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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

Constantine:

You take righty blogs to task for repeating talking points?

ARE YOU KIDDING?

I don't think you missed a single talking point about righty blogs that I've seen coming from lefty sites for three years - you even have the nomenclature down cold.

Congrats. And don't be an idiot. There is a helluva lot more diversity of opinion on righty sites than lefty ones - and I've got the bumps and bruises to prove it.

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?

Not to mention the irony that Guckert was a paid ratfucker himself, conducting a scalping campaign against newspaper columnist David Kranz.

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.

Several Daily Kos bloggers and my friend Ron Brynaert found several cases of plagiarism on Gannon and Talon News' links to GOPUSA.com. The sex stuff came later. Gannon would have disappeared for the same reasons as Ben Domenech. Talon News wasn't really a news site. Ron also caught instances of plaguirism with Robert Eberle.

I make a friendly disagreement with Lindsay over John Aravosis breaking the story. Someone leaked him pornagraphic pictures of James Gurkert. Many other bloggers did the leg work of spending hours researching GOPUSA.com and finding the plaguirism. The pictures (while sensationalistic) has nothing to do with Talon News and GOPUSA.com.

There is a helluva lot more diversity of opinion on righty sites than lefty ones

Boy ain't that the truth. AFAIK, The Left can't claim to have any panty-sniffing paedo hentai bloggers or HIV skeptics.

Blucas, good comment, but one small correction: There was no anti-Catholic bigotry in my comments. Criticism of the church is not hatred of its members.

Character assassination is a blood sport practiced easily by both sides and with equal dollops of glee and venom.

Character assassination confined to the web is not a blood sport. Righteous anger and offended sensibilities are not blood. Getting people fired or outing them so that they get harrassed IRL purely as a result of their opinions/writings IS drawing blood.

You take righty blogs to task for repeating talking points?

Uh, yes. What you read on the Drudge Report and Michelle Malkin's blog and what you see on Bill O'Reilly today is what you will be reading about on all the righty blogs tomorrow. Righty blogs, not really having any unique role to play, have been drafted into being part of the "flood the zone" strategy for the right (you may remember their greatest hits-- "Kerry had an affair!", "Pelosi demands huge jet for her entourage!", and "Kerry insults the troops!", all of which were specifically created out of whole cloth for the purpose of media repetition).

Moran, lefty blogs invariably fall into two categories-- the bloggers who realized that they were smarter and better informed than the pundits and felt that their opinions (such as on the Iraq war) weren't getting any play, and the people who saw blogs as a means of organizing and creating communities. Righty bloggers, as far as I can tell, seem to universally aspire to be the cranky uncle at Thanksgiving who insists on ranting, word-for-word, the outrages he read about on the Drudge Report the day before and will loudly complain about whomever it is today that he is supposed to complain about (Richard Clarke one day, Paul O'Neill the next, Joe Wilson the day after that, etc.)

I'm a lefty (I guess, if one must choose sides) but not righty blogs aren't monolithic parrots of talk radio or Fox News. I read several conservative blogs for their editorial content which I find interesting and challenging to my personal views. I expect intellectually honest right-wingers to do the same with the better liberal blogs. The righty blogosphere isn't just Powerline and Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin- it's also James Joyner and Ross Douthat and Daniel Drezner, all of whom self-described conservatives who engage in higher pursuits than "scalping".

I'm genuinely curious about the perception that righty blogs are pumping out partisan talking points within a narrow ideological spectrum. I suspect that Constantine and utica must be talking about different blogs than the ones I think of[*], but it'd help if they'd name some more names. I feel like people must not be talking about the same thing here.

[*]My daily RWBS reads include The Volokh Conspiracy, LGF (shudder), Instapundit, Midwest Conservative Journal, Amy Welborn, Harry's Place, Austin Contrarian, Durham in Wonderland, Done with Mirrors and Clayton Craymer(cringe). A few of these bragged about scalping Trent Lott and Dan Rather and their tone was much like that Lindsay describes in her post.

