The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Sunday, July 20, 2003


The big buzz in the blogosphere last week was presidential candidate Howard Dean's guest blog stint at Lawrence Lessig's site. Lessig was on vacation and handed the keys over to Dean. Lessig's blog has comments, and you can imagine the free-for-all that erupted therein. (I believe it was on Thursday that the first reference was made to Godwin's Law.)

The week is over and presumably Dean is finished. How did he do? I'm afraid the answer is that Dean was a pretty poor guest blogger. Now while I am a libertarian and I don't have much use for a lot of Dean's ideas, this has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with blogging.

Before I criticize Dean for not being a good blogger, I should define what blogging means. In my opinion the activity of blogging has three characteristics that distinguish it from the personal web pages that have been around since time immemorial (i.e., since I was 27):



  • Blogs are dynamic: They are frequently published and updated. Think about it: If you see a blog whose last post was in March, you don't say "that's a blog that isn't updated very often." You say, "that blog is dead." The best blogs -- the blogs that I like to read -- publish several times a day. Some people (like me) post every day or so. When a blog's update frequency gets as low as weekly or semiweekly, it goes to the back of the queue.

  • Blogs are topical: A blog post has some relevance to current affairs. This doesn't mean that a blog is political, just that whatever special interest is covered should be focussed in the here and now. When I post about bridge, I talk about hands that I have played recently. I might use those hands as a lead-in to a post on a favorite hand from way back, but my writing is anchored by reference to recent events. If I want to write about bridge hands from several years ago, I would put them in an archive on my web page.

  • Blogs are personal. Now this is the least hard-and-fast of my proposed characteristics. There are anonymous bloggers, and bloggers who don't post much about their lives. But even the anonymous bloggers have their own style. I don't know who Atrios is, but I have a feeling for what makes him tick. Anyway, the bloggers who give you a glimpse of their personal life are the most compelling and sought out. I like Tacitus and think he runs a good blog, but I could never be as interested in his blog as I was in whether poor Evan Kirchhoff would get his stolen car back.



So how did Dean rate? As for frequency, he posted articles on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. That's not an Instapundit-style torrent but it's enough to keep people coming back every day.

The topical aspect barely existed in Dean's posts. Here's the meat of his first post:


The Internet might soon be the last place where open dialogue occurs. One of the most dangerous things that has happened in the past few years is the deregulation of media ownership rules that began in 1996. Michael Powell and the Bush FCC are continuing that assault today (see the June 2nd ruling).

The danger of relaxing media ownership rules became clear to me when I saw what happened with the Dixie Chicks. But there’s an even bigger danger in the future, on the Internet. The FCC recently ruled that cable and phone based broadband providers be classified as information rather than telecommunications services. This is the first step in a process that could allow Internet providers to arbitrarily limit the content that users can access. The phone and cable industries could have the power to discriminate against content that they don’t control or-- even worse-- simply don’t like.

The media conglomerates now dominate almost half of the markets around the country, meaning Americans get less independent and frequently less dependable news, views and information. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson spoke of the fear that economic power would one day try to seize political power. No consolidated economic power has more opportunity to do this than the consolidated power of media.


Dean alludes to a ruling that occurred six weeks ago, and uses it as an introduction to his vague concerns about "media ownership deregulation." This is a longstanding complaint of the Democrats ever since Rush Limbaugh and Fox News became popular. (One pro-Dean commenter advocated a return to the "Fairness Doctrine". Just like "Defense of Marriage" is a noble-sounding cover for religious Republicans' desire to bash homos, "Fairness Doctrine" is a high-minded way for Democrats to advocate suppressing their political opponents' speech. End of gratuitous swipe #1.) It's not a good way for Dean to have started his blogging. "I have to write a blog next week? Well, let me poke around and see what I got here. Okay, take this file I wrote in 1997 and cut and paste it."

