By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
Last spring, two hours after he used his Des Moines Register blog to ridicule a suggestion by a Hillary Clinton aide that she skip the Iowa caucuses, David Yepsen's phone rang.
It was the former first lady.
"Senator, why are you calling me?" the veteran political reporter asked.
"I read your blog," said Clinton, who quoted from his posting while insisting that of course she wasn't going to skip Iowa.
The mushrooming number of political blogs on newspaper and magazine Web sites has altered the terrain of the 2008 election. Campaign officials have learned to feed the bottomless pit of these constantly updated compilations, leaking favorable tidbits -- a new poll result or television ad -- and quickly disputing negative items.
In short, journalists and political strategists find themselves sparring more and more over smaller and smaller items on shorter and shorter deadlines.
When he worked for John Kerry's 2004 campaign, says Clinton spokesman Phil Singer, "we were essentially at the mercy of the so-called Old Media. You had to struggle to get something into the paper. With the advent of these blogs, it's much easier to get your message out through accredited newspaper channels."
Danny Diaz, a Republican National Committee spokesman, agrees: "They provide another vehicle for operatives like myself to get out a message. They help further a story line."
The Washington Post ("The Trail"), New York Times ("The Caucus"), Chicago Tribune ("The Swamp"), Los Angeles Times ("Top of the Ticket"), Boston Globe ("The Primary Source"), Time ("Swampland") and the cable news networks, among others, have A-team writers contributing breaking news, analysis and lighter fare to their blogs. And these journalists write with more attitude online than in tradition-bound publications.
"The campaigns really care about blogs, and I hear from them a lot more often about smaller things, not just big-picture stories," says Tribune reporter Jill Zuckman. Campaign aides also pay attention to the blogs on Politico.com and from such magazines as National Review ("The Corner") and the New Republic ("The Plank" and "The Stump").
The high-velocity approach is not without pitfalls for journalists who now must divide their time between print work and blogging. The constant pressure to update blogs, thereby drawing more Web traffic, leaves less time for reporting and reflection. Churning out items throughout the day increases the chances of errors and puts a premium on bite-size chunks fed by a single source. On the plus side, reporters writing online can file updates with comments from rival campaigns and correct any mistakes in real time.
Chris Cillizza, a washingtonpost.com reporter, says he constantly had to explain what he was doing when he launched his blog "The Fix" two years ago. Now, he says, campaign aides pitch stories to him every day.
"The bar is lower than getting something in a newspaper," Cillizza says. "On the Web you could do 25 items in one day."
While the blogs obviously appeal primarily to an audience of political junkies, they mesh well with the quick-hit culture of the Net. At washingtonpost.com, blogs on subjects ranging from politics to sports to celebrities account for nearly 10 percent of overall traffic, and the Trail and the Fix each attract more than 1 million page views per month.
In the pre-Internet age, campaign officials routinely slipped reporters negative information about opponents, sometimes over drinks at the local watering hole. But they had to wait at least until the next morning for it to be published. That process now unfolds around the clock.
The Clinton campaign, many journalists say, is the fastest and most aggressive at dealing with blogs. Last week, Clinton aides sent journalists a Huffington Post column criticizing her major Democratic rival, Barack Obama, for a planned appearance with a gospel singer who is hostile to gays. Time blogger Ana Marie Cox posted the item -- but added that Clinton had been endorsed by a minister who preaches against homosexuality. The Clinton camp quickly obtained a correction saying that the minister had praised Clinton but not endorsed her.
The story about Clinton's second-ranking aide, Mike Henry, urging her to skip Iowa was broken by the New York Times blog. Chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney wrote that the memo was provided "through an intermediary, by a rival campaign." Yepsen, Iowa's top political writer, was among those who picked it up.
"The campaigns really watch what we blog because they know it can be an early warning system for what you put in the paper," Yepsen says. "If you chastise someone, they want to spin you out of it."
On the other hand, Yepsen says, when he wrote a posting titled "Obama Bombs on the Bomb" -- criticizing the Illinois senator for appearing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan -- Clinton aides quickly urged him to publish it in the next day's Register.
In April, says Time's Karen Tumulty, she got a call from Singer, the Clinton aide, minutes after posting a snarky item about the Clinton campaign. He strongly objected to Tumulty's observation that Clinton's online petition supporting the Rutgers women's basketball team -- which had just been insulted by radio host Don Imus -- was right next to a big red button labeled "CONTRIBUTE." Tumulty posted an update noting Singer's assurance that the campaign would not use the signers' e-mail addresses to solicit donations.
"I think they understand the brush-fire nature of the Internet," Tumulty says. "Something can start as a few embers on some blog, and once a few bloggers start picking up on it, the other bloggers are all over it."
Every campaign has learned how to play defense in real time, deploying their top spokesmen in the process. When Marc Ambinder, a blogger for the Atlantic, reported last week that Clinton had sent Iowa voters a letter defending her vote to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist outfit, John Edwards's campaign rushed out a statement accusing her of changing her explanation.
"These news blogs play a role in the news cycle just like other mainstream outlets, and can drive coverage of a major announcement or speech," says Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the former senator.
The campaigns use search engines and automatic online feeds to keep tabs on criticism. "We track everything 24/7 to see what stories are popping up and if another campaign is putting out oppo on us," says Kevin Madden, spokesman for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. "It's very important that we not give even one inch to anyone seeking to distort the governor's record."
Why take brief blog items so seriously? "Information mobility is so great that within an hour, that story could be everywhere," Madden says.
The online culture has created something of an echo chamber because rival news organizations routinely provide electronic links to each other's work, and are linked in turn by the likes of the Drudge Report, the Hotline's Blogometer and Time.com's the Page (assembled by Mark Halperin, who launched the Note when he was at ABC News).
As a newspaper reporter, says Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, "you wouldn't go out of your way to follow up on something your competition wrote unless you had to. In the blog world it's different. I give hat tips all the time."
Does she consider saving items for her print column? "By the time you think about it, boom, someone has it up already."