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October 28, 2005

Forbes Attack on Bloggers: A Contrary View

I have to admit, there is some truth in Forbes magazine's article about bloggers "spewing lies, libel and invective" and how they can sometimes damage companies they target.

But pardon me if I don't get all weepy about the fact that the chickens are finally coming home to roost in corporate America after more than a century of its unchallenged dominion over the major media, public discourse, consumer choice, and the quality of life of the average citizen.

How many dollars, after all, have we all wasted on shoddy products and overhyped stocks? How many hundreds of hours have we frittered away just trying to get our measly little customer service complaints addressed, curso ux design? How much outright lying and patronizing indifference have we all had to put up with in pro-business media reporting, corporate press releases, and those infamous "we're all just one happy family" employee newsletters?

And just for the record, how many people have been killed in automobiles built with exploding gas tanks or high rollover rates because their manufacturers deemed it "cost-ineffective" to correct those defects?

And Forbes whines about some citizen bloggers who, after years of taking it in a thousand different demeaning ways from faceless corporations, finally hit back in anger (and don't always get their facts right)?

Well, what do you expect, gentlemen? As I've said before, blogging represents the revolt of the voiceless against the heedless -- and for the first time in the entire history of American business, corporate America can no longer ignore what its customers are thinking and saying. About time, I'd say.

So what should we do about bloggers that "spew lies, libel and invective" at businesses -- some of whom may not deserve it? The same thing that we do with companies that deceive their customers or market shoddy products:

Don't trust them anymore, and take our attention and our wallets elsewhere.

As for businesses large and small, do not for one second imagine that you can ignore the blogosphere just because it contains some overheated nutcases. Get involved, listen to and learn from your customers, and always try your best to deliver what you promise. Your customers will reward you if you do.

October 25, 2005

The Tyranny of Dreams: A Memorial

Four years ago today, my friend the great Afghan patriot and guerrilla leader Abdul Haq was tortured and executed at a secret Al Queda military installation just south of the capital, Kabul.

Like his comrade in arms, the legendary resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was murdered by Al Queda only two days before the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington), Abdul Haq represented the best of a proud people who had been broken by a quarter century of war that turned one of every three Afghans into a refugee or a corpse.

In my 27 years as a journalist, I have had the privilege of meeting a few national leaders. I've had tea with Deng Xiaoping, coffee with the former Iranian president and democratic leader Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, wine with the Kurdish rebel leader (and current president of Iraq) Jalal Talabani, and coconut milk with Ieng Sary, the foreign minister of the maniacal Khmer Rouge government of Pol Pot.

But in the years since Abdul Haq was murdered, I have often wondered at the unique moral and emotional hold that he has continued to have over me. Why is it that some men and women seem to be able to rise above the petty self-interested fears that afflict all of us, and go on to become popular leaders capable of bringing out the best in their people and their nation?

The World War 2 journalist and secret agent for the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) Louis Huot put it well, I think, when after parachuting into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, he described his first meeting with the communist resistance leader Tito:

"Here was no simple warrior, no primitive leader of fighting men. Thinker, statesman, artist ... he appeared to be all these, and soldier as well. There was a light in his face that glowed -- a light that comes only from long service in the tyranny of dreams."

Abdul Haq, too, served many years in the tyranny of his dream of a free and democratic Afghanistan. As a teenager, he joined the student movement against the growing Soviet presence in his country. Then, after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in full force in December of 1979, he picked up his gun -- a 1903 British Enfield rifle left over from the last failed British invasion of his country -- and rallied his fellow Pashtuns to fight for their freedom. His exploits were legendary, especially against the heavily-fortified Soviet garrisons in and around Kabul. Indeed, he gained worldwide attention when he blew up a massive Soviet ammunition depot in the city.

His acclaim, of course, soon brought Abdul Haq to the attention of the CIA. But although like other guerrilla leaders of the Cold War era, he was happy to accept aid from wherever it could be obtained, he was no puppet of American intelligence. Indeed, the CIA described Abdul Haq as "unruly and immature" -- spook-speak for putting the interests of his own people ahead of Washington's geo-political game-playing.

Indeed, Abdul Haq was publicly critical of the U.S. bombing campaign that followed the 9/11 attacks, even though his own beloved wife and 11-year-old son had been assassinated by a Taliban/Al Queda hit squad just two years before. Instead, he urged Washington to rely on the patriotic Afghan resistance to topple the Taliban, as in fact it eventually did.

