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September 15, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 237
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Transcript - September 15, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW...

The campaign season is now in full swing, and the Democratic Party is battling not only the Republicans, but a growing rebellion within the ranks. It's one that's playing out in the blogs... That's a clumsy contraction of the words "web"—the internet—and the word "log" as in a ship's log.

Blogs started out as online diaries or confessionals. But now the political variety of these online journals and discussion groups may do for the left what talk radio and conservative churches do so wonderfully for the right. Our story starts in Montana, where we went to find out if all the noise in cyberspace can actually swing an election in the real world.

Karla Murthy produced our report.

BRANCACCIO: Last Sunday, in a packed school auditorium—Montana's two candidates for U.S. Senate faced off. Republican Conrad Burns and democrat Jon Tester duked it out in a 90 minute debate.

But just months ago, few thought Jon Tester would be the democrat standing on stage. Confounding the skeptics, the organic farmer from big sandy Montana made it through the primaries, and is now running neck and neck against a popular three term republican incumbent.

So how did Jon Tester get this far? It's clear from this crowd he's got a lot of passionate supporters. But others point to the growing role of guys like this—Jay Stevens.

Armed with computers, Stevens and thousands like him—are the liberal bloggers... and they are using the power of the internet to help support candidates around the country.

But so far, the bloggers haven't had much success in getting their candidates into office. Remember the first darling of the internet—Howard Dean? You may have noticed he did not become the 44th president of the United States. But wins like Tester's in the primaries this year might be an early sign that the bloggers strategy is working... to translate their on-line activism into the kind of hands on activism that can win elections.

Jay Stevens makes his living in the tech industry. But his other job—as a blogger—he does for free. And this is his office—one of the many coffee shops in Missoula, Montana.

STEVENS: Some days it doesn't take long to come up with an idea. My first e-mail I could see something I want to write about—other days I go through everything and it's like eh -

BRANCACCIO: Stevens' blog is called "4&20 blackbirds". A blog is an online journal, really, and discussion group. Readers can post their own comments, and most times, Stevens writes back.

STEVENS: Usually what I do is I check a lot of the local blogs to see what they're talking about. They're usually ahead of me on stories probably because I have 2 kids and a job.

BRANCACCIO: Stevens says there's a stereotype that bloggers are young radical left-wing nuts... but from his experience, they're more like him.

STEVENS: I'm a middle aged guy with two kids, a mortgage and a car— a regular job. You know? I think that's what most bloggers are like.

BRANCACCIO: He says he was always into politics... but like a lot of liberal bloggers, Stevens is especially frustrated by the current administration.

STEVENS: I think there's just a couple of things that I require of my government. They obey the constitution. They balance the budget. And they make sure things run smoothly. They keep us safe. And so far, our government has failed us in every single one of those issues, miserably. The question isn't why are there so many radical bloggers. The question really should be is, why are there so many angry people blogging?

BRANCACCIO: There is a vast kaleidoscope of blogs on the internet—from opinions on the latest digital camera to celebrity gossip. And there's no grand poobah editor- in-chief sifting out the good from the bad. It's really up to the readers to do the sorting and the sifting.

One thing all blogs have in common is their ability to keep an issue alive, even when mainstream media — or M.S.M in blogspeak—have moved on to something else.. And when you're talking politics, this kind of relentless focus could help sway an election...

For example, during the senate primary race in Montana, it emerged that Jon Tester's democratic opponent, a man named John Morrison, had an affair that may have compromised Morrison's job as state auditor. The story was covered in the big papers at the time, and seemed to run its course. But the bloggers refused to let it go.

STEVENS: And blogs kept reviving the story and discussing whether th— you know, who was more electable because of it, John Tester or John Morrison. So, in that way, you know, a blog can keep a story alive.

BRANCACCIO: But does any of this stuff really make a difference on Election Day? Even Jay Stevens agrees it's hard to measure the exact impact that blogs really have. But he says the blogs do stretch the traditional boundaries of what's gets covered about candidates and politics in the media.

MOULITSAS: One of the beauties of blogging is that anybody can do it.

BRANCACCIO: Markos Moulitsas is one of the most influential bloggers in the country.

