An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, by Glenn Reynolds, Washington, D.C.: Nelson Current, 256 pages, $24.99
It was the middle of last February, and the bloggers had arrived with cameramen in tow. Pajamas Media, a weblog collective launched with $3.5 million of venture capital, had sent two of its stars to Arlington, Virginia, to explore some new evidence about Iraq’s antebellum weapons of mass destruction. While novelist, screenwriter, and Pajamas Media cofounder Roger L. Simon chatted up former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle and former CIA Director James Woolsey for video-enhanced blog posts, filmmaker Andrew Marcus visited Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.).
Hoekstra, the chairman of the Select House Intelligence Committee and a vocal supporter of the Iraq war, wanted to attach jumper cables to the debate over weapons of mass destruction. Three years had passed since weapons inspectors, following Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s directions, had failed to find deadly ordnance “in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” Hoekstra’s committee had a stash of declassified documents from before the war, and no one was translating them; since the WMD debate was basically over, there wasn’t much interest in what Saddam’s inner circle used to bluster about. But if these documents could be publicized, there would be a chance for war supporters to argue anew that the invasion was justified. Now, Hoekstra told Marcus, was the time to “unleash the power of the Net on these 55,000 boxes of documents to see exactly what went on.” Bloggers could translate the documents themselves, or at least pass around information and rumors about what the papers contained. If the intelligence community wasn’t interested, Hoekstra could put the papers online and “let the blogosphere go!”
It was an odd proposal. With cable and network news excitedly reporting on unearthed Saddam audio tapes and with the considerable power Hoekstra had in Congress, did he really need help to launch a P.R. campaign about pre-war Iraqi intelligence? Wouldn’t bloggers laugh this off? Not at all: As the documents came out, Hoekstra’s brainstorm was greeted with candy and flowers. Powerline blogger John Hinderaker called Hoekstra a “hero” who was making “these documents and tapes public so that the truth about Saddam’s regime can be more fully known.” The document dump turned out to be seriously flawed, with irrelevant conversations and translations of American news stories mixed in with papers from Saddam’s regime. But when wrapping up his interview with Hoekstra, Pajamas Media’s Marcus sounded downright gleeful: “So, the last chapter in the story on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has not been written, has it?” A patriotic viewer could practically hear the A*Team theme kicking in.
The very idea of bloggers signing up for a pro-war P.R. project would have strained credulity when the medium first attracted wide public attention. In the late 1990s, easy-to-use Web publishing software gave rise to thousands of online diaries. Already on the rise, such sites really started to take off after the 9/11 attacks, as ordinary people started blogs to vent, to organize, and to reach out to people they hadn’t met. It was a grassroots, low-rent, proudly amateur subculture, and its members frequently proclaimed themselves a media revolution. How did we reach the point where blogs were enlisting in propaganda campaigns run by politicians?
For answers, you might turn to An Army of Davids, by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com, and Crashing the Gate, by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong of DailyKos.com and MyDD.com. They all were present at the creation of the modern blogosphere, and their books are thick with praise and hype for the potential of blogging. Both books also unintentionally illustrate the way that blogs are joining the very establishment they talk about upending.
Crashing the Gate is the more pugnacious of the two books, packaged and sold like a political manifesto. Both of its authors started their journeys far, far outside the system in 2001. Armstrong, then a 37-year-old day trader (and occasional union organizer) in Portland, Oregon, was a mainstay at the relatively ancient Web community The Well; he launched MyDD (short for “My Due Diligence”) to follow a special 2001 congressional election in Virginia. The site became a liberal hub, and Moulitsas, a then-29-year-old Army veteran and tech consultant in Berkeley, California, started his blogging career as a commenter on MyDD. In 2003 the duo formed a consulting partnership, and by the summer Armstrong had quit blogging to work on the Howard Dean campaign.