The influence and impact of the political Blogosphere has only begun to take off. The Mainstream Media, however, is about to stop paying attention. From now on, bloggers will read less and less about themselves in the pages of Newsweek or the New York Times. CNN's "Internet Reporter" will start reporting on something else (maybe podcasting!). It's on to the next big fake thing. What will it be? Joe Trippi, the originator of the Mainstream Media-fed blogger bubble, says '08 will be the year of the political SMS text message -- so maybe that's it.
Yes, all this buzz about the power of the Blogosphere has been fake. Fake, because it's premature. The Blogosphere isn't very powerful at all yet. The current buzz is about where the medium will be in five years or so, not where it is now. Kos, for example, reaches about as many people as the Atlanta Journal Constitution's website (not even counting its print readership). Throw together a handful of smallish city papers and you've got a medium reaching as many people as the 100 top political blogs.
I'm not putting down the Blogosphere. Just wait a few years. Then Kos will be reaching as many people as the New York Times. Blogs, and other insurgent media, will have lapped the combined readership of all newspapers and magazines several times by then. But none of that's happened yet.
You see, fellow bloggers, the Mainstream Media is the immune system of the status quo. The media frenzy over the Blogosphere that we just went through was actually a process of inoculation. Kos and Jerome "crashed the gate" alright -- but they were immediately absorbed by two white blood cells of the establishment: Tim Russert and Mark Warner. They have been released back into the Blogosphere. But have they been handicapped by responsibility to a real live (compromising) politician, the desire to keep appearing on major news shows, and the inevitable brain damage that happens when one's 15 minutes of fame runs a little over?
The truth is, the Establishment has been laughing at the Blogosphere this whole time. Now, in horrific disappointment, bloggers will see that the Mainstream Media was only teasing when it reported its own demise at the hands of the Blogosphere. Kos's "now anyone can have your job" to Dowd, and her honest response, was the symbolic moment of reversal, where the patronizer lets the patronized know he's been made a fool of. Actually, it was the first time the Mainstream Media has ever been honest to the Blogosphere. That signals two things: a new respect and the beginning of the permanent silent treatment.
The establishment has tasted the Blogosphere. Chewed it a little. And will now spit it out.
If the Blogosphere really has come into its own, then all will be well, and the breadth and depth of this new medium and new community will continue to increase -- without needing to be fed by Mainstream Media frenzy. But if the Mainstream Media has timed its inoculation exactly right, then the Blogosphere could be left broken, with stars like Kos, Jerome and Stoller leaving the community behind (as others already have) for the mainstream before the greater Blogosphere has grown its own full set of teeth.
This happens with all innovations in politics. There was once a sexy new development called Direct Mail. It was going to let the grassroots "conservative majority" take back politics. The beltway press reported the rise of the medium with enormous hype...until it got bored and moved on to the next thing. Years after it was forgotten, direct mail did indeed raise enormous critical funds that made the conservative takeover possible. But that didn't make headlines. That didn't bother an early direct mail pioneer named Karl Rove -- he was interested in building real power, not seeing his name in print.
Around 1990-92, a tiny start-up organization called EMILY's List was getting so much buzz in the Mainstream Media that even I heard about it while in college and paying no attention at all to electoral politics. In 1992 EMILY's List was widely acknowledged to help make possible the "Year of the Woman" and the buzz reached a deafening level. But right after that, EMILY's List dropped from regular headlines. Nevertheless, they continued to build greater and greater power. Today, the group supports its largest crop of candidates ever, at every level of government. And it supports them not only in fundraising, but also training for staff and candidates and many other services. But when was the last time you saw a major piece about EMILY's List in the Mainstream Media?
Working for MoveOn.org in 2003-04, I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. Almost every week, one of us was on TV being asked what it was like to be "revolutionizing politics." National political journalists were constantly writing major puff pieces (as though each were the first). Interviews were like feeding candy to babies. At the time, I thought they were doing something for us. But actually we were doing something for them: providing them with a simple, appealing storyline. Journalists -- even really serious, respected, national journalists -- only wanted to hear how cool we were: how a bunch of 20 somethings were turning politics on its head. Never mind that most of us were 30-, 40- or 50-somethings, and that we were mostly just getting people to sign petitions and call Congress. I remember snapping at our press guy (who was amazing) for setting up a 30-minute CNN mini-documentary on MoveOn because I was having trouble getting any real work done in between talking to journalists. At the peak of the absurdity, the three youngest of us were deemed the 14th "Most Powerful Man Under 38" by Details Magazine -- right above P-Diddy and right below Justin Timberlake. The Mainstream Media was laughing at us, having fun with us.
Today, MoveOn is many, many times larger and more powerful than it was at the height of its media coverage: it has a substantial staff (not the five people it had when I was there) running many programs simultaneously. Its ad campaigns are much larger, more effective and much better targeted now. It raises far more money. It mobilizes members in many more ways now. And today it has a real field program, which it didn't have at all in 2003 and for most of 2004. MoveOn will have a much greater impact on this year's elections than any in the past. But their coverage in the Mainstream Media has slowed to a crawl compared to what it was before. And, alas, no MoveOn staffers are on the Details Magazine power list this year.So hang on to your hats, bloggers! If you thought the ride up the Mainstream Media roller coaster was fun, then just wait for that queasy feeling of the plunge down. Now is when the best bloggers -- the most sincere, the most determined, the most strategic -- will really shine, because now all glory will come from real work and real quality, and not from Mainstream Media headlines. Say goodbye to the fake blog bubble, and say hello to the real one. And remember, the revolution will not be televised.
The Atlanta Journal Constititution newspaper's website alone get almost as many readers as Kos - perhaps Warner should invite them to a party? The conservative online community FreeRepublic.org is just as active as DailyKos - so why don't most Repubican hopefuls even know it exists?
The Blogosphere of today in perspective. (But just wait five years.)