MOULITSAS: It used to be— it used to be that if you wanted a say in the media landscape, you either had to have a lot of money to buy a media outlet, or you had to— work long years in the— in the business to get that— that soapbox, or you had to be somebody famous. Now, anybody can do it.

BRANCACCIO: That is anybody with a computer can do it. Markos Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos—the "Kos" comes from his name—Markos. His site is the most popular left-leaning political blog on the internet.

A few months ago, at a conference inspired by his website, his influence was on full display.

MOULITSAS: Admit it. You're sick of me.

BRANCACCIO: About 1000 bloggers and their participant- readers flocked to this Las Vegas event. Like virtual pen pals , many are meeting face to face for the first time.

And some pretty big names from the democratic party also showed up to the Las Vegas event... California senator Barbara Boxer ... Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa and the former Governor of Virginia... Mark Warner ... came to sidle up to the bloggers.

And it's no wonder. Moulitsas' site—Daily Kos—gets over 4 million unique visits a week. It's the kind of readership that beats a lot of big newspapers.

BRANCACCIO: It's clear, with your site that you have tapped in to a hunger. What do you think accounts for it?

MOULITSAS: Well, one of them is that we're really talking about things that have been traditionally ignored by the traditional media. Right now, they are so obsessed on the Jon Benet Ramsey story. And— we're not. We're talkin' about things that actually matter to real Americans.

BRANCACCIO: But Moulitsas didn't start out thinking he would become the blog star that he is today...

BRANCACCIO: So, you weren't a political scientist.

MOULITSAS: No, absolutely not.

BRANCACCIO: And you're not like some techie geek who, like, knew how to build web pages particularly?

MOULITSAS:

Oh, I was a geek.

BRANCACCIO: In the nicest possible sense.

MOULITSAS: Absolutely. I mean, I was— I was a war refugee. I came to this country in 1980. My family fled El Salvador because of the civil war. But, the fact is, I didn't have the pedigree. I didn't have the name. I didn't have the money. I didn't have the built in influence to do what I'm doing. And that's the beauty, I think, of this medium is that it's very democratic. Even a war refugee from El Salvador can do what I'm doin'.

BRANCACCIO: What Moulitsas wants to do is get democrats back in control of the congress and the Whitehouse. Like in this online ad he's running on his website.

(Online advertisement on Daily Kos)

BRANCACCIO: He sees the democrats as in need of a bit of help. His solution? A big kick in the tush.

Daily Kos has been cheerleading for democratic candidates around the country... including Jon Tester in Montana. Tester stands in line with most liberal positions: he's a pro-choice organic farmer who supports both bio fuels and coal mining. But Moulitsas says besides the issues, what's more important is he believes Tester has the popular appeal that can win elections.

BRANCACCIO: But so far the bloggers haven't had much luck in getting their candidates to Washington. In the last few years, almost every candidate that Daily Kos championed eventually lost their races...

But Moulitsas says, that is changing... Tester's opponent, John Morrison outspent him 2 to 1, but Tester blew Morrison out of the water, winning the primary by a whopping 25 percentage point margin. And last month in Connecticut, Ned Lamont—an early favorite of the bloggers—defeated the powerful democratic incumbent Joe Lieberman in the senate primary.

But did the bloggers make a difference in these elections? Well, it's unclear. As the scientists say, an association is not a correlation. And we're talking about two guys who won their primaries against other democrats. Whether they go on to win the general election and actually take office is a whole different matter.

BRANCACCIO: Do you think the bloggers are gonna be a significant factor in the impending mid-term election?

MOULITSAS: Bloggers are gonna be a factor. I mean, when you have a couple million people reading liberal blogs. You have that many people. And these are activists. These are hard-core political junkies. And they're looking for ways to get involved. And they're looking for ways to participate and take hold of their own democracy. And that is powerful.

BRANCACCIO: Do you ever worry, though, that a site like yours preaches to the choir?

MOULITSAS: If preaching to the choir's a bad thing, why even have churches? You might as well shut 'em all down because you're only preaching to the choir. Might as well shut down Rush Limbaugh too because he's preaching to the choir. Fact is, preaching to the choir is an essential part of the political process. You have to motivate and— educate your— your troops. I'm not speakin' to undecided voters or— or people who are politically apathetic. They're not of interest to me.