I'm sure Amanda has had to put up with a lot of shit, but doesn't it seem likely that going after her had more to do with weakening Edwards than silencing Amanda herself? I realize those of us who spend a lot of time reading blogs tend to inflate the medium's importance to where l'affaire Marcotte/McEwan was earth-shattering news, but I suspect the vast majority of even politically engaged Americans know the particulars of the case. Many would probably know that there was some sort of blog controversy surrounding Edwards and that his administration may not be running a very tight ship. And, to Edwards' detractors, that perception is what matters.

Congrats. And don't be an idiot. There is a helluva lot more diversity of opinion on righty sites than lefty ones - and I've got the bumps and bruises to prove it.

Sorry for blogwhoring, but extremism isn't diversity. If it were, I could equally point out to the absurd theoretical discussions on the fringes of the feminist blogosphere about to what extent the patriarchy is the root cause of all that's wrong with the world.

I'd feel more or less the same about this issue regardless of who the blogger was.

It's just incoherent to extend your concept of the workplace/private divide to what was essentially a celebrity spokesperson job. I've said this many times, and you haven't denied that it's true. You just keep repeating your flattened version that doesn't make the distinction. Do you disagree with my position? Are campaigns only allowed to hire or fire celebrity endorsers based on gross goodwill instead of net goodwill? That just seems ridiculous.

Calling people's nonpolitical employers is unacceptable. Waging smear campaigns in people's nonpolitical workplaces is unacceptable. We agree on that. But the reason it's unacceptable in those situations is that you're dragging the person's politics into a situation where they're irrelevant in order to punish or intimidate. But Amanda's blogging at Pandagon wasn't irrelevant to her job with Edwards. As you said, they wanted her star power. They chose to make it relevant. Amanda's critics were commenting on the public pronouncements of a selected public face of a campaign - the way you, I, or Amanda might have talked about, say, Dan Gerstein in 2006. I don't see what's wrong with that.

On a side note, I think you could be wrong about some conservative bloggers. Once again, it certainly makes no sense for someone to be fired from their job as a computer programmer because of their political pronouncements. But it certainly would make sense for, say, a law professor to be denied tenure or a competitive raise due to his or her blogging statements on law-related political issues. For those professors, their whole job is publishing on those topics. Why should being on blogspot instead of in the Harvard Law Review make a difference?

Campaigns may hire or fire as they please.

However, let's be clear that the Edwards camp didn't fire Amanda or Shakes. If they had, they would have been politically responsible for that decision, just as they have been held responsible for hiring these relatively high-risk additions to their team.

Political responsibility is nebulous, though. Ascribing political responsibility is basically shorthand for saying that someone chez Edwards made a second-guessable decision.

Okay, fine. There will literally be thousands of judgment calls legitimately questioned on all sides before November, 2008.

Is Gannon/Guckert even germane to this discussion? I mean, holy astroglide Batman, the studly clown went and scalped himself.

Who needs character assassination when your potential right-wing targets keep putting their own necks on the railroad tracks?

It seems conservative blogs are primed to go after anyone who departs from what they deem acceptable, even those on their own side. Just look at the Zumbo affair,

I think the big reason for scalping being such a pasttime on the right-wing blogs is because of the aforementioned infrastructure that the right has set up for themselves. They need never worry about losing their income - they are PAID to be schills.

Pretty much all non-right-wing blogs are done by people who do it without any such security, usually making little to no money for their political blogging.

This is a vulnerability. If you were playing grand strategy, and wanted to destroy the left blogsphere and leave only the right, the best and easiest way to do it is to destroy the ability of non-right-wing blogs to exist by destroying the livelihood of the bloggers. The right-wing is immune to any such attack because of the many millions in right-wing think tank cash that pays for them. So if it is all abous calping, as Lindsey notes above, the only ones left standing will be the right-wingers. Just how they want it. And so the attacks will continue, and the ONLY real defense is to set up a think-tank funding apparatus, something unlikely to happen, but possible.