Perhaps that's why, when Abdul Haq led a small 20-man unarmed force into Afghanistan to rally the tribes against the rump Taliban/Al Queda regime, the CIA left him twisting slowly in the wind when he was betrayed by Jihadist elements within the Pakistani secret service. Surrounded by an elite Al Queda strike force, he was captured, tortured and executed the next day.

I will always remember Abdul Haq as a big teddy-bear of a man, gentle at heart and with a song always on his lips in the great tradition of the 17th century Afghan warrior poet Khoshal Khan Kattak.

My fondest memory of him was the night he made dinner for me and a woman I was seeing in his walled compound in Peshawar, Pakistan, which then served as the rear-area base camp for the anti-Soviet resistance. After the meal was finished and shots of whiskey passed around, we watched a few home movies his men had shot of their attacks on Soviet installations near Kabul. There was Abdul Haq, of course, clearly visible in all the mayhem and smoke hopping around on one leg -- he had lost the lower part of his other leg to a Soviet land mine -- literally laughing in the face of death as he fired his Kalashnikov.

Finally, when the movies were over, he pulled from his satchel a small jar of Nivea hand cream and rubbed some onto his hands and face. Noticing our amusement, he offered: "It is a small pleasure, not important." Then, with a mischievous smile, he added: "You know, we Afghans have a saying ..."

To which I rolled my eyes, for I knew what was coming. Abdul Haq, as I knew, was a great practitioner of the art of the landay, those often-bawdy Afghan couplets that have a first line of nine syllables and a second line of thirteen.

With a twinkle in his eye for my woman friend, Abdul waxed poetic:

"Give me only two things, then let the Russians come.

A gun that won’t jam, and a girl who will love."

My friend laughed in delight. For my part, I tried to rescue her romantic interest in me by reciting one of the very few landay that I knew:

"Your face is a rose, your eyes candles.

Faith, I am lost! Should I become a butterfly or a moth?"

She laughed and applauded my effort, as did Abdul Haq. "Not bad ... not bad at all," he offered. My woman friend, meanwhile, was clearly waiting for Abdul's riposte. He did not disappoint her. Giving her a flirtatious wink, he sighed:

"Call it romance, call it love.

Whatever. Pull up the blanket now and let's go to sleep."

She blushed, and we all laughed.

I always considered it a great honor to be bested by the gentle Afghan warrior poet Abdul Haq.

More Bloggers Get Book Deals (continued)

Herein, some more recent book deals for bloggers:

* Former Gawker and MediaBistro blogger Elizabeth Spiers' novel AND THEY ALL DIE IN THE END, a satire of Wall Street and the media, to Geoffrey Kloske at Simon & Schuster, by Kate Lee at ICM. agent Kate Lee has indeed been busy of late, getting book deals for Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds, YPulse's Anastasia Goodstein, and Phillip Brooke -- aka Dong Resin of Gawker's Screenhead blog -- among others.

* Blogger Dawn Eden's THE THRILL OF THE CHASTE, giving marriage-minded single women -- who want more to life than sex and the city -- an inspirational and motivational message, to Greg Daniel at W, for publication in fall 2006, by Janet Rosen at Sheree Bykofsky Associates.

* John Jantsch's DUCT TAPE MARKETING: The Only Small Business Marketing Tool You Really Need, providing proven low-cost solutions in a simple, effective, and systematic way, to Victor Oliver and Jonathan Merkh at Nelson, in a good deal, by Stephen Hanselman of LevelFiveMedia (world).

* Pseudonymous blogger and author of THE INTIMATE ADVENTURES OF A LONDON CALL GIRL Belle de Jour's THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF BELLE DE JOUR, again to Helen Garnons-Williams at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, in a good deal, for publication in September 2006, by Patrick Walsh at Conville & Walsh (UK/Commonwealth).

October 21, 2005

Another Missed Opportunity in the War on Terror

The most unfortunate part of President Bush's October 15 radio address was not his call to "stay the course" in Iraq -- it is now clear that this White House intends to go down with the sinking ship of its Iraq policy no matter the cost to the nation or even its own party. Rather, it was the President's failure to recognize a momentous split within the Jihadists' ranks that could prove as significant to the war on terror as the Sino-Soviet split was to the ultimate victory of the democracies in the Cold War -- if only we take advantage of it.

