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Charles Cooper

Commentary–Here’s a thought: A blogger might be the first to announce the winner of Tuesday’s election.

Pure speculation on my part, of course, but is it so crazy a guess? News organizations now abide by an agreement not to project a winner until after the polls close on the West Coast. The folks who conduct exit polling usually have a pretty good idea which candidate is going to come out on top.

That information is closely held. Four years ago, blogging had yet to burst upon the mainstream. Even if an insider wanted to spill the goods, the blogosphere did not figure on the Official Leaker’s short list.

Nowadays, every political news magazine worth its salt runs mandatory articles about Web logging and politics. They couldn’t well ignore the bloggers after they wound up beside them with credentials to cover this summer’s national political conventions.

That’s not to say the relationship is warm and cozy. The journalistic mainstream still keeps bloggers at arm’s length. Witness the flare-up earlier this summer, when “60 Minutes” reported that President Bush had received preferential treatment during his time in the Air National Guard. The Fourth Estate played catch-up after documents used in the story got debunked by certain blogs.

The journalistic mainstream still keeps bloggers at arm’s length.

A subsequent investigation forced CBS to back away from its report. That was when NBC’s Tom Brokaw did his “Band of Brothers” audition, defending fellow anchor Dan Rather, the lead correspondent on the CBS story, as the victim of an Internet campaign that bore all the markings of “a political jihad.”

I think Brokaw is all wet about that. (Tom, welcome to cyberspace, where news and gossip travel at light speed.) But the NBC anchor only sidetracked attention from the more interesting development: the bigger role the Internet plays as an information vehicle in the election.

When Bill Clinton squared off against Bob Dole in 1996, the two political campaigns only paid lip service to the Internet. Four years later, the Democrats and Republicans were somewhat savvier about its deployment as a campaign tool but still only scratched the surface of what was possible.

Things are a lot different this election cycle. The Bush and Kerry campaigns expertly use their respective Web sites to raise gobs of money from supporters–not to mention slime the other side with attack ads done on the cheap. Rapid-response teams react to attacks within minutes, giving an entirely new meaning to the tech cliche “real time.” (I’ll let you decide whether all this constitutes progress. But it does mark a change.)

The spinmeisters are also giving due recognition to the existence of bloggers–and for a sensible reason.

Fact is that the politicization of cyberspace is a given. Does it mean blogs need to be fair and balanced?

Just as there are now so-called red states and blue states, there are avowedly pro-Bush and pro-Kerry Web logs. The public chooses from a menu that runs the gamut. If you believe George Bush is a flight-suit-addicted prevaricator, the Daily Kos might be your cup of tea; if you’re screaming about “Hanoi Kerry and the Dims,” it may be Free Republic.

Fact is that the politicization of cyberspace is a given. Does it mean that blogs need to be fair and balanced? You should ask the same of certain television networks. Just like any other media, Internet blogs are going to spin accordingly. Ranting about political jihads is a dodge when the important news is how they figure in the larger political debate.

And if you don’t like the message, do what I do when the TV talking heads begin to make my blood pressure climb: Change the channel.