More politicians write blogs to bypass mainstream media

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is one of the latest to stay in touch with constituents by airing his unedited views online.

But for the name at the top of the page, the Web log would seem unspectacular - the work of some disaffected technophile tilting against the establishment:

"Bloggers are a force," quips the blog in an eclectic column that ricochets from San Francisco journalism to German philosophy. "The established order of politics (EOP) and the MSM [mainstream media] face a big challenge from this fearless army."

This, however, is not the rallying call of some anonymous agitator. This is one of the first blog entries by Jerry Brown, mayor of Oakland. For a politician who has always teetered on the edge of the counterculture - known as Mayor Moonbeam - the leap from establishment figure to cultural insurgent is perhaps not a difficult one. But more politicians are following in his footsteps, looking to the Web as a way to bypass the media and get out their own message - unvarnished and unedited.

"I'm not surprised that [blogs] are being adopted by people inside the establishment - they're perceived as very real, very intimate," says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington. "It's a way of having constituents feel very in touch."

Recently, Web logs - or "blogs" - have been most notable for their evolving role in "gotcha" journalism. Though most of the estimated 8 million blogs on the Internet are little more than online diaries, a small percentage have a more serious aim, acting as media watchdogs, insider newsletters, or political gadflys. Blogs exposed poor reporting by CBS anchorman Dan Rather, hastening his departure, and they successfully pressured the top news executive at CNN to resign.

Yet politicians are beginning to see blogs are more than forums for snoops. To some, they are the ultimate cyberspace soapbox. United States Rep. Ray Cox of Minnesota was the first major politician to start a blog, according to the Pew Project, and the prime minister of Japan has one. "It enriches the conversation and provides a forum for an exchange of ideas that - for a public official - is very useful," says Oakland's Mayor Brown.

His blogs can range from the practical to the existential - touching on a local curfew for probationers or the imprisonment of a blogger in Iran, where he muses: "Schopenhauer said that extracting truth from oneself required putting one's mind on a rack and subjecting it to relentless interrogation - so prone are we to delusion and denial."

To be sure, his blogs fuel full-blooded discussions. On one, a respondent writes: "Why are you wasting time with a blog when you have a city falling apart around you? I sold my house in Oakland last year to escape your horrid administration and every day I wake up happy, knowing that I'm no longer paying property tax in Oakland."

Another counters: "Wow, I thought you were a nut and off the map. After reading [your] comments, I think I will ... reevaluate."

In many ways, the blog provides politicians an opportunity to recast themselves away from the mainstream media. Across the bay in San Francisco, Supervisor Chris Daly has begun a blog to counter what he feels is biased reporting in the local paper.

"I've not done well in the newspaper coverage," says Mr. Daly. "The Internet is a way to get my message out to people who are wired."

Entire communities have turned to the Web in hopes of providing information ignored by mainstream media that are gradually consolidating into fewer voices. Situated between Los Angeles and Anaheim - and largely overlooked by both - Bellflower, Calif., now sends out e-bulletins to residents - announcing Easter egg hunts and chili cook-offs once reported in newspapers.

"Generally it was just the shootings and robberies that made the news," says Jeff Hobbs, a city spokesman.

For now, the number of e-subscribers is small, but it is the beginning of what could be a bigger role for the Internet in politics. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean unveiled the power of the Internet by tapping the Web for fundraising. Now, politicians like Brown are beginning to explore where politics goes from there.

"Blogs are where online fundraising was before Howard Dean," says Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University. "Radio was around for a while before [President Franklin Roosevelt's] first fireside chat.... For the Internet, nobody's had that breakthrough moment yet."

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