Bloggers’ access raises questions about the blurring between journalism and activism

[27 August 2008]

By Karen Brooks

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

DENVER - It was an unprecedented move by Democrats and Republicans this year when they invited hundreds of bloggers to cover their conventions with the same access as - and in some cases much better than - the mainstream media.

And as the detailed, witty and largely positive online write-ups pour in from the Democratic convention floor this week, it’s easy to see why this was a stroke of party-buzz brilliance.

Nothing like a crowd of partisan bloggers to increase the buzz and bounce in the critical weeks following their respective conventions.

Expect to see some of the most thorough, detailed, entertaining and in some cases riveting coverage of the two conventions to come from the blogosphere.

But criticism on the blogs may be scarce, some observers say. And while the feisty, independent blogosphere can be counted on, by nature, to stir the ant pile, bloggers are also at risk of being beholden to the people who handpicked them to attend the convention.

Members of the mainstream media offer mixed reactions over what some perceive as a blurring of the lines between journalism and activism - particularly in the situation that might be seen in St. Paul, where the conservative bloggers will be with the press and could, theoretically, be cheering from the press box.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said he didn’t have a problem with it, as long as readers consider the source of their coverage.

“I think people want to get their information out, and a lot of them are partisans, and want to get their political perspective, which is fine as long as you know where you’re getting your information,” he said.

In Denver, state delegations picked one blog per state to sit on the floor with the delegations all week, while the mainstream media and an additional 70 credentialed bloggers get 30-minute turns.

Among the “State Blogger Corps” in Denver are party activists and county chairs and avowed Barack Obama loyalists.

It’s similar in St. Paul for the Republicans. A convention spokeswoman said the bloggers who were invited to attend next week were chosen “based on how effectively they can deliver John McCain’s message.”

“What happens when you have bloggers in close proximity and mutual interest with the political order is, you need to make sure the incentives don’t get screwed up,” said Steve Clemons of the D.C.-based think tank New America Foundation and publisher of the Washington Note blog.

“And I think what has happened in terms of these state delegations picking favorites is that it creates the appearance of conflict of interest. ... That blogger’s not going to be sitting there raising questions and poking holes and provoking that delegation in ways the media is expected to.”

Austin blogger Matt Glazer, who raises money for Democrats and whose Burnt Orange Report was chosen to sit with the Texas delegation, acknowledges that the blog is passionate about Obama and friendly to Democrats.

But, he said, the bigger picture of maintaining reader trust trumps any automatic positive coverage the state delegates or national party might be hoping for in exchange for picking him to get favored access.

“We’re there to do a service to our readers, not to the Democratic Party,” Glazer said. “We want to work with them, and make sure Democrats are elected all throughout Texas, but at the end of the day, our credibility is the one thing we have. It takes five years to get this credibility and one week to lose it, and we’re very aware of that.”

Shawn Williams, publisher of the blog Dallas South, was credentialed as part of the “General Blogger Pool,” a more diverse group of bloggers selected nationwide by the national convention committee.

He, like the others, raised money from his family, friends and readers to come and is taking vacation days from his pharmaceutical sales job in Dallas.

At first skeptical of being left out of the state blogger pool - along with other minority bloggers who thought the predominantly white state blogger corps got a better shake - Williams says he now feels more freedom than he might if he were picked to sit with Texas delegates.

“I feel like it’s a benefit for me because if I want to go hang out with the Pennsylvania delegation or Maryland or a battleground state, I’d feel more comfortable doing that than I would if I had a state credential,” he said.

But as an avowed liberal and Obama supporter, does he think that could get in the way of his objectivity in covering the convention?

Nope, he said.

“I’m a liberal, but I don’t associate myself with a particular party,” he said.

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