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Bloggers battle old-school media for political clout

Online journals gaining greater influence, scrutiny

WASHINGTON -- When a writer for The New Republic, the 92-year-old doyen of elite Washington opinion journals, accused the nation's most prominent political blogger of using his online clout to hush up a potential scandal involving a former business partner, he knew there might be some backlash from the so-called ``new media."

But he didn't expect death threats.

``This wasn't meant to be a big fight," a tired-sounding Jason Zengerle, senior editor for The New Republic, said in a telephone interview last week.

Nonetheless, Zengerle's posting has sparked a steadily escalating uproar among scores of liberal bloggers who rushed to their keyboards in defense of Markos ``Kos" Moulitsas Zúniga , the founder of the popular blog Daily Kos. But the posting has also prompted ``old media" outlets -- like the conservative National Review and New York Times columnist David Brooks -- to pick up on what some insist is the first scandal to hit the political blogosphere.

Now, as readers of political blogs await the next chapter in an increasingly vituperative online battle -- Moulitsas has called The New Republic ``Lieberman- worshiping" neocons ' while Zengerle says Moulitsas operates ``the digital equivalent of a smoke-filled backroom" -- some outside observers believe the dust-up may be a benchmark in the blogosphere's entrance into mainstream politics, as blogs begin to face the same level of scrutiny as traditional media outlets.

``The blogosphere has always been mainly about scrutinizing everybody else and expressing violent opinions about them," said Alex S. Jones , director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. ``Kos is a very powerful blog, so in that sense it's taken on the vulnerability of one of the [political] leaders."

Standing somewhere between opinion journalism and straight reporting, the blogosphere occupies an ambiguous space in the media world. Many bloggers, including Moulitsas, are vocal political advocates and, occasionally, current or former campaign consultants -- but their online role can also include breaking or reporting the news.

And the political blogosphere's influence, both online and off, has been growing. Daily Kos, for example, attracts more than 4 million page views each week, and a recent bloggers' convention in Las Vegas named for Moulitsas attracted numerous Democratic presidential hopefuls. The New Republic brouhaha raises new questions about the accountability of an increasingly important medium known for both innovative reporting and anonymous hearsay, media observers say.

``This fight is saying `Welcome to the big leagues,' " said Richard Bradley , the former editor of George Magazine and a blogger himself. ``If you want us to take you seriously, we're going to ask you the same questions that we ask anyone else who aspires to be a power-player in Democratic politics."

The imbroglio began in mid-June after reports surfaced that Jerome Armstrong, an influential blogger who co authored a book with Moulitsas and also started a political consulting firm with him, was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly promoting a stock online in exchange for money.

On The Plank, a blog hosted on the New Republic's website, Zengerle posted an e-mail written by Moulitsas to an online list of what Zengerle described as ``elite liberal bloggers," asking that the Armstrong story be kept under wraps.

``My request to you guys is that you ignore this for now. It would make my life easier if we can confine the story," Moulitsas wrote in the e-mail. Zengerle also noted that several bloggers on the list belonged to the Liberal Blog Advertising Network, which was co founded by Moulitsas.

Zengerle also echoed critics who note that Moulitsas began promoting former Virginia governor Mark Warner on his website after Armstrong was hired as a consultant for Warner's presidential campaign. (Critics charge that Daily Kos did the same for other Armstrong clients, including Ohio Representative Sherrod Brown. ) Zengerle suggested Armstrong was charging consulting fees for access to Moulitsas.

Moulitsas -- who declined to comment for this article -- vehemently denied the charges, calling Zengerle's assertions about the advertising network ``ludicrous" and denying that his views are influenced by Armstrong's choice of clients. ``Let me be crystal clear. I deny that charge completely," he wrote of the latter accusation.

Armstrong has also said on his blog that any alleged quid pro quo arrangement with Moulitsas is a ``complete fabrication." In an e-mail, Armstrong wrote that ``there was nothing credible" in the allegations.

``This is what the once-proud New Republic has evolved into," Moulitsas added on his blog. ``Just another cog of the Vast RIGHT Wing Conspiracy."

This increased scrutiny may be a natural progression for the liberal blog bloc, which has been credited with several recent political successes, such as fueling the campaign of Ned Lamont , an antiwar candidate who is challenging Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut for his US Senate seat. With fund-raising help from bloggers like Moulitsas, Lamont forced an August primary against Lieberman and has pulled within striking distance of the longtime incumbent.

``There's no question that no one would care whether Kos was corrupt if he was absolutely powerless or irrelevant," Bradley said. ``The reason it's a serious question is because the guy's come to wield some clout."

The June convention in Las Vegas, dubbed Yearly Kos, included a $50,000 party thrown by Warner and appearances by Senate minority leader Harry Reid , Democrat of Nevada, and several potential 2008 Democratic presidential contenders, all lobbying for the bloggers' support.

Jay Rosen , a journalism professor at New York University who frequently blogs about the media, said the convention featured ``some of the things that you would find in any arena in American politics, like the cocktail party and the political speech."

But while Rosen suggests there was nothing about the event that marked a change for the blogosphere, for others the convention punctured the myth that bloggers reflected pure grass-roots sentiment untainted by political spin doctors or Washington-style group think.

In an interview, Zengerle defended his reporting on Daily Kos, saying he published the e-mail memo because he believed it was relevant news.

``According to themselves, they've become powerful," Zengerle said of Daily Kos. ``With that power and that prominence comes a fair amount of scrutiny." Zengerle said his reporting for The Plank was in line with ``the way we follow any prominent person or publication. That's all we're doing here."

In a way, the contenders couldn't be better matched. The New Republic was co founded by the eminent journalist Walter Lippmann in 1914. With its decades-long history and elite reputation, it epitomizes the institutionalized political press that Daily Kos, as the most popular of the liberal blogs, seeks to unseat. Rosen described the imbroglio as the ``upstarts against the young elites."

``You have this new center of influence and the people at The New Republic just think it's crap," Rosen said. ``They can't imagine that these roughbacks, these unsophisticated activists, have any credibility whatsoever. I really think it's a class war more than anything else."

Zengerle acknowledged that The New Republic has crossed swords with Kos in the past.

``Look, they beat up on us all the time," Zengerle said. ``I mean, what do they call us, `The Joe Lieberman Weekly,' stuff like that. That is kind of ridiculous on its face."

And Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, said he was not impressed with the Daily Kos crowd.

``The liberal blogosphere are a group of people who feel incredibly disenfranchised. They feel their country's been hijacked and they're essentially powerless and the only way to stop it is to scream as loudly as you can," Foer said.

The mainstream media coverage has not produced any definitive proof of the alleged misdeeds of Moulitsas or Armstrong, but Bradley, for his part, thinks the idealism of the blogosphere has already vanished.

``I would say the loss of innocence moment probably came before," he said. ``Look, when bloggers start getting hired as consultants at political campaigns and when Mark Warner spends $50,000 on a party for bloggers, the purity is already gone. That's it, it's over, it's history. The second that happens, self-consciousness has arrived. And that image of bloggers sitting at home, pouring out the unadulterated truth, freed from impurities from the outside world, is lost."

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