Dean's first post was bracketed by informational posts from his campaign; for instance, the "after" posting:


The post below is from Governor Howard Dean. You can check out the crossposting and commentary at www.blogforamerica.com and read more about Howard Dean at www.deanforamerica.com. Thanks!-- Matt, Zephyr and Nicco, Dean Internet Team


Now we all know that presidential candidates have staff to assist them -- Michael Lewis called them "pissboys" in his book on the 1996 election (Trail Fever). But while staff might need to disassemble and move the set between acts, they shouldn't be given costumes and dialogue. In the first place, a blogger should be a guy typing into his computer. I don't have my friends or my wife write posts that say "The previous posting was by Floyd McWilliams!" Second, one starts to wonder if Howard Dean really posted anything at all. How would we know if Matt, or Zephyr, or Nicco wrote the words attributed to Dean? Or if Dean dictated them and one of the staff typed them in?

As the week went on, Dean improved ... a little. He was aware that there was a lot of activity in the comments section:


Thanks for all the comments on the blog last night. I haven’t had a chance to read all of the comments -- we flew up from Miami to DC last night. But I will read them.


But then he blew us off with boilerplate politico-speak:


Let me be perfectly honest. In the space of this week on the blog, I will not be able to answer every specific question. I know that people here care deeply about intellectual property. I’m here to listen.


Awful! Even the politicians that Disney paid for could honestly say the same thing.

Next was another awkward segue to a completely different subject:


As a doctor, I’m trained to base my decisions on facts. This President never adequately laid out the facts for going to war with Iraq -- perhaps, as it turns out, because the facts were not there. I opposed the war not because I’m a pacifist -- I’m not -- but because the evidence presented did not justify preemptive war. I opposed needle exchanges for drug addicts until I saw the empirical evidence that showed how such exchanges reduce the spread of disease. I changed my position, and I’m proud of that. Facts are a better basis for decisions than ideology.


So what is the link encoded in the phrase "the facts were not there"? Debate about the decision to attack Iraq is all over the blogosphere. Was Dean is linking to a juicy news tidbit about how Bush exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam?

No, actually it was a link to this content-free petition:


It's Time for the Truth

I demand truth from my government in Washington.

It is now clear that some officials in this Administration misled the nation and misled the world. These people must be held accountable for their failure to give us the truth before we went to war.

But we should not have to wait for investigations to rid our government of those who misled the American people.

They know who they are, and they can resign on their own today. I demand the resignation of those who engaged in this deception.

*
Add my name to this petition:

...


It looks like Dean has a lot of learning to do before he understands the purpose of hyperlinks. Either that or he's just mendacious.

Another reason why Dean's blogging fell flat had nothing to do with blogging. Dean could not articulate any specific policies or ideas. No one can write well when dealing with platitudes. I already made mocked "I'm here to listen" above. Here's more wishy-washy statements:


Thanks for the many, many comments. We’ve just arrived back to Vermont after six days on the road. I appreciate all the feedback. People asked what can be done about media deregulation. I think we need to re-regulate the media that has clearly abused its authority by censoring information that should be made available to the American people. Someone asked about the Patriot Act-we should repeal those parts that violate our constitution.


There's not many cases you could point to where American media censors information. (Will Dean shut down Indymedia?) And it's a bold statement to say that "we should repeal those parts that violate our constitution". The Supreme Court has been doing this for exactly two hundred years now.

To be fair, Dean did get a little more specific on Wednesday:


Someone asked which parts of the Patriot Act I thought were unconstitutional. I have real problems authorizing the FBI to obtain library and bookstore and video store records simply by claiming the information is -- sought for -- an investigation against international terrorism. It’s also clearly unconstitutional to detain indivduals and deny them access to a lawyer.


Finally, I note that Dean did not do a good job of engaging people personally. There was the slightest hint of a personal glimpse on the Wednesday posting:


I recognize that the blog entries have been quick. I’m new to blogging, a little tired, and have been on the road.


But nothing more than that. Politicians are supposed to be good at engaging people. I remember how whenever I listed to Bill Clinton, I would forget how much I disliked his policies and his tactics. He had a gift for getting people to like him. Nobody is going to come away from Dean's blogging experience thinking he is the next Instapundit, but they should feel more favorable toward him than the week before. I don't think he accomplished that.


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