Monday, July 20, 2009

More Thoughts on Alaskan Bloggers' Impacts

Since I wrote about this hastily last week in response to Erik Boehlert's post on the contribution of Alaskan bloggers, I've had more time to think about it.

It seems I left out the biggest contribution of the so-called progressive blogs.

Bloggers have given Alaska liberals a media presence, a sense of identity and of political efficacy. The blogs have become a place where local Alaskans can see a more progressive view of the world than has been available from any other regular public source, ever. The Anchorage Democratic caucus that brought together masses of Alaskans to vote for Obama in February 2008 was a physical event that energized Alaskan liberals like nothing we'd ever seen. The energy and spirit of hope there took everyone by surprise. People looked around and said, "I didn't know there were so many of us."

The blogs documented that event faster, more thoroughly, and more graphically than other media did and kept that spirit going. Every day the blogs posted critical progressive interpretations of local Alaska events. For years 'liberal' was an Alaskan epithet and it seemed that liberals needed to be added to the the anti-discrimination ordinance. When the red/blue state concept emerged, no one had any doubt what color Alaska was. Having places to go to find like-minded thinkers, to get documentation for what one suspected, to learn about events of interest was an awakening for liberals in Alaska. And people who didn't identify themselves as liberals could find blogs that debunked the myth that all liberals had horns. (They could find a few horned liberal blogs too.)

I doubt we'll ever find out if Palin really was spooked out of office by bloggers or whether she just thought that we were a believable scapegoat. There may be some truth, though, what some have said about no local politician being so closely fact-checked by watchdogs.

But my response is that this sort of scrutiny should be applied to all politicians. Certainly the conservatives had mastered the art of coordinated spin with their daily talking points with which to go after national Democrats - but that was different. The talking points came from the Republican Party and were repeated in various media from newspapers to talk shows to tv news. At their most blatant they took some fact out of context and made up false and maligning stories - swift boats, palling with terrorists - to create non-existent scandals. No wonder some Republican critics of Alaskan bloggers assumed the bloggers were fed from the White House.

But the Alaska bloggers I know are a loose group of independents who occasionally share ideas with each other to see if others know something they are looking for
Basically they use the internet or personal contacts to fact check and analyze the public announcements of the Palin administration and other Alaskan issues. Sometimes they cover events live. If Palin's speeches and press releases hadn't been so full of holes, the bloggers wouldn't have been nearly so busy.

And there are no deep-pocketed tax-exempt think-tanks sending money to support Alaskan bloggers. From what I can tell, the Alaskan bloggers have done whatever it is they've done, on their own time and dime. Though some have successfully explored an alternative to salaried journalism. They've found that through Pay-Pal they can raise some needed cash, from their readers, to cover unusual costs of their blogging addiction. Linda's paid her public records request bill this way and Dennis got some of his transportation to rural Alaska paid for this way. But no one's making a living of this.

Bias Charges Probably Have Some Merit

But there is something in the Palin supporters' charges about how she was treated differently than a man would be. I think male officials do generally get more respect than female officials. Men look like the definition of American success. They can buy a few sets of the same suit, a few blue and a few white shirts, and basic striped ties, and they are set. You could take a homeless guy with a 'work for food' sign off the corner, clean him up, put him in a dress-for-success suit, get him to stand up straight, and people would treat him with respect. Because he would look like the image of American success - the model set by every president we've ever had.

Women officials always get comments on what they wear. And what their hair looks like. Always. They can't buy ten of the same dress or suit. They have to change their look every day.

So people like Gov. Sanford or Sen. John Ensign or Sen. Ted Stevens just have to look the look and not say anything obviously stupid and they get a pass. There was very, very little official media scrutiny of Stevens until they found out the FBI was on his case. He was a US Senator in a suit. (He also knew his facts and how to put sentences together. No reporter had nearly the knowledge of Stevens on issues nor the access to information that might raise questions. And he had a temper. All that made it much harder to challenge anything he did.) But right off the bat, a man (especially if he's white) wearing a power suit gets respect from people in authority and from people in general. It's sad, but true.

