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June 27, 2006

Bluegrass Report: A blog swarm stings Fletcher

 Unless you were hiding under a rock late last week, you probably heard and read many stories about the misguided efforts of Gov. Ernie Fletcher to block 34,000 state employees’ access to political blogs (most notably my own, BluegrassReport.org). Not coincidentally, the ban came the morning after my critical comments in a front-page New York Times story about Fletcher’s ongoing political scandals.I won’t rehash what’s been reported by state media, information that made it into a second New York Times story just days later. Instead, I thought I’d give you an inside look at how the Internet, and political blogs in particular, have accelerated the speed at which political scandals unfold before the public, and how a critical mass of the blogosphere then forces the story into the mainstream media. This phenomenon is called a “blog swarm,” and it’s become one of the most powerful forces in political reporting today.Most recently, it was a blog swarm that descended on CBS’s Dan Rather after he used unreliable documents in a segment about President Bush’s Texas National Guard service. Arguably, that event led to Rather’s recent departure from CBS.Similarly, a combination of a powerful and lightning-fast national blog swarm, aggravated by delayed and contradictory statements from the Fletcher administration, has catapulted this story into the national news cycle, where it’s still gaining strength.Here’s the back story of a scandal quickly spinning out of control.Day 1 — Wednesday, June 21: At 7:53 a.m., I received the first of several e-mails from state employees who were unable to access BluegrassReport.org from state computers. The site was designated as “blocked.” By 8:21, I informed readers that it appeared the Fletcher administration had deliberately banned the site from state government. That was followed by a dozen more e-mails, and by 9:21, a reader suggested such a government ban was a clear constitutional infringement.By that point, I already sensed the gravity of this move and how Fletcher’s actions to censor political speech would resonate nationally. So, after leaving messages for reporters at The Courier-Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader and Associated Press, at 10:18 a.m. I sent a one-paragraph e-mail to six of the top political bloggers in the country (Daily Kos, Atrios, Talking Points Memo, MyDD, Political Wire and Swing State Project), alerting them to what had just occurred here in Kentucky. Combined, those blogs have more than a million daily readers.Thus the blog swarm began.By 10:58, Atrios published the first national post, directing his readers to BluegrassReport.org for details. That was quickly followed by Political Wire at 11:07, Daily Kos at 11:12, TPMmuckraker at 11:20 and Talking Points Memo at 11:30 — all directing their readers to my site. By 11:47, both Boing Boing and Hotline On Call had read about the news on other blogs and posted their own story, also linking to me. And it grew.At 12:11 p.m., Ian Urbina, the New York Times’ reporter who had written the front-page story on Fletcher from the previous day, was interested in a follow-up story. By 12:30, Fletcher officials also began banning access to national blogs that were writing about the day’s events, and by 12:48 TPMmuckraker’s Paul Kiel posted an interview with the Commonwealth Office of Technology’s Assistant Director, Jim Lydon, who said he “didn’t know anything about blocking political sites.”At the same time, and apparently unbeknownst to Lydon, a Fletcher spokesperson told local media that this banning was not in retaliation for my comments in the Times but part of a two-week plan to limit access to all political blogs. Nevertheless, conservative sites such as Drudge Report remain wholly accessible this week.By 1:15, the nation’s largest public employee union condemned the action, followed by a statement from U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler blasting Fletcher’s censorship as “a violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution.” Interestingly, Chandler’s comment came in response to a national blog, not the mainstream press.By 4 o’clock, the Herald-Leader filed the first of many local stories, and by 5:30, officials at COT seemed to be free-lancing with their statements, contradicting previous ones made just hours earlier. For example, COT Director Mark Rutledge acknowledged that — contrary to what we had been told all day — not all blogs were being blocked.In fact, blogs written by mainstream media were not banned. Rutledge justified the distinction on the shaky ground that political blogs “are generally aligned with certain interest groups,” even though such a distinction appeared to be drawn along content lines — which the Constitution prohibits. By week’s end, they changed gears again, banning some of those very sites.By the end of Day 1, a record 15,904 readers had visited BluegrassReport.org; a typical day draws about 3,000.By the next morning, both The New York Times and CNN called about stories they were developing, and by noon I had already been interviewed by WHAS-TV and several news radio networks. Despite it being the first day of the General Assembly’s special session, this story led most local news coverage.By Friday, the second Kentucky story in three days graced the Times’ pages.Soon, the next layer of repercussions came, as State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, a Democrat, demanded that Fletcher restore his office’s access to some of the banned sites, and by evening, a top national conservative blog (townhall.com) sided with BluegrassReport.org on free-speech grounds.Friday’s traffic set another record, with 16,550 readers, bringing the scandal’s three-day total to 40,000 readers.By the weekend, Associated Press ranked the story as No. 7 in its Top 10 national stories of the week, as its wire story appeared in dozens of large newspapers across the country, including the weekend Wall Street Journal. As the story entered its second week, it made Howard Kurtz’s enormously prominent Media Notes column in The Washington Post.As this column goes to print, the scandal continues dominating statewide coverage and garnering significant national attention, with both sides squarely on a constitutional collision course that may require the involvement of the federal courts.If nothing else, this scandal is a microcosm of Fletcher’s political problems, where poor decisions are made that then create negative consequences. And, rather than cutting their losses, the administration simply digs the holes even deeper. This seems especially true of problems involving law or constitutional rights.Banning political blogs won’t keep state employees from learning the unvarnished truth, and Fletcher’s very public and national fight with BluegrassReport.org has only highlighted its prominence as a candid dispenser of information. In the process, it has also galvanized a national community of blogs, which can swarm on a moment’s notice and amplify a problem to millions of readers in real-time, forcing mainstream media into action whether or not it wants to cover a particular story.In the end, then, this stands as an ongoing lesson in consequences for an administration that has lost its compass and ability to govern, and as a powerful testament to the growing strength of blogs, a movement that happens instantaneously and drives the news cycle along the way.So, stay tuned. The fight has only begun. Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org