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December 19, 2005

Astroturf vs Grassroots (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)

Grassroots vs. Astroturf

I talked to John Harris, national political editor of the print Washington Post this morning. It didn't go very well:

Wednesday December 14, 2005. 9:07 PST

Q: Thanks for calling. My name is Brad DeLong. I'm a professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley. You've actually been on my to-call list since last August, when Gene Sperling, the New York Fed's Tim Geithner, and I had a very good long conversation about your very interesting Clinton book while playing hooky from a Fed conference session. You see, Orville Schell and Susan Rasky have been persuading me to co-teach a course at Berkeley's Journalism School next semester--where I get to be the ivory tower intellectual explaining how you should cover the economy, and she gets to be the practical nuts-and-bolts person on how you can cover the economy without getting fired. And I'm trying to put together a syllabus. But the impetus for this call is different: yesterday, I read you telling Jay Rosen http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/ that Dan Froomkin critic Patrick Ruffini http://www.patrickruffini.com/archives/2005/03/dan_froomkin_se.php was a grassroots conservative weblogger. And my jaw dropped because he is eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee. A matter not of conservative grassroots complaints about liberal bias but rather Bush-can-do-no-wrong paid Republican operatives working the ref. So why did you characterize Ruffini in this way?

A: He wasn't at the time working for the Republicans, he wasn't when he wrote that piece [about Froomkin last March]...

Q: So you knew [Ruffini] had been a Republican operative in 2004, and didn't tell that to Jay Rosen?

A: [Ramble of which I caught only scattered phrases] But assuming you aren't posting this at least immediately... A good relationship between the print Washington Post and WPNI... Happy to answer privately... Really don't want to be quoted on the record... If you want to call me an idiot without my response, that's fine...

A: No I want your response.

A; [stream continues] But I shouldn't respond... I've promised people I won't respond... We need to cool this down... It's a really a very narrow issue: are there people confused about Froomkin's role...

[We go off the record for a while]

[We go back on the record]

Q: Can you give any examples--other than Republican National Committee eCampaign Director Patrick Ruffini http://www.patrickruffini.com/archives/2005/10/same_fight.php--of people who are seriously confused about Dan Froomkin's role at WPNI?

A: I cannot comment for the record because I've promised I won't comment on this.

Q: Did you, when you sent your answers to Jay Rosen yesterday, know that your "grassroots conservative weblogger" Patrickk Ruffini had been a Republican campaign operative in 2004?

A: I cannot comment for the record because I've promised that I won't comment on this.

Q: Did you, when you sent your answers to Jay Rosen yesterday, know that your "grassroots conservative weblogger" Patrick Ruffini was now eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee?

A: I cannot comment for the record because I've promised that I won't comment on this.

My belief--but since he won't answer the questions, I do not know--is that John Harris knew full well that Patrick Ruffini was a onetime Republican operative when he characterized him as a "conservative weblogger" to Jay Rosen, but was trying to pull a fast one. That John Harris had not done his homework and did not know that Ruffini is going back to work as eCampaign Director for the RNC. And that he doesn't have evidence of serious confusion about the purpose of Dan Froomkin's column--that Harris has just been pounded on by a bunch of Bush-loyalist Republicans working the ref.

I do wonder how Harris found Mr. Ruffini's website. It's not that easy to do. It ranks 498th or so in the TTLB weblog ecosystem directories. I don't see how it is possible to wind up there if one is looking on the web to sound out grassroots conservative opinion.

I remember Lloyd Bentsen once cursing that American journalists had no ability to distinguish between "grassroots" and "astroturf." I think this is a point of data that many of them, at least, know full well the difference: the problem is not one of lack of ability to distinguish.

Posted by DeLong at December 19, 2005 11:52 AM