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Blogged Down

This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

During one especially hectic week in mid-February, the Internet took three scalps in what appeared to be unrelated events. Liberal bloggers forced Talon News White House correspondent James D. Guckert, aka “Jeff Gannon,” to resign after it was revealed that he was writing under a false name for a Republican activist group (GOPUSA), that he was not really a journalist at all, and that he had posed nude on the Internet in an effort to solicit sex for money. Conservative bloggers, meanwhile, created a firestorm after Eason Jordan, the chief news executive for CNN, made controversial remarks during an off-the-record panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggesting that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in war zones. Jordan was forced to resign. Finally, in Maryland, Joseph Steffen, a longtime aide to Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, was fired after reporters exposed him as the author of e-mails and anonymous web-site postings encouraging rumors about the marriage of Baltimore’s popular mayor, Martin O’Malley, a potential ’06 challenger to Ehrlich.

All unrelated stories, except for the Internet angle, right? Well, no. Scratch the surface and the same names turn up in each scandal, revealing the events of mid-February to have been part of an ongoing and coordinated proxy war by Republican political operatives on the so-called liberal media, conducted through the vast, unmonitored loophole of the Internet.

“Are bloggers journalists?” is a question that’s been kicking around for a few years, and both bloggers and journalists answer it by saying no. Journalists insist on the distinction because most bloggers don’t do original reporting or double-check information for its accuracy. Bloggers, for their part, often see themselves as polemicists and activists and chafe at being held to journalistic standards.

But these three episodes – combined with last year’s Dan Rather controversy, when conservative bloggers contributed mightily to the CBS anchor’s downfall – still represent something new. Not only are most bloggers not journalists; increasingly they are also partisan operatives whose agendas are as ideological as they come. Using the cover of anonymity (many bloggers use pseudonyms), the cacophony of the relatively new medium, and the easily inflamed passions of the web, these partisan political operatives are becoming experts at stirring up hornets’ nests of angry e-mails to editors, mounting campaigns to force advertisers to pull out of news shows, and, most disturbingly, spreading outright false information. The irony is that, at the same time this is happening, many in the mainstream media have decided it’s finally time to take bloggers seriously. But people who blog about politics and journalism aren’t just a 21st-century media story; they’re part of an ongoing political story with roots stretching back more than 40 years.

Blogging began around 1998, and slowly: Only 23 blogs were known to exist at the beginning of 1999. The practice really took off later that year, after several software programs were developed for the express purpose of setting up web logs (aka blogs), allowing even technophobes and Luddites to enter the fray. For blogs devoted specifically to politics, Sept. 11 was – as in so many other matters – a turning point, with political blogs proliferating throughout 2002. The first prominent ones were operated by independent actors – citizen-bloggers, if you will, indebted to no one and out to satisfy nothing more than their own creative urges. The medium, it turned out, filled a need, creating echo chambers and communities of the like-minded on both the left and the right, which felt that the mainstream media were biased against them.

But success bred change. Along has come a new group of bloggers who aren’t mere “citizens” at all. On the left side, some of these became deeply enmeshed with political parties, “527s,” and campaign advocacy groups – and are now a new generation of no-holds-barred partisans and major party fund-raisers, the liberal equivalent of George W. Bush’s “Rangers” and “Pioneers.” On the right, a number of these bloggers were already political operatives or worked at long-standing movement institutions before taking up residence online. They are, at best, the intellectual heirs of L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center and Reed Irvine, who founded the ultraconservative, media-hounding nonprofit organization Accuracy In Media (AIM) in 1969 as part of the first generation of post–Barry Goldwater right-wing institutions. At worst, they're the protégés of conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie and dirty-tricks master Morton Blackwell, who has tutored conservative activists since 1965, most recently mocking John Kerry at the Republican national convention by distributing Band-Aids with purple hearts on them.

Which brings us back to Jordan. He was brought down not by outraged citizen-bloggers but by a mix of GOP operatives and military conservatives. Easongate.com, the blog that served as the clearinghouse for the attack on CNN, was helped along by Virginia-based Republican operative Mike Krempasky. From May 1999 through August 2003, Krempasky worked for Blackwell as the graduate development director of the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va.–based school for conservative leaders founded by Blackwell in 1979. The institute is the organization that had provided “Gannon” with his sole media credential before he became a White House correspondent. It also now operates “Internet Activist Schools” designed to teach conservatives how to engage in “guerilla Internet activism.”