In his radio address, the President quoted from a July 9, 2005 letter in which Al Queda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri reminded the organization's chief deputy in Iraq, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, of the "collapse of American power in Vietnam." Mr. Bush naturally used this Vietnam remark to reinforce his oft-stated claim that "the terrorists know their only chance for success is to break our will and force us to retreat."

But what President Bush missed in the letter were signs of a sharp difference in policy between Al Queda headquarters and its nominally-subordinate command in Iraq over the latter's bloody attacks on innocent members of the Shia community. "Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia," Zawahiri warned in the letter. "This matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue."

As Zawahiri tried to remind Iraq's terrorist mastermind Zarqawi: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a ... race for the hearts and minds of our [Muslim people]."

In response, Zarqawi basically told Bin Laden and Zawahiri to go to hell. Not only did he continue his massacres of innocent Shia civilians throughout the summer, but in late September, for the first time, Zarqawi publicly called for total war against the Shia population.

To be sure, Zarqawi is no fool. Rather than publicly reveal the existence of a split between his organization and Al Queda headquarters -- and quite likely be blamed for causing divisions within the global Islamist movement -- Zarqawi simply called the letter a "fake" after it was made public by U.S. intelligence authorities two weeks ago.

With this savvy response, Zarqawi was merely borrowing a page from the playbook of a previous generation of absolutist ideologues, the Marxist-Leninists. When rumors of a Sino-Soviet split first emerged in the early 1960s, if you recall, the Chinese and Soviet communists both denied there were any cracks in international Marxist-Leninist solidarity. And for years afterwards, sadly, U.S. policy continued to treat international communism as monolithic.

Only later, with President Nixon's opening to China, did policymakers finally begin to seize the significant Cold War advantages that could be gained by helping to foment and exacerbate divisions within the communist ranks. It was those divisions that ultimately helped fuel Chinese cooperation in helping to end the war in Vietnam, as well as China's support in hemming in Soviet expansionism -- including by providing substantial (albeit covert) material support for the anti-Soviet resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

Today it appears that Zarqawi is playing the role of Maoist ultra-leftist to an Al Queda that be believes is going "revisionist" (i.e., getting soft). And therein lies the opportunity.

President Bush should have used his radio address to exacerbate this emerging split by, among other things, signaling America's willingness to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Iraqi quagmire, just as President Nixon did the Vietnam quagmire. In addition to quite possibly leading to progress in a resolution of the Iraqi conflict, such a move could not help but further isolate among Muslims worldwide those, like the Zarqawi faction, who have made a fetish of ultra-Jihadist violence to satisfy their bloodlust.

Unfortunately, taking advantage of divisions within the enemy's ranks seems beyond a president who cannot seem to grasp the fact that the war on terror can ultimately only be won politically -- by separating the Jihadists first from each other and then from the Muslim silent majority. Indeed, if there's one thing you can say about President Bush's White House, it's that it never fails to unite the enemy and divide our friends.

What kind of "war on terror" strategy is it, after all, that embarks upon a dangerous military adventure in defiance of world public opinion, fractures our own alliances while uniting and strengthening the enemy's, drives increasing numbers of Muslim moderates into the political embrace of Islamic extremists, and turns a troublesome but largely contained Iraq into a factory for the mass production of Jihadist suicide bombers?

Some might call it a neo-conservative strategy. I call it just plain dumb.

October 20, 2005

The War Crime They Forgot to Mention

Reports that the Pentagon has already launched a criminal investigation into the burning and desecration of the bodies of two slain Taliban show just how worried this administration is about another torture and war crimes scandal further inflaming Muslim opinion against the U.S.

But those reports failed to mention that U.S. troops may have committed an additional war crime besides the desecration of enemy bodies. According to the transcript of the Australian TV news magazine Dateline report, U.S. soldiers interrogating an apparently-innocent Afghan villager threatened collective punishment against the whole village if he did not cooperate.

U.S. SOLDIER: I am trying to do what I can right now to find the bad guys because we don't want to end up having to punish everyone.

VILLAGER (Translation): I have no knowledge of the Taliban themselves. I do not know the person who reports to the Taliban in this village or who from the Taliban side is asking about the Americans.

U.S. SOLDIER: I'll say it again. What my commander wants to do is round up everyone in this town since no one is helping us and nobody is turning over the people in this village who actually are part of the attack. So this is going to be your last chance to try to help yourself.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, collective punishments are a war crime. Article 33 states: "No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed," and "collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited."

What strikes me about this entire incident -- besides the illegality and immorality of it -- is the utter stupidity and lack of cultural awareness of the U.S. Army Psychological Operations troops involved in this affair.

