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January 12, 2007

Blog Power: The Top 10 Blog Stories Of 2006

Here, in David Letterman-style, are my picks for the Top 10 blog stories of 2006:

10) YearlyKos

9) Supreme Court confirmation hearings

8) Congressional Leadership elections

7) Bloggers hired by campaigns

6) Blogs officially recognized as media

5) Network neutrality

4) Telephone privacy

3) Primary defeats

2) The "secret hold"

1) Election Day

Now for the back story of how the list came to be:

My blogging has been light since the beginning of the year for a reason. As I noted a couple of days ago, I was invited to speak about blogs at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.

On the one hand, I was esctatic because the center gave me an entire hour to talk about blogs (and other technologies) -- 30-45 minutes dedicated to a lecture on their policy and political impact, and the rest of the time for questions from the students. When I've tackled the subject before, it's always been as part of a panel discussion where I had a brief time for introductory comments and then the panel took questions. I loved the idea of addressing my favorite subject exclusively and at length to college students who knew little about it.

On the other hand, I was baffled as to how to fill the hour. Oh, it's not that I have any trouble talking about blogs. If I were a senator, my name would be Mr. Smith and I'd deliver the best blog-ibuster you've ever heard. No, the problem was that I wanted to keep myself from rambling and not giving the students the most useful information.

Fortunately, right about the time I received the invitation last year, I had decided to do a Top 10 list of the best blog stories from 2006. That was pretty much why I was invited to speak. What I quickly learned, though, is that it takes an awful lot of writing to fill 30 minutes of time, so that's what I've been doing in my spare time.

The good news is that the end result is worth publishing here, too. For a detailed explanation of why I made the choices, go to the extended entry.

#10: YearlyKos. That was the name of the June convention organized by the fans of Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the publisher of the blog Daily Kos.

Think about that for a minute: Readers of a blogging community, and contributors to it, held a convention ... in Las Vegas ... to celebrate the leader of their favorite media outlet. Can you imagine readers of The New York Times or The Washington Post doing something like that?

More to the point, can you imagine the Times or the Post covering something like that? It's so inside blog-ball that you wouldn't expect mainstream media outlets to be interested. Communities of people have conventions all the time, but they never get covered beyond the trade publications dedicated to their industries or fields.

Yet the Times and the Post were there in Vegas with the Kossacks. And so were a lot of other top news organizations and columnists. Granted, much of their coverage was critical and even dismissive or mocking. But they were there.

Even if they didn't want to be, they had little choice because so many newsmakers were there. The roster of speakers included Democratic luminaries like Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and four potential presidential contenders. One of them, Mark Warner, spent tens of thousands of dollars on a lavish party for bloggers.

YearlyKos was an amazing spectacle and a great demonstration of the political blogosphere's significance.

#9: Supreme Court confirmation hearings. After President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in 2005, some Republican bloggers vigorously challenged that choice. The Bush administration tried to win them over by scheduling the party's first-ever conference calls with bloggers.

The tactic ultimately failed, as Miers withdrew her nomination. But the GOP learned that it pays to have conservative bloggers fighting with them rather than against them. When Bush later nominated Samuel Alito to the court, the party handpicked Republican bloggers to attend this year's confirmation hearings. They treated the bloggers lavishly and gave them exclusive access to interview and hobnob with high-ranking officials.

Not surprisingly, the bloggers were quick to defend Alito, something they had refused to do for Miers after numerous entreaties. Alito is now a justice on the Supreme Court, and blog calls and other forms of outreach have become almost standard fare in Washington.

The White House had one this week. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Brett McGurk, the director for Iraq at the National Security Council, discussed Bush's speech on the way forward in Iraq.

#8: Leadership elections. When it comes to electing leaders in Congress, bloggers have no official say. But they had plenty to say about the elections this year anyway, and lawmakers listened, even if they didn't always vote the way bloggers wanted.

