WASHINGTON — Beltway politicos, famously slow to adopt technology, are wooing blogs - all but Trent Lott.
"Bloggers claim I was their first pelt, and I believe that. I'll never read a blog," says the former Senate majority leader, who forfeited that title after bloggers Joshua Micah Marshall and Glenn Reynolds picked up a racially charged remark, drawing the attention of mainstream media (MSM) and his Senate colleagues.
Blogs (short for web logs) are websites that can be as basic as an online diary, or as fully fledged as a political community. And when the latter variety seizes upon a topic - creating a blog swarm - the results can be overwhelming.
From former CBS anchor Dan Rather, stung by blog exposure over his use of forged documents, to the negative buzz about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, political blogs aren't just reacting to the news: they're making it.
That's why politicians are eager to co-opt them - or, at least, engage them.
Last week, House Republicans convened the first ever "Capitol Hill Blog Row." In a small committee room in the Capitol, a dozen bloggers, selected by an informal poll of GOP staff, were provided soft drinks, a high-speed Net connection, and access to top Republican figures for half a day. Issues discussed ranged from how to cut government spending to the future of the GOP.
As a follow-up, Speaker Hastert is launching his own blog. "Blogging is the new talk radio," says Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. "People listen to talk radio because the mainstream media is too liberal for them. It makes sense for the Speaker to get the Republican message out to them."
Blogs still rank well behind traditional television, radio, and newspaper outlets as a source of news, but they are gaining ground rapidly. The liberal blog Daily Kos attracted nearly 4.8 million visitors this July, compared with 3.4 million in January, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.
"The number of people who engage in political discussion or get political news from all online sources, including blogs, is skyrocketing and currently numbers over 75 million Americans," write journalists David Kline and Dan Burstein in their new book, "Blog! how the newest media revolution is changing politics, business, and culture."
Movers and shakers in Washington, especially their younger staff, pay attention to blogs and, increasingly, seek to engage them. At the Democratic National Committee (DNC), chairman Howard Dean, who pioneered the use of the Internet to raise funds for his 2004 presidential campaign, has set up an Internet Department to get his message out to the blogs.
"Sometimes there are stories that don't fit with our larger, overall national media strategy that we send out to encourage and motivate and engage people in the blogosphere," says DNC spokesman Josh Earnest. "It's hard to imagine how we could communicate with them so effectively without this new technology," he adds.
The nominations of John Roberts and Ms. Miers, the first Supreme Court nominations in 11 years, were also the first to test the power of the blogosphere to shape debate on a complex, fast-moving story.
"A lot of staff working on this read a lot of blogs," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
"[Blogs] have an effect on the questions that get asked about a nominee," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
A small cottage industry of judicial blogs tackled nominee's qualifications, records and documents, as well as commenting on hearings in real time. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, aka the "cybersenator" and first Senate blogger, set up a dedicated blog to cover the Roberts confirmation hearings.
But activists on both sides of the aisle expect the Miers hearings to draw much more blog interest. "On the Roberts fight, the blogs didn't add much to the debate. But on this one, they're vital," says Manuel Miranda, a conservative activist who is leading a coalition opposing the nomination.
• Bench Memos: The National Review's conservative take on the courts. (bench.nationalreview.com)
• SCOTUSblog: One law firm's perspective on developments at the US Supreme Court. (www.scotusblog.com/movabletype)
• Daily Kos: One of the liberal powerhouses of the blogosphere. (www.dailykos.com).