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Uncle Sam, Meet the Bloggers

An FEC commissioner's comments flame through the blogosphere, mobilizing bloggers and questioning the role of 'citizen journalists.'
 
 
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For Richard Morrison, the $350,000 he received in online donations got the politically unknown Democrat within spitting distance of unseating Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, in 2004.

A good part of that money was raised by blogs, which flexed their collective muscle for the first time in last year's elections, raising funds for conservatives and liberals alike. One right-wing blog, RedState, asked people to give directly to candidates and ultimately help raise an estimated $10,000, according to Erick-Woods Erickson, a lawyer and political consultant affiliated with the blog. One left leaning blog, Daily Kos, raised money for a dozen candidates, pulling in nearly $537,000, with Morrison, who landed 41 percent of the vote, getting $60,000.

"But blogs aren't just about getting money," Morrison said in a telephone interview.

Besides tapping small donor bases, bloggers help organize volunteers and keep alive such stories as the Swift Boat Veterans or Karl Rove's alleged role in the CIA leak.

But is the future of blogs, those symbols of the Internet's democratic promise, in jeopardy?

A federal judge has ordered the Federal Election Commission to extend campaign finance laws to the Internet. And the regulatory foray has sparked debate about whether the anti-establishment, rant-prone but politically relevant blogosphere is more akin to a world of activists or journalists.

Bloggers worry that bringing bloggers under the regulatory scope of campaign finance laws will mean incurring debilitating legal fees to defend against partisan lawsuits or FEC investigations. That is unless the government classifies blogs as "press," which are exempted from campaign finance laws.

The whole affair has anti-establishment bloggers taking some ever-so-establishment paths to Washington.

At the end of June, prominent bloggers testified before the FEC in an effort to protect the nascent but exploding Net subculture, which now counts some 11 million blogs, from the thin end of a regulatory wedge.

The fuss all started in March when FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith told a reporter for CNET that regulation was coming down the pipe. The article, in which Smith said the judge's ruling "would strike deep into the heart of the Internet and the bloggers who are writing out there today," flamed across the blogosphere. Other FEC commissioners were soon on record saying they had no intention of regulating blogs. Even so, the issue had taken on a life of its own, seeding widespread debate over the role of blogs and the reasonable reach of what many see as inevitable regulation.

Exemption as Grail

The FEC is considering several complicated issues and could exempt blogs from regulation for now. But any eventual regulation scheme will pivot on the key question of whether blogs qualify for what's known in FEC-speak as the "press exemption."

Until now, the federal government has taken a largely hands-off approach to Internet regulation, voting in 2002 not to extend campaign laws to Internet activity. But last fall the District Court in Washington D.C. told the FEC to bring coordinated political activity under the scope of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. That law in part restricts corporations, non-profits and labor unions from running "electioneering" ads.

News media corporations, however, were handed an exemption to such restrictions so that any newspaper, television or radio networks can spend as much as they want for political coverage and publish whatever they wish about politics as often as they wish, without any interference, all of which blogs could do if the FEC grants them the exemption.

It is unclear exactly how blogs would be affected if they were included in the FEC's attempt to bring Internet activity under the scope of the McCain-Feingold law.

Imagining a future where, say, the number of a blog's partisan op-eds could be limited by law, one group of bloggers, The Online Coalition, has asked the FEC to treat blogs as news media and to craft a rule exempting unpaid political activity on the Internet. They have also asked the agency to clarify certain legalese so bloggers won't unknowingly violate laws governing for example the republication of campaign materials.

"The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 was intended to prevent unlimited soft money contributions and regulate electioneering advertising, not to stifle free speech or grassroots activities on the Internet that serve the common good," the letter to the FEC states.

Back to the Million Dollar Questions: Will bloggers ever be recognized as journalists? Are blogs "media entities" for the purposes of getting the "press exemption"?

Spectrum of Discussion

Certainly blogs have broken news stories and sustained hot potatoes that mainstream media seem afraid to touch (Rove's alleged role in the CIA exposure case for example). Their ability to enable grassroots political discourse in an age of corporate concentration and control of news media is summed up by Jay Rosen, an associate journalism professor at New York University, who writes in his blog that "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anybody can own one."

Regulatory distinctions don't come easy in such a world.

