• U.S.

Blogs Have Their Day

13 minute read
Lev Grossman

Memorial Day weekend 2002. A fiftysomething Minneapolis lawyer named John Hinderaker (sounds like “indie rocker”) sits down in his kitchen with a laptop and some simple software and cooks up a website. He bangs out a generic first posting: “This is a new blog dedicated to current events and any topics that are of interest to me.” Fair enough. His daughter, 13, is hanging out in the kitchen with her best friend. The friend throws out a name for the blog: Power Line. Sure, that’ll work.

A lot of people, including Dan Rather and any number of executives at CBS, wish that Hinderaker had done something else that Memorial Day weekend.

The word blog, in case you’ve managed to avoid it until now, is short for weblog, a personal website that offers short, intense bursts of commentary and opinion, usually accompanied by a link to a news story elsewhere online. Some blogs are diaries; some focus on highly specific topics, like knitting, car repair or sex. Powerlineblog.com covers politics, specifically the rightward-leaning variety. Before this year, blogs were a curiosity, a cult phenomenon, a faintly embarrassing hobby on the order of ham radio and stamp collecting. But in 2004, blogs unexpectedly vaulted into the pantheon of major media, alongside TV, radio and, yes, magazines, and it was Power Line, more than any other blog, that got them there.

Hinderaker didn’t start Power Line because he had too much time on his hands. He started it because he was too busy. He and a colleague at his law firm named Scott Johnson used to do some writing together in their off-hours–Op-Eds, investigative journalism, you name it. But as their careers took off and their families grew, they had less and less time to write.

So Hinderaker set up a blog. There was no money in it and less glory, but on the upside there were no editors, no deadlines, no space constraints, no hassle and no waiting. “I typed in ‘Power Line,'” Hinderaker remembers, “hit the button, and the site was born.” The next week Hinderaker called Johnson and asked him if he wanted in. He did. “But I gotta tell ya,” Johnson added, in words that would haunt him the way Michael Dukakis’ tank photo-op haunts the Democrats, “I think the idea that we could ever have any readers for this thing is a pathetic fantasy.” The phrase “pathetic fantasy” is now a running gag among the Power Liners. A few months later, Hinderaker emailed Paul Mirengoff, a Washington-based lawyer who had been his college debate partner at Dartmouth. Mirengoff had no idea what a blog was, but he was in too, and the Power Line lineup was complete.

It was a good mix. Johnson is soft-spoken, with a straight-out-of-Fargo Midwestern accent, but he’s the site’s anchor, the guy who gets up at 5 in the morning, reads all the papers and makes sure he’s on top of the big issues of the day. He blogs under the name the Big Trunk. Mirengoff, who goes by Deacon on the site, is the details man, the close-focus, line-by-line analyst. Hinderaker, a.k.a. Hindrocket, is the ranter, always willing to go over the top with a big speech and flights of fancy. He’s also the mediagenic one. He’s a clear and forceful speaker–he’s a litigator by day, after all.

They’re a fun bunch, in a lawyerly way. They have a certain Ping-Pong, finish-each-other’s-sentences conversational chemistry, even though Mirengoff and Johnson had never met before they came together to be interviewed for this article. They’re good-natured and self-effacing. On any given day, they’ll post about 10 items, easily ranging back and forth between serious commentary on current events and quirkier stuff. Hindrocket has a fondness for beauty pageants. The Big Trunk follows popular music. Mirengoff is fanatical about English soccer. But it’s not all fun and games. Power Line has a certain urgency for them. All three are former liberals, believe it or not, and when it comes to political arguments, they have the zeal of the convert.

If you haven’t read one, it’s hard to describe what makes blogs so special. There’s just something about the rhythm and pace of a blog that feels intuitively right. You don’t have to sit through fake-cheerful news-team chitchat or wade through endless column inches. It takes about 20 sec. to read a typical blog post, and when you’re finished you’ve got the basic facts up to the minute plus a dab of analysis and a dash of spin. If you’re not satisfied, you can click the link for more. If you are, you can go back to checking your e-mail and jiggering your spreadsheets or whatever you do for a living. This is news Jetsons-style. If it were any neater and quicker, it would come in a pill.

