|June 21, 2005: Looking for a laugh? Tune into "Inside the Blogs". A new feature
on CNN's Inside Politics. Two blog reporters (blogs are their
beat!) inform a news anchor and the audience as to what blogs
are saying about national and international events. And more
important, what blogs are saying about what the mainstream
newsmedia is saying about national and international events.
Though the self referential chit-chat is plenty comic, the real
gut buster are the visuals: they make the TV Yule Log look
kinetic. Picture a screen displaying a picture of a computer
screen displaying blogs. As in-- a TV within a TV filled with
print too fine to read.
Possibly "Blogs" is meant for people who never go online, but who
want to be able to say they've seen a blog. Hence it's like one
of those 1950's guides to the beatnik life for folks who never
went near Greenwich Village. Since such guides tend to spell over
& out, "Blogs" may signal that the blogasphere needs fresh air.
Watching blogs watch the newsmedia watch national and
international news could turn bogasphere. Though watching the
newsmedia watch blogs watch the newsmedia watch the national
and international news is still instructive. Because it shows
how easily blogs could be absorbed, via a symbiotic relationship,
into conglom newsmedia mush.
Don't get me wrong. It's good that some blogs and websites cover
the same national and international events covered by say, CNN.
Particularly when they enlarge on the material or spot gaps in
the coverage. But the immense Internet ocean of IMHO on subjects
such as Dubya's latest flub, or political jockeying in the ho
house of Congress, is a dead sea. It's as if a zillion versions
of New Republic and National Review had surfaced; the only new
thing being the format. More bloggers and web authors should look
homeward angel. Local fronts are crying out for a wider range of
coverage and opinion. And iconoblasts take note-- home sweet
home is where free speech can prove most risky.
In May of 2000, Sergio Bichao, a 16 year old high school student
in Hillside, New Jersey, started his news-site DaHiller. As an
alternative to his school newspaper which he believed was too
accommodating to the administration. Eventually Bichao's critical
eye ranged far beyond high school, to the political scene in
Hillside and the surrounding areas of Jersey. DaHiller became
widely popular. As Matt Welch in the Online Journalism Review
put it in 2001: Bichao was the "teenage Matt Drudge". DaHiller
covered what interested many people in Bichao's area. Topics
which weren't getting enough coverage by the local "adult"
newsmedia. Not only were they too circumspect re local political
corruption, but they gave short shrift in general to area news.
Sergio Bichao commented that local reporters preferred covering
events such as floods in Mexico, rather than which candidate
got elected to what local board. Because they thought the latter
topic less prestigious. But what impacts local readers more?
A disaster thousands of miles away? Or a home grown
While in high school Sergio Bichao and his parents experienced
the retaliatory wrath of the administration. But in 2003 Bichao
won a seat on the school board. On a slate of reformers.
Bichao's take on local newsmedia resonates widely. Which is one
reason why websites and blogs focused on local politics have
become a staple of the Internet. But even in areas with a
conscientious press, such enterprises thrive. DaHiller for
instance, is one among many such sites/blogs in New Jersey. It's
not that all of Jersey has no good newspapers. It's just that
there's so much corruption, so little paper. Contempt for
Jersey's sleazy political scene drips from the Net. Bloggers
and posters keep a running account of who paid which pol for
what public deal. In the halls of Garden State government ears
must burst into Tiki torches nightly. Across the border in
Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia newsmedia is no slouch. Yet a
host of blogs hack at Philly's corrupt, pay-to-play culture as
currently embodied in the administration of Mayor John Street.
New York City is rife with blogs and sites delivering "all the
news the Times won't print"* but hey-- that's to be expected.
What's really intriguing is the burgeoning scene in upstate
Apple Knocking The Net
Broad swaths of upstate New York languish in post-industrial
malaise. The continued exportation of manufacturing jobs
hasn't helped. When good jobs are scarce people are more easily
intimidated by the threat of job related political retaliation.
A practice not uncommon upstate. While there's an upstate
population outflow of young people seeking opportunity, there's
a corresponding inflow (particularly in urban areas) of people
dependent on various forms of social services. Hence on local
political structures. Overall, social mobility is more limited
and class distinctions more felt than in the flatlands. Political
and business connections often go back for generations and are
frequently based on family ties. Not a negative per se, but when
combined with other factors the result is a hush-hush society.