BRANCACCIO: But if you want to win elections, many political strategists say—you've got to speak those undecided voters.

But Moulitsas says the bloggers have a plan.

MOULITSAS: Now, what's important, if this movement is to succeed, is for the people who are reading Daily Kos and other blogs to then turn off their computers and go talk to people off-line. And that's where the preach to the choir part ends.

BRANCACCIO: And that's what they're doing ... back at the Las Vegas conference, organized by Daily Kos—the bloggers share "how to strategies" to reach those people off-line.

BLOGGER AT WORKSHOP: Where you're going to have the most impact is in your neighborhood.

BLOGGER AT WORKSHOP: It's not about the issues necessarily as it is about understanding the people that you're talking to.

BLOGGER AT WORKSHOP: You gotta have your troops on the ground, who are of the community.

BRANCACCIO: The classic way to win elections these days is to raise big money for a bazillion TV ads. But, a big part of the bloggers strategy is to get locals on the ground jazzed up about what's happening in their own political backyards...to the point where they're knocking on doors, talking to their neighbors, and putting up signs.

Locals like Margie Henderson of Kalispell, Montana. She started reading blogs six years ago and she says the blogs have changed her relationship to politics.

HENDERSON: I read somewhere on a blog, and I— I don't even know where I read it. But they said, "You know, if we want better candidates, we have to be involved in selecting them."

BRANCACCIO: Henderson comes from a family of hard core democrats—she says a rare sight in her particular neck of the woods. But reading the blogs helps her feel like she's not alone.

HENDERSON: I mean I've always been politically aware. I mean I'd go vote in the primary if I had a strong feeling about one candidate or another. But I used to wait to give any money until after the primary was over.

BRANCACCIO: This election season—Henderson decided she wasn't going to wait anymore. She began searching last year for a candidate to support in the democratic primary. She found out about Jon Tester by reading Daily Kos. Henderson did more research and determined Tester was her man. So she contributed fifty dollars to his campaign.

HENDERSON: And then in February, John Tester called me. And it— it was really kind of funny, 'cause he called me up and he says, "Hi, this is John Tester." And I said, "John Tester? John Tester's calling me?"

BRANCACCIO: That phone call led to Henderson organizing a fundraiser for Jon Tester in her own home—something she'd never dreamed of doing before.

HENDERSON: I had never hosted a political event prior to John Tester coming here. I really just didn't see it as something that I would do— but when you're online reading all these things about people that other people are doing, and it— it helps motivate you to step up

BRANCACCIO: Henderson says the blogs let her turn her political ideals into real world action.

HENDERSON: I'm not gonna vote for the lesser of two evils this year. I'm gonna vote for the candidate I want in office. And that is so exciting.

BRANCACCIO: The latest polls have Jon Tester and the veteran politician republican Conrad Burns in a tight race. And Moulitsas has his readers all fired up. Daily Kos and a couple of other national blogs have driven almost 3000 people from all over the country to contribute an average of $25 each to Tester's campaign.

BRANCACCIO: Markos, you're here in California. Berkeley, California. And— your site is trying to be a factor in races in Montana, and Virginia. Some of your critics say it's none of your darn business.

MOULITSAS: I'd be more than happy to support an effort to prevent all out-of-state money to go into a race. And— and let the locals battle it out. That's not happening. You have these outside interests that can dump millions of dollars into these races. We've been able to dump about $50,000. (LAUGHS) So we're— we're not talking big dollars. And— and that's why I don't think that our strength is— is money. Our strength is in getting the locals energized and activated. And that's what we're doin'. I'm not doin' the hard work. They're doin' the hard work.

BRANCACCIO: But his efforts could come at a cost to candidates. Republicans have come up with a nifty strategy, guilt by blog association. The idea is to put the hurt on Tester by highlighting his quote "ongoing friendship with extreme ultra liberal blog Daily Kos."

But Moulitsas doesn't think it's going to work

MOULITSAS: I— I might be a little bit more worried if I— had a name recognition of above zero percent. (LAUGHS) Nobody knows who I am. And nobody cares. What they do is, they're gonna look at John Tester, and they're gonna make up their mind, and decide whether they're gonna vote for him or not, based on John Tester himself; not on what some guy in California has to say about him.