The first instance came after Texan Tom DeLay resigned as House majority leader. Some Republican bloggers didn't want Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri to replace DeLay, and they forced their way into the conversation by organizing conference calls with all three candidates for the job. Though their favorite, John Shadegg of Arizona, didn't win, the backing he gained from bloggers helped tip the election to John Boehner.

GOP bloggers had less success when they organized similar conference calls with candidates for various minority leadership posts after the November election. The top three slots all went to lawmakers they had opposed, proving that outsider bloggers still have limited influence over the insiders in the capital city.

But on the other side of the blogosphere, concerns that Democratic bloggers voiced about a couple of ethically challenged House members arguably were a factor in keeping those members off prime committee slots. Alcee Hastings was considered a candidate to head the Intelligence Committee, but his past as an impeached judge cost him the job. And William Jefferson was not reinstated to the Ways and Means Committee seat he lost last year after being ensnared in a bribery investigation.

Democratic bloggers who constantly decried the GOP "culture of corruption" during the 2006 campaign were determined not to have their party's image tarnished even before Democrats officially took control of the House.

#7: Bloggers hired by campaigns. The ability of bloggers to inject themselves into the leadership races, the most insider of debates, helps explain why some lawmakers are actually hiring them.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., was one of the first to do so. He paid two bloggers as consultants in 2004 and hired one of them onto his Senate staff after Thune defeated then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle.

This year, several campaigns hired bloggers:

-- Democrat Ned Lamont of Connecticut hired no fewer than four of them to fulfill various tasks on his intraparty challenge to Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

-- Now-Sen. James Webb of Virginia hired two of the bloggers who had pushed to get him into the race against Sen. George Allen.

-- When Allen's race became unexpectedly competitive because of his verbal gaffes, the senator hired a blogger. He still lost, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just hired that blogger as his new media director.

-- Democrat Mark Warner picked the company of MyDD blogger Jerome Armstrong as an Internet consultancy while Warner was considering a 2008 presidential run.

-- And at least two other presidential contenders, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John McCain, also are paying good money to high-profile bloggers for new media advice.

The trend will heighten as the 2008 election nears. Late last month, Democrat John Edwards demonstrated the importance of the Internet in presidential politics -- and of having on board people who understand it -- when he announced for the 2008 race in an online video before he did it in person. He followed his official announcement with a guest appearance on Daily Kos to answer questions from readers.

You'll see more of that kind of activity in the run-up to 2008. And I've already seen quite a bit of it in the opening days of the 110th Congress. Several lawmakers have made guest appearances on both local and popular national blogs.

#6: Bloggers officially recognized as media. While gaining influence within the political realm, bloggers also began earning official recognition as media this year.

The first significant victory came in March, when the Federal Election Commission largely exempted blogs from new Internet-related campaign finance rules on the grounds that blogs are media. They applied to blogs the same exemption that governs newspapers, broadcasters and other traditional media outlets.

The decision followed a blog swarm against the FEC about a year earlier. The outcry began after news broke that the agency might try to regulate blogs. The FEC ditched that draft staff proposal, and dozens of bloggers filed critical comments as the agency weighed how to apply campaign finance law to the Internet. Several high-profile bloggers testified before the FEC and before Congress.

Bloggers also earned recognition as media from the state judicial and legislative branches last year. A California court ruled that bloggers can protect their anonymous sources under the state's "shield law," and Connecticut passed a shield law after rejecting an effort to exclude blog authors and people without journalism degrees.

The Media Bloggers Association, of which I am a member, is helping with such causes. The astute legal counsel provided by the group prompted one advertising agency to drop a foolhardy and unfounded lawsuit against a Maine blogger.

More recently, MBA has been working with some success at getting bloggers credentials to news events. When former vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby goes to trial next week for allegedly lying and obstructing justice in a probe about intelligence leaks, a handful of bloggers will be in the courtroom because of MBA's advocacy.