Baiting the Taliban by calling them "lady boys" in hopes they'll come out and fight? C'mon, that sort of thing barely works on 15-year-old boys, let alone hardened Taliban fighters. Can the U.S. Army really be this stupid?

Besides, Afghans (Taliban and otherwise) have had more than 25 years of constant war to learn how to emotionally adjust to the desecration of bodies. They are not going to be baited into exposing themselves just because some punk from Ohio or wherever pours gasoline on their comrades' corpses.

Once more, Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon proudly shoots America in the foot.

October 19, 2005

Bloggers Get Book Deals (continued)

Blogger Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame has just signed with the publisher Nelson Current to write a book entitled An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths.

His agent was none other than the talented Kate Lee at International Creative Management (ICM). She represents a number of bloggers seeking book deals, and gave me a very interesting interview for my book.

October 18, 2005

Were Judith Miller and I. Lewis Libby Lovers?

Among the many, many mysteries about New York Times reporter Judith Miller's strange behavior in the Valerie Plame affair was this exceedingly strange portion of her October 17 account of her testimony before a grand jury empaneled by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The testimony concerned her contacts with I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

When I was last before the grand jury, Mr. Fitzgerald posed a series of questions about a letter I received in jail last month from Mr. Libby ... [He] also focused on the letter's closing lines. "Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning," Mr. Libby wrote. "They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them."

How did I interpret that? Mr. Fitzgerald asked.

In answer, I told the grand jury about my last encounter with Mr. Libby. It came in August 2003, shortly after I attended a conference on national security issues held in Aspen, Colo. After the conference, I traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo. At a rodeo one afternoon, a man in jeans, a cowboy hat and sunglasses approached me. He asked me how the Aspen conference had gone. I had no idea who he was.

"Judy," he said. "It's Scooter Libby."

And that's the end of Miller's explanation. Even more odd, that's the end of her whole article.

Now I have three questions about the above.

First, does anyone seriously believe that Miller and Libby just happened to "accidentally" stumble into each other in Jackson Hole, Wyoming?

Second, why is the hard-nosed chief of staff to the even harder-nosed Vice President of the United States of America writing cryptic poetic notes to the female national security reporter of the New York Times?

And third, how many New York intellectual Jewish women in their 50s do you know who are such rodeo fans that they would go 517 miles out of their way to attend one?

Actually, I have two more questions:

Did Judith Miller and I. Lewis Libby have a secret love affair?

And was that what she was trying to protect by going to jail?

Remember, sex has a way of making people do strange and self-destructive things. Just ask Bill Clinton.

October 14, 2005

First, Assume a Can Opener

The "invisible hand of the market" so famously postulated by economist Adam Smith 250 years ago has proven to be the most remarkable engine of economic growth and social progress ever devised by human beings. And yet still, after all these years, much of its inner workings remain a great mystery.

Which explains, no doubt, the continued popularity of the old joke about how an economist opens a can of soup -- i.e., "First, assume a can opener."

Indeed, economics -- and especially economic forecasting -- is still largely an exercise in making assumptions. Even with all the mountains of quantitative data at their hands, economists still cannot tell us with even a modicum of certainty whether the stock market will rise tomorrow or fall, whether consumer purchasing will be up next month or down, whether employment growth will continue or level off. That's because the so-called "science" of economics assumes that individuals make rational decisions in the marketplace, and as anyone who has ever observed a parent and child in a toy store can attest, the truth is a rather different matter entirely.

Perhaps what's needed is better qualitative data -- economics with a human face. Just as "product definition" blogging may tell R&D; managers not only what new products their customers want but why, maybe "economics blogging" -- a statistically-valid sampling of consumer and business blogs -- could enable economists to get a better handle on the often less-than-rational but always deeply-human motivations behind consumer purchasing and business investment and hiring.

Maybe what was invisible in Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market" was not the hand, but the heart and soul behind it.

October 12, 2005

For the Child Who Has Everything (Except a Freakish Fear of Terrorism)!

I know you're all racking your brains over what to get the kids for Christmas, so I thought I'd pass along this keen idea, courtesy of Eugene Archibald via Marvin Plettner of the WELL:

That's right folks, it's the Playmobil Security Check Point!

Unfortunately, Amazon features one less-than-stellar customer review:

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger's shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger's scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said "That's the worst security ever!" But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B-757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.

