LIANE HANSEN, host:
Blogs, online commentators and viral videos have shaped the debate in the current election season. But e-politics still faces at least one major obstacle: Internet access. Last week in New York, a group of prominent bloggers and technology experts came together at the annual Personal Democracy Forum to discuss the evolving relationship between technology and politics. Many of the comments zeroed in on broadband access.
Commissioner JONATHAN ADELSTEIN (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): Well, I'm - suddenly I'm a frustrated policymaker in Washington. I'm frustrated because it's clear that we're doing in Washington isn't working.
HANSEN: That's FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. Adelstein is frustrated because he says the U.S. is falling behind the industrialized world when it comes to Internet access in virtually every measure that counts.
Commissioner ADELSTEIN: Broadband penetration, availability, competition, speed and price. What we're hearing at this conference is that the Internet is reawakening American democracy. For it to reach its highest potential we've got to make it accessible and affordable to everyone, truly high-speed and open and neutral. We need a national broadband policy.
HANSEN: Adelstein was one of a group of business and government leaders who launched Internetforeveryone.org. Their goal is to raise public awareness and make sure that every home and business in America has access to high-speed Internet. Consider these facts about Internet broadband. In 2001, the U.S. was fourth in the world to adopt Internet broadband. Today, it's 15th, behind countries like Canada, South Korea, Luxembourg and Iceland. Only 39 percent of households in rural America subscribe to broadband. In Japan, broadband connection speed is 10 times faster than it is in the United States.
A democratic internet was a mantra for both conservative and liberal bloggers at the conference. They said the Internet is a new publishing tool and bulwark for democracy. Chuck DeFeo heads the conservative online community Townhall.com. He says the Web is the natural evolution from the printing press. In a Weekend Edition interview, DeFeo recalled John Adams' philosophy.
Mr. CHUCK DEFEO (Vice President and General Manager, Townhall.com): What he said was any person should have safe, cheap and easy access to a printing press. But what ended up happening is as we grew and the nation became industrialized, media consolidated. We ended up with broadcast television where for a large period of time there was only three networks. And each three networks had their own nightly newscast. And that was the only really - a limited, one source of information. Newspaper - towns became one-newspaper towns.
And so a mound of information getting covered, all that kind of stuff was consolidated. And what we're finally seeing is a realization of that ideal that Adams and Jefferson and Paine and before him Voltaire and Plato before him, that ideal of having everybody have a shot at literally participating in this discussion, this dialogue of determining what's going on, is truly being realized.
HANSEN: Chuck DeFeo of townhall.com served as e-campaign manager for Bush-Cheney in 2004. Townhall.com describes itself as the first conservative Web community. Launched in 1995, it engages users online as well as offline through conservative talk radio.
Mr. DEFEO: Or big town hall online. I like to say that we are a - you know, just like your local town hall in a red county. We are center right. We have about 250 to 300 regular contributors to the web site. George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved. Senator Fred Thompson just joined us. Kathleen Parker, who writes for the Washington Post as well. What we also have is about 9,000 grassroots bloggers. People who, you know, have their own platform or want to be a part of a community and are regularly spouting off their opinions and forming a debate.
HANSEN: Chuck DeFeo was a speaker on a panel with liberal blogger Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post. Although they are polar opposites politically, they both agreed that the new media system is a force to be reckoned with. But Huffington says although it may be a threat to traditional media, new media is not replacing it.
Ms. ARIANNA HUFFINGTON (Blogger, Huffington Post): I don't see it as either or. I don't see it as the death of old media. I don't see it as entirely new wine in new bottles. I see it as a lot of good vintage wine also being poured into these bottles. Because the vintage wine for me is the pursuit of truth that has always been the heart of good journalism, the pursuit of truth no matter what, without any kind of favor. And we proved that when we posted a story which was reported by one of our citizen journalists, Mayhill Fowler, during a fundraiser in San Francisco, which turned out to be Obama's "bitter gate," as it's now known.
