Pundits 'R' Us

Tired of the incessant, highly partisan bash fest that has poisoned America's political process and media ecology for most of this century?

Surprisingly, so are some of the most prominent practitioners at the center of the divisive, vituperative, redstate/bluestate, you're-either-with-us-or-against-us school of discourse - top-level media and political strategists from across the political spectrum.

These very strange political bedfellows are joining together in a post-partisan attempt to do something about the vitriol and mindless spin of modern political campaigning that they helped to create in the first place.

The group - which includes President Bush's top media and political strategists, as well as top advisers to former President Clinton and would-be presidents Gore and Kerry - just announced the October launch of a social-networking Internet site called Hotsoup.com.

Talk about hot soup - that's just in time for the elections!

The online information play, to be edited by former Associated Press chief political writer Ron Fournier, is the spawn of an unlikely coalition that counts among its founders Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004, and his rival Joe Lockhart, senior adviser to Democratic Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign (and former White House press secretary under President Clinton.). Their concept is to create a grown up, more politicized version of MySpace.com, and to target "opinion leaders" around the country who use the Internet to help make up their minds. Hotsoup would connect these local opinion leaders - estimated to number 30 million - with influential, high profile newsmakers who will post essays, debate issues and respond to readers.

To what end, you might ask? "We all share the belief that partisanship is largely driven by a debate that lacks information and lacks context, and we think this community can provide both of those things," Lockhart told the Associated Press. http://www.forbes.com/business/energy/feeds/ap/2006/07/11/ap2872477.html

Other Hotsoup co-founders include Mark McKinnon, the former Kris Kristofferson staff songwriter turned genius media maven who directed two highly successful advertising campaigns for President Bush, Carter Eskew, chief strategist to Al Gore's 2000 campaign, and Allie Savarino, president of the online women's social networking site Sisterwoman.com. They and a handful of other co-founders are Hotsoup's sole investors, who hope to garner advertising support from telecommunications companies and publishers, as well as, they say, financial institutions and auto makers.

The site is aimed at consumers who "feel like they have something to say but can't get it past the filter," Lockhart told the Wall Street Journal. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2006/07/11/sweet-and-sour-no-doubt

Oddly, however, he and the rest of the group introduced their venture at an invite-only press breakfast attended by top political reporters for such MSM stalwarts as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine.

I would have liked to have been there - but I couldn't get past the filter! Anyway I'm certain that I'm not among the celebrities, big-name politicians and business leaders the start-up's founders promise to employ in an attempt to attract hoi polloi like us into discussions. Frankly, I'm not even sure I rank among "America's 30 million influencers" which Hotsoup is targeting…

Lockhart and the other Hotsoup embeds suggest that their effort was born from a shared disgust with the increasingly shrill, unbalanced and personalized shouting that too often substitutes for intelligent debate and discussions these days. The irony, of course, is that their own political work played a large part in creating and perpetuating the undemocratic polarization they now decry.

Bottom line: does the world (online or off) really need another social network? How will Hotsoup differ from already extant group sites like the Huffington Post or the revamped Townhall.com? And with a world already populated with MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and Gather.com, do we really need another media site that gives users a forum to express their views on issues in the news - especially one aimed at reaching 'opinion leaders' through celebrities and big-name politicians?

HOTSOUP hopes it will unite "two types of Opinion Drivers:" The famous personalities who appear in newspapers and on TV, AND the 30 million "PTA members, firefighters, homemakers, small business owners, non-profit directors and other grassroots influencers." Lockhart says it will become " the place policy makers and political elites get to make their case to a public who increasingly feels shut out of the entire process. But to be heard, they'll have to check their partisan spin at the door and address the issues the HOTSOUP.com community decides are important." The community, he maintains, "will demand constructive debate and real solutions to real problems, not the contrived debates and fact-challenged banter that paralyzes our political and policy discourse."

"This is about granting equal access to all parties," adds co-founder Mark McKinnon.

Editor-in-chief Fournier goes even further. "Hotsoup.com is the next big thing in modern communications and community, It's the new frontier of New Media," he boasts. "Like the Internet itself, it will be the great equalizer. It will place every member of the community on a level playing field and let them sound off, square off, and connect with fellow Opinion Drivers."

The next Next Big Thing? We'll see, I suppose - after all, this IS the Internet, where high hopes and well laid but vainglorious plans "aft gang agley," as Robert Burns would have posted. For the moment, however, the venture most reminds me of the old Beatles song "Baby You Can Drive My Car." The lyrics, you may remember, go something like this: "I ain't got no car/and it's breaking my heart/but I've got an Opinion Driver/ and that's a start."

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