And one resistant to change. **
Until recently upstate wasn't a big area for slash and burn
political sites and blogs. But exasperation with government in
the area is growing. And thanks to free blogging services such
as Blogspot (now Google Blogger) and LiveJournal which provide
user friendly blog software and templates, it's become easy and
inexpensive to mount the cyber soapbox. Not a minute too soon.
So many things upstate say blog me. Take the Erie Canal
redevelopment fiasco. Please do say those who prefer to forget
it. Or how about the unimpressive job creation and alleged
cronyism of the Empire Zone (EZ) program upstate under the
"oversight" of development czar Charles Gargano? A little more
scrutiny of gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer's upstate
record as Attorney General would be welcome. Was the sheriff of
Wall Street missing in action re public corruption on Main
Street? Then there are the policies that helped turn upstate
cities into drug thug central and the ever popular (not) taxes
taxes taxes. Plus the overall state of state government. And
assorted public servants at all levels who seem to think elected
office is just a crown turned upside down.
Kings Go Forth
Though the blog & site scene in western New York is generally
more lively than in the east (as example, Buffalo is popping),
fresh breezes do blow in the Hudson Valley. Among them, Democracy
in Albany (DIA). Or more accurately, democracy in Albany under
the reign of Mayor Jerry Jennings. Until DIA there were no sites
or blogs in the state capital that consistently covered the
Jennings administration from a critical perspective. (I do my
part from time to time but Mondo QT has never focused exclusively
on Albany.) Amazing considering that Jennings has been in office
for going on 12 years and definitely has his detractors. But
Albany epitomizes a locked down political culture: it's a one
party town with autocratic machine traditions. That so many
people are employed by state government doesn't help: civil
servants see on-the-job political payback as a real and present
danger. Plus the selling of the area's Tech Valley vision has
raised boosterism to an ideological level, making critical
coverage of conditions in Albany seem an act of subversion
As an indicator of the Soviet style of Albany civic life, DIA's
author believes it necessary to remain anonymous. Personally, I
dislike anonymity-- since it can perpetuate the perception of
political criticism as dangerous. But the masked DIA ranger has
reasonable reasons. And an engaging, informed style. Though the
Jennings admin is DIA's main course, other subjects are served
with similar panache. May a thousand diverse DIAs bloom. And
spread like dandelions after a rainstorm.
Much as I dig straight up local political crit sites/blogs as
embodied by DIA (or say, Mia Scanga's Stop Bret Schundler in Jersey City, New Jersey: SBS being the mother of all local
deep dish sites) I also admire ones which provide a broader
picture of living la vida local. In Albany, the Bray Papers, the
website of environmental attorney and journalist Paul Bray, is
a go-to place for insight re the Capital Region and upstate New
York. Particularly the "Eye From Albany" section. Far more can be
found there as well: including Bray's many thoughtful and widely
published pieces on urban life and regional planning. Paul Bray
grew up in Albany: his love for his hometown shines through in
his writings. But he's not a nostalgic sentimentalist, nor does
he wear blinders. Bray sees what is good and beautiful in his
city, but also acknowledges what isn't. And tries to change the
latter while not losing sight of the former.
On the political front Bray is part of the Albany Civic Agenda,
a group attempting, via city charter reform, to change the shape
of municipal government. From its current mayor-centric form to
one where the Albany Common Council has a more meaningful role.
A wise idea since Mayor Jennings is running for fourth term on
the throne. With no equally well-funded opponent in sight.
The Bay State Of Mind
In a direct line east from Albany on I-90 lies the city of
Springfield, Massachusetts. The Bay State. Springfield has all
the problems of many American middle sized post-industrial
cities. Drug trade, poverty and public corruption. The last
particularly extreme. (Though not in relation to say, Camden,
New Jersey). But Springfield also has residents who love it.
Albeit ruefully. With a touch of black humor. A state of
mind often found in folks from afflicted cities.
Tom Devine at the Bay State Objectivist often writes about
Springfield. The city where he grew up. To my mind, the Bay State
Objectivist (which is something between a blog and a website)
epitomizes all a local site can be. Though Devine serves up
Springfield's political parasites with plenty of crunch, he
also evokes the charm that can still be found in Springfield.
