Of all the factors contributing to Obama's victory – luck, economic crisis, Bush, Palin – a major factor is now so second-nature to us that we may overlook its transformative impact since just four years ago: the Internet and the progressive online boom.
First off, without its record-smashing Internet fundraising there would have been no Obama campaign. And without the February 1 endorsement from Netroots powerhouse MoveOn, and its infusion of energy and volunteers, Obama may well have lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton. This week, no age group voted more for Obama than the young generation that grew up online – 70% of voters under 30, according to exit polls.
More important, the media terrain has changed dramatically since 2004 when Matt Drudge dominated the Net with his anti-Kerry vendetta. Today HuffingtonPost – which didn't even launch until 2005 – gets more visitors than Drudge. While conservative and establishment pundits still dominate TV and radio, progressive dominance of the Internet has made it easier for media critics and bloggers to instantly rebut the kind of hoaxes and smears that so damaged Gore and Kerry.
This time Swift-Boating was often countered – as when Obama refused to be eclipsed by TV clips of Rev. Wright and made his speech on race that became the top video on You Tube (1.5 million views, 4,000 comments in 36 hours.) With Wright a media obsession, indy journalists from Glenn Greenwald to David Corn exposed McCain's bigoted preacher/endorsers.
Years ago, rightwing smears would flow up the food chain from Drudge to Fox News/talk radio into mainstream media. This year, the flow of serious, accurate charges about McCain got a push from progressive media – like the story of "McCain's Mansions," which sailed from blogs to mainstream via the hugely successful Brave New Films viral video. Few will forget McCain's stunning answer when asked how many homes he owned: "I think – I'll have my staff get to you."
The Nation's Net movement correspondent Ari Melber reports that muckraking bloggers have rendered Rovian attacks less effective than in past elections – including coded "dog-whistle" messages that activate rightwing audiences "while avoiding a backlash because the reference is lost on others." Melber writes: "Small groups of people are using the web to expose the targeted appeals of the analog world, and then injecting them into the mass media for the whole nation to assess."
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To succeed, robocall smears need to operate below the radar. But this year, a backlash erupted over McCain's robocalls saying Obama supported baby-killing and "civil rights to terrorists." Talking Points Memo blog and its active readers were quickly exposing the calls – providing sound and transcript. Several Republican senators denounced the calls.
Beyond their partisan role in this year's election, independent media also took the lead in using the Web to furnish objective source material. For example, HuffingtonPost's Off the Bus recorded and uploaded the previously press-only conference calls from both the Obama and McCain camps so members of the public could hear how campaign leaders spin the press. During the primaries, a collaboration of citizen journalists (involving groups like Off the Bus and Center for Media and Democracy) objectively monitored the leanings of Democratic superdelegates nationwide.
One of the ironies of 2008 coverage is that it was the Obama-friendly HuffingtonPost that published the reporting that nearly derailed Obama. Covering a San Francisco fundraiser closed to mainstream reporters, Off the Bus citizen journalist (and Obama donor) Mayhill Fowler posted a Web dispatch quoting Obama's lucid remarks about the cynicism of Midwesterners in economically-deprived small towns toward politicians' promises, including one poorly-worded sentence: "It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Fowler had hesitations about reporting comments that could be exploited by Obama's opponents, but she and Off the Bus felt it their responsibility as journalists to publish.
Blown out of context and proportion, the remarks – soon dubbed "Bittergate" – proved more damaging to Obama than all the venomous bluster from the Limbaughs and Hannitys.
The incident was yet another sign of the reach and impact of independent media. And perhaps its growing maturity as well.