A homeschooling innovation brings opportunity and danger
It's Nov. 3, one day post-election, and talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt is ebullient with the GOP's victory. Broadcasting from a Southern California studio tucked into a mall behind an Asian noodle joint, the center-right conservative skips easily from topic to topic: the Bush victory, the Democrats' spectacular implosion, Osama bin Laden, the judicial nomination process. Simultaneously, Mr. Hewitt interviews guests, Googles, scans articles online, trades cues with his producer, chats with studio visitors, keeps one eye on CNN, and sips Diet Coke.
Through it all, he also blogs.
With 43,500 visitors per day, his blog, www.HughHewitt.com, has become for many a must-read stop in the new-media universe. An attorney, law professor, and evangelical Christian, Mr. Hewitt once worked as Richard Nixon's ghostwriter and served several posts in the Reagan administration. Now, he embodies the synergy between the key media developments of the '90s and the '00s: talk radio and blogging.
The radio show drives listeners to the blog. The blog raises subjects and provides information that lifts the level of talk-show discourse far above the mere trading of uninformed opinions.
Blogs are revolutionizing journalism, politics, and American culture, but many people still don't know what they are. The word blog is a contraction for "web log," which was originally just a listing, or "log," of websites that an internet surfer has visited. Some of the earliest websites back in the early '90s were merely lists and links to other sites that visitors or someone interested in a particular topic might find interesting. Soon, though, bloggers began accompanying the lists with their comments-and then the comments began to take center stage.
Though the Drudge Report, started by Matt Drudge in 1994, has become one of the most popular and influential websites on the internet, it still follows the most primitive format of the early blogs, consisting largely of links to other sources. But Mr. Drudge also breaks stories of his own, and when he began doing so in the late '90s-most spectacularly by reporting President Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern-stories previously hidden or ignored by mainstream media no longer were.
Today's blogs are typically websites operated by an individual or a group with frequent postings throughout the day. Though some blogs are essentially personal notebooks or diaries open for the world to see, the more influential blogs post commentary and opinion with clickable links to information about the topic being discussed. New entries pile up on top of older entries, so visitors to the site have to scroll down to read what has been posted earlier.
But perhaps the most important feature of blogs is that they are interactive. That is, readers can post comments, responding to what the blogger says with discussion and information of their own. It was not the Powerline bloggers but a reader who first showed in September why Dan Rather's documents about President Bush's National Guard service were probably bogus. Soon, with the blogs linked together as they are, thousands of amateur detectives were on the case. Experts on typewriters and computer fonts posted their comments, exact duplicates of the memos were generated on personal computers, and soon the case for forgery was made.
The CBS executive who sniffed that a blogger in his pajamas was not to be compared to a professional news organization with its fact-checking resources was missing the point. Bloggers do not work in isolation. What the technology makes possible is the marshaling of thousands of fact-checkers. Blogs have created a whole new atmosphere of information, which has become linked together, harder to hide, and available to everyone with a computer.
Mr. Hewitt calls this "open-source journalism," in which an elite journalism establishment no longer has the monopoly on news and analysis, readers can collaborate with writers, and a free market of ideas and information can emerge.
In his new book Blog, due out in January, Mr. Hewitt traces the short but ground-shaking history of the blogosphere. He identifies four key stories that marked the clout of blogs over the mainstream media.
In 2002, Sen. James Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) marked his retirement with a 100th birthday party. Among the dignitaries and colleagues scheduled to speak was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. During his remarks, the Mississippi Republican said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."
The South Carolina senator had run for president as a "Dixiecrat," a Democratic party wing with the platform: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, and our churches." The mainstream reporters in attendance seemed content to let the remark fade into history.
"Everybody, that is, except for ABC News reporter Ed O'Keefe," Mr. Hewitt writes in Blog. Mr. O'Keefe and an ABC colleague reported the story the following morning. But in news parlance, it had no "legs" and would've died if not for a then-anonymous, leftist blogger named Atrios, who wrote on his site, "I won't mention that the problems Lott is referring to are the Civil and Voting Rights Acts."
The fuse was lit. Liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall and libertarian Glenn Reynolds bit into the story, questioning whether Sen. Lott, whose remark seemed a misty longing for the good old days of segregation, was fit to serve as Senate majority leader. Within days, bloggers across the political spectrum began demanding Sen. Lott's resignation-and demanding to know why mainstream journalists were still silent. Bloggers pushed the story until regular reporters finally took up the cause and the Senate majority leader resigned. For the blogosphere, the Lott affair was a defining moment: Bloggers had forced mainstream media to cover a story.
