President blogger panel gets mixed results

The blogs on the case

Remember the good old days of the 2004 election season, when the Bush campaign would hold “public” events that were stocked with rabid Bush supporters, and anyone who didn’t unflinchingly back the president was escorted out of the event, or denied entry?

Well, something akin to those good old days went down last week when the White House extended its first ever invitation to a group of bloggers to sit down with the president for a little Q&A. Like those old campaign events, or like other similar sit-downs the president has had with conservative reporters, the reason for the meeting was a sales pitch—in this case, the president’s determination to continue the war in Iraq.

The bloggers invited are all smart enough to understand why they were summoned, as invitee John Donovan noted on his blog: “Make no mistake—he knew we were going to generally be a receptive audience, and we were. The staff knew our blogs, and they knew that while some of us have not always been fans or happy with things as they are, they knew we were not going to storm the Bastille, either.”

Sounds perfect! So what good news have the bloggers reported? Mostly that the president is a kick-ass dude. Blackfive brags that “The President of the United States slapped my hand and called me ‘brutha.’ Top that.” And of course, Bush was on his game: “The President was very intelligent, razor sharp, warm, focused, emotional (especially about his dad), and genuine…I was overwhelmed by the sincerity—it wasn’t staged.”

N.Z. from Victory Caucus
looked long and hard into the president’s soul (not unlike Bush’s own moment of moral clarity when he met Vlad Putin), and concluded that “anyone who sat through an hour with this man as I did and came away unconvinced that he sincerely believes in the message of freedom and the necessity of this fight would have to be crazy. He exudes sincerity and passion when he speaks of this mission, and I’m simply baffled by anyone who tries to claim that it’s all politics, or all Halliburton, or all about the oil. Not for the man I saw today, it isn’t.”

My personal favorite post from the confab came from the National Review’s Steve Schippert, who is better than most comedians at consistently making me laugh. He gushed that “It is hard to write without tearing, so forgive the brevity. It is surreal to me that an Illinois farm kid finds himself—with absolutely no traditional pedigree beyond sweat, focus and self-study—seated in the Roosevelt Room with the President of the United States discussing the direction, progress and challenges as we see them in a conflict that history will reflect defines this generation.”

Now, bloggers aren’t New York Times reporters (that’s the point, right?), and bloggers can write whatever they want about a given topic. But this stuff is pretty sloppy, by any standard. These guys got some face time with the President of the United States, and the best they can do is titter about is how cool he is, and that he has the power to make a “Illinois farm kid” cry? Give me a break.

In case we needed a reminder, this is why the blogworld is not yet a viable substitute for actual journalism.

To be fair, I read these blogs on a pretty consistent basis, and I know that most of them are not simply cheerleaders for the president’s policies. Still, these initial reports are embarrassingly thin, reading like warmed over Pravda dispatches from a quivering party hack. In the end though, this is exactly what the White House was counting on when it set up this little pow-wow. The invited blogs have reasonably large audiences, and even if their readers have already taken a big slurp of the Bush Kool-Aid, it can’t hurt to rally the troops now and then. Adding a bit of presidential hero-worship to the bigger PR push following last week’s testimony by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus creates enough noise to keep the “thirty percenters” (the president’s approval rating for the better part of two years) happy.

It should be noted that Bill Roggio and Bill Ardolino, two bloggers who joined by teleconference from Iraq, are conspicuous for the substantive reports they delivered of the meeting, and were the only attendees who weren’t carried away by the atmospherics of the event. But that might be due, at least in part, to the fact that they’re in Iraq, living and reporting what the president and his panel were discussing.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.