You're also starting to see mainstream media outlets embrace blogs:
-- Journalists write blogs, and bloggers write for traditional publications as prominent as Time magazine.
-- Both LexisNexis and Reuters have deals for distributing blog content, and the new BlogBurst syndication service has some major newspapers as clients.
-- Associated Press has a partnership with the blog search engine Technorati.
-- CNN Money last year listed "blog editor" among seven trendy jobs.
-- And just a couple of weeks ago, the McClatchy newspaper chain bought two local blogs in California.

One of the best examples of this convergence happened in Washington several months back. The print newcomer in town, The Examiner, hired my friend Mark Tapscott as its editorial-page editor. Mark is an ink-stained wretch who loves blogs almost as much as me, and he immediately created a "blog board of contributors" at The Examiner. He later moved his own blog onto The Examiner site.

#5: Network neutrality. Three of the five biggest blog stories of 2006 were policy oriented -- and not surprisingly, all three of them involved technology. Coming in at No. 5 was the debate about "network neutrality," or mandating that dominant, high-speed Internet firms cannot boost the fees that competitors must pay to put content on their networks.

The pro-net-neutrality crowd found the most support in the blogosphere and in the online community more broadly. Their demands, made through the newly formed Save the Internet coalition and other outlets, were a factor in killing a major telecommunications bill because it did not include strong enough neutrality rules.

The demand for net neutrality also shaped the largest telecom merger in history between AT&T and BellSouth. Just before the New Year began, AT&T agreed to some net neutrality conditions on the merger -- the kind of conditions it had fought for months. Bloggers who back neutrality celebrated the decision as a win for their cause, albeit a limited one.

Blogger Matt Stoller of MyDD, who is speaking at a media reform conference in Memphis, Tenn., over the weekend, put it this way:

"AT&T, the single-worst company in terms of net neutrality, gave up a lot of ground to an angry public. ... For now, we can take solace in the fact [that] a Bush-crony dominated FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, and a multibillion-dollar telecom industry lost to a group of public interest advocates and a fed-up public."

#4: Telephone privacy. I love this one because it's the story about one blogger who got angry about something and made a difference.

John Aravosis of Americablog was irritated to learn how easily people could buy cell phone records online. He griped about that fact online, even buying his own records to prove a point, but no one listened much.

Then he bought the mobile records of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark. All of sudden, he was a guest on news shows and a source in stories. Lawmakers listened. They introduced a flurry of bills aimed at curtailing the practice, which is called "pretexting," and held hearings on the topic.

Both the House and Senate took action on the measures within months.

The issue faded for a while, but then Hewlett-Packard was caught buying the phone records of board members, employees and journalists in an attempt to find leaks within the computer company. Congress cleared a bill, and Bush signed it into law.

That end result might have been achieved without the involvement of Aravosis, but he clearly was a significant factor in moving the bill early in the legislative process. He brought to the subject the kind of passion that you used to see in newspaper editorials but that is too often lacking today. And he stayed after the story until editorial writers and the rest of the mainstream media listened and called attention to his pet topic.

It's a great example of how much power one person can achieve on the Internet.

#3: Primary defeats. Aug. 8 was a momentous day for the political blogosphere. On that day, they helped take down three incumbents in Congress.

The biggest news was Lamont's victory over Lieberman in Connecticut. Bloggers were involved in that race from start to finish.

Lamont met with at least one key blogger early in his campaign, hired four of them and used a fifth as a volunteer production editor for his first video blog. Bloggers helped raise more than $300,000 for him online. They also followed his campaign across Connecticut and swarmed his headquarters on primary night -- all the while shaping media coverage of the race by focusing on Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq.

Elsewhere the same day, blogs played a role in the intraparty defeats of Rep. Cynthia McKinney in Georgia by now-Rep. Hank Johnson, and of Congressman Joe Schwarz in Michigan by now-Congressman Tim Walberg.

The conservative Club for Growth used its blog to bash Schwarz for his centrism, and RedState joined in that effort. Here's what Erick Erickson of RedState said after Walberg won: "Most of our time ... was devoted to the drumbeat that Joe Schwarz is a liberal. And I think the voters believed it."