The appeal of Power Line goes beyond convenience. It even goes beyond the charisma of the people who run it and the relative sharpness of their political commentary. Blogs tend to be biased and openly partisan in exactly the way most mainstream news sources aren’t. Blogs aren’t objective, and they don’t pretend to be. When you read Power Line, you feel as if you’re part of a community, a like-minded righteous few. It’s as if you’ve stumbled on a sympathetic haven in the lonely, trackless wilderness of the Internet. Blogs like Power Line feed a need to belong. “We get a ton of e-mail from people all over the country expressing gratitude for what we do,” says Johnson.

How can a blog that caters to the right, the political majority who in fact run this country, make Republicans feel as if they’re part of a proud, persecuted minority? The villain here isn’t the political opposition. It’s the left-leaning Mainstream Media, a looming specter that is vilified so routinely on Power Line, it’s referred to in shorthand as the MSM. “My view,” Johnson says, “is that the mainstream media has acted as a means to obscure, as a kind of filter, a lens that makes it impossible to understand what’s going on in reality. We try to provide something that brings people closer to reality.”

“If you’re a liberal, what do you need blogs for?” Hinderaker asks, only half-joking. “You’ve got the New York Times.” This kind of tough talk inspires a misty-eyed loyalty on the part of Power Line’s conservative following. “No one is as surpassingly adept at picking up on stories the MSM ignores,” a fellow blogger wrote about Power Line, “and which the average Joe can viscerally identify with.” There’s a special bond between Power Line’s writers and its readers–Hinderaker, Johnson and Mirengoff list their phone numbers, direct lines, on the website.

Before this year, blogs kept a relatively modest profile, and the mainstream media could comfortably treat them like amateur productions that could never compete with real news organizations. Sure, there was a little noise when Howard Dean raised some money by blogging, but hey, he’s the exception that proves the rule, right? But there were signs that blogs were on the rise. In 2002 liberal bloggers like Joshua Micah Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com played a key role in the push for Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader. Then in April of this year, an Arizona-based blogger named Russ Kick used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain photos of American military coffins coming back from the Middle East. He posted the pictures on his blog, the Memory Hole thememoryhole.org) and the next day they were on the front pages of newspapers around the world. This summer bloggers were invited to cover the political conventions, and they did so with gusto.

Which brings us to the morning of Sept. 9, 2004. In his usual early-morning media sweep, Johnson noticed that CBS’s website was carrying an online version of a 60 Minutes story from the night before, about some new documents relating to President Bush’s service in the National Guard. Johnson thought the memos looked odd–they fit too neatly with an advertising campaign that he knew the Democratic National Committee would be unveiling shortly, attacking Bush’s service record. So he wrote a few paragraphs about it, sprinkling in references to a site called freerepublic.com where another conservative lawyer, Harry MacDougald (a.k.a. Buckhead), had been arguing that the memos must be forgeries. Johnson titled his post “The 61st Minute,” put it up online and headed off to work. The time was 7:51 a.m.

When he arrived at his office half an hour later, there were 50 e-mails in his In box from readers offering further arguments and evidence disputing the CBS documents’ authenticity. Johnson sifted through the comments and added some of them to his original post. This created a feedback loop. The more comments he posted, the more e-mail he got, which he then posted, generating even more e-mail, and so on. The process turbocharged itself. In all, he updated the post 15 or 20 times over the course of that day. The sheer speed and volume of the information surge made Johnson nervous. He was desperately trying to stay on top of the flood of data pouring in over the transom to make sure he wasn’t going off on a crazy tangent. “We worked so hard over 21/2 years to build up an audience of serious readers,” he says. “I thought, ‘Am I out of my mind to be doing this? We’re so far out on a limb.’ I kept reading, looking for something from CBS, looking for the other side of the story. I looked at liberal sites that were contrary, but there was no information there.”