The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I've heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I'll get him the Playmobil Abu-Ghraib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).

P.S. Amazon appears to pulled this review shortly after it was posted.

October 11, 2005

Use Value: The "Money Shot" in Syndicated Content?

A new report from Yahoo on RSS usage shows how far we still have to go before publishers, businesses and marketers can effectively tap the enormous commercial opportunities available in syndicated content.

The universe of online content and commerce is staggering in its proportions, and few people have the time and skill to continuously search for and locate what they need -- whether it be news and information or good deals on products they are interested in. Enabling online consumers to subscribe to news, information, or product deal updates is crucial to developing loyal audiences and customers as well as to decreasing the amount of "friction" (i.e., hassle) they have to put up with to get what they want when they want it.

That's what RSS is all about. It enables people to subscribe to the content they're most interested in and then receive it hassle free. It also promises to be a powerful advertising medium, which is why Google is trying to patent RSS advertising feeds.

But according to the Yahoo report, only 4% of Internet users have knowingly used RSS, and only 12% are even aware of it. Interestingly, though, 27% of Internet users have unknowingly consumed RSS subscribed content, chiefly on personalized portal start pages such as My Yahoo and My MSN.

Which suggests, of course, that the raw technology is still too complex or little understood for most people, and that the growth of easy-to-use, browser-based intergrated RSS capability (coming in the new version of Windows and Outlook) will help grow subscribed content to mass market-sized proportions.

But there's another aspect to the problem:

Remember back in 1993, when many pundits were predicting that online shopping would shortly result in the "death of the shopping mall?" In point of fact, it wasn't until 1998 that the total volume of consumer online commerce reached $1 billion annually -- which at the time, was still only barely half the size of the real-world market for blow dryers.

Online commerce would eventually grow to significant proportions, of course, but as I predicted in a 1995 article for Wired's online magazine HotWired, that would happen only when it offered significant savings in time, money or hassle compared to shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.

The same will be true of RSS. Right now, most people who use RSS (unknowingly, for the most part) subscribe to mainstream media news, entertainment, or weather feeds. Only 23% subscribe to blog content. And most glaring of all, only 13% subscribe to financial or banking services, and only 10% to shopping and product information.

What a missed opportunity! Every Best Buy, every airline ticketing site, every online bookstore or clothinmg store, every bank -- in short, every online shopping or financial site -- should start making it as easy as humanly possible for ordinary consumers to subscribe to new product updates, pricing specials and other valuable offers. But that's not enough; they should also include objectively-useful information -- e.g., "How to Pick the Best Camcorder for Your Money" or "The 10 Best Little-Known Vacation Spots" -- in their feeds.

That's because even RSS-aware users, according to Yahoo, only subscribe to about 6 feeds.

There's only so much media, after all, that a person can consume. As Rok Hrastnik of RSS Statistics puts it, ""Even RSS-aware users only subscribe to the content of highest relevance to them. It's up to [businesses and publishers] to make a place for yourself in this consumption channel."

And especially for online businesses, you can only do that if you offer some tangible practical benefit to people -- i.e., information you can use, or some genuine savings of time, money or hassle in people's daily lives.

Use value: just like in the early days of online shopping, that's going the "money shot" not only for RSS syndicated content, but for the greatly-expanded and more-targeted online advertising and commercial markets it will enable.

October 07, 2005

The Blogging Business Gets Real (or, Will the Real Jason Calacanis Please Stand Up?)

Here's the first of two key indicators that tell you when an emerging Internet phenomenon is getting past the early hype phase and moving toward becoming a serious revenue-producing business sector: mergers and acquisitions are starting to be based on reasonable valuations.

This week's announcement that giant AOL (predictions of it's Web-inspired death in 1994 appear to have been premature) would buy Jason Calacanis' Weblogs, Inc for $25 million in an all-cash transaction is a case in point.

Earlier this year, the New York Times paid a staggering $410 million dollars for the psuedo blog aggregator About.com. That represented an outlay of $830,000 for each of About.com's anemic 490 blogs.

AOL, however, is paying only $294,000 for each of Weblogs, Inc.'s far-more robust and highly-trafficked sites.

Similar "rationalization" is happening in other M&A; activity in the blog sector.

Interestingly, when I interviewed Jason Calacanis last fall for my book, he pooh-poohed the whole idea that Weblogs, Inc. could become a serious revenue-producing enterprise in any near future. Here's an excerpt from the transcript:

KLINE: You've made comments in the press lately that suggest you're not really sure there's a real business in blogging -- or at least you're not sure how big a business it will be -- and yet you're a blog entrepreneur?

