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Congress catching on to the value of blogs

It's starting slowly, but a group of senators and representatives are now blogging, and some observers expect the number to grow as elections near.

When someone calling himself "John Kerry" posted a diary on the popular liberal community blog DailyKos last week, its members reacted with both suspicion and amazement.

Some immediately welcomed Kerry to the community, expressing pleasant surprise that the Massachusetts senator would take part in "our little progressive group blog."

Others, however, were more skeptical. They found it hard to imagine that Kerry himself had posted on DailyKos, since it could have been one of the senator's staffers or even a random person using the senator's name.

But before long, the site's owner, Markos Moulitsas, posted a comment confirming that the diary was legitimate. All told, Kerry's post received 1,219 comments, many friendly and many from members of the community still angry at the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee for losing the election to George W. Bush.

Congressional bloggers

Eleven members of Congress have jumped into the blogosphere so far. Some have gone the whole nine yards and allow readers to publish responses to their musings. Other aren't there yet.

Web site Allows posts?
Mike Conaway's Blog
Rep. Mike Conaway
R- Tex.
Yes
ConyersBlog
Rep. John Conyers
D-Mich.
Yes
John Kerry's Diary
Sen. John Kerry
D-Mass.
Yes
Congressman Kirk's Blog
Rep. Mark Kirk
R-Ill.
No
Speaker's Journal
Rep. Dennis Hastert
R-Ill.
No
John Linder's Blog
Rep. John Linder
R-Ga.
No
Obama.Senate.Gov.Blog
Sen. Barack Obama
D-Ill.
No

Rep. Frank Pallone
D-N.J.
No
Give 'Em Hell Harry
Sen. Harry Reid
D-Nev.
Yes
Louise-Blog
Rep. Louise Slaughter
D-N.Y.
Yes
Tom's Blog
Rep. Tom Tancredo
R-Colo.
Yes

Just a year ago, a DailyKos posting from someone like John Kerry would have been all but unheard of, and blogging of any kind by members of Congress was almost nonexistent. But now that dynamic is starting to change, and slowly, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are beginning to appreciate the value of blogs.

"When I reach out to the blog community, it gives me an opportunity to begin a dialogue with an extremely politically sophisticated and active community that I otherwise might not be able to reach," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com. "Another benefit of blogging is that, as opposed to delivering a speech, you get immediate and unlimited feedback, both positive and negative."

Obama and Kerry are two of about 11 members of Congress who are blogging today, either on their own blogs or as guests on others' sites. Republicans like Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas have joined the fray, along with Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York.

That's still a small percentage of Congress, but some observers of politics and blogs think a greater number of Washington's elected officials will soon come around.

"I think there's a new level of comfort among many politicians that a blog is a way that you can put your positions out and carry on an online conversation about them," said Larry Biddle, a veteran Democratic political operative and the deputy national finance director for Howard Dean's unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.

According to Kirk, a mistrust of the Internet and blogging in particular, on the part of some members of Congress, is slowly giving way to the realities that the Internet and blogging provide a unique way to communicate with constituents.

"It doesn't cost us anything to put up anything on the Web, and it doesn't cost my constituents anything to go and see it," Kirk told CNET News.com. "This is rapidly going to become the dominant way we talk to our constituents, (especially) as snail mail dies out."

Others see blogging as a way to break through the barriers to direct communication with constituents, barriers that have always been a function of the one-way nature of newspapers and television.

To Conyers, considered by many to be the most blog-savvy member of Congress, Dean's campaign and its aftermath offered an example of how elected officials can engage with a populace weary of politicians looking at them as just sources of campaign contributions.

"For me, the Internet and blogging serve other purposes that have nothing to do with raising money," Conyers wrote in October on his blog. "The (mainstream media) simply will not report on the actions of a party that lacks the White House or majority control of either house of Congress. Blogging lets me bypass that filter and take my message directly to many voters."

Of course, not all congressional bloggers get the feedback benefit--or risk, depending on whom you ask--of comments. Part of that involves a rule prohibiting comments on federal Web sites. And part involves a decision by some members that blogging is more a method of getting a personalized message out than of engaging in conversation.

And to some, the lack of comments on the official blogs of those like Kirk, Hastert, Obama and others actually calls into question their use of the term "blog."

Without comments, a blog is "just a glorified press release," said Mike Cornfield, an adjunct professor in political management at George Washington University.

Others aren't sure comments are a necessary component.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and a prominent blogger himself, said there are several popular blogs, including the technology culture blog Boing Boing and the conservative political blog Instapundit, that don't have comments.

Some members of Congress, like Conyers, Conaway, Reid and Slaughter, have bypassed the rule against comments on federal sites by starting external blogs. And those sites give constituents a way to engage directly with those politicians.

Regardless, more important than accepting comments, Rosen said, is that the politicians themselves write the blog entries, or at least some of them.

"When Barack Obama addressed the bloggers at the Democratic National Convention" in 2004, said Rosen, "He said, 'Welcome, welcome. I may start a blog myself.' And he said, 'I may be coming to you for advice.' And I shouted out to him, 'Write it yourself.' He said, 'Oh, well, as soon as I find three free hours a day, I will.' Which meant never. And he's learning it's necessary for him to write it himself. Because that's what's really powerful."

Meanwhile, with the 2008 presidential election looming, Biddle thinks that those seeking the White House, like Kerry, will do themselves a disservice if they don't take advantage of blogs.

"Candidates who are considering the presidency are going to have to (blog)," Biddle said. "Because this is a large audience of people, and if you're a politician wanting to present your wares and ideas, you'd better be out there in the conversation with your ideas as well as listening. You need to be listening and responding. That's what the blog allows for."

In the end, though, politicians like Obama feel that taking part in blogging simply means using the latest mechanism to help people connect to their elected representatives.

"The benefit of blogging for constituents is that it provides them with yet another way to communicate with the people they voted--or didn't vote--into office," Obama said by e-mail. "I think any tool that increases civic participation is good for democracy."

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