It wouldn't be the last one. In 2003, bloggers' relentless scrutiny of The New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal eventually forced the resignation of executive editor Howell Raines and his No. 2 man, Gerald Boyd. The blogosphere brought the most prestigious newspaper in America to its knees.
Then, in 2004, bloggers forced the mainstream media to take seriously the allegations of an upstart 527 group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Swifties' contention that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had lied about his war wounds and battle exploits boiled over into the mainstream media only after bloggers refused to let the story die. Then Fox News amplified the blogosphere buzz, eventually forcing broadcast networks and establishment print publications to examine the 527's claims. The collective media drubbing amounted to an assault on Mr. Kerry's credibility that may have tipped the election.
The most recent example of blog-driven news was "Rathergate." 60 Minutes 2 on Sept. 8 ran a story bashing President Bush's guard service, basing the piece largely on memos purportedly written in 1973 by his then-superior, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. But hours after the memos were posted on the internet, bloggers Buckhead, PrestoPundit, Powerline-and Hugh Hewitt-debunked them by calling in document experts and questioning the integrity of broadcast icon Dan Rather. CBS first stood by its story, but relentless blogger attacks forced the news veteran into a corner from which he would ultimately issue, on the air, an unapologetic apology.
What bloggers did with the Swift Boat Veterans and the exposure of the Rathergate forgeries arguably played a role in the reelection of President Bush. Liberal blogs helped launch the candidacy of the anti-war candidate Howard Dean-and raise money for him-which pulled John Kerry to the left, which, in turn, may have also helped reelect President Bush. On election night, blogs leaked the result of early exit polls that heralded a Kerry victory, leading to Democrats' euphoria and Republicans' depression until the actual vote count came in. Mr. Hewitt believes that left-wing bloggers were part of a deliberate disinformation campaign, what he calls "black blog ops," which signals the potential of blogs to be misused. But it was also conservative bloggers on election night who warned their readers not to take those early reports seriously.
Mr. Hewitt may well be the world's leading blog-evangelist, having inspired something in the neighborhood of 120 new blogs. (A website, www.hewittinspired.blogspot.com, catalogs them all.) Some are part of a growing sub-wave of evangelical blogs; "Hugh kept bugging me about starting a blog, saying the blogosphere needed evangelical voices," said Mark Roberts, senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church.
Mr. Roberts agreed, and learned that blogging at www.markdroberts.com provides a way to extend his ministry and "simply speak as Christians about what's going on in the world. Not on Christian 'issues,' per se, but whether it's a book, or a movie, or a social concern, through blogs we can contribute a perspective that might not otherwise be heard."
For example, after Mr. Roberts attended an advance screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and posted a review on his blog, he entered into a correspondence with some Jewish readers-something that probably would not have happened had his review appeared only in Christian periodicals. Blogging, Mr. Roberts said, helps him avoid insularity, which he sees as an occupational hazard for pastors: "It enables me to interact with a much broader cross-section of people in the world, for me as a pastor to have conversations with people about serious topics, people who are not folk in my own church."
Similar conversations are taking place across the evangelical segment of the blogosphere (including at worldmagblog.com, one of the most-read evangelical blogs), but they are far from monochromatic. Evangelical Outpost, a popular Bible-based blog, tackles politics and social issues from a conservative perspective, while Rob Asghar, an evangelical Democrat and former Muslim, is the blogger behind the more liberal Dimestore Guru. In Iraq, blogging soldiers gave an inside account of life in a war zone, while freedom-loving Iraqis, such as the three brothers behind Iraqthemodel.blogspot.com, write about their liberation in sharp contrast to doom-and-gloom mainstream reporting. Such bloggers are often professionals who conceal their real names, fearing reprisals from terrorists or Saddam loyalists. But their blogs are receiving up to 200,000 visitors per month, according to a United Press International report, and represent the first attempts at a free Iraqi press in modern times.
Not only nationally oriented blogs have an influence. In South Dakota, local blogs took on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in his reelection bid. Their scrutiny of his record and their championing the cause of his opponent, Republican John Thune, made him the second Senate leader to be brought down by bloggers.
In Vermont, Timothy Cook, a military physician now in private practice, became fed up with the liberal newspapers in his state. Convinced that native Vermonters are more conservative than the state's current leadership, he started DefytheHerald.com, a website designed to counter the propaganda put out by the state's major newspaper. That blog now serves as a meeting point for state conservatives, and spinoffs from it deal with other liberal Vermont newspapers.
The blogosphere now offers soapbox space to everyone who cares about public opinion. Start-up is cheap and blogging technology is easy to master: "It is a marketplace of pure ideas," Mr. Hewitt says, "and not just a medium for the elite. It's no longer necessary to persuade anyone to be allowed to persuade anyone."