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February 27, 2007

Scalping and the right wing blogs

Ann Althouse remarks on this passage in my Salon piece about the Edwards bloggers:

What Bob didn't seem to realize is that the right-wing blogosphere was going to try to get Edwards' bloggers fired no matter what. Unlike the liberal netroots, the right-wing blogosphere is capable of exactly one kind of collective political action. They call it "scalping" -- they pick a target and harass that person and his or her employer until the person either jumps or is pushed out of the public eye. Whoever blogged for Edwards was signing up for a lot of bad hair days, and it wasn't going to be me.

Andrew Sullivan insists that he's never the word "scalping" to describe this practice. Whatever. (Below the fold I've got a few examples of Marcotte and McEwan's enemies using the term "scalping" to describe the campaign against them.)

Ross Douhat writes that he, too, "must have missed the memo" regarding the terminology. However, his interpretation the passage about right wing scalpers in my essay is exactly right:

But re-reading Beyerstein, it's possible that her "unlike the liberal netroots, the right-wing blogosphere is capable of exactly one kind of collective political action" line wasn't meant to suggest that left-wingers don't scalp, but that they do other things as well, whereas right-wingers don't. This is an overgeneralization, obviously, but it gets a lot closer to an interesting truth about the blogosphere, which is that the lefty blogs have become way better at doing political things - raising money, raising issues, and influencing elections at the grass/netroots level - than most of the right-wing blogs.

The right wing blogosphere approaches political activism as a sequence of take-downs. They measure their success by the number of people they get fired.

I knew the right wing blogs were going to see the Edwards blog as a target-rich environment, no matter who the blogger was. It didn't help that Amanda had long-running feuds a lot of influential right wing bloggers.

It's funny that the right wing blogosphere didn't notice Amanda's alleged  anti-Catholicism until the Catholic League offered to get their cause celebre on television. Over the years, Amanda has been attacked for any number of things, but her atheism and religious imagery were never that a big deal in blogworld. The right wing's beefs with Amanda were about sex, gender, and family law. None of the right wing bloggers cared about her religious beliefs one way or the other. Yet, suddenly when the Grown Up Right Wing Noise Machine wanted to make this fight about anti-Catholic bigotry, the right wing blogs fell right in line.

Ann Althouse says the left takes scalps, too. Maybe, but I can't think of many examples off-hand.

Not every public outcry is an example of scalping, even if someone ends up losing their job. When Ben Domenech got fired from the Washington Post it was for plagiarism, not for political speech. Jayson Blair got fired for making things up, Domenech got fired for stealing other people's work.

The most clear-cut examples of scalp-taking are coordinated attempts to silence someone by threatening their livelihood--like what the anti-gay zealots are trying to do to Amanda's co-blogger Pam Spauling.

Uproars over campaign hires are slightly different simply because all campaign operatives more or less forgo the distinction between public and private life. Part of the reason our current politics is so insipid is because every staffer's entire biography is considered a potential reflection on the campaign. It's fair to ask whether Amanda was the best person to do outreach for a campaign that needs to appeal to an electorate that's much more conservative than she is.

However, right wing blogosphere made a calculated decision to bring Amanda down. They obviously weren't squawking because they thought Amanda's hiring was a bad strategic decision for Edwards. They wanted to get Amanda fired for their own political reasons--partly to get even with a blogger who has been a thorn in their sides for years, partly to embarrass Edwards, and partly to counter the growing influence of the left wing blogosphere in mainstream politics.

The scalp-taking metaphor is apt. Not only do right wing blogs swarm to get people fired, they cherish trophy as a symbol of their collective power and a warning to their enemies. That's the really insidious part of scalping as a political strategy. It's all about intimidation: Piss us off, and we'll get you fired. Look what happened to Eason Jordan. He criticized the U.S. military and suddenly found himself out of a job because the right wing blogs didn't want to hear what he had to say. A lot of other journalists probably thought twice about criticizing the war or the military in light of what happened to Jordan.

I've heard Gannon/Guckert expose incorrectly cited as a left-wing scalp job. That wasn't a scalping. John Aravosis and other bloggers exposed a mole in the White House press corps. The mole lost his job when it was revealed that he was there illicitly.