CALACANIS: I don’t see why that’s controversial.

KLINE: No one is saying it's controversial. But it is interesting to see someone in your position trying to damp down some of the hype around blogging.

CALACANIS: Well, the hype has been pretty impossible lately. There has been far more attention paid to the weblogs than is actually healthy. I mean, people need to remember that [few if any] of today's weblogs approach the audience that Matt Drudge has. And even Matt Drudge himself, although he has a substantial audience, it’s still a relatively modest business. It’s just him and one other person. It gives him a good living and that one other person probably a decent salary.

KLINE: But aren't the advertising possibilities with weblogs pretty lucrative, especially the possibility of targeting the "influencers" in society?

CALACANIS: In theory, yes. But a lot of people who theorize about marketing don’t have much contact with the way that media buyers actually work. And most media buyers, at least for the larger advertisers, aren’t even going to look at any site unless it’s got five million unique visitors a month, regardless of how "influential" its audience is.

Conclusion? Despite Calacanis' modesty (or was was it just a savvy pretense of "realism"?), it appears that media investors' fear of losing out on "the next big thing" is being replaced by more solid financial reasoning.

Next week: The 2nd key indicator of when a new business gets real.

Can you guess what it is?

October 06, 2005

The Future of Political Blogging: 6 Predictions

1] Blogs have broken the monopoly of the mainstream media over political discourse and recast the traditional political agenda to include long-ignored voices and issues. Moreover, by challenging the historic media pose of "objectivity," blogs are leading America "back to the future" of a much more diverse and openly-partisan media -- to a revival of the 19th Century "broadside" and "penny press."

2] Blogs are to politics today what TV was to the Nixon-Kennedy campaign of 1960 -- the midwife of a new paradigm in campaign strategy. From now on, victory will go not just to the master of the television "sound bite," but also to the candidate best able to mobilize and direct what author Hugh Hewitt calls blog-fueled "opinion storms" around key issues.

3] "Sound bite" politics, of course, was an artifact of media "scarcity" -- most especially the limits of the 90 second TV story format. But in the new era of media "abundance," in which any citizen can broadcast and publish at will, blogs will very likely result in more substantive issues-oriented political campaigning.

4] Although some worry that blogs are deepening the polarization and divisions already present in American politics, their participatory and popular character cannot help but engender a significant resurgence in citizen involvement in the political process and in voting. The days are over when only 50 percent of eligible voters will show up at the polls on presidential election day.

5] Blogs are not simply political persuaders, however. They are also "collective organizers" of grassroots political action that are already beginning to weaken top-down party control of the political process, erode Big Money's absolute domination over the selection of candidates, and enhance the ability of insurgent candidates of all political hues to emerge and compete effectively.

6] Indeed, bloggers' unique and unprecedented ability to mobilize the "long tail" of electoral politics -- i.e., the myriad streams of independent political opinion in America whose collective vote-getting ability, if only harnessed and directed, could potentially rival that of the two main parties -- could very well fuel the emergence of viable 3rd party candidates by the end of this decade.

Your thoughts?

October 05, 2005

O'Reilly's Sneak Attack on Bloggers!

Last night I appeared on the conservative TV talk show The O'Reilly Factor, ostensibly to talk about political blogs and the impact they are having on the American political process.

Or so I was told by the two producers for the show who spent over an hour pre-interviewing me. Unbeknownst to me, however, the show turned out to be a total set-up job in which host Bill O'Reilly and guest Jed Babbin spent the entire time attacking the web site Media Matters for having posted commentary in the past critical of them both.

If you're interested in how shows like the O'Reilly Factor work, then let me explain how the ambush against Media Matters -- and against political blogs in general -- came about.

I got a call yesterday morning from Rob Manaco, a producer with the O'Reilly Factor. He said they were interested in having me appear on a segment they were preparing on political blogs -- what makes some of them credible and influential and others not, and how they were changing the political process. Monaco told me that I didn't need to mention any non-credible or "loony" political blogs by name, since neither the show nor the producers were interested in slandering anyone.

Fine, I said. For one thing, it seemed like a good opportunity to showcase my new book and discuss the important ways that blogging is already transforming politics. Having seen the O'Reilly Factor once or twice in the past, I assumed that O'Reilly would try to spin the dicussion to imply that conservative blogs were more reliable and influential, but I could deal with that. I was actually eager to discuss how blogging was going to be as transformative of political campiagning as the advent of television was 50 years ago.

