Peer-to-peer and conservative news sites offer counterbalance to mainstream media
This column appeared Nov. 21, 2000, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.
With the political crisis over the presidential election heating up, what’s a conservative true believer to do? Turn off the left-wing mainstream media, fire up the PC and head to a news site of the political right.
That, at any rate, is what an increasing number of Americans are doing, as conservatives complain that the traditional media are laying the groundwork for Democrat Al Gore to “steal” the presidency, with the help of the Florida Supreme Court.
Community news sites like FreeRepublic.com and conservative news sites like NewsMax.com and WorldNetDaily.com, which earned their chops during the impeachment imbroglio two years ago, are once again galvanizing the political right in support of George W. Bush’s claim that he won the election.
While mainstream news organizations profess to hew to the ideal of balanced reporting, the conservative sites not only take sides but inject themselves into the political process. FreeRepublic sponsored pro-Bush rallies in San Francisco last weekend and in Florida this week. NewsMax is raising money for an advertising campaign accusing Democrats of election fraud in Florida. Its fund-raising letter, signed by the site’s top editors, accuses the media of “dirty tricks” and says “our country teeters on the edge of a Constitutional crisis the likes of which we have never witnessed.”
Brian Buckley, an attorney in Los Angeles who is counsel and spokesman for FreeRepublic, says, “The general message you take away from the mainstream media is that the Secretary of State of Florida (Katherine Harris) is some kind of witch, and that Al Gore has a legitimate claim to the presidency. What you don’t see is the press vilifying the Gore campaign for all the shenanigans on their part.”
Weeks before President Clinton’s impeachment by the House, FreeRepublic sponsored a rally that drew an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 pro-impeachment protestors to the Washington Monument. It sponsored a dinner honoring the House impeachment managers, which 1,200 people attended. Now, it’s launching a new round of grassroots political activism.
The news discussion forum originated in Fresno but now runs largely out of Los Angeles. With 47,000 registered users, it’s generating 75,000 visitors and 2 million page views a day, Buckley says. FreeRepublic organizes mass e-mailings and faxes to political leaders to influence the outcome of hot-button issues. Occasionally, its influence infiltrates the mainstream media, as when its “Sore Loserman” campaign placard was featured on the front page of the washingtonpost.com on Nov. 17.
Under the headline “Congratulations President Bush!,” the FreeRepublic’s Articles page contains user postings with pointers to stories on FoxNews.com, WorldNetDaily and dozens of other online publications. (It no longer lets users post copies of stories from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, which sued the site successfully last year for copyright infringement; that decision is under appeal.) On its Forum page the invective flows freely, with users calling Gore a “traitor” and one user posting the e-mail addresses and work phone numbers of the seven justices of the Florida Supreme Court.
Buckley says FreeRepublic “sees a commonality” with NewsMax and other conservative news outlets like Fox News that are giving “a more balanced presentation” of the events in South Florida. “We don’t claim to be objective or dispassionate, but one thing we do relish is to expose the inaccuracy and hypocrisy of unbalanced reporting. You show me a lead in the Chicago Tribune or a report on MSNBC, and I can tell you within a minute how that reporter voted.”
Are the media conspiring to hand the election to Gore? “I think there’s an effort by the Gore campaign to steal the election,” Buckley says. “The media are like an arsonist who starts a fire and then stands to the side. They’re perfectly happy to watch it and enjoy it.”
At NewsMax — they’re the guys holding the NEWSMAX.COM signs behind CNN and MSNBC correspondents in Palm Beach County — there’s little doubt about the site’s ideological leanings. CEO and Editor Christopher Ruddy, whose conspiracy book “The Strange Death of Vincent Foster” was widely derided in the media, oversees a stable of political reporters headquartered, ironically, in West Palm Beach. The site’s front-page headlines Tuesday included “Vote Fraud in Miami-Dade — Count On It!,” penned by a candidate who lost a 1988 election there; “Exclusive: Congressman Says House Will Decide Presidency,” an interview with a conservative Republican congressman from Utah; and “Democrat Appointees Help Gore,” a shot at the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.
Conservative-leaning mainstream Web sites are all over the election story, of course, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Weekly Standard and the National Journal, whose Hotline Scoop page for America Online lists the names and hometowns of all presidential electors. The political right’s Mecca, the Heritage Foundation, has begun a drumbeat for Congress to override the election if Gore is certified the winner in Florida. And there’s always the Drudge Report for insidery tidbits with a you-know-where-he’s-coming-from bent.
A number of less-well-known conservative political Web sites have also jumped into the fray:
• WorldNetDaily, providing “exclusive” reports about “Gore camp chicanery.”
