Why Kos shouldn't believe the hype.

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June 12 2006 6:41 PM

The Markos Regime

Why Kos shouldn't believe the hype.

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

After Markos Moulitsas got the mildly vinegary Maureen Dowd treatment, he was a little ticked. "Maureen Dowd is an insecure, catty bitch," he told a fellow blogger. OK, maybe he was more than a little ticked. (By blogger standards, Dowd's attack was a Swedish massage.) But the founder of DailyKos soon moved on. "I reach more people than most of these publications that are interviewing me—I don't need them."

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

I hope Moulitsas doesn't let go of his snotty arrogance too easily. One of the healthiest things about the left-wing blogosphere is its confrontational dislike of the mainstream media. There's a distinction here with the media's critics on the right. At some level, the right doesn't much like that the press exists. They don't want to fix it, they want to drive a stake through its heart. The left, on the other hand, just wishes the establishment press would do a better job. The Kos-type critique of the media is intertwined with its passion about politics. When the press gets it wrong, left-wing bloggers believe, the people are ill-informed and democracy suffers. There's respect in that anger, though you wouldn't always know it if you're the target of one of their flaming arrows. (Sometimes they apologize.)

Markos Moulitsas. Click image to expand.
Markos Moulitsas 

With the completion of YearlyKos, the first convention for the 500,000 unique visitors the site claims to get daily, bloggers now face the problem all outsider movements encounter when they go mainstream. Can the astute elements of their critique survive their newfound legitimacy? Or, to put the matter somewhat differently, can the bloggers remain jerks to the press, when the press is busy swooning over them? 

There is no doubt about the swoon—the mainstream media is now as taken with bloggers as it was with John McCain in January 2000. YearlyKos swarmed with the top writers in the mainstream political press establishment. Meet the Press invited Moulitsas on to talk for a segment about blogger power. If one of the newsmagazines isn't right now planning a few pages on "The 25 Most Influential Political Bloggers," I'll eat my copy of Floater.

Of course, there's no question that bloggers are becoming influential in the political process, at least on the Democratic side. YearlyKos showed all the signs of the arrival of an important new constituency—politicians courting support, big media interviews, and mountainous self-referential coverage in the blogsosphere itself. It looks like a big movement to me.

But political reporters are notorious suckers for this kind of novel new underground movement—soccer moms, NASCAR dads, exurban voters. Journalists respond especially gullibly to the arrival of new constituencies with an air of prairie-fire authenticity. Some of these movements, like the Proposition 13 tax revolt in California, turn out to be as transformative as the avatars predict, and more so. But a larger number of them—like the "Rock the Vote" youth registration movement—turn out to be massively overblown, hype phenomena with little lasting impact.

Another positive quality of the blogging community is its general allergy to unsupported media hype. But can bloggers maintain their skeptical posture when it's their 15 minutes of fame? Will the bloggers denounce the mainstream media coverage of their movement when the message is that blogging activists are, as Markos puts it, a "force to be reckoned with" and not the "far left extremist wackos that everybody seems to think we are." The test is not whether bloggers can catch the mainstream media mischaracterizing activists in the blogosphere. That's too easy. The test is whether bloggers will keep the press honest about the real, measurable political impact of the blogosphere. So far the results are not earthshattering.

It's not in bloggers' short-term interest to knock down the story of their own throw-weight, but it may be to their long-term benefit. Not only do bloggers lose standing as critics if they stop being critical, but insufficient wariness will lead to an inevitable messy breakup. Media infatuations never last. When expectations get too high, the press reverses itself, because one of the laws of journalism is that the story has to change. In this case, political reporters will turn on bloggers if the promised revolution doesn't materialize in the form of a Democratic sweep in the midterms. We are probably just under five months away from a wave of coverage positing that bloggers weren't that powerful after all. After we build up the Markos regime, we will help to tear it down.