With presidential hopefuls relying more on new media, campaign bloggers emerge as the latest political target
For politicians running for the highest elected office in the US, hiring a blogger is increasingly becoming a required step in the campaign arsenal.
But presidential candidates - and the bloggers they hire - are likely to begin wondering if this addition is worth the hassle, after John Edwards and his two campaign bloggers spent time in early February fending off attacks for the bloggers' previous works.
A conservative Catholic group accused the two bloggers of anti-Catholic bias based on some writings, which could be described as either profane or tongue-in-cheek, that they did before joining the Edwards team. The Democratic candidate ultimately decided to keep the bloggers on his staff after they issued an apology, but both chose to resign within a week, citing the external pressures. The incident left many in the political blogosphere with a sense that the rules may have changed in the new world where professional politics and the Internet collide.
Kate Bedingfield, an Edwards campaign spokeswoman, declined to comment past a statement Edwards issued, which said, in part, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it's intended as satire, humor, or anything else."
Bloggers who spoke to PRWeek say their ilk is not likely to enjoy total freedom to opine while working on behalf of a campaign.
Lowell Feld, who blogged on behalf of Sen. James Webb's (D-VA) 2006 campaign, notes that "if you're on a political campaign, you don't have a tremendous amount of latitude to write whatever you want on whatever subject you want." He adds that he tried to stay as "on message" as possible.
Dan Gerstein, who worked as a blogger and adviser for Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) before opening his own consulting firm, says via e-mail that "campaigns led by more traditional and less digitally literate managers will typically [be] less tolerant of envelope-pushing language and tactics online" than those with younger, savvier managers.
Other campaign veterans confirm that bloggers are generally asked to stick to approved themes, but are given some freedom to speak more informally in order to reach the blogosphere's edgier audience.
Political bloggers, however, were divided on how much campaigns should be on the hook for hiring people with previous controversial opinions.
"In the new generation, everybody's a blogger... and anyone who's worth their salt on the Internet has said something controversial," says Cenk Uygur, an Air America talk show host who blogs on the Huffington Post. "So does that mean the whole new generation of people... are eliminated from being involved in politics? That's crazy."
Patrick Hynes, who has achieved online fame for writing the conservative blog Ankle Biting Pundits and is a prominent "blog outreach consultant" currently working for Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) presidential campaign, is less of a fan of such scrutiny.
"I would caution against holding the totality of a blogger's previous work against them in the context of a campaign," Hynes says via e-mail. "I don't think criticisms of a blogger's personal opinions will have much of an impact on the political fortunes of a campaign. Successful political campaigns are about a candidate's vision for the future, not about their staff's."
But Gerstein does not think bloggers deserve any type of special free pass for their previous work.
"Bloggers should be treated no differently than any other staffer - their prior public writings and comments reflect on their boss whether they like it or not, just as a policy director's former white papers would," he says.
In all likelihood, campaign blogs and those who write them will slowly become just another accepted target on the political battlefield.
"Political Reporting 101: Go find scandal," says Uygur, "whether scandal is worthwhile or not."