Not long ago, the path by which the recent Justice Department scandal traveled from tidbit to tsunami would have been seen as an exotic trip through an unknown land. These days, it’s almost routine. A prominent blogger — Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo — posted an item last December about a US attorney who had been fired for mysterious reasons. Marshall asked his readers for help. And in the weeks and months that followed, they responded by sending him similar tales. Marshall and his posse of blogger-reporters kept the story cooking on Talking Points Memo and a companion site, TPM Muckraker. The mainstream media finally noticed that the Bush administration had been playing politics with federal prosecutors. Soon, the Justice Department was in full meltdown mode. And, in late summer, after many months of twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally resigned.
That this tale of media ecology now seems unremarkable says much about how rapidly the media have evolved in the Internet age. At a moment when the traditional media are hemorrhaging readers, viewers, and listeners, a new type of media — democratic, decentralized, grassroots, melding elements of journalism with political activism — is thriving. The animating idea behind the most innovative projects is that news is a conversation. No longer should readers, viewers, or listeners be seen as passive recipients of whatever the media feel like feeding them. Now we can talk back — and, more importantly, participate.
It is a remarkably open moment, similar to radio in the early part of the 20th century. As with radio, some corporations — in this case, the telecommunications giants — would like to bring that moment to a close by pricing small players out of existence. The threat is real; if “net neutrality,” the term for the equal access we now enjoy, is lost, we’ll be getting most of our online content from the same media giants that dominate broadcast, cable, and print. For now, though, the open Internet is enabling grassroots media on an unprecedented scale.
Consider this: were it not for YouTube, Virginia voters never would have seen Republican senator George Allen blurt out the vaguely racist word “macaca” at Democratic rival Jim Webb’s dark-skinned, video-camera-wielding aide last fall. Not only would have voters likely re-elected Allen, but today he might well have emerged as a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Instead, he’s back home in Virginia, wondering how it all went wrong.
Or look at MoveOn.org and Daily Kos, two websites devoted to political organizing from a progressive point of view. Such sites have proved so adept at generating money and excitement that they may well have been indispensable to the Democrats’ taking back both branches of Congress last fall. (Not that such sites can’t sometimes prove to be a mixed blessing — witness how the right mobilized over MoveOn’s recent full-page ad in the New York Times asking whether General David Petraeus might prove to be “General Betray Us.”)