Let us solemnly invoke the stereotype: the pajama-clad blogger, covered in Cheetos dust and furiously typing away in his parents' basement. Let us dispel it: We should know by now that bloggers are old and young, men and women, from as many diverse backgrounds as you can name. And they're not just writing in basements anymore. Now they're on your television.
It's not the most natural transition; bloggers, who are by nature media outsiders, aren't known for their network polish. But as mainstream journalists are increasingly influenced by arguments and breaking news from the blogosphere, it's not surprising bloggers have been sought after to join the talking-heads parade alongside partisan strategists, former legislators, and newspaper reporters on TV. Which is how I met Joel Silberman, in the green room at MSNBC, after a brief television appearance.
"If I could only get you to straighten up!" he exclaimed, gesturing at a nearby monitor that showed my clip. Demonstrating, he pulled his own shoulders back with both hands. "You pull up your chest, and that shows me your heart" -- he touched his chest -- "your authenticity- -- and that opens your face. And that's your message."
Somewhat embarrassed at this effusive critique, I consoled myself with the knowledge that presentation aside, I had achieved my central television goal of not cursing on-air.
Silberman, 61, makes his living as a progressive media strategist. He recently spent several days helping Lt. Dan Choi, an advocate for the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, prepare for a series of media appearances about the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the subject. But Silberman has carved out his niche teaching progressive bloggers how to take their message to broadcast media.
Tall, with an aquiline nose and silver hair, Silberman doesn't come from a traditional political background; much of his career was spent as a director, conductor, and musician. But, as an early mentee of the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, he learned early that culture and politics mix. After getting involved with People for the American Way and becoming enmeshed in the progressive movement, a chance meeting with Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the seminal liberal blog DailyKos, led him to realize that the skill set he learned in the arts could help this new generation of pundits talk about not only policy but values and emotion.
Silberman taught Moulitsas techniques to strengthen his media presence and went on to train a who's who of the liberal blogosphere: Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, Duncan Black (better known as Atrios), John Aravosis of America Blog, Heather Parton (who blogs pseudonymously as Digby), and Open Left's Michael Lux, among others. Coming from a community that happily derides the D.C. village and its beloved Sunday political talk-show circuit -- the four network shows generally hosted by white men interviewing other representatives of the establishment -- they bring a different attitude to tele-vision commentary.
"The netroots has developed a message and approach to politics that doesn't get heard in the world of broadcast TV, where the same pundit retreads dominate," Moulitsas says. "I have an opportunity to represent that view, and while I'd rather be doing other things, I see it as a duty until we can develop a stronger bench of fresh new voices."
While progressive bloggers' aggressive arguments made for good ratings, the transition from the free-wheeling world of the Internet to the short segments of cable news hasn't been without its stumbles.
"TV is really all about being disciplined and having one or two core points and hopefully one or two good lines that you can find a way to squeeze in regardless of what happens," says Matt Yglesias, a blogger at the Center for American Progress and a Prospect senior correspondent. "Blogging is almost the reverse -- you throw tons of stuff out there and hope that people find some of it compelling. Plus, being effective on television requires you to master a whole set of tricks about modulating your voice and your physical presence that a blogger doesn't need to deal with."
That's where Silberman comes in. Marcy Wheeler, a blogger at Firedoglake who made her name with relentless coverage of the Scooter Libby trial, has learned from the media strategist, but she maintains an Internet-appropriate straightforwardness. She surprised MSNBC's anchors -- if not the station's audience -- when she criticized conservative strategist Matt Lewis' argument against investigating torture in the Bush administration: "Your idea is that after investigating Bill Clinton for a blow job for like five years, we shouldn't investigate the huge, grossly illegal things that were done under the past administration." She was dropped off the air to stammering apologies from the show's hosts. Maybe a cigar euphemism would have been more appropriate?
Fundamentally, though, Wheeler was doing exactly what Silberman advocates. "If you don't like the frame, dismiss it, walk away from it," he says. "Talk about what you want -- but make it interesting and be clever about it."
Wheeler, who is from Michigan, says the emergence of bloggers as political commentators has led to more diversity on television. "It's important to have people from fly-over country talking about politics from time to time, because it's a different perspective from what you get in Washington," she says.
There is an increasing focus on racial diversity as well. Silberman, through the New Organizing Institute, recently offered three days of media training to a group of progressive bloggers and activists that included Cheryl Contee, the co-founder of the popular blog Jack and Jill Politics, which offers a "black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics." Contee says the chance to share her perspective on television came directly from blogging exposure and surprised her.
"What you're seeing is a change in the playing field for media consumption, a change that has really democratized," she says.
Still, it has been a gradual transition. "I went on MSNBC [in 2005] to talk about Terry Schiavo," Yglesias says, "and I said that the coverage of the issue on cable news, including on this network, had been a disgrace and a disservice to America. After that I wasn't invited back on MSNBC daytime for a good long time. This was all before the Rachel Maddow MSNBC as a kind-of-sort-of liberal-network era. It illustrated the point that changing the narrative is in some ways easier to do from outside the system."
Silberman's goal is to build up the number of effective spokespeople who are willing to go on the offensive with personal, values-based appeals for progressive ideas. He acknowledges his ideas aren't necessarily original, but his focus on the evolving liberal blogosphere and the Internet generation is unique.
"I invest in young leadership like crazy," Silberman says. "This is about creating platforms for the future ... creating a rapid response network of progressives so that we can immediately respond and work together. That's kind of the brilliance of the internet."
And did Wheeler's plain-spoken attitude cost her another chance to appear on MSNBC? Not so; she recently did a spot from the Detroit Car Show -- talking about the Cadillac tax in front of the Cadillacs.
"It went off without a hitch," she says. "I didn't say blow job."
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