Columns » Warwick Sabin

A blog-eat-blog world

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Chris Battle, who is managing Asa Hutchinson’s campaign for governor, on May 3 sent an e-mail message to a presumably large number of Republican sympathizers across Arkansas.

“I would like to set up a conservative blog, or a number of them in different parts of the state, to comment on Arkansas politics as a counter to liberal media,” he wrote.

Since that time, several conservative blogs have indeed been established in Arkansas, and almost without exception they hew to Hutchinson’s talking points, touting his message of the day and leveling harsh attacks against his Democratic counterpart, Mike Beebe.

The blogs are anonymously managed, and even Battle’s e-mail is not definitive evidence that he controls them. But it at least suggests a connection, and that is important as these blogs attempt to influence the course of the next election.

“We have the ability to bypass media filters and get our own stories out; we have the ability to correct factual errors or outright biases in news stories; we even have the ability to lead the news and create news stories as mainstream media pick up on it,” Battle pointed out in his message.

These are not nefarious goals. In fact, that sentence is a good enumeration of how blogs can be a democratizing influence on the political process. Without money, and by the sheer virtue of strong research or a persuasive argument, a blogger can bypass the elite guardposts of traditional media to spread information.

But let’s be honest. The Hutchinson campaign has access to plenty of money, and it has no problem getting its message out. If Hutchinson says something notable, reporters will listen and report it.

Having a blog network at your disposal only makes sense if you want to have a way to advance charges or innuendo without directly involving the candidate.

Blogs played a crucial role in the 2004 U.S. Senate race in South Dakota that unseated Minority Leader Tom Daschle. According to one article, several anti-Daschle blogs constituted “a highly efficient vehicle for injecting classic no-fingerprints-attached opposition research on Daschle — most of it tidbits that perhaps might never have made it into the old print media — directly into the political bloodstream of South Dakota.”

As it turned out, two of the blogs were run by paid advisors to Daschle’s opponent, now-U.S. Sen. John Thune, but no one knew that at the time.

Battle probably has studied the South Dakota race (the Republican Party might even use it as a case study in its campaign management classes), so he would never directly pay a blogger or allow any other formal connection to Hutchinson.

In his e-mail, Battle talks about a successful blog he managed when he worked for U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris (the former Florida secretary of state), and then he says:

“We can do the same thing for Asa. I think it would work better, though, if we could find somebody who isn’t associated with the campaign. We wouldn’t even try to use the blog as a front; all we need to do is find some conservatives who can write and then let them do their own thing. We could post to the blog, like anybody else.”

Since Battle issued his recruitment call, the conservative Arkansas blogs have been a conduit for the kind of material and rhetoric that Hutchinson would never release himself. For instance, one blog posted the criminal record of Beebe’s son.

That’s free speech. But usually we expect people to take responsibility for what they say. In the case of the conservative Arkansas blogs, the people running them are probably remaining anonymous because they have an association with Hutchinson’s campaign or the Republican Party.

Even so, the traditional news media will be hard-pressed to completely ignore the blogs. Occasionally they will have an interesting bit of legitimate information that is worth reporting. But journalists should also understand that some of the blogs represent a cowardly and devious tactic of the Hutchinson campaign — a way of spreading information without being accountable for it.

“Any ideas on who would be good for this?” Battle asked at the end of his e-mail. “Who is somebody well connected in conservative circles, who knows Arkansas politics, but also can write well and has a good sense of humor? (Don’t have to worry about the technical/computer side ... I can set that up ... very easy to do.)”

Indeed it was.

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