Indeed, Krempasky could be found teaching this Internet activism course one recent February weekend to about 30 young conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. “He advocated that people write from their experience – and not necessarily as conservatives,” a Democratic consultant who attended the seminar incognito told me. For example, Krempasky told “a conservative firefighter” that he should write about firefighting because that would be of interest to readers. Using that angle, he could build an audience. And if push ever came to shove, he could respond to an online dogfight from the unassailable position of being a firefighter – and not as just another conservative ideologue. Krempasky then offered to help all the attendees set up their own blogs. “We’re definitely in serious trouble,” said the Democratic attendee.

The tactics Krempasky promotes are directly descended from those advocated by the late Reed Irvine of AIM, whose major funder was, for the past two decades, Richard Mellon Scaife. “Many bloggers and blog readers might not even know who Reed Irvine was, nor understand the debt we owe him as conservatives,” Krempasky wrote upon Irvine’s passing last year. “But that debt is tremendous.” In the late ’80s, Irvine had started the campaign to “Can Dan” Rather, coining the phrase “Rather Biased.” Last fall, Krempasky was operating the main anti-Rather site, Rathergate.com, and using Irvine’s slogan as a rallying cry to organize a vast letter-writing and e-mailing campaign “to contact CBS and express themselves,” as he put it in an interview with Bobby Eberle of GOPUSA, an activist web site founded by Texas Republicans and now owned by Bruce Eberle (no relation), the proprietor of a conservative direct-mail firm. “Conservatives have operated through alternative media for 40 years, direct mail being the first one,” Krempasky told me, sitting in the food court of the Ronald Reagan International Building as the CPAC wound down. “As far as the Internet goes, conservatives have largely been ahead of the left.”

Also part of the Easongate.com team was La Shawn Barber, who writes a biweekly column for – again, the name pops up – GOPUSA and has written for AIM about “the Bush-bashing media.” Working alongside Krempasky and Barber was another site, RedState.org, “a Republican community weblog” registered with the Federal Election Commission as a 527. Krempasky helped found that site along with Senate staffer Ben Domenech, the chief speechwriter for Bush ally and Texas Sen. John Cornyn; and former U.S. Army officer Josh Trevino, a conservative blogger who used to write under the name “Tacitus.” The goal of RedState.org? “[T]o unite … voices from government, politics, activism, civil society, and journalism” in service of the “construction of a Republican majority.”

Power Line, another conservative blog deeply involved in the Rather controversy, helped push the Jordan story as well. Described by Time magazine as “three amateur journalists working in a homegrown online medium [who] challenged a network news legend and won,” Power Line was voted Time’s “2004 Blog of the Year.” In reality, its three writers are all fellows at the conservative Claremont Institute who attended Dartmouth College in the early 1970s and now work as attorneys; two of them have been writing articles as a team for conservative publications such as the National Review and The American Enterprise for more than 10 years.

Certainly there were some citizen-bloggers involved in the anti-Jordan effort. Easongate founder Bill Roggio, 35, is a computer-software analyst in Medford, N.J. His blog, The Fourth Rail, demanded that CNN release the video- or audiotape of Jordan’s comments in Davos. Roggio started Easongate.com on Saturday, Feb. 5, with a couple of right-wing and military blogosphere buddies, Michigan-based Brian Scott (of The Blue State Conservatives) and Josh Manchester (of TheAdventuresofChester.com). Like Roggio, Manchester served in the military, leaving active duty as a U.S. Marine only recently. Scott, a Republican and member of Right to Life of Michigan, started his blog to further his dreams of becoming a conservative talk-radio personality.

As Easongate got cooking, the trio quickly reached out to “BlackFive,” a former paratrooper and prominent military blogger in Chicago who declined, in an e-mail interview, to reveal his surname (his first name is Matt). BlackFive brought in Cheryl, a 48-year-old advertising sales representative from Southern California who asked me not to use her last name; she gave the group pro bono marketing services and helped to set up a database of CNN advertisers to be contacted. The team even tried to get an active-duty military officer to join their clique. The officer declined.

