What with viral videos such as will.i.am's "Yes We Can" spot on Barack Obama and online jabberwocky about a supposed salt-of-the-earth-intelligentsia called Netroots, Internet political consultants have fashioned an image of themselves as modern, idealistic, sexy, and pure.
Political blogger turned Internet strategy consultant Bob Brigham just finished what he says was the most aggressive Web operation in the history of state legislative campaigns for Assemblyman Mark Leno, who unseated Carole Migden in the California Senate. And judging from this race for the Third Senate District, Web campaigning now has more in common with politics' smoky, backroom old times than any sort of bold new political age. The Internet seems to have made politics sleazier than it has ever been.
Before the existence of Web strategy consultants, a candidate might have hired opposition researchers to dig for dirt by schmoozing a rival's ex-wife. Leno's Web operation prospected for ways to smear Migden by schlepping cameras to events she attended, hoping to catch a "Macaca" or "God Damn America" moment and upload it to YouTube. (Leno's campaign manager Tom Higgins said the videos were also used as a way to critique Leno's debate performances.)
In politics' bad old days, a candidate might have handed out wads of "walking-around" money to pastors, ward bosses, community leaders, journalists, and other opinion makers. Today, savvy candidates put bloggers on their payroll.
Brigham, for example, is a regular contributor to Calitics.com, a left-leaning news and opinion website, where he regularly wrote pro-Leno editorial items while receiving $3,000 a month from Leno's campaign. The site's pro-Leno editor and publisher Brian Leubitz was also hired to work on the campaign; both men received press credentials to "cover" the state Democratic convention.
"I would point out that this is a pretty public and disclosed item on all of our financial filings," Higgins said. "We were compensating them. We were fully disclosing compensation they received. That's not an atypical thing to have happen. The bloggers tend to be quite active, so it's not atypical for them to offer their professional services and support a campaign."
Brigham, for his part, offered a version of the "you just don't get it" Internet refrain. "There's no ethics issue; this isn't the Pentagon paying off analysts and stuff," said Brigham, who has described himself as a Netroots communications consultant. "Everybody knew that the blogs were with Leno, and that I worked on the campaign and then Brian did."
In fact, there is an ethical issue here, though it isn't exactly new: Public-relations flacks, political consultants, lobbyists, spies, cops, and other schemers have long attempted to cloak themselves as journalists in hopes of more convincingly peddling their bills of goods.
Rent-a-bloggers seem determined to hack away at the public's ability to distinguish independent information from spin for hire. So now we can thank Leno's Web team for making misleading political strategists who blog for pay another reason to hate the Internet, along with annoying animated mortgage banner ads, porn, and hate speech.
Political bloggers have argued since the 1990s that they should be given similar footing as journalists who cover campaigns. For the most part, bloggers have prevailed. For six years the California Democratic Party has allowed self-described bloggers to cover its political conventions, and the national party will credential them at its convention this year. But for every Joshua Micah Marshall — the trailblazing independent journalist credited with bringing down Senator Trent Lott — there are dozens of paid lobbyists, consultants, and public-relations professionals eager to blur the line between reportage and flackery.
"Probably not everyone in politics has understood this transition, where you go into a press conference, where there once would just would be TV, radio, and the newspapers," said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party. "Today, half the people in there are people with a political agenda who happen to have a blogging operation."
Brigham doesn't see a problem. "I think it makes a lot of sense for the California Democratic Party to credential bloggers," he said. "They were the first in the country to do it. It's now standard operating practice. There will be hundreds of bloggers at the DNC convention. A lot of them work on campaigns."
For political professionals, hiring bloggers seems to have become yet another aspect of the ever-evolving business of politics. "We were hiring them in a consulting capacity to be able to help us with multiple things," Higgins said. "And I guess it's not an atypical thing for bloggers, because they're also, quite often, activists. And they do have associations. In the blogs, they are generally advancing something or someone."
Jim Ross, the consultant who advised the campaign of Joe Nation, third-place finisher in the Senate race, didn't fully "get" this new paradigm until March's state Democratic convention. "Joe and I go to the press riser, where we're talking to John Wildermuth from the Chronicle, Dan Walters from the Sacramento Bee, and a reporter from the LA Times," he said. Ross said he and his candidate approached Leubitz, who told them not to bother talking to him, because he was with Leno.
On Calitics.com, Leubitz writes that he started the site in Sept. 2005 "because of a lack of transparency in the statehouse." This spring, Leno's campaign hired him part-time at $500 per month to maintain the campaign's Web site and handle e-mail. Ross recalled thinking it strange that someone with press credentials should be part of a candidate's team: "You're up here with these news outlets, but you say you're supporting Mark Leno? Shouldn't you be here with the audience?" (It should be noted that Ross has his own political blog.) Leubitz says he had intended to tell Nation that he should speak to someone else from Calitics who wasn't employed by the Leno campaign.
At first glance, all this can seem insignificant; paid bloggers generally have small audiences. But their readers sometimes include influential political mavens, and some journalists troll blogs in hopes of encountering what they believe to be worthwhile information. This paid-for "information" sometimes gets turned into mainstream news stories.
"What happens on these Weblogs affects which state donors get into the race, how opinion makers decide who to support and not to support," Ross said. "I think a lot of the work the Leno campaign did that made it credible — that they could beat Carole Migden — that was done online."
Brigham said bloggers-for-hire cause no confusion because Web scribes have developed a convention of identifying their conflicts of interest. He, for one, wrote that he was "proud to do some work for Leno" in italics when he posted Calitics items promoting the campaign whose Internet operation he led.
"Any time I write about something where there's any money exchanging hands, I disclose I'm working for somebody," Leubitz said. "I think people can take it as they may. The Internet is different for a number of reasons, because I specifically take positions, which, for most journalists, is not the case."
The idea that it's okay for opinion columnists to take payola is ridiculous to anyone in legitimate journalism. Columns that are bought and paid for are, as a rule, just as worthless as paid-for news stories. The muddied waters don't stop here. Public-relations flacks have also taken over the space once occupied by letters to the editor. Campaign consultants' duties can include monitoring and writing in the comments sections of blogs and Internet news pages. "There was a time when there were people paid by the campaign who were commenting on blogs," Higgins said. "It was not a primary role."
This battle between journalism and independent commentary, and people posing as journalists and independent commentators, has been going on for generations. For this reason, the U.S. Senate has long taken pains to ensure that the only outsiders given the run of the galleries are "bona fide reporters," according to Rule 33. This does not include those "engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, publicity, or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government."
If current trends keep pace, the California press corps will mostly include this compromised group. They'll continue to make politics, and Internet reporting on it, suck even more than it already does.