BlogHer part 2: how political blogs are growing up
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I'm sitting in on my first BlogHer panel, entitled "Political Blogging Grows Up."
It's being moderated by Courtney Lowery, managing editor of Rocky Mountain blogging network New West. The panelists are Roxanne Cooper of the popular progressive blog Rox Populi (Cooper also works as director of sales and marketing at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies). And last but not least, panelist Ambra Nykol of Nykola. Nykol is an African-American, conservative-leaning freelance writer and commentator who works for Google in her "other life."
Courtney Lowery: "Blogging gives us the opportunity to break out of [the mainstream] power structure. But as the genre evolves, we've found that we've created a power structure of our own. We're still compartmentalizing the discussion. We've started to go in the wrong direction in the blogosphere as a whole. My question today is how can we break out of these roles we've created -- the red echo chambed, the blue echo chamber -- and ensure that a variety of voices get heard?"
Ambra Nikol: "In the Bay Area, I represent the more conservative side of this panel. I'm in the minority. I find a lot of politics-centered blogs boring. People who are 'at the top,' who the papers pay attention to, are too boring. I'm a conservative-leaning blogger who once went on record as saying Instapundit is boring. Too many bloggers are reporting, and not opining. I don't like it when a blogger is reporting on what I can see on Fox News or NY Times... when [other than in blogs] are you going to get the perspective from a 23-year-old black chick dropout from Seattle, WA -- a fairly conservative one...? I feel like lots of people are compromising what they want to say for the sake of getting on Instapundit or Jeff Jarvis."
Roxanne Cooper: "The people who participate in the 'Parrotsphere' get links; get rewarded. When you blog about the topics that 'A-list Blogger #4' says you should, you get links... It's just an echo chamber. Are you doing this [hoping to eventually] get 10 cents-a-word from the Nation? I have better things to do. That's not a lot of money. Are you doing this as an outlet for your opinion? Doing this to get your political party's message out?"
Courtney Lowery: "[I love blogging because it's a way to] make politics sexy again. You can make it interesting in blogs...by not putting it in this pyramid, reporting format. Bring it back to your daily life -- [saying] I care about this, and here's why you should care about it. The personal is political. We have an amazing opportunity to harvest and further the political discussion."
AN: "For people that don't vote, oftentimes [they] don't see what role [they] play -- 'the issues don't pertain to me.' For so many people, so much of politics is hard to understand. So many people bury themselves in ignorance instead of participate. We need to make politics personal...Bring it back down to the people. It's so sterile. Corporations are adopting blogs because people are so sick of reading copy. We need to make it tangible, so that people can feel it."
RC: "Isn't the blogosphere self-correcting?" [chorus of groans, chants of " noooo..."]
Marian of Marian's Blog stands up with a question: "Can you address...the dialogue of ethicity and race in political blogosphere?"
AN: "Anonymous bloggers annoy me. I made a conscious decision to put my picture on my blog. Especially as a woman -- they think you're ugly if you don't!...
Guess what? I have an opinion that doesn't look like how you think it should look. I want people to be shocked. As a black woman, you can shock the masses. Using race as dialogue in blogosphere is a huge opportunity to get your name out there and have people read what you have to say."
Marian: "You're not a member of the KKK or anything, are you...?"
AN: [ looking annoyed ] "No, I'm not a member of the KKK... The number one comment I get from readers is: 'You should go back to college.' Or 'Gosh, I never met someone who thought/talked like you.' I'm a deviant -- among black people, conservatives, and as a woman."
RC: "She has her own opinion; she's not part of the 'parrotsphere.' You don't tow any party lines."
Audience member: "Any suggestions for making red and blue echo chambers talk to each other?"
RC: "Engage them. I stray from the liberal party line with the blogs I read. I can't stand Howard Dean... [And as a liberal,] you can't say anything bad about Howard Dean. They'll pounce on you. When there's intermingling, it's like Fox News; we've become what we hate -- silently yelling at each other. Go comment on people's blogs, engage them on why they think it works that way."
AN: "I've never met a more foul-mouthed, mean-spirited group of people than white conservative bloggers. Express one word of dissent and they'll cuss at you... If you think yelling at people will get your message across, you're sadly mistaken. I find Ann Coulter completely disgusting; [her tactics are] inappropriate and gross."
Random audience member: "And she needs a sandwich." [ laughter]
Someone else: "Does mud-slinging stop readers?"
RC: No, I don't think so... People like drama. Theyre looking for conflict. That's why Fox News is popular."
There's more discussion on how to engage readers in political discussion without being boring or alienating them. Ambra Nikol is adamant that simply being straightforward, honest, and "telling the truth" will attract readers, discussion and links. Roxanne Cooper disagrees -- she says readers need a "spoonful of sugar" to help the political "medicine" go down -- i.e. some pop culture coverage, some lighthearted stuff. Nikol doesn't like this sentiment; says she just wants to be herself and nothing else, and that she writes about whatever strikes her fancy, from heavy political issues du jour to "insulting Ann Coulter's clothes." Cooper says, "That's the sugar." ( Nikol disagrees).
Nikol makes a powerful statement about voters in America, and why not enough African-Americans are voting. An audience member asks her why that is -- Nikol responds passionately that when half of America isn't voting [and when that half contains many African-Americans], it reflects a dire communication problem stemming from the political press.
Nikol says it's our fault -- and our problem -- that we are not reaching certain segments of the population. "It's not because black people are stupid [that some aren't as engaged or connected with politics]," she says. Instead, she argues, we need to figure out why we're not getting our messages across effectively -- in essence, we need to learn how to discuss politics in a more inclusive way, so that everyone gets it. There's no reason for people to be left in the dark. [Hear, hear!]
Laura Barcella is an Associate Editor at AlterNet.