We Are the Progressive Pushback We’ve Been Waiting For

Eric Boehlert of Media Matters has a great piece about how progressive blogs, lead by FireDogLake, orchestrated a massive push back on an Associated Press story by Nedra Pickler of Republican smear attacks on Barack Obama.

What prompted the organized outpouring of angst last week against the AP was when the website Firedoglake took action, embraced a new organizing tool, tapped into a wellspring of enthusiasm for Obama, and pointed angry readers not in the direction of the AP itself, but toward their local newspaper clients. Why? Because newspapers are more responsive to complaints filed by nearby readers, and because the newspapers pay the AP’s bills as newswire customers.

The riddle, though, was how to help readers contact hundreds of individual newspapers nationwide. “It’s like trying to wrestle an octopus,” says Jane Hamsher, founder of FDL. The solution centered on customizing a software tool that allowed online activists to effortlessly contact their local daily. The tool FDL modified was created by the online communications firm Blue State Digital. Readers simply entered their ZIP code into an on-screen box. The next screen displayed the local newspaper (or newspapers) in their region to be contacted and asked readers to enter their name and other personal information to be sent to the newspaper. The screen provided readers with pre-approved text (i.e., “I hope that in the future we can expect reporting that focuses on the candidate’s positions rather than trying to call into question how much they love the country they tirelessly serve.”)

If they wanted to, though, readers could personalize, or create, the letter themselves. Approximately half the letter writers in the FDL campaign wrote their own text. With the third click, the reader’s letter was sent to the newspaper.

FDL’s call to action was posted February 25 and was quickly trumpeted by fellow bloggers, who urged their readers to participate.

The results, according to FDL, as of March 3: 14,252, letters sent to 649 different newspapers located in all 50 states, and from 1,735 ZIP codes. That included more than 1,500 letters to The New York Times, 1,400 to both USA Today and The Washington Post — not to mention 52 to The Denver Post and 21 to the Florida Times-Union.

Why the overwhelming reaction from a single newspaper article? “It was such a clear example of something getting picked up from the right-wing attack machine and laundered into the mainstream press,” Hamsher told me, referring to the Pickler article. “It was the perfect storm because it was right at the time when we were ready to roll out the [organizing] tool. She just picked the wrong day to write that story. And the wrong target, because there is all this enthusiasm for Obama, and people wanting to get involved.”

It was the fervent Obama supporters from the diary section at the top-rated liberal website DailyKos who really made the project a success, says Hamsher. Tapping into the energy of the Obama fan base was a key goal of the letter-writing campaign. “All of a sudden you have all of this passion from people who are new to the political process. If we can put them to work and help educate them about the nature of the right-wing attack machine and use their energy, and channel it into tools, we can really make life difficult” for journalists who fail to maintain accepted standards, says Hamsher. “This is what actually got me into blogging; the potential to find a way to pull this kind of thing off.”

As a progressive movementarian who sees internet politics as the most promising avenue for renewing civic engagement for bettering America, I see this as a great sign of things to come. This is how the netroots – and hopefully soon more people who might not identify directly with the online progressive base – can stop bad media narratives, shoddy reporting, and smear attacks from the right on Democratic candidates, from President on down.

We all know that we will see many, many, many more pieces like Pickler’s whether our nominee is Obama or Clinton. The subject doesn’t matter, we know the attacks and the shoddy journalism will come. But if we have the ability to marshal tens of thousands of emails in response to bad reporting and target them directly at the outlets that run them, we can make editors at papers around the country think twice about taking conservative attack memes and portray them as news worthy of gracing anything other than the Letters to the Editor section.

It’s not as if Democratic campaigns don’t try to kill bad stories when they come out. I have no doubt that Obama’s press staff was simultaneously pushing back on Pickler and her editors. But that’s their job and these reporters and editors have working relationships with campaign press flacks. Democratic communications operatives have been working against hostile press reports for years and, generally speaking, a Democrat telling a reporter that their Republican attack narrative sucks and needs to be changed doesn’t shake the world, let alone the way the reporter and her editors will think about how they write their next piece.

But 15,000 letters to the editor of hundreds of media outlets is a different story. It’s a story that must be replicated as often as necessary throughout this campaign, because you will never change how reporters think based on one story alone. We need to be prepared to push back on the press whenever necessary, and Jane Hamsher and FireDogLake have provided us with the means and the model to do just that.

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