Life in the Blogosphere's Right Lane

The high court nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers sent disappointed conservative bloggers rushing to computers. Sue McDonald of Intelliseek and Stephen Dillard of confirmthem.com tell Debbie Elliott about the politics of blogs.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

When President Bush announced Harriet Miers as his Supreme Court nominee on Monday morning, the World Wide Web went into action. If you happen to log on to one of the conservative Web sites like confirmthem.com, you saw immediate dismay. As early as 7:16 AM, before the president even made it official, bloggers were posting their reactions to Harriet Miers. By 10 AM, there was a frenzy of postings and cross-postings about what became a controversial nomination for the president. To help us understand what's come to be known as the blogosphere, we turn to Sue MacDonald. She compiles a daily summary of what's happening on the Web for Intelliseek, a company that tracks Weblog or blog activity.

Hello, Ms. MacDonald.

Ms. SUE MacDONALD (Intelliseek): Hi. How are you?

ELLIOTT: I'm good. Now can you walk us through your tracking process on your own Web site, how you pay attention to what people are saying?

Ms. MacDONALD: Sure. We have a blog search engine called BlogPulse.com.

ELLIOTT: OK. Let me pull that up here.

Ms. MacDONALD: We have an index of about 18 million blogs, and what we do every day is we have some text mining technology that look through all of the posts that are added every day to blogs and they look for certain key words, certain issues. So in that search term box there, we're going to type in Harriet Miers.

ELLIOTT: Harriet.

Ms. MacDONALD: There you can see whole trail of conversations about Harriet Miers.

ELLIOTT: Let's just look at the top here. It says, `Justice Miers? Not so Supreme Court. Conservatives demoralized over Miers' pick,' what some Christian bloggers are saying about the nomination of Harriet Miers. Is this kind of activity unusual?

Ms. MacDONALD: You know, it's unusual in the sense that it happened so quickly. Monday alone, we had 3,000 messages that were specifically about Harriet Miers on the blogs and they were frequent. You know, we only see--every once in a while, we'll see huge bursts of activity like this in the blogosphere. When the tsunami hit in December of 2004, there was a huge spike of information because frankly bloggers were some of the first people on the scene. They were there before the news organizations got there. We saw the same thing with Hurricane Katrina. There are certain times when we see issues that will cause spikes like this in the blogosphere, and this was one of them.

ELLIOTT: How does the conservative blogosphere compare with the liberal blogosphere?

Ms. MacDONALD: Even though their fairly equal in numbers, conservative bloggers tend to do a lot more cross-linking, which means they'll include links to other conservative blogs. So there's always this cross-chatter going back and forth. So the linking pattern back and forth were pretty amazing. And the result of that I think is that they tend to keep reinforcing the message a lot more. Liberal bloggers tend to discuss a lot more issues than just focusing in on a few.

ELLIOTT: Whereas the conservatives hone in on something like a Harriet Miers nomination and stick with it.

Ms. MacDONALD: Yeah, they'll hone in on Harriet Miers. They'll hone in--they've been active the last couple of months on even Katrina. I mean, they were some of the bloggers that were starting to express doubts with the competence at high levels of the FEMA in the aftermath of Katrina, but they tend to grab issues like that and hang on to them whereas the liberal bloggers, they'll do that to a degree but they tend to be discussing a lot more issues.

ELLIOTT: Now how do you know that the people who seem to be conservative on these blogs aren't really just Democrats who are masquerading and trying to create trouble for Republicans?

Ms. MacDONALD: Well, you know what? The blogosphere has a pretty good self-correcting mechanism built into it. You know, I think one of the reasons that blogging has become so popular is that people can really say what's on their mind without a lot of the filters that we sometimes sense from mainstream media. So that if you're out there and you're faking it, somebody's going to find out and they're going to out you.

ELLIOTT: Have you been able to measure how influential these blogs are? For example, are there staffers in congressional offices reading these messages, these postings on the Harriet Miers nomination as they happen?

Ms. MacDONALD: Oh, you can bet they are. I interviewed a blogger last week from Texas. He does a blog called the PinkDome. I guess the Capitol building in Austin has a pink tint to it. And he said there have even been cases where legislators have been giving a speech on the floor of the Capitol building. People have been blogging about their speech. The senator's staff members have been reading the blogs and reacting to what's being blogged about as they're speaking. I think blogs serve a great role in that they keep people honest sometimes. You know, granted they're very opinionated. Sometimes they're not entirely accurate. Sometimes they don't do fact-checking, but I think they really do serve a function because they keep the heat on.