Jordan had made his comments more than a week before Easongate went live and, by all accounts, quickly backtracked at the panel when pressed. But the next day, Jan. 28, Rony Abovitz, a blogger hired by the World Economic Forum and, according to a later report in the Guardian, “one of those conservative online activists who believe the internet is an opportunity to balance what they see as media pro-liberal bias,” posted an item on the forum’s blog demanding that the two members of Congress who had been in Davos press Jordan on his remarks. The demand percolated throughout the conservative U.S. blogosphere as concern grew, and conservative talk-radio host, Weekly Standard writer, and blogger Hugh Hewitt added fuel to the fire by mentioning the controversy on cable television.

During the week that Roggio’s site was active, it launched a petition, turned readers into letter writers to CNN, worked the phones urging contacts in the military and government to call CNN, and generally acted as a clearinghouse for information on Jordan. Just as it was about to start a wholesale assault on CNN’s advertisers, Jordan caved. “I have never worked with a more cohesive, like-minded group of individuals in my entire life,” wrote Scott after Jordan resigned. “Without people like Cheryl, … BlackFive and his contacts, … La Shawn Barber and her writing prowess, and the advice of Mike Krempasky, we would not have succeeded.”

Steffen’s slime

Joseph Steffen’s online mudslinging toward Mayor O’Malley followed a more old-fashioned strategy. Steffen, a political operative who called himself the “Prince of Darkness,” was fired from Gov. Ehrlich’s administration for planting salacious rumors on the Internet in August and October 2004 about a fictional affair between O’Malley and an African-American TV journalist. Steffen’s narrative is simpler, but connections to the same Republican operatives abound.

After Steffen, writing under the handle “ncpac,” seeded clues to the anchorwoman’s identity on a FreeRepublic.com thread, other conservative bloggers posted pictures of the reporter’s face online, defaming her as well as O’Malley. The rumors swirled in Annapolis, Maryland’s capital, for 18 months before the story broke into the open on Feb. 9, a day after a real reporter, from The Washington Post, confronted Steffen with the FreeRepublic postings. According to a profile in The Baltimore Sun, Steffen today is the sort of man who prefers “to wear dark clothing and work behind closed doors, with the lights off” and writes “horror and science fiction stories” in his spare time. But in 1985, Steffen worked on a campaign by Viguerie, Krempasky’s current employer, for the lieutenant governorship of Virginia. Further, Steffen’s "ncpac" handle was short for the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), a powerful ultraconservative group that viciously targeted Democratic lawmakers through an electoral “hit list” in the early ’80s. “Groups like ours are potentially very dangerous to the political process,” NCPAC’s founder, Terry Dolan, told the Post in 1980. “A group like ours could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps stays clean.” Steffen was the group’s spokesman before joining Viguerie’s campaign.

The historical ties connect not only Steffen’s self-destruction and the Jordan takedown but the Gannon scandal as well. GOP operative Blackwell, whose Leadership Institute trained Gannon and employed Krempasky, worked for The Viguerie Company from 1972 to 1979; previously, Blackwell trained a generation of young political operatives in the black arts of politics as the executive director of the College Republican National Committee.

Now a new generation is carrying on the work that these men started. The day Jordan resigned, Krempasky joined the online liberal discussion group Personal Democracy Forum, creating a new category, “The Dark Side,” to discuss the new potential of online “Open Source Opposition Research.” A sample:
In the wake of the Dan Rather affair and the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert story – political campaigns should take notice – you cannot and will not hide anything anymore. You cannot assume that your opponent simply won't find that embarrassing picture or boneheaded quote from the bombastic column you wrote in college – and the most important part? Your opponent won't have to dig it up themselves. If they have even a semblance of a netroots community close to them, the enterprising Googler will ferret it out, just for fun.

That warning came to fruition just days later, in the Gannon affair.

Unraveling l’affair Gannon

While conservatives have created an online echo chamber in part to further their decades-long assault on the mainstream media, liberals have begun using the new medium to pursue and unravel these conservative connections. “When you read in the mainstream press stories about the blogosphere, there are some things that come up over and over,” says Kevin Drum, who writes the Political Animal blog for the liberal Washington Monthly magazine. “It’s about hounding someone out of their jobs.”

The Gannon scalping is different from the Jordan and Rather controversies in two very important ways. First, whereas the conservative bloggers were out to destroy journalists with distinguished careers who’d made serious missteps, the liberal bloggers on Gannon’s trail were seeking to expose an out-and-out fraud. Second, while some of the conservative bloggers going after Jordan and Rather were mistaken for regular citizens by the mainstream media, the liberal bloggers were very much out in the open.

