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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

"Again, the only real defense is the defense the right already has: millions in think-tank funding to patronize non-right bloggers."

Let's assume, for a moment, that the right has the support of the business community, whereas centrist liberals have the support of the middle class, and progressive movements can rely on middle and working class support. Where would the middle and working classes get the money to counter the money that business can offer as funding for "grants and think tank jobs and consultancies"?

MK, sort of a tangent, but great links.

As to your point, I have actually feared that people (Hillary?) on the left might take your offer up, and use the same tactics that the right has been known for. In fact, I've been expecting it. I would say that I see your point about being pacifists in a fistfight, but I've suspected for some time that there is actually an America out there to whom we might appeal which, while it might not be literate, thinking, or discerning (for discerning people are the ones for whom our "pacifism" has appeal), will still respond to someone like Barack Obama, who doesn't respond to mudslinging by getting down in the mud with his opponent. Even undiscerning people can tell when such a person is being cool and is above it, rather than just a weakling.

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.

Gilliard's been saying this for years.

Here's a tip: if you're thinking of donating to a presidential candidate before the end of the year, see if you can put that money towards structures that allow liberal bloggers to write without fear of intimidation or financial damage on account of the fact that the winguts go after people's jobs and livelihoods and sense of personal safety.

That said, I do think it's time to start taking down the wingnut 501(c)(3)s that exist solely to provide a smear with an official-sounding imprimatur. We saw it with Donohue, we saw it with the Tennessee Gore-smearers, and we'll see it again and again, like a swarm of bugs, until they get exposed in a detailed, embarrassing way.

Pretty shallow observation about righty blogs.

Yes, Rick because it wasn't if you didn't have your own little part to play, carefully assembling every smear and jibe against Amanda for your little brother to repeat on the motherfucking ABC News site. How fucking transparent was that bit of osmosis, eh? Last time I checked, your local zoo was looking for a shit-shoveller in the elephant enclosure.

I think there's a very basic problem here: there is no way to agree on what constitutes "the righty blogosphere" and "the lefty blogosphere." So making generalizations about either just devolves into a game of definitions: who is right and who is left, who is influential and who is not, who is an extremist and who is mainstream. Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

structures that allow liberal bloggers to write without fear of intimidation or financial damage on account of the fact that the winguts go after people's jobs and livelihoods and sense of personal safety.

Just curious - have any other liberal bloggers experienced more covert intimidation after exposing something that the right wing didn't want exposed?

---That said, I do think it's time to start taking down the wingnut 501(c)(3)s that exist solely to provide a smear with an official-sounding imprimatur.

So you want to sic the IRS on anybody that disagrees with you? Isn't that pretty much the definition of government censorship?

Actually I think NOW already tried this on the Catholic Church back in the 70's. It didn't work out.

Don't be ridiculous, badteeth. The law already says that you can't engage in political activity through a 501(c). The Catholic League is meddling in campaigns and elections. Being tax-exempt is a privilege that ordinary non-profits have to be very careful to keep. Do you think the Catholic League is too good to abide by the law?

There are other charitable designations, if they are behaving counter to their own defined mission then they need to be called on that and made to change to the appropriate one. If they want to be a political action committee then they can be, that is not what they are currently listed as and taxed as.

badteeth:

Consider the Tennessee outfit that did the Gore hit-piece. It's a 501(c)(3), and thus ostensibly non-political, which received $100k in tax-deductible 'indirect public support' in 2005, while paying out just under $50k in salaries, enough to avoid having to report who's getting the money. Its registered address is a PO Box. It's basically a tax fiddle false-front for two people, and the state's officials say as much.

This is the main structural asymmetry between left and right: when the latter goes after the former, it's generally under a thinly-veneered imprimatur that, nonetheless, provides easy penetration into the mass media because it's not 'some guy(s) with a blog'.

Shorter badteeth: Enforcing the law when I like the results of its being broken is government censorship.

Is there anyone systematically going after 501(c)(3) organizations that are operating politically, in bad faith? That actually seems like a case where blogger capabilities (gathering information and presenting it clearly to the IRS, the media and the public) could have a lot of influence.

Megan: I've got something planned that will make it easier to access information about the structure and funding of 501(c)(3) orgs. The information is public, but it's not easy to parse.

Did you see this, on the IRS's Political Activity Compliance Initiative? I thought it was fairly straightforward. The fact sheet gives examples of what organizations can't do, and the procedures section says there'll be a quick response (letter to the organization) on the part of the IRS (within 5 days) in election years. It would be nice to be the reason Bill Donahue's organization gets a letter saying their activities are more appropriate for a 501(c)(4) organization.

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