Friday, May 29, 2009

Non-Fiction Review: Bloggers on the Bus, Eric Boehlert

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

There’s a fairly decent test for determining whether a non-fiction book is a serious effort: See if there’s an end notes section in the back. The goal of any good journalist or historian is to provide as definitive a treatment of the book’s subject as possible. They should want any enterprising reader to be able to retrace their work, and if they’re particularly thoughtful, they know that their efforts are providing at least some of the groundwork for other writers’ efforts down the road. There is no implicit plea for trust on the author’s part. If one questions what is written, one can check out the author’s facts. And if one disagrees with the author’s analysis, it should be easy to determine where one and the author part ways. If there is no end notes section (or a bibliography, for that matter), the book is all but assuredly a work of “popular” non-fiction--essentially an airport read. While it may be engaging, it is no more serious journalism or history than a novel by John Grisham or Fern Michaels is literature.

I’m sad to report that Eric Boehlert’s new book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press, is a journalistic airport read. There are no end notes or bibliography, and more importantly, there is no substantive reporting or serious analysis of its subject. It purports to tell the story of the liberal blogosphere and the 2008 election, but it treats events as anecdotes, and Boehlert’s handling of them gets more incomplete and disappointing as the book goes on. It is primarily a series of profiles of the most prominent liberal bloggers and Internet figures in the 2008 primary and general-election campaigns, and it drops the ball in this as well. Several of the most prominent figures are mentioned only in passing or not at all. In sum, Bloggers on the Bus is poor journalism, bad history, and an embarassingly slapdash piece of work. It's especially disappointng coming from Boehlert, whose work at has strongly criticized several reporters and broadcasters for many of his failings here.

The first chapter is representative of several of the book's problems. It covers the successful campaign to cancel a pair of Democratic presidential debates sponsored by Fox News and the Nevada Democratic Party. Many on the left felt that Fox, given its reputation as a GOP propaganda organ, was an inappropriate sponsor. In response, they launched an ultimately successful campaign to get the debate cancelled. Boehlert, though, can't tell the story straight. He lets himself get sidetracked by extended profiles of filmmakers Robert Greenwald and Jim Gilliam, which take up 10 of the chapter's 16 pages. He overhypes the importance of efforts by Greenwald, Gilliam, and bloggers like Matt Stoller in getting the debates cancelled. Judging from this account, the most important player was actually The biggest problem, though, is that the basics of reporting and research are ignored. Apart from Greenwald and Gilliam, the only person involved whom Boehlert interviewed is radio host Christiane Brown. He didn’t talk to any of the other principals, which include, Fox News, U. S. Senator Harry Reid, the John Edwards campaign, the Nevada Democratic Party, and the Carson City Democratic Committee. He fails to cite any sources, including reports from which he lifted quotes from Reid and Fox chairman Roger Ailes. He doesn't even give the dates of on-air complaints about the cancellations from the Fox pundits. It is hard to believe one is looking at the work of a professional journalist.

As the book goes on, it becomes clear that the point is to provide a context for the profiles of the various bloggers and Internet folk. Despite the book’s considerable shortcomings as journalism and history, these are fun to read. The people given the extended treatment include Duncan Black (Atrios), Heather Parton (Digby), Jane Hamsher, Arianna Huffington, John Amato, Howie Klein, Alegre, Susie Madrak, and Glenn Greenwald. Boehlert is occasionally able to effectively build the entire story of a particular event out of his profiles, as he does with Philip de Vellis, who posted the anti-Hillary take-off on Apple Computer’s “Big Brother” ad, or with Joe Anthony, who independently created Obama’s popular MySpace fan page.

The major problem with the profiles, though, is that Boehlert doesn’t provide them for a number of important figures, such as John Aravosis, Jerome Armstrong, and Josh Marshall. The most shocking oversight is the failure to profile Daily Kos proprietor Markos Moulitsas, who one would think would have rated at least a chapter or two. Regardless of one’s opinion of him, he is undoubtedly the single most prominent member of the liberal blogosphere, and Boehlert’s failure to give him his due leaves a gaping hole in the book.

The short shrift given Moulitsas is most notable for the lost opportunity to provide some needed history. The politicking efforts of the liberal blogosphere extends back at least as far as the 2004 primary season. Since then, there has been the pushback on George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security, Paul Hackett’s (unsuccessful) effort to capture a traditionally GOP Ohio House seat in 2005, and Ned Lamont's 2006 Senate campaign in Connecticut. A good profile of Moulitsas and the Daily Kos would have covered all of this, and it would have provided a good background for the other sections of the book.

