Friday, May 01, 2009

Should Politicians Care About What Bloggers Say?

Two Maryland politicians have recently denounced bloggers as malicious and inherently damaging to political discussion in the state. Their statements raise a question: should politicians care at all what they say?

In late February, the Annapolis Muckraker reported that Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer violated city procurement rules by awarding no-bid contracts to political supporters. Annapolis Capital Punishment also investigated the contracts. That prompted a memo from Mayor Moyer accusing two city aldermen of feeding information to the blogs. But the Mayor was not done yet. In her following State of the City speech, she said this:

During this election year, we need to keep discussions open with a civil approach to problem solving involving city officials, the public and the media. As a courtesy to the next Mayor and Council, here is a little fact that has been lost through the years, but once ruled the harsh tongues in the New Colony of Maryland. A law against spreading false news and information was proposed by Proprietor Lord Baltimore. The law declared: “Spreading false news to make discord is punishable by common law, with fines and imprisonment.” An attempt to create a civil environment has been the focus of leaders dating back to Lord Baltimore. In 1651, commenting on rumor and intentional false statements in a letter, he stated, “...A government divided in itself brings confusion and much misery upon all the people under it, within the creators of such division, the fomenters of discord must justly expect sad calamities from the same if they do not in time see and rectify the same, for the public peace and welfare of the people under the government,”...

The focus of Lord Baltimore’s comments of law, were part of the New Colony’s formation and success. The spread of intentional falsehoods could not be tolerated. These same principles are used today regarding slander and libel. 358 years later... the fight for civility continues!
In Salisbury, outgoing Mayor Barrie Tilghman said this about long-time adversary Salisbury News in her last State of the City speech:

This is not about differences in opinion and policy questions. This is quite simply mean-spirited ugly constant intimidation. Combined with the lies and innuendo of several “bloggers” this city is under siege. Routinely, I receive calls and emails from citizens who disagree with my positions on individual matters. We talk and often find common ground, and sometimes agree to disagree. It is a very valuable process and I always find that I see whatever issue under consideration from a new perspective.

This poses a far greater danger to Salisbury’s future than the current financial crisis. When people are afraid to step forward, run for office, speak on relevant issues, write letters to the editor expressing individual opinions, then the future is in jeopardy. I leave this job, an adventure that I have enjoyed with a firm conviction that the people of this great city need to stand up and say, “No More.” Only then can we move forward to meet the serious challenges and build upon the dreams and hard work of the twenty-four who preceded me in service to this City.
There is undoubtedly a great deal of history between the above Mayors and the blogs they criticize. We are not in a position to evaluate the merits of either side. But these incidents raise the issue of whether politicians should care at all what bloggers say about them. No one likes to see negative information about themselves in print – whether they are politicians or not – but does criticism from these or any other Maryland blogs really matter?

That depends on the blog.

Based on the traffic statistics we have been able to gather on Maryland blogs, we do not believe that any of them have an audience comparable to major mainstream media (MSM) outlets. Even the most-read Maryland blogs rarely exceed more than 1,000 unique visits per day. So criticism from a blogger is not going to be seen immediately by large numbers of people (although it may linger on Google searches for awhile).

A more interesting question is the identity of the readership. That is almost impossible to measure quantitatively, even with tools like Sitemeter. But some blogs have clearly built small followings among politicians, lobbyists, activists, government employees, MSM reporters and other inside “players.” By occupying space inside their discussion sphere, these blogs can assume a place in the political discourse. But they only get there by producing quality work.

Here are the questions we ask when assessing a blog:

1. Does the blog do original reporting and/or research?

2. Does the blog back up opinion with facts?

3. Does the blog run stories that are not found elsewhere?

4. Is the blog read regularly by people we respect?

5. Does the blog update its content and correct its mistakes?

6. Does the MSM follow the blog’s reporting with similar material, whether openly credited to the blog or not?

If the answer to the majority of the above questions is yes, then the blog may have a following. But that following is inherently fragile and depends on an ethereal stock of intellectual capital. The more a blogger relies on pure opinion over fact-driven opinion, hysteria over reasoning and derivative commentary over original content, the more that capital dissipates and the less relevant the blog will be. It may have readers, but those readers will assign little credibility to its content and may see it more as cheap entertainment than serious food for thought.

So if you are a politician, what are you supposed to do about an unfair attack by a blogger? I would test the blogger by pushing back. Meet with him privately and give him the facts. Or ask to submit a guest post with your side of the story. If the blogger is legitimate, he will accept the challenge and give your point of view a fair hearing. If the blogger refuses your entreaties, then chances are he is not taken seriously by the few readers he has and is not worth worrying about.