The Hindrocket had no such reservations. He was all systems go and headed for orbit. “I thought 60 Minutes was done for, and I said so,” Hinderaker remembers. By 10:30 a.m., Power Line had an arsenal of arguments attacking the memos–typographical, logical, procedural, historical. The three bloggers put up genuine National Guard documents from 1973 so that readers could compare them with the 60 Minutes memos. By 2 p.m., Hinderaker and Johnson had packed it in at the office and headed home to manage the situation. The Drudge Report, the Mondo Cane grandfather of all right-leaning news blogs,linked to their site about midafternoon, sending a torrent of traffic their way and promptly crashing their Web server. By the end of the day, about 500 sites had linked to Power Line. “I think it’s fair to say that that post that Scott began is probably the most famous post in the young history of the blogosphere,” Hinderaker says proudly.

Everybody knows the epilogue to this story. The memos are now widely believed to be forgeries. Certainly they were deprived of virtually any political force they might have had. CBS has launched a formal investigation into how the story got on the air in the first place. Rather has announced that he will step down this spring, and although neither CBS nor Rather acknowledges a link between the Power Line incident and the timing of his retirement, it would be hard to completely disentangle the two. (CBS declined to comment for this story or to speculate on when the investigation will reach its conclusion. “Whenever they’re done, we’ll put it out,” said a spokeswoman.) As for Power Line, the site roughly doubled its readership, scoring half a million hits on Election Day. The MSM will never look as high and mighty again, nor will blogs ever look as low and lowly.

Where will they go from here? It’s hard to imagine that bloggers will be content to remain media gadflies, sniping at the giants from below. In fact, it’s entirely possible that they will ultimately be assimilated into the mainstream media they now openly despise. They’ll start accepting advertising (Power Line already does), they’ll go on Leno, they’ll lose their outsider cred and their aura of driven-snow purity. The best bloggers will be hired away by the hated MSM, bought off with Op-Ed columns and cable talk shows. And if bloggers do become Big Business, they will lose their free pass and become subject to the same scrutiny that 60 Minutes is under. After all, it’s not as if Power Line never makes a mistake. It’s just that right now, because Scott Johnson isn’t as famous as Dan Rather, the expectations and the stakes aren’t very high. That will change.

But it won’t change everything. Blogs are just too different, too weird, to become wholly mainstream. For starters, they’re too cheap, too easy and too loud. They allow Americans to wean themselves off corporate-funded media and speak directly to one another. Dick Morris, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, points out that in past elections he relied on polls, ads and news coverage in analyzing the political situation but that in 2004 it just wasn’t sufficient. “You couldn’t do that,” Morris says, “because the inputs were so pluralistic, this massive volume of e-mails and websites flowing back and forth, millions of social circles throughout the U.S., almost like Christmas-card lists crossing each other each day. It created a dynamic in which the campaigns accounted for a relatively small proportion of the important inputs that happened. Most of them were spontaneously generated from below.” People weren’t paying attention to the Man. They were listening to one another.

The story of how three amateur journalists working in a homegrown online medium challenged a network news legend and won has many, many game-changing angles to it. One of the strangest and most radical is that the key information in “The 61st Minute” came from Power Line’s readers, not its ostensible writers. The Power Liners are quick, even eager, to point this out. “What this story shows more than anything is the power of the medium,” Hinderaker says. “The world is full of smart people who have information about every imaginable topic, and until the Internet came along, there wasn’t any practical way to put it together.”

Now there is. A phenomenon like “The 61st Minute” is the result of the journalistic equivalent of massively parallel processing. The Internet is a two-way superhighway, and every Power Line reader is also a Power Line writer, stringer, ombudsman and editor at large. There are 100,000 cooks in the kitchen, and more are showing up all the time. Call it the Power Line effect. Conventional media may have more readers than blogs do, but conventional media can’t leverage those readers the way blogs can. Want a glimpse of the future of blogs? The more popular blogs are, the stronger they get. And they’re not getting any less popular. –With reporting by Unmesh Kher

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