Transcript

Books: 'Blogwars'

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David D. Perlmutter
Journalism Professor and Associate Dean, University of Kansas
Friday, May 2, 2008; 12:00 PM

University of Kansas journalism professor and associate dean David D. Perlmutter, author of " Blogwars," was online Friday, May 2 at noon ET to explain how and to what extent political blogs influence campaigns and legislation, and how they serve to improve democracy and enrich political culture.

The transcript follows.

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David D. Perlmutter: My name is David Perlmutter, and I'm a professor at the University of Kansas, and for years I've researched political communication, and three or four years ago I started paying attention to a raucous new venue for political communication, blogging. I saw it particularly in the Dean campaign. My new book tracks the rise of political blogs in prominence and influence in general, the entry of political blogger into the corridors of political power and their integration into the campaigns as workers rather than fringe outsiders, and looking at the social interactive media -- Facebook and YouTube, etc. -- and how they're changing the face of elections.

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Seattle: What is the proper role of blogs in politics? Is it to offer an outsider's take on events from someone who didn't receive a White House Correspondents' Dinner invitation? Or is it to offer expert analysis on a subject where professional journalists have none?

David D. Perlmutter: Well, I think there's no "proper" role -- rather bloggers have seized or been offered every potential role in politics. You find candidates blogging, bloggers working for campaigns, people working as blog outreach coordinators for campaigns, you see people making comments and writing opinions -- traditional blogging -- but you also see original reporting, covering caucuses and even interviewing candidates and campaign officials. It's gone from just being a few outsiders making comments to being insiders -- journalists are blogging, professional political people are blogging, and it's become popular inside and outside of the game.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Has anyone done a strong market analysis on Web sites and blogging? I note that millions of Americans have visited the Web sites of all three major candidates and that many, especially the younger voters, regularly read blogs. What I want to know is: how are these voters deciding who to vote for? How much does what they find on candidates' Web sites influence them? If so, what is it on those sites that does influence them? To what degree are blogs persuasive?

David D. Perlmutter: There already have been many surveys of political bloggers and examinations of their blogging. First, if you look at the profile of the bloggers, they are people campaigns would love to reach out to. They tend to be middle class, $50,000 a year or more in income, politically active -- vote and give money and show up to campaign rallies. So they're a very attractive constituency to reach, especially for fundraising. One of the most interesting things is how bloggers have gotten together in groups or been solicited to raise money for a candidate, even one many states away. If you look at the surveys of the bloggers, they say they get a significant amount of political information online -- it's their preferred medium. We can't say "you will get X number of votes because you have a blog" but all political candidates are seeing that they have to have some sort of presence in social and interactive media. You can't ignore blog readers.

When you look at what blog readers read, overwhelmingly people do tend to read content they agree with -- liberal Democrats read liberal Democratic blogs. So one influence of blogs is reinforcement. You believe your position is stronger and become more enthused about it. Another interesting aspect is that even if you're attacking someone, you're still going to cite them and give them a hyperlink.

You also can track the numbers of people using blogs and other interactive social media and use that to raise money. Barack Obama is very interesting in this regard. In my book, finished last September, I said he'd be interesting to watch in his online efforts, and he's raising a ton of money online. He has to go to fewer $1,000-a-plate dinners than John McCain does. Campaigns are paying attention to that. He's also able to bring in newer voters, as he certainly did in Iowa. If you look at the entrance polls in Iowa, the spread of young voters between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, was the widest in the history of entrance and exit voting. I think that had a lot to do both with the qualities of Barack Obama the candidate, but also with the campaign's outreach through online social interactive media.

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Washington: In a book about political blogs, how did you manage to not mention Redstate.com even once, despite it being widely acknowledged as the most important conservative blog on the Internet?

David D. Perlmutter: I would have to go back and read my own book ... you go through a lot of revisions, and it's quite possible that something added at one point is taken out later and you forget to go back and add it somewhere else. My deep apologies to Erik Erikson, who I know and have interviewed before. One of the great differences between a book and a blog is that once it's written, it's there. I like that blogging allows you to revise, no post ever is final. I've noticed for instance that Oxford University Press has a blog (blog.oup.com), and I write on my own blog (doleinstituteblog.org) about the many things that have happened since the book was finished. Writing a book about blogs is like describing NASCAR on stone tablets. I hope the book is the beginning of a long-term conversation, and I look forward to doing that on blogs.