HANSEN: Huffington is referring to an audio recording of Senator Barack Obama at a fundraiser this past April in San Francisco. He said that people in small towns cling to guns and religion as a way to explain their frustrations. The audio was recorded by citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler, one of thousands who contribute to the Huffington Post's Off the Bus. That's an online project Huffington helped launch in March 2007. Amanda Michel is director of Off the Bus.
Ms. AMANDA MICHEL (Project Director, Huffington Post's Off the Bus): Only about 10 percent of our members are writers. Most people are very interested in doing things like research, going to local events and observing, doing attendance counts, documenting events in their local communities. And so we really aim to have activities for everyone, including writers. And then we also mentor writers, you know, which includes Mayhill Fowler.
So right now, we're actually rolling out 12 columnists. One of them is named Christine Escobar(ph). She lives in Chicago and she's going to be writing about the impact of the Obama campaign on the city itself and looking to see how much is it impacting local politics, to what extent? Who volunteers for Obama's campaign at the state level? How active is this volunteer pool there?
We also have a woman named Dawn Teo(ph), who's doing the same thing in Arizona but looking at what's happening within the McCain campaign. Another contributor, M.S. Bellows, Jr., he dials into all the press conference calls every day and he's going to be writing about the relationship that develops between the campaign spokespeople and the press. Also looking to see which talking points are more frequently making it into coverage and which ones aren't.
HANSEN: E-campaign representatives from both the Obama and McCain campaigns also attended the conference. We caught up with Mark Soohoo, Deputy e-Campaign Director for John McCain 2008 to ask him about the influence of new media and citizen journalists this election season.
Mr. MARK SOOHOO (Deputy e-Campaign Director, McCain campaign): Senator McCain has done regular calls with bloggers and is actively talking to his community. And I think that's an important thing, just have an open dialog. These are people who are very interested in issues and they're very interested in substantive questions. And you know, certainly, some blogs, you know, play more of the got-you politics. But on the whole, you know, especially last summer when he was getting a lot of questions about the state of the campaign and whatever, he was getting a lot of questions from bloggers that were substantive and that were very thoughtful and interesting questions.
And I think that really shows the power of, you know, the citizen journalists to say, you know what, this is an important campaign about important issues. Here's a man of substance, talking about substantive things. We don't need 50 answers on, you know, some inside baseball thing. We need to know what are your plans on these specific issues.
HANSEN: The Web is changing politics in a fundamental way. Soohoo says John McCain's campaign is actively engaged online but he recognizes that having a lot of Facebook and MySpace friends won't win his candidate the election.
Mr. SOOHOO: I think it's important to recognize that there is a lot of people who are on Facebook, and so I'm not discounting the importance of Facebook and MySpace and other social networks, which clearly are important. But I think that, you know, as a campaign, we're very focused on what is best for our audience. And so certainly, we do a lot with Facebook and MySpace.
We actually just launched "Pork Invaders" so you can play on Facebook by going to johnmccain.com. It's a fun game. It's emphasizing how John McCain is a leader on abolishing pork and that he'll veto. So you basically fire off vetos at these flying bits of pork. And it's just a fun game, a fun way to emphasize the point that John McCain is the leader on this issue.
Mr. LEE BRENNER (Political Director, MySpace.com): I think it's fascinating that you're finally seeing candidates in campaigns utilizing the tools that Americans are already using.
HANSEN: Lee Brenner is political director of the social networking site, myspace.com. The site says it has nearly 110 million active users each month.
Mr. BRENNER: They're spending their days and they're spending their time there. To bring politics and bring that conversation into that realm is really, I think, what everyone is trying to do, is to bring the conversation that is offline, online and then bring it back to, you know, effect change, ideally.
HANSEN: A sample of some of the voices engaged in dialogue at last week's Personal Democracy Forum about how the Internet is changing politics. Weekend Edition senior producer Davar Iran Ardalan attended the forum with our Sunday Soapbox blogger, Jacob Soboroff. They conducted our interviews. For more on "Pork Invaders," Senator John McCain's new online game, go to npr.org/soapbox.
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