By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007
CHICAGO, Aug. 5 -- It's Sunday, day 4 of Yearly Kos, the major conference for progressive bloggers, and Gina Cooper, the confab's organizer-in-chief, surveys the ballroom of the massive McCormick Place Convention Center. A few hundred remaining conventioneers are having brunch, dining on eggs, bagels and sausage.
Seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates have paid their respects this weekend, and some 200 members of the credentialed press have filed their stories. A mere curiosity just two years ago, the progressive blogosphere has gone mainstream. But Cooper sees a problem.
"It's mostly white. More male than female," says the former high school math and science teacher turned activist. "It's not very diverse."
There goes the open secret of the netroots, or those who make up the community of the Internet grass-roots movement.
For all the talk about the increasing influence of this growing group -- "We are a community . . . a movement . . . an institution," Cooper said in a speech Saturday night -- what gets scant attention is its demography. While the Huffington Post and Fire Dog Lake, both founded by women, are two of the most widely read blogs, the rock stars are mostly men, and many women bloggers complain of sexism and harassment in the blogosphere.
Walking around McCormick Place during the weekend, it became clear that only a handful of the 1,500 conventioneers -- bloggers, policy experts, party activists -- are African American, Latino or Asian. Of about 100 scheduled panels and workshops, less than a half-dozen dealt directly with women or minority issues.
A panel called "Blogging While Female," held Saturday morning, was an aberration -- an overflow room of about 75, mostly women, a few of them minorities.
"How many of the women in the audience blog?" asked a panelist.
Nearly three-fourths of those present raised their hands.
"How many of you get harassed?"
The hands stayed up. They complain of being harassed online for their views on issues such as abortion rights.
"There's an awful lot of work to do, and the thing to remember is, this progressive movement is at a place right now to bring more voices in, especially when you talk about issues -- abortion, voting rights, public education -- that directly affect women and communities of color," said Latifa Lyles, sitting in the back of the room, her arms crossed, and balancing her computer on her lap. She's black and works for the National Organization for Women.
Allie Carter, of the American Civil Liberties Union, her laptop also on her lap, nodded and chimed in. She's white. "Yes, this is a problem. A big problem."
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, who is part Latina, attended a panel on Friday called "The Changing Dynamics of Diversity in Progressive Politics," organized by Cheryl Contee, an African American woman. Ancona works for Vote Hope, a California-based activist group, and said one reason she came to Yearly Kos was to get an answer to this question: "Why is the blogosphere, which is supposed to be more democratic, reinforcing the same white male power structure that exists?"
Everyone agrees it's a problem, yet no one is sure how to address it. Historically, the progressive movement has included a myriad of special-interest and single-issue groups, and the challenge has always been to find common ground. The same is true on the Internet, but with an added twist. The Internet, after all, is not a "push" medium like television, where information flows out, but a "pull" medium, where people are drawn in.
Build a liberal site such as Daily Kos, as the Persian Gulf War veteran and former Republican Markos "Kos" Moulitsas Zuniga did five years ago, and bloggers either join the discussion or not. For two years now, Moulitsas has lent his name to the conference. But on Saturday, Cooper announced that next year the event will be called "Netroots Nation."
Cooper is worried about generating more "inclusion," using the word no less than six times in 15 minutes.
"I hate using the word 'diversity.' I don't know what we use there. But what we definitely need are voices from different communities," she says. And the problem, she adds, stretches beyond ethnic and gender inclusion. There's a socioeconomic gap, too.
"Naming the conference 'Yearly Kos' was useful for us. It gave us a brand," Cooper continues. "Now that more people know about us, people should know that everyone is welcome. The big question is, how do we include everybody?"
Cooper says she is working on efforts to improve outreach. Paul Delehanty, a white blogger in Oakland, Calif., took the initiative. He attended last year's Yearly Kos and saw the need for more diverse participation. So this year he raised money online to help offset conference expenses for a group he called the Chicago 17. It included racial, regional and gender diversity. Bernita Smith, an African American blogger from Atlanta, is one of the Chicago 17, and raised funds herself to attend the conference. "I was completely surprised -- shocked even. The political blogosphere isn't as white as the people in this convention."
It's hard to think of another movement that has affected politics in such a short period of time, and the blogging culture is an informal, friendly community that has no one leader or single issue -- except, perhaps, strong opposition to the war in Iraq. Last year's Blogads Reader Survey found that the median political blog reader is a 43-year-old male who has an annual family income of $80,000, and judging by the number of middle-aged men who attended one panel after the next here, it's hard to argue with that. The four-day gathering is something of a reunion, where folks know each other not by their faces but by their screen names. The dress code is casual and the rule is BYOL -- bring your own laptop.
The vibe in this year's event, bloggers say, was remarkably different from last year. Most panels weren't necessarily about blogging, as in the past, they added, but more about bringing policy experts, party activists and bloggers together in one room. In a way, the outsiders have become insiders, leaving some members of the press a little confused. Steven Thomma, the veteran political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, turned to another reporter during Sen. Hillary Clinton's breakout session with bloggers and asked, "Are politicians trying to reach the bloggers? Or are they trying to reach us" -- journalists -- "through the bloggers?"
Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, who founded MyDD in 2001, wrote a book, "Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots and the Rise of People-Powered Politics." Armstrong, known as the blogfather, was an adviser to former Virginia governor Mark Warner, who at one time was considering a run for the White House and aggressively courted bloggers at last year's convention. Matt Stoller, who previously wrote for MyDD and now runs his own blog, Open Left, works as a political consultant.
Stoller half-jokingly says that the netroots community is full of "white liberal men," then quickly points out that Moulitsas is part Latino. (The other half is Greek.)
"It's important to remember that African American and Latinos already had their alternative media before white progressive bloggers like me organized on the Web," says Stoller late Saturday morning. "It's also important to remember that this movement is still young. It's still not that advanced, it's still building coalitions, it's still maturing."