And the decency and uniqueness of many of its residents. Devine
seamlessly combines observations on large and small. Remarks on
the first flower of Spring appearing in a crack on the sidewalk
flow into a dissertation on the cracked condition of Springfield
municipal government. An ode to a long time family restaurant
closing in a neighborhood turned family unfriendly, segues into
an account of the latest surreal politically correct doings at a local college
famous for surreal politically correct doings.
Tom Devine has a history as a radio talk show personality.
Because he's such a talented storyteller anyone from anywhere can
drop into the Bay State Objectivist and be drawn into the inner
life of Springfield. Plus Devine peppers the whole mix with off-
beat photos and killer jokes. Though the site gets its name from
an oblique political joke referencing the philosophy of Ayn Rand,
in its local universalism and whimsical good humor the Bay
State Objectivist evokes what might have resulted had
G. K. Chesterton blogged.
Johnny On The Spots
The most tightly focused local sites and blogs hone in on a
particular issue. Such sites are also often the most ephemeral--
since issues can go away. Though some keep going and going and
going. See housing warfare in New York City. See it on RentWars.
Where for years Ronin Amano has helped New York City tenants
navigate a housing environment so hostile and convoluted that few
living outside the city can imagine it. Though there are plenty
of effective pro-tenant sites in NYC, RentWars brings a creative
playfulness to the dead serious topic, referencing wizards,
warriors and mythic battles. Lifting the spirits of those
embroiled in housing hell onto a grander plain. RentWars is a
handsome and stylish site, not the usual public service waiting
room in cyber space. Even those not locked in mortal kombat with
a NYC slumlord will enjoy a visit.
Another housing related issue pumping many a local site and
blog is eminent domain abuse. Eminent domain is the right of
government to take private property for public use. Traditionally
(and reasonably) invoked when building schools, bridges, etc.
But lately it's become a popular redevelopment tool. Most often
in poor or modest neighborhoods. The potential for increased tax
revenue via redevelopment provides local governments with the
"public use" rationale for invoking eminent domain. The most
common scenario has municipalities, in concert with quasi-public
redevelopment agencies, forcing property owners to sell their
homes or commercial structures to designated private developers.
At a "fair market price". Based on appraisals done under the
auspices of those most interested in getting a deal. If property
owners don't like the deal, they can take their local governments
to court. At their own expense in local courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether the
use of eminent domain for redevelopment is in accordance with
constitutionally protected property rights. If the Court says
not, many local eminent domain battles will be settled by fiat.
Related sites and blogs will go to the land of Cache. If the
Court says go, the battle will continue state to state***. Even
more eminent domain protest sites and blogs will spring up across
the nation as neighborhood after neighborhood hear bulldozers
coming over the hill.
In Camden, New Jersey, the bulldozers started revving awhile
ago. And the hill is literal. Cramer Hill, a low income Hispanic
neighborhood in Camden, faces death by revitalization. Residents
have responded by mounting a legal challenge at the state level.
The Cottage Coalition website ("every woman's cottage is her
castle") presents compelling stories of eminent domain abuse in
neighborhoods in 3 northeast cities-- including Camden. The
Camden section (Camden: Property theft in New Jersey's poorest city) also provides an informative and entertaining guide to
the Jersey Sleaze-O-Rama players who hope to help themselves to Cramer Hill.
The Eyes Have It
These are only a few local blogs and sites from the naked city.
Or county or town or village. Their numbers are growing. Along
with their sophistication. Not only are local blogs and sites
invaluable tools to those fighting good fights, but many are
fascinating places for outsiders to visit: the stories being told
there illuminate less well known corners of American life. Plus
they provide a handy dandy reference source for anyone seeking
local skinnies. Who, contrary to all those old comic book ads,
aren't cringing at the beach inhaling bully sand. But are instead
hunkering down on beds of public money in local halls of power.
Wishing John or Jane Blogger would just go watch the mainstream
newsmedia watch national and international events.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Send comments or confidential tips to:
*A slogan of Hell's Kitchen Online. A NYC neighborhood site
**As example, in 2001 "Governing Magazine" in conjunction with
the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, rated city management
practices in Buffalo, New York as 34th in a study of 35. Among a
number of contributing factors was that political and business
leadership in the area tended to come from the same families for
decades, with little impetus to change.
***In March, the state of Utah, in response to citizen outcry,
became the first to ban the use of eminent domain by