• Lucianne.com, the site run by Clinton nemesis Lucianne Goldberg, patron saint of the right.
• Judicial Watch, an activist law firm that brought several suits against the Clinton administration, has a court hearing Wednesday [Nov. 22] in its suit against Palm Beach, Volusia and Broward counties and has enlisted more than 300 volunteers to inspect uncounted ballots. The group received $550,000 in 1997 from a foundation funded by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
• The Reagan Information Exchange, a site run by President Reagan’s son Michael, the radio talk show host.
• Original Sources, a news analysis site from conservative commentator Mary Mostert. (This is now offine.)
• The Web site of Neal Boortz, the conservative syndicated radio talk host who recently joined NewsMax as an online columnist.
• Cybercast News Network (motto: “The Right News. Right Now”) offers news reports with a conservative tinge, but its articles are far more credible than the looney-tunes sites of the fringe right. Speaking of which …
• Page 1 News, an offering from a Christian group, whose banner headlines Tuesday read: “America Held Hostage: Day 15 Coup D’Etat In Progress” and “Gore Given 5 Days To Rig Ballots In America’s Most Corrupt County.”
E-mail requests for interviews with Original Sources and Page 1 News went unanswered. NewsMax’s Ruddy was on the road and unavailable for an interview.
Activism on the Web is not restricted to the political right, of course. A handful of left-leaning political sites have joined the battle, such as Fair Election, a project of People for the American Way, and MoveOn, which delivered an online petition with nearly 50,000 signatures protesting the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters in Palm Beach County. Mojo Wire’s Alternative Election 2000 Coverage, from Mother Jones magazine, gives pointers to sources as eclectic as the World Socialist Web Site and Law.com. But the online efforts of the political right dwarf efforts by those on the left.
Why? “Because the left is on display every day on the network news and in the mainstream press,” suggests Jon C. Ham, managing editor and columnist for the Herald-Sun, a daily newspaper in Durham, N.C. “Today vast numbers of people have turned to the Drudge Report, NewsMax and WorldNetDaily because they’re just frustrated with the omissions, questionable news judgment and preferential treatment on the networks and in the major newspapers. The mainstream media is still operating as if it has a monopoly. But now these alternative sources of news are pointing up their failings and biases.”
Ham is right that the media need to be vigilant in playing it down the middle and in guarding against slanting the story toward a reporter’s individual biases, to the extent that’s possible. He and Buckley are right that the media deserve a black eye for their disastrous coverage of election night results. As for the right’s dominance on the Net, I happen to think other factors come into play. Chief among them: the demographics of online users still skew conservative (Remember that Bush trounced Gore in an online poll of young voters taken in the days before the election, but among actual voters ages 18-25, Gore beat Bush); the right is far better funded than the left; and the political camp out of power tends to be hungrier, more active and more vocal. But that’s a minor point.
There’s something more powerful happening than right vs. left in today’s political landscape. The Internet is empowering individuals to express their views and share them with peers in a way that wasn’t possible a few years ago.
“I’ve always subscribed to the steam kettle safety-valve view of society,” says Ham, who extolled alternative news sites in a recent column. “You need an outlet for the expression of legitimate views. You can’t have people sitting around feeling besieged by a media that’s telling them only part of the story. That’s a recipe for mistrust and for people tuning out. These sites have value by bringing a counterweight to the liberal slant of the media.”
Adds Buckley: “I think there was a dormant need for free expression that was unfulfilled until the Internet came along. How people were able to vent their frustrations before, I just don’t know. Thank God for the Web — I don’t have to go home and kick the dog anymore.”
One needn’t buy into the inane, bilious blather on many of these sites to celebrate the trend. Too many Americans in the past have felt voiceless and here, at last, is a medium that transfers power from the media elites to the people. That’s a healthy development, regardless of one’s political philosophy.
A few years ago Nicholas Negroponte predicted we’d be able to get our news filtered to our liking by adjusting a news organization’s coverage to our individual political leanings by simply dialing up a more liberal or conservative story. That’s not likely to happen, given the resources that would be needed to pull that off. Instead, users today can calibrate their news by dialing into the political site of their choice.
NewsMax and its kin have their place in today’s online media universe, though relying on such an outlet to the exclusion of others would present a distorted lens into current events. Much more interesting are peer-to-peer news sites like FreeRepublic (and, for techies, Slashdot.org), where like-minded users swap pointers to news stories without a centralized authority. Members are free to post any topic in a distributed, disintermediated network of trust. The truth goes to the user with the most powerful argument and the most credible source.
We’re in a new age. May the most honest journalism win.