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washingtonpost.com: What would you consider to be some of the most influential (not necessarily most popular) blogs across the political spectrum? What are some that perhaps have come to the foreground since the book was published?

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washingtonpost.com: What would you consider to be some of the most influential (not necessarily most popular) blogs across the political spectrum? What are some that perhaps have come to the foreground since the book was published?

David D. Perlmutter: I'd like to answer the question a little more generally -- one remarkable thing about blogs is that even though there are huge community blogs, what's interesting is that blogging is much more democratic than all other media. In traditional media, it's very rare for a very big newspaper to quote a very small newspaper. The Washington Post might quote a small Iowa paper about the caucuses, but not the war. But DailyKos or Townhall regularly will cite much smaller bloggers. I wrote a post quite some time ago that got referred to by Mickey Kaus, and within an hour I had 20,000 to 25,000 extra readers. That's probably slightly more students than I'll ever talked to who just read my 600 words on a topic. They're much more likely to reach out and encourage and read smaller blogging. It's an egalitarian impulse that I think is good, and applaudable. Because of that, minor bloggers can have a major influence if they're cited over and over again by other blogs. I try to read blogs I disagree or agree with, and whether or not I agree with their opinions, I like to see smaller bloggers have an impact. A good example is Bob Owens of Confederate Yankee and his journalistic entrepreneurialism. He checks the facts of major mainstream news stories and does things I don't think reporters do any more in terms of calling to check things, so he gets picked up by million-person blogs. There's an intrinsic balance in the blogging world that allows people with small voices to get heard beyond their core audience.

In terms of influence within the party structures, on the left DailyKos you could argue is the most powerful political blog in the country, left or right. They have an annual Las Vegas convention where all the Democratic candidates spoke, and ritually all the candidates now feel they have to go speak to the Netroots of the party. No one blogs alone, they tend to post and then counterpost and repost and communities gather to lobby a particular issue. In January of 2007 I wrote a couple of posts about what I saw was a real problem for the Clinton campaign. If you remember what was in the mainstream media at that time, she was way ahead in the polling, she was going to raise several hundred million, and people thought she had it locked up. But I'd noticed there was a persistent brush fire in left blogs against Clinton, including another Clinton and someone of her background being a standard of the party, dissatisfaction with her policies on Iraq, and those were not showing up on the polls yet. I speculated that this would be long-term trouble, because these left blogs had the ear of many people in the party, and their yearning for someone to challenge Clinton I think tremendously benefited Barack Obama whose campaign saw this tendency and exploited it through interactive media.

I you also would include Talking Points Memo, Crooks & Liars, Atrios, Brad DeLong, James Walcott -- these tend to be in higher numbers on the left. Redstate.com, Townhall has really done an amazing job setting up a new paradigm of blogging, convergign with other media like radio. Into the era of blogging, conservatives had a strong hold on Talk Radio, and so it's really interesting to see a convergence of those two forms. Powerline blog -- you really could spend all day if you wanted to reading political blogs.

One key point is that another influence the political blogs have is acting as scouts for traditional political journalists, raising something in their blog and seeing it appear 24 hours later in a major newspaper. In some ways they've replaced tipsters, and journalists say they keep up with the blogs to see what's hot in the world of politics -- aside from their traditional sources in the parties and campaigns.

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David D. Perlmutter: I'm not sure whether blogs will be around in 10 years or what the future of social interactive media holds. I remember growing up that my only sources of political information were friends' parents and Walter Cronkite and the daily newspaper, but I sense that we'll never get back to a time when people will take information from sources where they can't talk back to those sources. People want to remix and mash-up the culture, not just consume it. I'd say we are pretty much like television in the 1950s. We can't really predict where it will go, the role of all these social media in campaigns, but this certainly is the year of testing, trying, seeing what works. A year from now we certainly will have a better estimate of the influence of blogging and similar kinds of media.

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