So far, scalping isn't a big problem in the lefty blogosphere. It doesn't happen very often, and I'm grateful for that. However, I am seeing more and more lefty bloggers and commenters grumbling about how the left should start "fighting back" against disruptive and malicious right wing bloggers by alerting their bosses to their online activities.

Bad idea.

Trying to shut people up by threatening their livelihood is despicable. Furthermore, if we further entrench the precedent that your private political speech can get you fired, the left will suffer much more than the right. The right wing is smart enough to fund infrastructure for its bomb throwers. There are lots of grants and think tank jobs and consultancies for good Republican surrogates. Most high-profile lefty bloggers are still trying to make a living in the free market.

Addendum:

Here are just a few examples of the term "scalp" being used by participants in the campaign against Amanda and Melissa: 

Malkin Gets a Scalp and The Other Scalp Falls

Right Wing Nuthouse:

But I cannot leave this subject without examining the role of those of us on the right who flogged this story into the mainstream media and may have cost Marcotte her job. Certainly our motives lacked nobility. I will be the last to argue that anything more than “scalp hunting” animated this effort. And the questions I raised in the quote at the top of this page remains valid: Is this all we are? Is this what we have become?

The Right Wing News approvingly calls Amanda's departure under the onslaught of right wing harassment a payback scalp

Even now, there are liberal bloggers and MSM outlets leveling vile smears at Patrick Hynes for no other reason than because he's a conservative blogger working for McCain and they want a payback scalp. So, what Marcotte and McEwan got hammered with was only a small fraction of what conservatives are hit with all the time.

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» The Edwards' Bloggers, "Scalping", & "Payback Scalps," Oh My! from Right Wing News
Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise wrote a piece for Salon, talking about how she was approached about blogging for John Edwards, in which she claimed that, "Unlike the liberal netroots, the right-wing blogosphere is capable of exactly one kind of collec... [Read More]

Comments

The term "scalp" is used in your examples, but not the term "scalping."

I understand your reluctance to use the left blogosphere to collect some "scalps" themselves. However, on the right, the system works the other way, as well. The ideologically correct are showered with well-payed jobs at think-tanks and low-circulation publications in exchange for their loyalty. Since parroting conservative talking points is seen as the path to a livelihood, it's tempting to look at the right-wing rantings of someone and use it as an excuse to take away his livelihood, as well.

They call it "scalping" -- they pick a target and harass that person and his or her employer until the person either jumps or is pushed out of the public eye.

This definition doesn't include the qualifiers you use to exempt Domenech and Gannon. Certainly, they were both targeted and harassed until they were pushed out of the public eye. You're only now adding the qualifier that both the targeting and the eventual pushing-out have to be about the content of their posts.

I think you fairly distinguish the Ben Domenech scandal as not the same, although there was a lot of angry lefty grumbling about his choice before his fraudulent history broke.

But I think the Gannon/Guckert scandal is a scalping. The focus was constantly on his sex work, constantly splashing his escort ad photos everywhere, especially Aravosis. The mole aspect was secondary.

In the piece, I said that scalping is the only form of activism that the right wing blogosphere engages in. Douhat got it absolutely right. The left wing blogosphere is a home for a lot of different kinds of political activism. By "activism" I mean something more concrete than arguing about politics online.

There have been incidents of left-wing bloggers demanding resignations, but it's not our main way of exercising political power.

Yes, that point is correct, I think, which makes it more puzzling why you didn't just stick with it instead of engineering some weak argument about how the Domenech and Guckert situations weren't scalping.

I think there's a difference between loudly pointing out that someone who is profoundly unqualified for a job has such a job, with credentials and access provided under highly unusual circumstances (the Gannon/Guckert situation) and scalping.

Perhaps another important distinction is that the outrage wasn't manufactured in order to facilitate the firing. I think any reasonable person would agree that plagiarizing journalists and impostors in the White House press corps need to go. It wasn't as if the left wing set its sights on those two in advance and found a reason to discredit them. They discredited themselves.