Then I got a second call -- this time from Monaco's boss, Ron Mitchell. He said he was concerned that the segment might not be "juicy" enough as presently conceived, and would I be willing to talk about some of the loony ideas being circulated by some of the more conspiratorial-minded bloggers. No names, he assured me. Just mention some of the unreliable political comments you can find online.

That still seemed fine with me -- I mean, the O'Reilly Factor isn't the only show that depends upon controversy and polemic for its ratings -- so I said sure.

But I told Mitchell: "Look, if you're hoping I'm going to trash political blogs as harmful to the country, forget it. Because I think they're the best thing to happen to American politics since ... well, since the advent of the TV talk show. They encourage public participation in the democratic process."

"Perfect," said Mitchell. "That's exactly what we want."

And then they did the old bait-and-switch.

There I was, sitting in the remote studio location, and as our segment goes on, I hear the following over my earpiece:

O'Reilly: "Tonight: political smear sites! They operate on both sides of the political spectrum. There are no rules. These people will do and say pretty much anything to harm people with whom they disagree politically."

Whereupon O'Reilly and the other guest, conservative commentator Jed Babbin, begin complaining about the so-called smear attacks each claims to have received from Media Matters. The whole segment, as it turned out, was devoted to slamming Media Matters for having published material critical of the two.

Nonetheless, I did manage to get one half-way smart comment in:

KLINE: "Let's not be babies about the partisanship. The kind of partisanship that you're seeing on the Web with these blogs, yes, some of it is vicious, some of it is just loony. But it's not all that different than what used to go on in the media before the advent of corporate media. I mean, most people before World War II grew up with 10, 15, 20 newspapers, all with different points of view. And what's interesting about those times, and I think we're going back to those times with a very partisan media, is that the electorate was much more engaged, and people were much more involved in the democratic process."

To which O'Reilly replied thusly:

O'REILLY: "Absolutely valid, excellent point. But here's the problem: these people are so vicious, and they -- the media is so corrupt in taking their uncorroborated, as Mr. Babbin pointed out -- defamation that most people now won't run for office, sir. They won't do television and radio commentary. They won't put the -- when we had to book this segment, I couldn't get people to come on and say what you guys are saying, because they were afraid that Media Matters would go after them. They -- I couldn't -- I had people turn down this segment -- a bunch of them -- what are you, crazy? I'm going to criticize these assassins? They'll come after me. And that's a chilling effect."

Which, as I found out today, is not exactly true.

According to this report, conservative Powerline blogger John Hinderaker (”Hindrocket”) told readers that his partner Paul Mirengoff would be appearing on last night’s O’Reilly segment about bloggers:

Paul will be interviewed on the O’Reilly Factor tonight. It should be a fun conversation, and I’d encourage our readers to tune in.

But later in the day, Mirengoff posted an update, saying that O’Reilly had chosen to go with someone else:

I won’t be appearing on the Factor after all. They’ve decided to take the segment in a different direction.

Anyway, I have two regrets about my appearance. First, not being familiar with Media Matters, I could not defend them or refute O'Reilly's and Babbin's accusations. And second, I wish I had managed to tell O'Reilly that, given his national forum and his audience of millions, he was just being a baby for whining about being criticized by bloggers.

Postcript: When I got back to my office after the show, I had a voice mail from O'Reilly Factor producer Rob Monaco:

MONACO: "We just wanted to thank you for appearing on the show. I realize the segment didn't turn out exactly the way we had discussed, but we think you did a great job. And Bill was very pleased."

I'll bet.

UPDATE:
To all those who have taken me out to the woodshed for a good whacking, thanks for your comments. You're right, of course, that I should have known about Media Matters and should have done a better job on the O'Reilly show.

By way of context (not excuse), I want to point out that my research on this book over the last year has been focused on the ways in which blogs are changing politics. When I interviewed Markos at DailyKos, or former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, or one of the earliest online democracy activists Jon Lebkowsky, or other left and conservative bloggers, my focus was NOT on their respective messages or viewpoints but rather on the ways in which they have been able to achieve political influence, mobilize citizens, organize grassroots activists, raise funds for campaigns, and reshape the way campaigning is conducted.

I looked at their strengths -- e.g., their ability to cement the all-important activist core. And I looked at the weaknesses of political blogs -- e.g., their inability to date to reach across the red state-blue state divide and decisively influence the undecided middle voters.