ELLIOTT: An important function in a democracy.

Ms. MacDONALD: Exactly.

ELLIOTT: Sue MacDonald is a blog analyst for Intelliseek. She spoke to us from her offices in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. MacDONALD: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

ELLIOTT: We turn now to Stephen Dillard. He's one of the contributors to confirmthem.com. He's an attorney in Macon, Georgia.

Hello, Mr. Dillard.

Mr. STEPHEN DILLARD (Attorney): Hey, how are you?

ELLIOTT: I'm fine. How are you?

Mr. DILLARD: Good.

ELLIOTT: You all seem to be poised at your keyboards on Monday morning.

Mr. DILLARD: We have been. It's been an interesting few days.

ELLIOTT: Tell us how confirmthem.com came into being?

Mr. DILLARD: Confirmthem is an offshoot of a very popular conservative blog called RedState, kind of set up to kind of be a vehicle to put a conservative voice out there to support the president's nominees.

ELLIOTT: What has your reaction been to the nomination of Harriet Miers?

Mr. DILLARD: I'd say on confirmthem it has been mixed. I mean, there are some of our contributors who are for her. There are some that are kind of--have a wait-and-see attitude and there are people like me who have been kind of vocal opponents of her nomination.

ELLIOTT: Did you immediately turn to your computer?

Mr. DILLARD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you can go back and you look, I mean, I posted something minutes afterwards. I was, you know, probably one of the first people who got out there with a semilengthy post and just--you know, the--I think the sum of it then was it wasn't anything all that eloquent. It was, `Harriet Miers, are you freaking kidding me,' you know? It was, like, `Who is this person?' I mean, of all the people that the president could have chosen, why did he choose Harriet Miers? Where's--you know, I think I even said, `Where's my Scalia? Where's my Thomas?' I mean, that's what he promised, and I think it's safe to say from what little we do know about Harriet Miers right now, she's not another Scalia or a Thomas.

ELLIOTT: How long have you been blogging?

Mr. DILLARD: I've been blogging since 2001. So I'm kind of an old guy in the blogosphere. Been around for a while.

ELLIOTT: Where do you find the time to do all of this?

Mr. DILLARD: People ask me that. I try to get up in the morning before my children wake up and I try to do a little bit in the morning. Sometimes I eat lunch at my desk and try to just do a little bit during lunch and, you know, do some in the evening after my children and wife have gone to bed. That's the amazing thing about it, is you can just kind of--it just takes a few minutes. You can put it out there, and then all of a sudden if you've got a lot of readers, you can get an instant reaction. You get kind of people who have passion and they put it out there immediately, `This is my, you know, gut feeling. This is my gut reaction to this.' And maybe you end up changing your mind, but that's OK, too. I mean, it's very real. There's something very honest about the blogosphere in that respect. I mean, you really get to kind of see the character of the people who are putting, you know, their voice out there.

ELLIOTT: Is that your main avenue of political speech or do you do other things?

Mr. DILLARD: I actually called both of my senators, Saxby Chambliss. So I'm actually on friendly terms with him and also Senator Isakson who I don't know as well. I mean, I call them and spoke to their aides and let them know that I was none too pleased with the choice and I try to be active here locally. The day that Miers was announced, I actually spoke to the Georgia--the Bibb County Women's Republican Party and then they got an earful about me not being happy with the president. So, you know, I...

ELLIOTT: What was their reaction?

Mr. DILLARD: You know, it was interesting. Most people approved of what I was saying. I really think at the local level, people, you know, they respect the president, but at the same time, especially in the conservative South here, people understand the impact that the court has.

ELLIOTT: Where does that leave you now politically?

Mr. DILLARD: Well, right now I have to tell you, I mean, this is somebody who gave to President Bush's exploratory committee. I mean, I have been a staunch supporter of the president, but I can tell you right now I'm not giving any money to the national Republican Party. I mean, I'll still support people here locally who are Republicans and I may even still vote Republican, but in terms of getting out there and knocking on doors and getting on the radio and TV here in Macon supporting the president, I'm done.

ELLIOTT: Stephen Dillard joined us from his home in Macon, Georgia. He's a contributor to the blog confirmthem.com.

Thank you for talking with us, Mr. Dillard.

Mr. DILLARD: My pleasure.

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