Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What is perhaps the one thing the left-wing DailyKos.com and the right-wing RedState.org, both political blogs, agree on? That when it comes to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold), the government has no business telling them what to do. The Federal Election Commission has tried to keep this anti-free speech legislation out of the Internet, even after a federal judge ruled that it must apply the law equally to cyberspace. The judge’s ruling, however, has put the FEC in the unfortunate position of rewriting the rules so that a blogger can still do what he wants without angering the campaign-finance police.

Some members of Congress are rightly pessimistic that the FEC will be able to do that. Lawmakers ranging from Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, on the right to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on the left have drafted legislation to shield bloggers and political news sites from McCain-Feingold’s “public communications” clause, which regulates political advertising coordinated with political campaigns. Essentially, the Online Freedom of Speech Act would grant bloggers and political sites the media exemption McCain-Feingold bestows on such outlets as The Washington Post.

But while The Post editorial page claims sympathy for the free speech of bloggers, it nevertheless thinks an unregulated Internet is “dangerous” and the popularity of the OFSA legislation “disturbing.” “The concerns about the potentially corrupting influence of six-figure donations apply just as much if that cash is spent in cyberspace,” The Post editorialized yesterday.

But The Post’s analysis displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how blogs and political sites operate. Political blogs aren’t widely read because they are funded by some multimillion-dollar company through political advertising. As Michael Krempasky, director of RedState.org, testified before Congress last month, money has very little to do with it. “Bloggers don’t have influence because they start with large chunks of capital — in fact, most if not all start out as relatively lonely voices with tiny audiences. By delivering credible, interesting, and valuable content, their audience and influence grows over time, ” he said. In other words, blogging is an endeavor subject to the rules of the free market. Inside this unbridled exercise in free speech, the good rise to the top, while the hacks and frauds go ignored or quickly disappear.

Arianna Huffington’s recent foray into the blogosphere reveals, if anything, that having millions of dollars at your disposal and a celebrity roster on hand could still result in a lousy blog. But applying McCain-Feingold to the Internet, even if diluted to protect bloggers, would mean that only millionnaires like Mrs. Huffington, or those funded by them, could afford to start a blog. Everyone else, like those who pay nothing for a site at Blogger.com, would have to have some way of knowing if their blogging is violating the briar patch of campaign-finance laws which only lawyers know how to navigate. Forcing a potential blogger to hire a lawyer would effectively kill the blogosphere as we’ve come to know and appreciate it. That would be a far more “disturbing” scenario than The Post envisions.

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