In Georgia, Johnson became the first candidate to write at Congress Blog in order to draw attention to his run-off with McKinney. He certainly was helped by McKinney herself. She had become a laughingstock and target of bloggers across the political spectrum months earlier for punching a Capitol Hill police officer.

But Johnson saw potential in the blogs. One of his aides said, "They've been effective in reaching out to the people who make the news, the people who determine what's hot and what's not ... and reaching the national media at an affordable price."

The outcomes in all three states served as a warning to incumbents: Enrage the blogosphere at your peril.

#2: The "secret hold." August was a good month for bloggers on the policy front, too. They became aggravated when a couple of senators used procedural tactics to anonymously hold a popular bill for bringing Internet transparency to federal spending, and they worked collectively to out the senators by calling every one of their offices.

From the right, an Internet coalition dubbed Porkbusters led the charge. Bloggers who are part of the coalition asked readers to call their senators and put them on the spot with a simple question: Are you responsible for the secret hold?

The liberal blog TPMMuckraker soon joined the effort, focusing on Democratic senators, and the moderate Republican blog GOP Progress also participated.

The tactic worked. Sens. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens reluctantly admitted to their secret holds and eventually lifted their objections. Congress cleared the bill soon after, and Bush invited bloggers to the White House ceremony when he signed it.

The campaign added to the clout of the Porkbusters. Their laser focus against pork-barrel spending already had embarrassed Stevens over his "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and GOP Sen. Trent Lott over his "railroad to nowhere" in Mississippi.

The presence of the Porkbusters clearly has been felt on Capitol Hill. If you go to Sen. Tom Coburn's Web site, you'll see the Porkbusters logo because he counts the group as an ally in his fight against earmarks. And if you go to the Porkbusters site, you'll find a quote from Lott proclaiming his disgust with the bloggers because "they have been nothing but trouble ever since [Hurricane] Katrina."

#1: Election Day. That is unquestionably the top blog story of 2006. Democrats regained control of Congress, and their blog allies had a hand in the victory.

Ridiculed from the right for two years over a poor won-loss record in electing their favorite candidates, the netroots came through this year with seven wins, five in the House and two in the Senate. On the flip side, Republican bloggers who took a stand for particular candidates finished with a 2-19 record.

The biggest win arguably was Webb's upset of Allen in Virginia. It was the last Senate race to be decided and the one that tipped control to Democrats. Webb and Montana Democrat Jon Tester were the two netroots candidates who also received the most personal money from Moulitsas at Daily Kos.

Here's what MyDD's Armstrong, who co-authored the book "Crashing The Gate" with Moulitsas, said of the Webb-Allen race: "Taking out George Allen, who was the runaway insider poll's No. 1 pick for the Republicans' presidential nomination in December of 2005 -- that's one of the biggest upsets in the last 50 years."

A sidebar to the top blog story of the year is the "macaca" incident that spelled the beginning of the end for Allen. Webb's campaign gave a video camera to a volunteer so he could track and tape Allen's events. Allen made a joke at that volunteer's expense, calling him macaca.

Bloggers swarmed, splattered the video all over the Internet and used it as the corner piece of a puzzle that painted Allen as a racist. Over the next several weeks, they pieced the rest of the puzzle together for the mainstream media.

The macaca video cost Webb's campaign all of $918.21, the amount it paid to reimburse the volunteer for travel and other expenses.

You can't get much more bang for the buck than that. Now you know why I said anyone with a message and a compelling voice can make a difference in today's digital world.

Posted by Danny | 12:36 PM


Terrific post, although I think that your number 4 pick shows how a single blogger can have such an amazing impact and I would have placed it at number one or two. But, regardless you did a great job.

GM Roper | 01.14.07 05:05 PM

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Beltway Blogroll, by K. Daniel Glover, gauges the policy and political impact of blogs. Glover is the editor of National Journal's Technology Daily.
He can be reached at

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