Live, From A Blog, It’s Debate Night!

Live bloggers dish on the process

Most political bloggers would say that their craft requires a careful, often uneasy balance between taking the time to develop a worthwhile insight and responding with the speed the Internet demands.

The normal equation gets reworked during bouts of live blogging, when writers let their thoughts spill in almost real time on an event of national importance. In the politics world, the technique has become the tool of choice for election nights, state of the union addresses, and, especially, debates.

“You’re zooming along at ninety miles per hour,” says Katherine Seelye of The New York Times.

“This would be what we were shooting out of our mouths during the debate,” says Kathryn Jean Lopez, the editor of National Review Online, and a primary contributor to The Corner blog.

“If Bob Herbert was going to be saying things under his breath—‘That guys lying and that’s nonsense’—you’d want to hear that if you enjoyed his perspective. That’s what live blogging is,” said Steve Benen, who blogs for The Washington Monthly.

The speed attendant to the concept, of course, can lead to a predictable set of hazards—like intemperate, seat-of-the-pants reactions, or short blasts devoid of context.

“I try to have a measured tone when I write. I try not to fly off the handle,” says Benen. “I can think of a couple of times during the Palin debate where I was thoroughly annoyed and the emotions were kind of raw while I was experiencing it. And I probably used some intemperate language—not necessarily profanity or vulgarity—but language I probably wouldn’t have included had I not been live blogging.”

(At 9:40 that night, Benen wrote “She’s obscene.” Three minutes later: “She’s disgusting. Literally.”)

“Because you are commenting on the entire debate in little pieces, you might say ‘That was an idiotic statement, Senator McCain,’ and you will wind up in a DNC or Obama press release” says Lopez. She says she and other Corner contributors take care to add context “almost for self defense purposes, when all your readers start complaining you gave John Kerry or Barack Obama a passing grade in a debate, when all you did was one throwaway line on one throwaway line.”

The New York Times’s measured analysis separates its live blogging from the bulk of its competition, which tends to be more opinionated. But Seelye says other constraining aspects of Times style bother her more.

“We still have to say Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. If I could change anything, it would be to talk in the parlance of people who are having the conversation,” says Seelye. “People say Hillary. They don’t say Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Many live bloggers use “conversation” as a metaphor for what happens during the process. Readers email in ideas, and leave comments.

“In the comments section, they’re doing what I’m doing, logging in with their thoughts,” says Benen.

“To me the whole point of doing this is to go on the journey with the reader. It’s sort of the opposite of the voice-of-God journalism that we have at the end of the debates,” says Seelye. “They like being part of a conversation. They like seeing what other people think.”

“People find it useful because they wonder what other conservatives, what other like-minded people, are thinking,” says Lopez. “Or if you are a liberal, you’re wondering what the conservatives are thinking.”

No matter how much readers like the format, some bloggers still worry about how the need for speed can lapse into superficiality.

“One of the main disadvantages of blogs is that you feel a need to make an immediate statement and have some immediate analysis,” says Lopez, even on trivial matters. “You feel a need to comment on the lighting. Heck, someone commented on Gwen Ifill’s jacket. Because there’s a little bit of entertainment value at that point.”

“I still prefer to be able to stop and think about something, for at least for a minute,” says Benen. “Give me at least sixty—ninety—seconds. That’d be great!”

“In general I don’t love it but I appreciate that readers appreciate it, so I’ll keep doing it,” says Benen, who once the election’s over, imagines he’ll be able to shelve the format until the next president’s first state of the union address. Until then, Benen says, “I’m looking forward to not doing it some more.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.