A woman walks on the stage or into the studio and she's already 'marked,' Deborah Tannen's term, as different from the norm. She can't be invisible in a dark pinstriped suit - because even if she wears one, she's a woman in men's clothing. And if she wears a dress she's not in the standard, invisible cloak of success. We see her legs and red shoes. Alaskan bloggers played this game too.

Even if the commentators like what she's wearing or how she does her hair, the fact that they mention it trivializes her already. They're talking about what she looks like, not about what she's thinking. (Sure, men's looks get commented on too, but only when they stray from the norm. So Edwards' $400 haircut got press because men aren't supposed to be so vain about their looks, the way we expect women to be.)

So, on that point, the criticisms of Palin being treated differently because she's a woman have merit. (But to be fair, she also contributed to the attention every time she opened her mouth.) But the answer isn't to back off on her.

Instead male politicians should all have a swarm of bloggers parsing their speeches and press releases to see if they make sense. (See this example of Leonard Pitts parsing Mitt Romney's words, which - because it's so unusual - also suggests men's empty words generally get less scrutiny than Palin's.) They should have the public record regularly scrutinized to find discrepancies between what they say and what they do. They should all have people checking and posting the connections between their earmarks and their campaign financing, and asking questions about their first class travel and speaking fees from people with public policy issues the official is deciding.

With bloggers posting more of this information I suspect a lot more sham public servants - not just those who shoot themselves in the foot on some non-policy issue by flying off to Argentina to see their soul mates -will find that incumbency loses its some of its glow.

So, in addition to giving Alaskan liberals a media presence, a sense of identity and of political efficacy, maybe Alaskan bloggers will give other bloggers a model of how to track their local politicians.


  1. Well, Hungary has had socialist government for a very long time and we had communism before 1990. However if the elections were today the conservative right wing party would be around 65-70%. The second strongest would be the socialist party (recent government) or Jobbik (far right wing - neofascist as westerners say but in my opinion they aren't. They are indeed too radical but I don't think they are fascists.) Maybe MDF (conservative but not that much) would hit the 5% threshold and get into the Parliament. But elections will be in Spring 2010. I vote for persons and not parties (meaning: I decide between the 2 conservative parties and the centrist party) so I will decide when I get to know the nominees.

  2. Apropos your thoughts on bias and sexism in coverage of female politicians and their dress, check out the July 20 posting on entitled, "Sarah Palin wins the Gubernatorial Flair Contest."

    The post highlights the nations six other female governors and how they present themselves on the Web and in person.

    Draw your own conclusions whether Sarah Palin is "provocative" in the sense that she (intentionally or not) provokes comment that would not likely follow to these more 'business-like' governors.

    I live in Washington State where we are blessed with Christine Gregoire as governor, Maria Cantwell - a former executive at Real Networks - as our junior US Senator, and Patty Murray - who campaigned as a 'mom in tennis shoes' - as our senior US Senator.

  3. Steve, how would you compare Palin to someone playing Chess? I like Chess, but I am no good at it. I am thinking of how a good Chess player protects his/er queen, makes as few moves as possible, and anticipates losses and works around them.

    Sarah Palin plays by not knowing what pieces to play, wanting to play with ranked players, throwing tantrums when she looses and demands another chance to play and blames them for her losses. She makes me think of what my dad used to say, "Never argue with idiots. They bring you down to their level and eat you with experience."

  4. I like Patty Murray. We spent a lot of time talking about her during the 1998 election in a course called Journalism, Rhetoric & Politics I took from Bob Fulford at the University of Portland. Bob loved the success of the "mom in tennis shoes" line, which she adopted after a politician told her she would never make a difference because she was "just a mom in tennis shoes." She turned it around and made it work.

  5. I agree with you that there is sexism in the media which is a reflection of our society. However, prior to being selected to be McCain's VP choice, Palin singled out Hillary Clinton and criticized her for whining about sexism in the media. Since being selected, Palin claims that no one has been treated like she has by the media. That just is not true.

  6. Oh look, our MALE President is called out on his wardrobe!

  7. "maybe Alaskan bloggers will give other bloggers a model of how to track their local politicians."

    Please be sure to give a lesson or two on the concept of due diligence and fact checking before you unleash that model.

    Thank you.


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