"Again, blogging could also get us into issues about online journals and non-online journals," he was quoted as saying. "Why should CNET get an exemption but not an informal blog? Why should Salon or Slate get an exemption? Should Nytimes.com and Opinionjournal.com get an exemption but not online sites, just because the newspapers have a print edition as well?"

Without a press exemption, some bloggers might be buried by lawsuits. But what happens if millions of bloggers are suddenly given news media status?

Some say corporations and trade unions will sidestep election law by using the unregulated blogosphere to spend unlimited money on political messages. One such case is Tom Daschle's 2002 Senate race in North Dakota. Republican challenger John Thune paid two bloggers to loudly criticize Daschle, and may have helped Thune defeat the former Senate minority leader.

Carol Darr, director for The Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet says campaign reforms would be all but killed. Darr, an attorney who started her career at the FEC, told commissioners last week that such a move would "expand the net of exemptions from election finance law" potentially letting corporations or trade unions spend unlimited money on political messages. She said creating a newly-expanded media exemption encompassing millions of bloggers would create "a new loophole that will eviscerate the contribution and expenditure limits of campaign finance law."

What's more, she said, some bloggers want it both ways.

"They want to preserve their rights as political activists, donors and even fundraisers, activities regulated by campaign finance laws, yet at the same time enjoy the broad exemption from the campaign finance laws afforded to traditional journalists. ... ", she said. "The FEC must make it clear that bloggers cannot wear two hats simultaneously: that of journalist and that of partisan activist." At a minimum, Darr said the FEC must insist that anyone who avails him or herself of the media exception should not operate as a political activist.

Beyond Punditry

The recent uproar comes as blogging's popularity grows and more voters seek them out for news. A Pew Foundation report says 24 percent of the 63 million people who got campaign news online in 2004 visited specialized political sites, including blogs.

With those numbers, some blogs have moved beyond punditry. BlogPac, a political action committee that bills itself as a tool of the progressive movement, leashes together what it calls "Netroots" political power and raises money via individual donations for political advertisements. Made up of prominent liberal blogs including Daily Kos, MyDD, Ameriblog and Pandagon, the group was founded last year and raised money to buy some $35,000 worth of online ads in the 2004 cycle. BlogPac also built a website debunking President Bush's claim about Social Security's insolvency.

"Writing a blog post is not enough," reads the group's call to action posted on their website. "Reading a blog post is not enough. Commenting on a blog is not enough. The next step requires doing something." For some of BlogPac's core members such as Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of Daily Kos, doing something meant showing up in Washington last week. "We have a democratic medium that allows anyone to have true freedom of the press," he told the commissioners. "We have average citizens publishing their thoughts through research, through journalism, their activism and encouraging others to do the same."

One BlogPac member requesting anonymity for professional reasons said in a telephone interview that the FEC's regulatory efforts were doomed because of a cultural disconnect between old-style regulatory schemes and new world realities. "The FEC is trying to regulate against basic architecture of the Internet, which is impossible," he said. "It's trying to rely on static notions of identity and an environment in which effective political speech still has to be purchased, which is no longer the case."

Michael Krempasky of RedState told FEC commissioners that "the boundaries defining who or what is a quote-unquote media entity have eroded to the point of irrelevance. No longer do we have limited number of easily-defined outlets or a restricted professional community. Government rules and regulations granting media bona fides (and all the associated privileges) to some while denying those credentials to others would be like building a new laptop computer with vacuum tubes. The old ways simply cannot keep up."

The old ways are certainly threatened. Many bloggers say capital-intensive old school media feel threatened by citizen journalism, which some experts say is at least shifting the calculus of news delivery. "If my terms make sense, and professional journalism has entered a period of declining sovereignty in news, politics and the provision of facts to public debate, this does not have to mean declining influence or reputation," writes Rosen of NYU. "It does not mean that prospects for the public service press are suddenly dim. It does, however, mean that the old political contract between news providers and news consumers will give way to something different, founded on what [Associated Press chief Tom Curley] correctly called a 'new balance of power.'"

So as old media look over their shoulders and the FEC mulls its moves, the blogosphere keeps expanding, no doubt with the hope, as Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon puts it, "that the anarchy of blogging will make it easier for previously marginalized voices to get heard."

Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington, DC and Latin America. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Prospect, and other publications.