The history Boehlert does provide is inaccurate and incomplete. He writes that the first political bloggers were Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan. He further claims the liberal blogosphere didn’t begin in earnest until 2002, when Jerome Armstrong founded MyDD and Moulitsas launched the Daily Kos. Actually, the first political blogger was Terry Coppage, who started Bartcop in 1996. The right-wing sites The Drudge Report and began in 1997. Bob Somerby launched The Daily Howler in 1998. Mickey Kaus didn’t begin Kausfiles until 1999, and Andrew Sullivan didn’t start The Daily Dish until 2000. Other sites that began in 2000 include Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and JennyQ’s now-defunct Media Whores Online. (Media Whores is also where Atrios got his start.) Jerome Armstrong began MyDD in 2001, not 2002. All of this information is available online, and it took me less than an hour with Google to put it together. The laziness Boehlert shows in his reporting extends to his research as well.

The two chapters devoted to the civil war that erupted between the online supporters of Obama and Hillary Clinton are particularly disappointing. In many ways, Boehlert misses the story. According to him, the key moment in the conflict was the Clinton-supporter walkout that Alegre led at the Daily Kos in March of 2008. The crux of the fight was actually the week leading up to the Democratic primary in South Carolina on January 26. Obama had unexpectedly lost primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada, so to bolster his efforts, his campaign launched a series of specious accusations that the Clintons were racists and engaging in racist appeals to voters. (The memo outlining the strategy can be read here.) Obama’s online supporters never cared for the Clintons in the first place, and the accusations of racism--the equivalent of child molesting to many on the left--gave them all the rationale they needed for an anything-goes jihad. The Clinton supporters, furious at the smears being directed at both them and their candidate, turned hard against Obama, with many seeing him as a demagogue who needed to be defeated for the good of the Democratic Party.

The Obama campaign had also been hiring a number of workers to blog for the campaign, and it’s widely suspected that they were used to astroturf the Daily Kos and other sites. If so, this certainly exacerbated the situation.

Boehlert seems oblivious to all of this. The racism smears against the Clintons in the days leading up to South Carolina are ignored, and he claims, wrongly, that the Obama campaign did nothing to provoke the online war. He fixates on the claims of sexist language being used against Hillary Clinton and her supporters, but he doesn’t research their validity. He doesn’t dispute the charges, but he doesn’t challenge the claims of innocence made by Moulitsas and others, either. The narrative devolves into a “he said/she said” argument between two camps.

The book almost completely falls apart when it gets to the general-election campaign. Boehlert depicts the bloggers as fighting the good fight against Sarah Palin and others, and the chapters feel like one has stepped into an alternate reality. Contrary to Boehlert, Palin got the better of the blogosphere. The misogyny that confronted Clinton got flung at her, too, and a particularly nasty smear about her children quickly discredited the Daily Kos community and other bloggers with the public. (In fairness, Boehlert does acknowledge this to an extent.) Bloggers, in Alaska or elsewhere, had nothing to do with the eventual consensus that Palin had no business being on the Republican ticket. What brought Palin down was her interviews with Katie Couric, in which she came off as completely unprepared and unsuited for national office. The establishment media does deserve some credit every now and then. Couric certainly deserves it with Palin.

The most notable thing about the political blogs in the fall campaign was just how unimportant they were. Boehlert notes that they were irrelevant to the Obama campaign, but he doesn't discuss how they became increasingly irrelevant to their audiences. The presidential race effectively ended on September 15, when Lehman Brothers went under and the entire financial services industry was facing collapse. Obama kept his cool, McCain didn’t, and that was all she wrote. The real story in the blogosphere was the sudden popularity of economics sites like Calculated Risk and Naked Capitalism. People were desperate to make sense of the financial disaster, and they wanted an alternative to the pro-Wall Street line being fed them through the corporate media. The economics blogs were doing what the political blogs had done in response to the Iraq War and the pro-GOP puffery of the mainstream news: They provided information and analysis people weren’t getting elsewhere. In short, they filled a need, and that’s what makes any human venture successful.

And sadly, that’s what may make this extremely disappointing book a sales success. The 2008 campaign, particularly the Democratic primaries, were a roller-coaster ride for many, and it occasionally left them not knowing up from down. There’s a desire out there to get some perspective on what happened--to put it all in context--and Boehlert’s book is, as of right now, the only place they can go. If it’s successful in the book trade, one can only hope it will motivate another publisher to get a competing book out there. Let’s hope that would be one by an author who believes in the importance of research, reporting, and getting the story right. That's the sort of author one would have expected Boehlert to be.

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