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Feminist Bloggergate—a Cautionary Tale

March 1, 2007

The first feminist political uproar of 2007 was not about Hillary Clinton but about two, relatively unknown-to-the-mainstream stars of the feminist blogosphere. Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare’s Sister quickly departed the John Edwards campaign where, briefly, they had been engaged to apply their blogworld experience to the legit political world. The main reason for the briefness of their political careers was a concerted effort by the right-wing political machine, spearheaded by Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. They took issue with comments made on the feminists’ personal blogs before their short stint with the campaign. Donohue sent out a press release on February 6, 2007, with the headline: “John Edwards Hires 2 Anti-Catholics.”  In response Edwards took a public stand against the women’s comments but in support of the women themselves. But the damage was already done, and both women resigned to avoid causing harm to the campaign. The Edwards team clearly has an agenda to reach women, especially younger women, and gets points for taking two feminist voices into a campaign world not known for embracing those out of the mainstream. But the campaign had miscalculated the feasibility of a marriage between these bloggers and conventional politics. First, blogosphere rules, or rather the lack thereof, are quite distinct. Blogs are a place for independent and at times transgressive voices, and these women specialize in that kind of message. Robert Cox of the Media Bloggers Association says “it’s a real shame that bloggers who are writing in a different environment—full of sarcasm and snarkiness and emotion—are going to be held accountable when they’re writing somewhere else and are no longer engaged in that kind of behavior.” Whether or not their blog archives were fully vetted before their hiring is unclear, but their past personal posts were interpreted as a reflection of the John Edwards campaign in an attempt to derail it. Such a use of past postings might not seem problematic to the average person, but the repercussions have yet to be felt. Geneva Overholser, former Ombudsperson for the Washington Post and current faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism, says that “situations like this are like tectonic plate shifts. They jar everything and get people's attention and bring change.” One lesson learned: feminists who use their blogs to speak out on issues involving organized religion and the Catholic church can still expect to be subjected to aggressive misogyny.  Bill Donahue has long had a reputation for nastiness towards women, according the Francis Kissling, retiring president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “This kind of behavior and viciousness describing women has really been a part of his persona,” says Kissling, who has tussled with Donahue on a number of occasions. As the drama unfolded, others enthusiastically joined the attack, and disturbing sexualized comments flooded into the women’s blogs. “Problem with women like you, you just need a good fucking from a real man,” read one posting.  Another was, “It’s just too bad your mother didn’t abort you. You are nothing more than a filthy mouth slut. I bet a couple of years in Iraq being raped and beaten daily would help you appreciate America a little.” Sexualized threats against women, and especially feminists, are, of course, nothing new. Blogs like those of Marcotte and McEwan have become a space for cutting-edge feminist discourse. And when women are vilified for feminist opinions we must all take notice.   “In a peculiar way the web and the blog sites are the street movements and street marches and demonstrations of 30 years ago,” says Mary Kay Blakely, also on the Missouri School of Journalism faculty. “I always wonder where is the outrage. It’s obviously on the internet.” The outrageous language on their blogs is common in the blogosphere, and they use it to articulate what many people are thinking. They remind Blakely of the late Molly Ivins, who was always seen as a rabble-rouser yet managed to be syndicated in hundreds of papers across the country. When such rebellious messages resonate, it makes people very nervous. These women and others like them may not have been involved in the institutionalized feminist movement, still, it was disheartening not to see leaders protect the future of feminism by expressing their collective outrage at the treatment the bloggers received. Inhabitants of the U.S. don’t have it as bad as the unfortunate blogger recently convicted for what was considered anti-Egyptian posts. But there are growing concerns about a blogger’s legal vulnerability. Many, who operate their blogs individually and not for profit, have limited resources. Cox says that “bloggers tend to see themselves as writers, not publishers, so they don’t really think very hard about defamation and copyright laws. They don’t think that stuff applies to them.” Cox said he gets at least one to two calls a day from bloggers served with legal papers or threats.  He advises all bloggers to avoid litigation and says that most complaints are “settled to the mutual dissatisfaction of both parties.” Should bloggers be silenced because someone doesn’t like their message, even if what they write is truthful and legal? Blakely wonders whether everybody who owns a blog will have to indemnify themselves because a corporation does not back them up. “It brings up huge issues of freedom of the press, because if you can’t put an idea out there without risking the potential of a lawsuit, it does have a chilling effect on the First Amendment freedoms,” she points out.  Cox created the Media Bloggers Association as “a mutual defense pact,” and he is also looking into creating a liability umbrella policy for bloggers. The blogosphere functions as a kind of Wild West in today’s media. Rules are constantly shifting, even for “mainstream” journalists, who have on-line stories in addition to, or perhaps now instead of, those published in newspapers. Established media companies plow resources into their on-line endeavors because they represent the future. “A blog is a vehicle just like a newspaper,” says Geneva Overholser. “A lot of bloggers believe they are journalists and a lot don’t, and I would tend to agree with their self definition.” These days, she says, “you can define the journalism more readily than you can define the journalist.” Bill Donahue and his cronies may have miscalculated.  By creating an uproar he has already ensured that Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister will be read by many more people that would ever have seen the blogs before.  This flare-up has fizzled out, but we’ll be grappling with the issues it has raised for some time to come. Blogs represent a new democratization of the press. Political campaigners sense that they must tap into these “citizen journalists” in order to be successful. How they’ll change one another is yet to be seen.

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