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Lydon Picks Blogs Over Mainstream Media

A Leonard Witt Instant Message Interview

Today’s interview is with Blogging of the President–2004 host Christopher Lydon. Lydon, formerly of National Public Radio, is now a blogger and as this interview makes clear, he is moving further away from the mainstream press and deeper into web generated information.

Key Exchange:

If in this election you had to choose between blog coverage and mainstream media coverage, what would be your choice and why?

Lydon: I read the mainstream media mainly to observe its manipulations and mistakes–it has been my world for many years and I have a lot of friends there. I would miss it some, but for information and provocative reflection on what this election is about, no question I would choose the Web, including the beloved blogs.

The Complete Instant Message Interview:

Leonard Witt: Hi Chris, from reading the Blogging of the President weblog I see you are right in the thick of things in Iowa. How is that going?

Christopher Lydon: It’s very instructive to see it all in the flesh, on the ground; to have observed Kerry and Dean rallies in two nights and know the difference. That’s the beginning, but it reflects on the game of polling and press manipulation that’s swirling around the whole process. It confirms my sense that the truth of this campaign is closer on the Web.

Witt:What do mean closer on the web?
Lydon: Well, my whole experiment with blogging grew out of the frustrations of following American politics in the old media, up to and including The New York Times. The grand institutions are falling apart on the basic business of telling us what’s going on. They never really explained Bush, never warned or even inquired about the war in Iraq, and seem to have no understanding of the popular reaction–and now the Dean campaign. So I’m one of those who goes automatically, many times a day now, to the Web, to get a sense of what people are actually thinking and doing.

Witt: Interesting. I heard that the BBC alone has 40 people in Iowa. What impact can you have, what more can be said? How does it differ from what the mainstream press is doing?
Lydon: I’m not trying to “cover” the process, much less predict what’s going on. I’m trying to observe the change in chemistry and spirit rising up not just in the new century, but in the new circumstances of a rather darkly unknown government, a lot of dis-informational media, a popular rebellion against it, and the campaigns that are trying to tap into a rebellion. I think we’re in a pre-revolutionary moment in the broader American conversation, and I came out to see if I could see it. And I think we can.

Witt: In the Blogging of the President intro you say weblogs will transform the media and politics and now you speak of a revolution. What is a post revolution, post transformation going to look like?
Lydon: It will look and feel like the world that the old cliches of journalism describe: “print the news and be damned.” “the people’s right to know.” It will be a restoration of Emerson’s ideal of self-reliant expressive speech and Emerson’s hatred of conformity and “mass-everything.” It will rebel, obviously, against A. J. Liebling’s observation of the modern world that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Witt: That all sounds good, but when you came to Iowa and interviewed a citizen on the street, you learned: Like the vast majority of Iowans we’ve met, he won’t be caucusing Monday night…A disconcerting proportion of Iowans just turn away in silence, or laugh, or roll their eyes when a stranger asks about the presidential campaign. Where are the rebels?

Lydon: That was my observation on the blog about the tiny participation and the embarrassment of Iowans about “politics.” But that, too, partakes I think of the general disbelief in the party and media line. People don’t believe in the public life they hear and read about; they turn away. Of course, the response comes first from a small number, but I think it’s representative.

Lydon: (Between guestions, Lydon added this) Meantime, let me just say: I did see the differences at the Kerry and Dean rallies on Saturday and Sunday nights here in Iowa City. Kerry has “surged,” the polls and the Des Moines Register say, but you couldn’t prove it by his appearance. He spoke very firmly to a crowd of maybe 500 supporters in the Old Capital Mall. Both he and his endorser Gary Hart seemed to be channeling John F. Kennedy. They spoke with a high idealism about government service (theirs) and the unmet needs of ordinary people… but in the context of Dean it sounded retro and weak. Dean had closer to 2,000 followers at the Iowa Memorial Union (Sunday) night: younger, hipper, more talkative, funnier. Self-starters, not county and state officials, union people, populist Senator Tom Harkin. It had a coherence, a clarity, a sort of shared defiance of the public nonsense all around us. And he spoke directly to the War in Iraq issue (as Kerry can not) as the classic instance of the modern collaboration of government and media in bamboozling the folks.

Witt: Are you partisan? And does it matter?
Lydon: No, I’m not a partisan. I’m a little shocked to observe that in modern times I’ve voted mainly for Nader and Perot. I ran for mayor of Boston in a non-partisan free-for-all (and lost). But I find the partisan angles distracting nowadays.

I am not entirely sold on Dean, but I am hugely impressed by the spirit of his campaign and its viral power: it is the first use of the Web in politics that takes full advantage of the human dimensions of Internet architecture. It looks in the Dean campaign to be community friendly. It promotes expression and connection in all the ways that TV tended to destroy them. I am by nature an enthusiast, but hugely disheartened by the path of politics in recent years. And now the revival!

Witt: How did the idea of Blogging of the President get started, who helped launch it and why?
Lydon: A friend of ours who’d been reading my posts suggested: put a stake in the ground on November 4 (2003), exactly a year before the voting, and serve general notice that nobody understands the new game as it’s being played. Teddy White is 44 years out of date, and “the Boys on the Bus” doesn’t describe the media game anymore. Ask the bloggers out there to share an exploratory conversation about how it actually works, and see what happens. There could be a new radio show or a book in it, but for sure you’ll find some interest and some kindred writers. As we have.

Enter Matt Stoller, a brilliant young very broad-gauge citizen and writer, just out of Harvard with a lot of computer smarts. And then several others leapt in, as you can see. Jay McCarthy is an 18-year-old college student. Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at NYU. Stirling Newberry is a computer consultant with a head full of history, politics, literature and theory. And so it goes…

Witt:Who is underwriting it?
Lydon: Bob Doyle of has provided me with audio and computer equipment and has given me room in his home office and on his websites. But other than that, we haven’t had big expenses and haven’t asked for underwriting. The Berkman Center at Harvard paid for the plane tickets that got Matt and me to Iowa. But it’s a shoestring operation here.

Witt: On Sunday night you will be airing a public radio special. How many stations will be carrying it and what can we expect to hear?
Lydon: Minnesota Public Radio will be sending it by satellite to as many stations as want to carry it. I don’t know the total carriage, but it began with New York, LA, Minneapolis, probably Chicago and Seattle and Washington, and we’ll see who else.

The idea will be to note very sharply that something new has entered the media mix: a very lively mode of talking, listening, learning and connecting that is free, democratic, global, instant, independent, a little rude and restless, but vital and affirmative. And it has had an astonishingly powerful effect even before the conventional commentators noticed it was there. We will go into the Dean, Clark and other political symptoms of the change, but we want to explore also the media revolution that is implicit here. Jay Rosen spoke powerfully about it on my blog in early October. As he said, the “terms of authority” in journalism are changing.

Witt: Final question: If in this election you had to choose between blog coverage and mainstream media coverage, what would be your choice and why?
Lydon:I read the mainstream media mainly to observe its manipulations and mistakes–it has been my world for many years and I have a lot of friends there. I would miss it some, but for information and provocative reflection on what this election is about, no question I would choose the Web, including the beloved blogs.

Witt:Thanks for a great interview.

Agree with Lydon, disagree? Hit the comment button and let us know what you think. This interview was conducted on the day of the Iowa Caucuses. Does their outcome affect the movement Lydon speaks about?

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