The Democrats credentialed 120 bloggers for the party's convention in August, and it was hailed by many in the blogosphere as an unprecedented number. But soon after the first group of credentialed bloggers was announced, a group of black bloggers began charging that the selection process excluded bloggers of color.
The claim reflected long-simmering racial tensions in the liberal blogosphere, rooted in divisions between black and white bloggers over influence, inclusion and the power to help set the political agenda.
Media access for conventions generally requires a multi-step credentialing process, often tiered by the size of the news organization and that media outlet's technical needs. For bloggers, two sets of credentials were made available for those who wanted to cover this year's Democratic convention in Denver. According to the guidelines, some bloggers will be seated with their state delegations, while bloggers in the general pool will have similar access to the convention floor as other print and broadcast media outlets.
Blogs credentialed for the general pools were given just one pass allowing access to delegates on the convention floor, and some bloggers feel that puts them at a disadvantage when compared to other media organizations, whose larger staffs were given more floor passes, and state bloggers, who are allowed on the floor with their state delegations. One blog from each state and Democratic constituency was credentialed as a state blogger.
While many of the more popular black blog sites, such as Oliver Willis and Pam's House Blend, were credentialed for the general pool, many black bloggers felt the state corps was not diverse enough, and that it reflected poorly on the party.
"I don't get the excuses they make. It's almost insulting. All they'd have to do was do the outreach," said blogger L.N. Rock, known online as the African American Political Pundit. "It's almost as extreme as 'we couldn't find any black people for that position.'"
The rhetorical shots fired at the Democratic Party have quickly escalated. Rock, and Francis L. Holland, who runs the Francis Holland Blog, are two vocal representatives of the black blog organization known as the Afrosphere who feel strongly that the blogger pool has been skewed. Both likened the Democratic National Convention Committee's credentialing process to the Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation in blog entries and press releases sent to readers. Holland issued a press release on behalf of the Afrosphere demanding that the DNCC "integrate" its state corps by adding an extra 15 black and 15 Latino bloggers.
Holland further described the Democratice convention blogger corps as "a new blog apartheid within the Democratic Party, setting a precedent for all future Democratic national and state conventions."
Holland did not apply to the DNCC for blogger credentials, and Rock was accepted into the general pool. At least one Afrosphere blogger was rejected from the state corps.
Damon Jones, a Democratic Party spokesperson, said the DNCC considered a number of factors when credentialing bloggers for both the state and general pools, but gave preference to sites with lots of Web traffic and online influence, sometimes measured by the number of blogs who link to them.
"We were looking for people who were reacting to what was being written," Jones said. He emphatically denied that the committee used race as a factor in its selection process, adding "the reality is that bloggers really haven't gotten credentials in a major way before ... people are being critical, and I don't understand where that's coming from."
The debate has taken on more significance in the black blogger community given this year's historic convention, which will see Sen. Barack Obama honored as the first major-party black nominee for president.
These bloggers see themselves as having a better understanding than the mainstream media of what this moment means to the black community and don't want to be left out as the history is written. "Without us, you wouldn't have that unique perspective," said Gina McCauley, another Afrosphere blogger who writes at What About Our Daughters.
A Split in the Afrosphere
Not all the Afrosphere bloggers see the DNCC's actions the same way Holland and Rock do. Pam Spaulding, who blogs at Pam's House Blend where she focuses on gay rights but often blogs about race, distanced herself from the language used by Holland and Rock to describe the DNCC.
"You just can't lob 'Jim Crow' out there. It's crying wolf," Spaulding said. "We're talking about people who can afford to buy a laptop and go to the convention. This is not the same thing as sitting in at a lunch counter."
"I don't think raising the white guilt level is the way to go about it anymore," she added.
McCauley, who has garnered attention for her efforts to fight what she sees as harmful media portrayals of black women, said she agreed that the exclusion was deliberate.
"I don't think there was a conspiracy to exclude black bloggers," said McCauley.
But McCauley and other Afrosphere bloggers are in agreement that the party failed to do adequate outreach to their community.
"If you want your blogger pool to be diverse you're going to have to take extra steps to make that happen," McCauley said.
Spaulding said the DNCC had reached out behind the scenes to her and blogger Keith Boykin, a former Clinton Administration aide and editor of The Daily Voice, for guidance on how to reach out to black bloggers.
"They were flailing," Spaulding said.
A Division Born in Harlem
The perceived snub of black bloggers by the convention planners has been heightened by ongoing racial frustrations in the liberal blogosphere, described by McCauley as "ongoing discontent ... about a lack of inclusion in the white progressive blogosphere."
The tensions first came to a head in 2006 when Peter Daou organized a lunch at the former president's offices in New York City's Harlem neighborhood between Clinton and a group of influential liberal bloggers. The bloggers took a picture with Clinton after the meeting -- a photo which soon gained notoriety as a symbol of ongoing social segregation in the blogosphere.
Terence Heath, posted the picture on his blog, Republic of T, and urged his readers to "write their own caption." The problem with the picture was obvious to Terence and his readers -- all the bloggers in the picture were white.
In a post entitled "To Peter Daou and The DailyKos Crowd, There Are No Black Bloggers," Liza Sabater, a New York-based blogger who writes at CultureKitchen, harshly criticized Clinton, Daou and the liberal blogging community in general for not being more inclusive. "I was deeply disappointed, because this is supposedly the face of the progressive blogosphere," Sabater said. "And it cemented for a lot of bloggers of color that they didn't count." Daou countered the argument saying two influential black bloggers were invited to attend, but one wasn't able and the other declined.
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who founded the popular liberal blog DailyKos, rebuffs bloggers who allege the meeting deliberately excluded bloggers of color, describing the blogosphere as "about as close to a meritocracy as you can get," adding "while there are accomplished bloggers of color in the netroots ... too many bloggers are quick to use their sex or race to demand access that they may not necessarily merit based on what they've built." Moulitsas, who is Latino, declined an invitation to the Clinton meeting.
Still, the meeting and its now-famous picture galvanized black bloggers into organizing themselves -- even as it created more distance between blacks and whites in the liberal blogosphere.
In the following days, accusations of racism and the perceived marginalization by established liberal blogs widened the gulf between black bloggers and their white counterparts. The Afrosphere's Web page lists the moment as a major event in their creation, and McCauley jokingly describes it as "Our Gulf of Tonkin, our Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand," referring to the events that sparked the Vietnam War and World War I, respectively.
The black blogosphere drew fresh attention from the mainstream media after being inspired to organize in the wake of the Harlem meeting. In 2007, working with the online grassroots group Color Of Change, black bloggers made their mark covering several major events, including the 'Jena Six' protest, which drew thousands of marchers to Jena, La., to protest the treatment of six black teenagers by local authorities.
Journalist Howard Witt, who reported on the march in Jena for the Chicago Tribune, would go on to describe the black blogosphere as "the formidable arm of a new Civil Rights Movement."
Many in the black blogosphere see their inclusion at the Democratic Convention as a continuation of their unique online role: focusing and drawing attention to issues that impact the black community -- with Obama's victory in the Democratic primary as the historical capper.
"There are going to be all those black grandmas and black grandpas who lived to see Martin Luther King and never thought they'd see the day," said McCauley. "That's something that ought to be captured by black bloggers."
"CNN's not going to get those stories," he added, firmly. "But we're going to get them."