Nobody ever accused Amanda of any kind of professional misconduct, or even of saying inappropriate things on Edwards' blog. They just didn't like some her. So they went after her. Shakes of course, was just a bystander whom they decided to take down out of pure mean spiritedness.

Notice how the rationale for attacking Amanda evolved over the course of the attack. At first it was Duke, then it was allegedly rewriting posts, then it was profanity. Nothing was getting any traction. Then Bill Donohue and the Catholic League decided to push the anti-catholic angle, as they did to Barbara Walters the same week ("Barbara Walters Den Mother To Bigots," I believe press release headline was.)

The right wing blogs happily jumped on board with Donohue's storyline because they knew Big Bill could get them on the almighty TV. These are people who had been fighting with Amanda for years and never noticed that she was anti-Catholic.

Well, I suppose you found their second strategy---refusing to see the forest for the trees. They haven't heard the exact word "scalping", ergo you entire argument is bunk. It makes no sense, but I suppose people who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible might think that other documents and arguments completely fall apart on one tiny detail.

I suppose the most common term for their technique is "McCarthyism", which is to say using blacklisting as a way to take away protected rights. Okay, you technically have the right to free speech and free association, but thanks to blacklisting, you only have that right if you're willing to give up eating.

Truly, the gutters are clogged with corpses of people who starved to death because they couldn't work as Celebrity Campaign Bloggers. We must end this horrible climate, in which the things you say publicly about politics affect the things people are willing to pay you to say publicly about politics.

To be fair, I had a WTF reaction to Gannon/Guckert two weeks before Aravosis began his unprecedented streak of 1200 consecutive posts devoted to the subject.

It was this question during one of my Ax Da President series:

Q Thank you. Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock-solid and there's no crisis there. How are you going to work -- you said you're going to reach out to these people -- how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality? (Not altered. Who the fuck was this?)

THE PRESIDENT: You said it, I didn't.

And, to be fair, the outing people who want some anonymity seems to be a relatively recent tactic since the unfortunate demise of the apparently impotent Blog Integrity Project or whatever the fuck it was called.

The mole aspect was secondary.

Yes. The fact that an pseudononymous shill with no apparent credentials, or even personal history, was granted access to the executive residence as a journalist took a back seat to the exposure of said history in prostitution.

Freak power, you goddamn hypocrites.

Aero, you neglect to remember how my former boss was also called and the promises to call anyone else who hired me. Also, the threatening emails, etc. McCarthyism goes far beyond making it hard for talented people to have the jobs they've earned.

Aeroman, you seem very bitter about this. I don't get it.

Would you feel the same way if it had been Digby or Julia, or any other blogger who quit a good job to blog for Edwards and got forced out by a torrent of right wing abuse?

You know they would have done this to any well-known liberal blogger. People have said I would have been less attackable, but I've said far more contemptuous things about the pope than Amanda. My blog's name is pronounced "Magic-Thighs" fer crying out loud. Remember how much John Gibson liked saying "Magic-Thighs" when I went on his radio show? It could have easily become a national joke.

Remember, Amanda didn't get fired. She quit because she got so much abuse she couldn't do her job. The Edwards campaign knew about Amanda's work before they hired her and they were willing to stand by her and Shakes. As I said in the article, they underestimated the viciousness of the right wing attack machine and the synergy that happens when the blogs converge with their bigger and more powerful colleagues in television and talk radio.

What, you discover that the shill in the White House Press Corps is an actual male prostitute with hilarious online nudie photos, and you're supposed to ignore it out of principle?

Maybe Lindsey Beyerstein should think things through. does she want to sleep well at night, or does she want to make a better world? If you don't fight back, you're weak and pathetic and nobody will follow or respect you. Thats a fact of life no matter how unfair it is. These people make others suffer, they deserve to feel the pain they cause to other people. We don't need to scalp them to intimidate them out of the process, we need to do it to intimidate them our of the practice of scalping in the first place. Failing that, we need to drive them all out of the public sphere or they will do the same to us.

I hadn't heard about 'scalping' before today. Anyway, what's wrong with organized blogger activism. I'll go talk about it at the Activism Forums.

