JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL is frustrated. He's the young-Blumenthal-in-training of partisan punditry, but in recent days his favorite story line can't get any traction. "It's amazing what it takes to start a feeding frenzy these days," he lamented at TalkingPointsMemo, his web log, last week.
Marshall has been flogging his Tom Delay-is-Magneto story for what seems to be a year, and it has been largely ignored not just by elite newspapers, but also by the blogosphere. An opinion storm requires certain ingredients to conjure it, and in the world of the blogosphere in 2003, you need one of the Big Four to buy in.
The Big Four are Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, and The Volokh Conspiracy. These four sites are usually visited by news junkies many times a day because they are staffed by bright people and continually updated, and thus they can guide the chattering class to a breaking story or even a hitherto ignored story. Trent Lott is no longer majority leader in part because these superpowers of the blog filed and fueled the story of his remarks at Strom's birthday bash. The New York Times is reeling because of consistent attention to its inaccuracies and biases by these same sites. Because these sites are so widely read and referred to, they can amplify even small murmurs and overnight can redirect traditional media towards a target.
The power of synchronized blogging is still somewhat incipient. The first generation of bloggers are individualists, and unlikely to coordinate their activities. But if blog alliances do begin to develop among them, the ability to drive the news cycle in a particular direction will be immense.
When the blogosphere ignores a story, that story is marked as boring or insignificant or both. If a story cannot hold the interest of the web's news hounds, it is hardly likely to interest the general reading or viewing public.
If the web seizes on a story, however, it is a huge signal to editors and assignment desks to pay attention. The media dinosaurs can ignore these currents in opinion-making, of course, but not for long.
The first presidential election with full blog participation is opening now. As the Iowa caucuses approach, watch the blogs (1) to see if any Democrat is catching fire there and (2) for leaks of damaging info. Howard Dean is reported to be investing heavily in controlling web-spin, but the blogs cannot be controlled in any meaningful way. The filters that reporters and producers used to provide are gone, destroyed by free agents in cyberspace. The Drudge Report, a sort of Model-T blog, did much to bedevil Clinton. If any of the Big Four reach Drudge-status, it will be as though King Kong, Godzilla, and Mothra all arrived in an Iowa China shop at the same time.
Theodore White began his account of the 1964 presidential campaign this way: "Every man who writes of politics shapes unknowingly in his mind some fanciful metaphor to embrace all the wild, apparently erratic events and personalities in the process he tries to describe."
It is crazy to try and develop a metaphor for the new politics--a politics of a 24/7 news cycle, cable land, talk radio, FreeRepublic.com, and DemocraticUnderground.com, and thousands of blogs-- but the opening scene from "Gangs of New York" comes to mind. Campaigns would be well-advised to designate a team just to keep track of and respond to web-generated stories and opinion, starting with the Big Four.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.