Tuesday, December 20, 2005
POLITICS/LOCAL: In Vermont, political bloggers proliferate
burlingtonfreepress.com | Burlington, Vermont
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Vermont political debate takes to cyberspace
Published: Tuesday, December 20, 2005
By Terri Hallenbeck
Burlington [Vt.] Free Press Staff Writer
In stolen moments when he really ought to be working on his next novel, Philip Baruth is blogging. As he posts his
decidedly left-sided jabs, he imagines an audience out there of people interested -- as he is -- in national and local
"Heads up, my friends -- the race for Vermont Lieutenant Governor just got interesting," he said in a recent posting on
this 3-month-old blog -- or Web log -- called The Vermont Daily Briefing.
Baruth, a Burlington writer and teacher who also does commentary on Vermont Public Radio, finds blogging on his own site
gives him freedom to be as blunt as he'd like.
He is among a growing number of people in Vermont who are taking to the Internet to talk about local politics. As the
state heads into what promises to be a heated 2006 election season, conversations about the races are increasingly taking
place not just in barrooms and board rooms but from virtual perches in cyberspace.
The conversations range from long, contemplative pieces to quick hits, and depending on their style, offer everything from
rumors to solid new information. In a recent exchange on a site called PoliticsVT, two bloggers debated the viability of
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scudder Parker's campaign:
"Scudder's campaign has got game," an anonymous blog-poster started out. "Yes, it's tough to unseat an incumbent. But if
Scudder keeps up his great work and sticks to his progressive guns, he's going to win it."
"Scudder's got game?" another anonymous responder said. "I think it's more like Scudder's got lame."
Even Parker, a 62- year-old admittedly un-Web-savvy former minister, launched a blog of his own this fall, with a little
help from some tech-knowledgeable volunteers. He acknowledges the site is evolving and he's not sure where it will go in
the next nine months.
"A good friend of mine said, 'I thought I'd never see the name Scudder Parker and blog in the same sentence,'" Parker
Just what role this relatively new device will play in shaping Vermont's political landscape remains to be seen. Blogs
succeeded in connecting thousands of disparate devotees during Howard Dean's surprising 2004 presidential primary bids.
Can they do the same in bringing people together over a Vermont governor's race? Will they foster healthy debate or
escalate partisan bickering?
At the very least, the blogs are keeping some of those within the state's political arena running to their computer
screens like kids to a cookie jar, going back for more even if they know it isn't good for them.
"I feel like it's necessary to be sure that we're not overlooking some kind of rumor or inaccurate information," said
Jason Gibbs, spokesman for Douglas. The governor, he said, might even start his own blog.
Most of the Vermont political blogs popping up are on the left side of the spectrum, possibly a function of sheer numbers
in this "blue" state, or of residual impact from Dean's campaign. Republican candidates will likely be increasing their
use of the Internet, said Jim Barnett, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party.
The dean of blogging
Zephyr Teachout hands out a lot of blogging advice these days. She was a key personality behind Dean's blog that is
universally hailed as a groundbreaker in generating, and maintaining, buzz about a candidate.
"I'm not blogging now," she said the other day, like an addict who's stepped away from her vice.
She is, however, paying attention to the political blogging world that's developing around her in Vermont. If any of these
newcomers were under the impression that Dean's staff knew exactly what they were going to do from the start, they are
mistaken, she said.
"We had no idea," she said. "We experimented constantly."
That, she found, was one of the appeals of the Dean blog -- that it was lively, playful and adaptable. "I haven't seen
much of that since," she said. "They take the tools. They don't take the spirit of experimentation.
"The technology is easy. It's the temperament, tone and sort of letting go that's hard," she said.
Teachout has watched Parker's blog take its infant steps. Politically, she shares his ideology, so she was inclined to be
complimentary of his blog. He has a good blog voice, she said -- in that he sounds like a person, not a press release.
The Dean campaign, in addition to creating an online community, used the blog to supplement what was being said in the
mainstream media, Teachout said. Parker is similarly hoping his postings give voters access to his own words.
"I would love for the word to get out there that you can actually see what Scudder says," Parker said. "I would love to be
at an event where someone says, 'I read this on your blog. Could you clarify?'"
Teachout said that even in such a small state as Vermont, there's also room for a candidate to use blogging to build a
network. "It's not like all the connections are made," she said.
She envisions, for example, that Parker supporters in Richmond and Albany might meet through his Web site, organize a
visit to a senior citizens group and spread the word about the candidate -- that would be a mark of successful use of this
Adam Quinn has also asked Teachout for advice as he and a group of friends try to get their VermontersFirst .org blog off
"We're still new and kind of developing our voice and audience," said Quinn, a 27-year-old political consultant who used
to work for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "Our goal is to energize people on the left end of the spectrum and, frankly,
to be a little bit of a thorn in the side of people like Jim Douglas."
Quinn and the others behind VermontersFirst, which includes Democratic Rep. Floyd Nease of Johnson, are well-identified on
the site, and they make it clear where they stand politically.
That is not so for all blogs. Who's behind PoliticsVT or Vermontsenate race.com? They're not telling.
PoliticsVT is run by a group of anonymous people who use pen names derived from famous Vermonters -- Ira Allen, Edna
Beard, etc. "We don't want people tracking us down," said one of the blog's organizers.
Likewise, many responses from viewers are anonymous. Whether that's good or bad is the subject of much debate.
Barnett said he reads Vermont political blogs occasionally. "You can almost begin to recognize the same people saying the
same things," he said. He's been tempted to toss in an anonymous response, he said, "but I never have. I've got better
things to do."
Quinn, who identifies himself as AQ when he posts comments on PoliticsVT, can see some advantages to anonymity. People who
work in government can say what they want politically without fear of reprisal on the job, he said. "It allows more people
Baruth said he finds anonymous blogs generate a more hate-filled debate that is difficult to respond to. "It's maddening,
I think," he said. "One of the things I think is key to political health is standing behind your words."
David Mindich, chairman of the St. Michael's College Journalism and Mass Communications Department, said he worries that
the anonymity that comes with debating politics online poses a danger to democratic debate. In a traditional town meeting,
people are forced to face their adversaries. Online, those same people might drop a political bomb and walk away from the
There are other risks to the political blogging phenomenon, Mindich said. Surveys have indicated that many Web users have
difficulty telling the difference between reliable and unreliable information, he said, and blogs often use a mixture of
With that caution, Mindich said, blogs probably do more good than harm. "Any time we have more information and more views,
it's probably a good thing."
"John Milton once said that the best views will prevail."
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 229-9141 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Some Vermont political blogs POLITICSVT: An anonymous group that posts items that range from recently published Vermont
news stories to rumors: www.politicsvt.blogspot.com/
SCUDDER PARKER: The Democratic candidate for governor posts statements that viewers may comment on: www.scudderparker.com/
VERMONTERSFIRST: A liberal-leaning group posts some self-generated, some previously published Vermont-centered political
articles, with responses attached: www.vermontersfirst.org/
VERMONT DAILY BRIEFING: Writer and teacher Philip Baruth of Burlington comments on world and local political issues. He
doesn't offer viewers an immediate response mechanism, but welcomes e-mails: www.vermontdailybriefing.com/
VERMONT SENATE RACE: An anonymous group that claims political neutrality posts news articles about the race for the U.S.
Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords. The site does not have a comment feature: www.vermontsenaterace.com/
DOHIYI MIR: Todd Pritsky of Fletcher runs an eclectic blog, the name of which means peace in Cherokee and Russian. The
blog hits upon world and local politics and invites comments: www.dohiyimir.typepad.com/
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