Very interesting discussion.

First, let me say that the case of being an official blogger for a presidential campaign seems best left for someone from outside the blogosphere to front. Lefty candidates would propably do better getting respected authors/experts to write weekly texts for them in a sort of informational bulletin. Much harder to cut down. And yes, the money on the left MUST start establishing paid think-thanks and systems of economy that allows coherent thoughts to be shaped about the future.

From a Norwegian pov: You (the nice US people) seem continually amazed that the right-wing plays it dirty. That is what they do. You look like pasifists in a fistfight now and then, if you see my image. The islamophobic right is a strange organism, a sort of agressive model-of-thought that seems entirely impossible to penetrate by rational thought. They are propably the people behind spam. What you Americans must do is to take back rational discourse. I would suggest linking up with the intelligent military people (http://rangeragainstwar.blogspot.com , http://zenhuber.blogspot.com , http://intel-dump.com) and start a "national debate" where you make sure to hunt down some civilized right-wing people and treat them good.

Lindsay:
When [if?] I finally write my review of all this unpleasantness, the title will be "Asymmetric Blogfare" and your point about scalping will be a big part of it.

The distinction between using strong language against a policy or an agenda as opposed to using it against a person keeps getting lost in the scuffle. The latter is scalping, the former is not. The ease with which the followers in the conservative camp confuse person and position is not replicated on the liberal side.

Greensmile, I look forward to reading your post.

Aeroman, I think you're conflating two very different issues.

As I've argued from the beginning, campaigns need to check the paper trails of their bloggers and anyone else they hire. I told them not to hire me because of my paper trail!

I don't think campaigns should hire high-profile polemicist bloggers. They're too tempting a target for the right wing smear machine and they bring all their own baggage on board when they join the campaign.

I agree that the issues of employee opinion protection and strategy in hiring spokespeople shouldn't be conflated. The latter is a special set of situations that justify some exceptions to the former, which it seems like you agree with. I just got the impression from your repeated appeals to employee protection that you were conflating them.

The prisoners dilemma is a good reason to avoid recurrent scalping jobs in the blogosphere. If we resign ourselves to personal destruction on either side, the entire blogosphere will simply end up cannibilizing itself and chilling the freeness online speech now enjoys in contrast to the MSM.

I work freelance right now, so I don't have any employment maintanence worries bothering me with what I post on the internet. But if I had to work a normal fulltime job I could easily get myself into hot water if any post of mine on religion, pseudoscience, etc. got a lot of attention and some opposing blogger decided to get me IRL.

There's another aspect to scalping that is relevant: It's fun. If you really don't care at all about the consequences for the victim, the whole thing becomes a hunt, with people competing against each other for the status of taking down the prize. Afterwards the hunters tell stories about the hunt, pat each other on the back for a job well done, and bond over their shared experience.

Scalping just another example of the ad hominem attack. Thinking people don't need it!

Thanks for your thoughtful posts, Lindsay!

Here's another reason why the right-wing will never go away and why appealing to things that appeal to the non-right blogsphere will never erase that 25-30% support for all things right-wing-nut:

http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Which is also why the scalping will never stop. They lose nothing by doing it, they will never lose their core support for doing it, because their core supporters are RWA who do not generally think about such things the way the left does (or even think at all in some cases).

Again, the only real defense is the defense the right already has: millions in think-tank funding to patronize non-right bloggers. If you think appealing to reason or anything else will help in this area, re-read about the RWA's above.

Whatever happened to personal responsibility? It isn't the right-wing blogosphere that brought your cyberfriends down and you, too, had you signed up for the Edwards campaign, it's YOUR OWN STUPID WORDS that were brought out in the open.

If you don't want attention to be brought to you and you want to be a bigshot, fine, don't write bigoted garbage.

Why is that so hard to understand?

Or this is yet another tactic typical of your ilk and your counterparts on the right, to attack the messenger rather than look at the substance of the message?

It's NOT a smear, Lindsay, if you and your cohorts wrote bigoted garbage.

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