Professor describes influence of blogs

Some people call them journalists; others denounce them as partisan fanatics. But whatever they are, professor Henry Farrell said they’re here to stay.

Farrell, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs, spoke about the growing influence of Web logs – or blogs – and how they are changing the face of politics in the United States. His presentation, “Welcome to the Blogosphere: How blogs are changing politics,” was held Tuesday night at the Elliott School of International Affairs building in the Lindner Family Commons. Farrell spoke about the growing Internet phenomenon that gives ordinary citizens a virtual megaphone to the world with a click of the mouse.

“Individual blogs are not very interesting in themselves. What is important is how they link to each other to create a massive network,” Farrell said.

Since the turn of the century blogs have become a major facet in U.S. politics. Some blogs, such as the Drudge Report and Arianna Huffington’s Huffington Post, report the breaking news of the day, while others serve as online gossip hubs. Internet bloggers are often the first to report on seemingly obscure stories, which travel the grapevine of online soundboards until they’re picked up by mainstream media outlets. Farrell said that while only 7 percent of the American public actually reads blogs on a daily basis, they can have a huge impact on political events due to their elite readership.

“Blogs can have substantial influence despite the small number of people who read them because their readers are disproportionately elite actors such as journalists and political actors,” he said. “Journalists are looking to find interesting stories or new points of view on an existing story.”

In 2002, journalists found their interesting story on the Web pages of freerepublic.com. The conservative blog criticized a CBS News story on President Bush’s duty in the National Guard, claiming the story was based on falsified documents. Under Free Republic’s spotlight, the story garnered national criticism and CBS eventually retracted the report. Many people attribute former CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s subsequent retirement to the widespread influence of political bloggers.

School of Media and Public Affairs professor Albert May said that while it’s hard to define the role of blogs in politics, they are now a part of the American way of life.

“The jury is out on how influential blogs will really be in our politics, but surely they have changed the public sphere some already,” May said in an interview. “I think there is a certain fad quality, which seems to go with the developing Internet, but it is too early to know.”

Farrell said that while a small number of blogs have large readerships, countless others have virtually no popularity. He said the few blogs at the top serve as “gatekeepers” to the rest by linking stories and postings on lesser-known sites. Many blog supporters hail this emerging medium as the new arm of democracy and free speech.

“It’s the modern-day version of smoke signals or cave paintings,” said Tony Pierce, author of busblog.com, in an interview. “People will always have the need to express themselves and see what others are saying.”

Since its conception, blogging has gone largely unregulated by the Federal Election Commission despite its increasingly heavy influence on U.S. politics. But the lines have begun to blur on the role of bloggers, making it hard to pin them down as journalists, political activists or a combination of the two.

And while many people hail political bloggers as the new party-line press, Carol Darr, director of GW’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, said blogs are also just a new way for people to get the news.

In an interview she said, “As much as anything, people read them because it’s a quick and dirty way to find content you wish you’d seen.”

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