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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Bloggers at the Governor's press conference, Part II

Had a long and very interesting conversation with Jason Gibbs, Governor Douglas' press secretary, who contacted me yesterday and asked for a chance to explain his press conference policy. Gibbs insists that he likes blogs — even has one himself, for his "Adventure Racing Team" (why hasn't he asked to be added to my blogroll? It's just for "family and friends").

"It doesn't bother me that he [Adam Quinn, of group blog Vermonters First] is a blogger," he claims. Gibbs says this whole kerfuffle started because Quinn is a "paid political operative." "I'm not suggesting he was paid [to ask questions at the press conference]," he says. "But he's cashed checks from political parties and political candidates...as recently as January 06."

Well, I checked with Quinn, and this is, in fact, true. "I'm a political, partisan hack," says Quinn. "I make no bones about it."Quinn says he makes a living setting up donor databases and such for left-wing campaigns. Quinn says he's not on anyone's payroll right now, though, and that should give him "a clean slate" to go in and ask questions of the Gov. He notes that he does Vermonters First as a volunteer. "I do it out of my own passion," he says.

Well, this complicates things a little for me. I couldn't tell, by looking at Quinn's site, that he was a paid political consultant (and I hate to be nit-picky, but you can't even find Quinn's real name on the blog — he's listed as "AQ"). Says the site's header: Vermonters First is a committed group of people who believe that democracy is elevated to its highest level only when its citizens are fully engaged in the policy making process and the conversations that influence it."

That makes it sound like all the contributors are just citizens who've taken an interest in the process, not campaign workers who might potentially get hired by one of the campaigns promoted on the site (I'm not actually sure if any of the other contributors are also campaign workers). Sure, Quinn may be writing purely from his own passion, but knowing that he does campaign work makes me think differently about his writing — I think most people make a distinction between unpaid grassroots activists and paid campaign workers.

So while I certainly support his right to have his blog, and post whatever political analysis he likes, I have to say that I can understand Gibbs' decision to bar him from asking questions at the press conference. Quinn's not exactly a reverse Guckert, but he's close, and therefore, I think, has no legitimate claim to be a questioner at a press conference.

And now on to the real issue — should bloggers (who are not "paid political operatives") be allowed to ask questions? I say, why the hell not? The more informed questioners out there the better.

Though his new, unwritten press conference policy bars bloggers from asking questions, Gibbs seems to be open to amending it. Gibbs says he's concerned about things like fairness, and accuracy — journalists, for example, have standards and ethics, blah blah blah. Essentially, I think Gibbs wants to make sure that every crank who writes a letter to the editor doesn't start a blog and dominate the press conferences. Fair enough. But there has to be a way for smart, motivated bloggers who command largish audiences to be allowed in that room, and I bet we'll figure it out eventually. "I'm totally open to rexamining the role of blogs," says Gibbs.

I think Gibbs — and every other press secretary or communications director in every other state office — should let interested bloggers participate in their media outreach opportunities, if only to encourage more people to pay attention to what's going on in Montpelier. Inviting more people to the table, so to speak, would increase the diversity of voices and perspectives in state government media coverage.

And it could reach more people — new people, people who are normally shut out of the print and broadcast media. I would love to see some college student covering those press conferences on a MySpace blog. Or what about a recent immigrant to the U.S. covering the press conferences for a Bosnian or Somalian blog, written in Bosnian or Maay Maay? Does that sound far-fetched? Is it, really? There are a number of constituencies in this state who are underserved by the traditional media. Blogs, even podcasts, could enable them to have a place at that table.

If you're out there, motivated blogger, please contact me, and I will personally intervene on your behalf in any way I can. For starters, maybe you can be 802 Online's Statehouse correspondent — Gibbs says he'd let me ask questions because I'm associated with Seven Days. Maybe that extends to a guest poster.

I'm open to collaborating with a competent blogger who is looking to question the Guv. Spread the word.

March 11, 2006 at 09:49 AM in Media/Keeping an eye on the competition | Permalink

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Comments

I'd ask questions at a press confernce and then blog about it, but 7D would have to pay me $500 each time. My writing is easily worth that. Of course, I reserve the right to be slanted or even lie on my blog, so I'm not sure how warmly I'd be received. Are you ready to intervene on my behalf?

Posted by: Haik Bedrosian | Mar 11, 2006 11:08:51 AM

If you waive the $500. Look, I get paid $50 a week to do this blog *and* to go to meetings and do web outreach and develop new ideas for Seven Days, and that's after blogging for months for free.

I'm not offering a part-time job; I know there are people out there who want to ask the governor questions in this forum, and I want to help them do that.

You'd also have to promise not to lie. Slant, attitude, voice, point of view — whatever you call it — that's great. Fine. But I'm not interested in promoting liars. Who is?

Posted by: cresmer | Mar 11, 2006 1:36:00 PM

Hmmm. I'm into a kind of fusion of art and civics, the power of myth applied to politics on a "hyper-local" level. I couldn't pretend to be a 'real' reporter. There's an element of theatre to everything I do in blogging, including the silly answer I gave above to your very creative offer.

It seems like 'loaning' out your 7D press credentials to a deputized blogger might be somehow analogous to throwing a copyrighted song up on Napster. You earned the right to be a credentialed reporter by getting hired at 7D. Should I be able to glom onto those credentials without having earned them myself? Isn’t that like downloading a copyrighted song for free?