But “Gannongate,” too, has ties to political operatives. The story was sparked by Democratic congressional aides, who complained to their friends in the liberal blogosphere on Jan. 26 about the “Talon News guy” who, in a question to the president in the White House press conference that morning, had falsely accused new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of “talking about soup lines” and said Democrats “seem to have divorced themselves from reality.”

The progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, run by former conservative activist and American Spectator writer David Brock, jumped on the story after Rush Limbaugh boasted that he’d been the source for Gannon’s claims about the Democrats. The group sent out a release asking questions about Gannon and Talon News. “I was interested in the way information or misinformation can move from a completely irresponsible source into the White House press room,” says Brock. “And obviously I’ve had my own experiences with conservative movement entities masquerading as journalistic institutions.”

Susan Gardner, 46, a mother of four and former editor of now-defunct community paper the Sun City News in Santa Barbara, Calif., read about Gannon on the liberal blogosphere, including a tip that Gannon was not the Talon reporter’s real name. Gardner recalled seeing the Talon News name in a story about journalists subpoenaed in the Valerie Plame case. On Jan. 28, writing online as “SusanG,” she posted a question on the “Diaries” section of DailyKos, the widely read liberal blog run by Markos Moulitsas, now also a major Democratic fund-raiser. Gardner’s question: “Did the White House dribble the Plame leak through its own fake mouthpiece news source?” When she got flooded with more than 500 replies, she quickly organized the volunteer reader-researchers adding facts to the story into an organized team.

Brian Kelly, a 52-year-old actor in upstate New York best known for his starring role in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial in the ’90s, became Gardner’s partner, writing as “NYBri.” (Kelly had previously volunteered on the John Kerry and Howard Dean campaigns.) The two deputized hundreds of research assistants and co-reporters, made assignments, confirmed facts, and dug through the Internet’s vast array of electronic records, posting new tidbits of information until other blogs and mainstream outlets picked up the story.

The narrative got pushed into sexual territory by John Aravosis, a gay-rights activist who worked as a legislative aide for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens from 1989 to 1994. Aravosis has recently been conducting a wide-ranging outing campaign against gay Republicans. He wrote about the suggestive domain names Gannon had registered; after Gannon claimed on television that he’d registered them for someone else, Aravosis posted Gannon’s gay-escort web-site pictures, which had been given to him by the man who’d built web sites for Gannon. When writers at the daily Washington-insider newsletter The Hotline started to tut-tut over this, Aravosis wrote, “Spare me your sanctimonious bullshit now that those of us in the gay community and on the left have finally – finally – started to fight fire with fire.”

Meanwhile, another former Republican, Karl Frisch, 26 – better known as “Carl with a K,” his Internet handle while working for the Dean campaign in ’03 – pushed the story from Capitol Hill, where he works as a spokesman for Rep. Louise Slaughter on the House Rules Committee. Slaughter demanded answers from the White House on Gannon and, along with Rep. John Conyers, is awaiting the results of a Freedom of Information Act request demanding Gannon’s security-clearance records. The Hill team has tried to keep the focus on the questions of media bias and security in the White House, finding that the sex angle scared off Democratic legislators. “They make you give back your dirty-tricks kit when you leave the Republican Party,” quipped Frisch.

But there’s another a key difference between the effort against Gannon and conservative blog firestorms: The targets of the liberal blogosphere are conservative activists; the target of the conservative blogosphere is the free and independent press itself, just as it has been for conservative activists since the ’60s. For the Republican Party, pseudo-journalism Internet sites and the blogosphere are just another way to get around “the filter,” as Bush has dubbed the mainstream media. “One of the things that I think the blog world offers is an opportunity to provide another source of information,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman on CNN’s Inside Politics in February. Blogs are “something we encourage supporters of the president and Republicans to be very much involved in.”

“The way I look at this,” says Daily Kos’ Gardner, “[Gannon] is just one more piece to a bigger puzzle that we’ve seen for the past couple months – attempts by the Republican media complex not necessarily to fight the media but to become the media.”

But unlike traditional news outlets, right-wing blogs openly shill, fund raise, plot, and organize massive activist campaigns on behalf of partisan institutions and constituencies; they also increasingly provide cover for professional operatives to conduct traditional politics by other means – including campaigning against the established media. And instead of taking these bloggers for the political activists they are, all too often the established press has accepted their claims of being a new form of journalism. This will have to change – or it will prove serious journalism’s undoing.

This article is available on The American Prospect web site.
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