Pretty shallow observation about righty blogs. I wouldn't get a stiff neck patting myself on the back if I were a lefty blogger either. Character assassination is a blood sport practiced easily by both sides and with equal dollops of glee and venom.

Or don't you read many liberal web sites?

"The right wing's beefs with Amanda were about sex, gender, and family law. None of the right wing bloggers cared about her religious beliefs one way or the other."

I'm gonna go out on a tangent here and say that, while right wing bloggers have hang-ups about sex and gender, they don't particularly care about anti-Catholicism. You'll recall candidate Bush getting into some hot water with Catholic groups after speaking at Bob Jones. The US Council of Bishops has been outspoken in its opposition to the Iraq War, the death penalty, and in support of liberalized immigration policies.

I'm not trying to make a case for Catholicism being superprogressive, because obviously: it ain't. But a lot of movement conservatives are distrustful, if not downright hostile, of Catholic whose names do not start with "D" and end with "onahue."

There are lots of grants and think tank jobs and consultancies for good Republican surrogates. Most high-profile lefty bloggers are still trying to make a living in the free market.

No kidding, and on an anecdotal level, it's surprising how many righties I've known in real life whose bank deposits are from the feds. Me, not so much, since I got my last Pell Grant (and that went straight to the bursar after I endorsed it) at least.

Soullite, I have thought this thing through. My conclusion is that we have to establish a bright line between personal political expression and employment. In general, people should be able to write and publish as private citizens without their bosses turning around and firing for them. You should be allowed to blog about politics without fear of losing your job as a mechanic or a computer programmer because somebody took exception to a post you made on your blog.

All I'm saying is that I don't want lefties calling Ann Althouse's boss and trying to get her fired, or Tacitus, or Jeff Goldstein (if he had a boss), or any of the other right wing bloggers. Most of these folks have secure jobs, or spouses with secure jobs. If we start playing Roshambo over outlandish blog posts, we lefties won't be the last ones standing. We've got too many students, untenured professors, and ordinary working people who can't afford to get fired. You'll notice that "outing" goes hand in hand with scalping. The right wingers are trying to establish that it's okay to reveal the personal information of pseudonymous bloggers who bug them. That goes hand in hand with calling up that person's boss and demanding their resignation. If this keeps up, only the rich and the crazy will blog anymore, and that's exactly how the right wing wants it.

Campaign staffs are a little different because everyone agrees that anything a staffer does is a potential liability for a campaign. It's not just blogging, it's any kind of behavior that might be a distraction from the candidate and his or her message. That goes for all campaign staffers, not just bloggers. So, obviously campaigns have to check up on everyone they hire and enforce strict rules about extracurricular activities.

you only have that right if you're willing to give up eating.

And that's the problem. There is an economic infrastructure to the right-wing's mighty wurlitzer. We need to form one on the left so that people can kick around ideas and make political statements online and have jobs that pay the rent.

Pretty shallow observation about righty blogs.

That's not shallow at all, and the issue with righty blogs is well known-- basically, there was no niche that was missing in the right-wing media machine that righty blogs were needed to fill. Thus, righty blogs didn't take on any new role within the right-wing media machine. Rather, they became only an extension of them. The righty blogs serve only as a mouthpiece with which to amplify the already-existing set of right-wing talking points. Almost every righty blogger is just a minor-league version of a Fox News talking head whose job it is to repeat what was seen in the Washington Times or the Drudge Report which themselves exist merely to parrot press releases from "professional outrage organization." When the talking points take they form of trying to get some blogger or another staffer, it focuses on collecting a scalp.

The lefty blogosphere ended up starting off as much more detached from the Democratic party infrastructure and as a consequence is a lot more decentralized and has a lot more diversity of purpose and interest.

i think the point lindsay is trying to make (over and over again) is that the entire structure of "independant" right-wing media was crafted and is maintained for the SOLE purpose of disembowling random liberals. this is all they know how to do. it's a continuation of modern conservative authoritarianism (showing that they CAN get some arbitrary liberal fired is supposed to be followed by the rest of us falling in line).
liberals tend not to act this way because this kind of "strength" doesn't impress us. if it did, we'd republicans.

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