And what about telling the truth and being an impartial reporter? Isn’t this the key issue when it comes to Jim Douglas knowing whose questions should be dignified with answers and whose shouldn’t? It’s about the reputation of the institution for which a reporter works, right? When it’s just one guy and his blog how can you trust him? That’s why you’d make me promise to tell the truth if I borrowed your press pass. I’d be essentially be working for 7D (but for free.)

Here’s my take on the whole kerfuffle. This is America. Any old citizen has a right to question public officials. The size of the questioner’s audience its moot. If a blogger is his own entire audience of one, that should be enough. Truth is neither here nor there, anyway. Look at Jayson Blair. He had the NY Times vouching for his credibility. I’ll say what I said before. What Douglas’s blogger-gagging shenanigans represent is a paradigm shift and some institutional lag, nothing more. Unless the room isn’t big enough for all the people that want to be there, everyone should have the same rights at a press conference.

It would be interesting to see what happens if and when a more serious blogger takes you up. I’ll be watching from inside the safety of my lying, cheating, slanted home at BurlingtonPol.com. I should probably be getting back to my little politic theatre of the absurd, now.

P.S. I really liked that piece you did a while back on abandoned buildings in Burlington. Very informative. Good luck on VPR Wednesday. Say hi to Phil for me.

Posted by: Haik Bedrosian | Mar 11, 2006 5:35:01 PM

Thanks for commenting again, Haik.

I'll try to address some of your points. In my conversation with him, Jason Gibbs emphasized that that the purpose of one hour press conferences is for media representatives to ask questions. The theory is that each reporter gets this privilege because she or he is then relaying that information to a larger audience. This is the function that reporters serve. They do the work of sifting through information, separating what is useful and important from what is less so, and crafting stories to explain that information to their audiences.

My question is, why can't more people be reporters? I think expanding the pool of reporters to include people who don't work for the traditional media can be a good thing for our democracy. People with different perspectives might ask different questions. Reporters for Out in The Mountains, for example, will always ask about queer issues. No one else will likely be as vigilant about queer issues as they will. Same goes for any reporter representing a niche audience. I'm sure some really tech savvy person would grill the governor more on what he has done or not done to improve broadband access in the state.

Expanding that pool of reporters was difficult when the only way people could relay information was in newsprint or in the broadcast media. The barriers for entry in those fields are very high, for a variety of not all bad reasons.

But with electronic media, the barrier for entry is very low. Anyone with an internet connection can have a blog that can potentially be read by an audience that exceeds even that of the state's largest daily newspaper.

I think reporters, bloggers and government officials should embrace that reality. I think it offers real potential to open up our government in a healthy way.

But realizing that potential is a challenge. And we can only meet it if we work together. For example, I don't think *everyone* who has a blog should be able to ask questions at a press conference. There has to be a way of vetting bloggers. I imagine that that process would include weeding out people who are, as Gibbs says, "paid political operatives." Maybe anyone who has worked for a campaign in the past year or two years should be barred.

That might also include readership. Maybe if a blogger can demonstrate a consistent readership of over, say, 500 hits a week, they could be allowed. Maybe it could include longevity. Like, if a blogger has been blogging for a month or more.

These are just some suggestions. Problem is, Gibbs is very resistant to credentialing media. They don't do it now, and don't want to start. He's basically saying, "why mess with a system that works?" To which I say, "who's it working for?"

I don't think people should necessarily have to "earn" credentials to ask questions at a press conference. They *should* need to demostrate that they're representing a substantial group of readers, and they should be able to say that they're not paid partisan politicos. They should also in some way demonstrate a commitment not to lie about the information they're disseminating. They need to print accurate quotes, for example.

People who can live up to those standards are welcome to apply for the great and noble privilege of being an unpaid correspondent for my blog. I'm offering people a chance to clear that first hurdle of demonstrating a substantial audience. The rest would be up to them.

Posted by: cresmer | Mar 12, 2006 10:09:12 AM

Interesting thought, but I think that if bloggers start having the ability to ask questions, the rest of the media won't have a chance to pipe in. If Jason and the governor allowed bloggers to ask questions at his press conferences, it could turn into a zoo. (Yes, I have a blog, but am a member of the media as well.)

Chris

Posted by: Chris Fells | Mar 12, 2006 6:20:51 PM

Although I wouldn't do it myself, I can certainly think of some people I'd love to see there. Jack McCullough, who is a regular Green Mountain Daily contributor and has his own blog (Rational Resistance) for one. I doubt he'd be welcome though, because he too, is very much associated with the opposition party, being the Montpelier Democratic Chair. I have little doubt, as nice as Gibbs may have been, that at the end of the day, this is about ideology and the control of information. Somebody like Jack might be a good "test" to see whether or not that is the case. You should contact him.

Posted by: odum | Mar 12, 2006 7:14:43 PM

So, having skimmed the above comments (sorry if this has been covered), I must ask: why is VT re-inventing the wheel? Bloggers have been around a while and other governmental groups have dealt with this question lots of times. The White House allows bloggers to get credentialed and ask questions, why not the Governor's little press conferences?

Posted by: Bill Simmon | Mar 13, 2006 3:05:37 PM

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