates a willingness to listen to criticism.

We all know politicians are adaptive creatures, and they seem to have realized the power of blogs for both good and evil. Thus the move to solicit their support on certain issues. Blogs can indeed raise the visibility of an issue fairly quickly and stay with the issue as long as necessary. I think the House Majority leader's race is an example of that. While perhaps the blogosphere may not have gotten the candidate they wanted, the may have had a hand in preventing the candidate they didn't want from winning.

That's definitely a form of influence. And it's an influence which should, of necessity, stay on the outside of the DC culture. I think politicians are coming to the realization that they badly need more input from outside the beltway, and the think tanks, and the lobbying firms. They need input from flyover country. And the best, and most efficient way right now to garner and solicit that is through blogs.

Thus the conference calls. Bloggers should keep in perspective what politicians want, what bloggers do and act accordingly. We're big boys (and girls) ... we can handle it.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Very thoughtful post; and useful to know what is happening in some Republican blogger conference calls. You are on target that the responsibility for preserving one’s standing and role in these calls rests with the bloggers. Just linked this because it’s useful for people to understand that this is an evolving issue without much regard for political affilation.

Thanks for the interesting insights.

Steve Clemons
Written By: Steven Clemons
Politicians would be nutty to think that threats of cutting off "access" would have any sway over responsible bloggers. Most bloggers have been commenting on the public record of politicians, so denying private access shouldn’t hurt them. Plus any threats will become public record, as Rep. Blunts ham-handed attempts show. "Don’t do anything you’ll regret." Well, I think Mr Blunt, or his PR person should have thought twice before saying such a thing.

I would think that most responsible bloggers would rather be right then be in the "IN CROWD" with politicians.

While the access might make a bloggers job easier, they’ve flourished so far without it.
Written By: Keith, Indy
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