So it was much less important to me to follow closely the specific political messages and back-and-forth debates between left and right media and/or bloggers. I was more concerned with the overall effects of blogging on the political process itself.

And I certainly never claimed to be an expert on blogging. I only claim to have written a book that offers a snapshot look at an evolving phenomenon and that hopefully provides some interesting food for thought about where it all may be heading. (More on that in a second.)

In retrospect, of course, I should have assumed that O'Reilly would use his show to attack particular opponents, and then spent an hour or two researching who those bloggers might be so I could be better prepared for whatever came my way.

One point about O'Reilly that I want to reiterate (again!): Of course I know who he is and what his shtick is. Like most thoughtful Americans, though, I simply can't stand to watch his show. I am in awe of those of you who have the stomach to watch him regularly.

In any event, that's my self-criticism. If I were pleading in a court of law about not being prepared to defend Media Matters, I would plead "guilty -- with an explanation, your honor."

If any of you feel my performance on the O'Reilly Factor disqualifies me as anyone worth reading, I understand and thank you for dropping by.

Meanwhile, I invite the rest of you to join in a discussion of where political blogging may be heading and what larger effects it may have on the democratic process.

To kick-start that discussion, I offer the following "6 Predictions for the Future of Political Blogging."

I look forward to a (ahem) lively discussion.

October 03, 2005

Will PR Be the Death of Blogging?

What's the greatest danger to the future of business blogging?

In a posting entitled "The business blog backlash is nigh," Business Week writer Stephen Baker argues that:

CEOs and other top execs [may soon] turn their backs on blogging with a dismissive 'Been There, Done That?' Most CEOs simply don't have the time. The danger for them, as they take stock of their experiments, is to conclude that other blogging efforts within their companies will be as tepid as their own.

Chris Anderson of The Long Tail blog countered that executive blogging is not the same thing as business blogging:

The best business blogs come from the employees, not the bosses. They have more time, and are less prone to marketing gobbledygook and gnomic platitudes. And those kind of blogs are on the rise, not the decline.

Other business bloggers such as Robert Scoble quickly joined in, dismissing fears of a CEO-inspired backlash and pointing out that ordinary employees usually have far more credibility than CEOs anyway. One blogger, Jane Genova, even posted on this subject a day before Business Week's Baker did, noting that the real issue is not who within the firm blogs but whether or not they do so with the "open, candid, concerned spirit of the blogosphere."

All these comments are true enough, of course, but they still beg the question: Why is Corporate America still so reluctant to embrace blogging? Where does the biggest roadblock to business blogging lie?

I believe it lies not in the executive suite, but in the corporate PR department and the marketing communications office.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm an old PR hand myself. Back in the 1980s, I co-founded and managed a public relations firm that represented Sun Microsystems and MIPS, among other high tech firms, in their early growth years. So I've got nothing against public relations per se.

But let's be honest about the PR function in the modern American corporation. Except in very rare cases, it's mostly concerned with message control -- about getting consumers (or investors) to see the company in a positive light. And that is the very antithesis of good business blogging, which is about listening to, learning from, and engaging honestly with customers, partners, shareholders and investors.

I can't tell you the number of times I've had company PR executives ask me to help "get press about how great the company is" without realizing that, even if it were true that the company was really so "great," there's absolutely no story in that idea at all.

I mean, think about it: When was the last time you read a book or a magazine article, or saw a movie or TV show, about a happily married couple who lived happily ever after? Never, that's when. Because there's no drama there -- no challenge to meet, no problem to overcome, no struggle endured or wisdom gained. And if there's no real drama, there's no story. And no press.

It's the same in business. Unless you can tell a story about a business challenge your company is struggling to meet, or a competitive battle it's trying to win -- in other words, a story with some drama in it and maybe even some business lessons that readers can learn from -- then forget it. You won't get much, if any, press.

The truly exciting thing about blogging -- or at least it should be exciting to any savvy corporate PR executive -- is that it's really all about stories. Customer complaints listened to and resolved, ideas for new and improved products bubbling up from the grass roots and being acted upon, employees struggling to meet seemingly-impossible technical or other challenges in order to better serve their customers.

In fact, it's a never-ending story, constantly written and rewritten by company employees, partners, shareholders and customers in collaboration.

And it's from blogging's unscripted, uncensored, uncontrolled stories that the best press and media attention will emerge. Not to mention the respect and loyalty of your customers.