BRANCACCIO: Back in Montana—Jon Tester is celebrating his 50th birthday... and his supporters are throwing 15 different parties slash fundraisers across the state.

Almost five hundred miles way—a bunch of local Montana bloggers are hosting one of them.

BLOGGER: If you have any questions about blogging, did I miss anybody, you can ask us... you're not a blogger!!!

BRANCACCIO: During the party—the guest of honor calls in his gratitude.

TESTER: "I think the bloggers have done a nice job of getting information out to the people... And I have nothing but high praise for the work that they've done and the help that they've given us." ...

BLOGGER: "You're welcome!"

BLOGGER: Have a piece of cake, have some beer, have some fun thanks for coming!

BRANCACCIO: But, what happens at the polls in seven weeks will be the true test of success... if the bloggers will see their beloved candidates to victory.

MOULITSAS: We are cheerleaders. You know, I— I actually like the cheerleader analogy because it's like a football game. The football players are doin' the hard work. They're gettin' beat up. But, the cheerleaders are there— spurring on the crowd. Getting people involved and interested. And— even entertaining. So, that was the role that— that we played. I didn't— I didn't throw the touchdown pass.

BRANCACCIO: Use your electronic know-how to tell us what you think about the liberal bloggers...PBS-dot-org has the link. Next week we'll be back in Montana to take a look at the influence of *conservative* activists on politics there.

And in Washington DC this week, an unusual hearing led to some disturbing revelations about those in charge of managing our—that is, the public's— natural resources.

BRANCACCIO: You know the department of interior. They're the cabinet level bureaucracy that manages federal lands—including national parks—and negotiates oil and gas leases for drilling on that property....

While much of what the department manages may be gorgeous, to hear the department's own interior's inspector general tell it, things inside the department are getting pretty ugly.

Earl Devaney is the interior department's the chief watchdog.

DEVANEY: Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.

BRANCACCIO: Inspector general Devaney gave congressmen members of congress an earful Wednesday about what his he's been finding in his ongoing investigation.

DEVANEY: Ethics failures on the part of senior department officials — taking the form of appearances of impropriety, favoritism and bias — have been routinely dismissed with a promise of 'not to do it again.

BRANCACCIO: In Devaney's view, many troubles center around a man named J. Steven Griles, a lobbyist turned deputy secretary of the interior...

Prior to becoming #2 at the department of interior, Griles had been a lobbyist for the National Mining Association and Shell Oil, among others.

"NOW" looked into the close relationship between Griles and big energy companies in a broadcast three years ago.

Watchdog organization 'Friends of the Earth' put Kristen Sykes to work on his record.

BASKIN: Concerned that an industry insider was now in charge of the nation's natural resources, Sykes read and researched everything she could get her hands on about Griles. She also filed Freedom of Information Act requests, which eventually turned up Griles' appointment calendars for the first 17 months he was on the job. It proved to be a revealing paper trail.

SYKES: This is over ten pages of energy meetings that he has had since he's been at the Interior Department...You don't see meetings on what are we gonna do about our visitor centers that are crumbling in our national parks. You see meetings with Alaska officials about drilling in the arctic. You see meetings about oil and gas development in Wyoming. And this is not an agency that is created just to implement the President's energy plan. It's to protect our lands for future generations.

(CLIP FROM GRILES SEGMENT)

BRANCACCIO: This week, Devaney testified that he had his eye on Griles for years. In a 2004 report he called him quote "a train wreck waiting to happen" identifying 25 potential federal ethics violations. He met with then-department secretary Gail Norton about what he saw as the trouble with Griles.

DEVANEY: Former Secretary Norton met with me at length and indicated that she accepted this official's admission that he exercised bad judgment, but given his promise not to do it again, she was unwilling to take any action against him.

BRANCACCIO: Griles wasn't at the hearing but has repeatedly said he did nothing illegal. Two years ago, he resigned from interior—and returned to lobbying..

At the hearing, Devaney also underscored another major problem: mistakes on leases struck with oil and gas companies on federal lands and waters.

These lapses incredibly, let energy companies avoid paying potentially tens of billions of dollars in fees to the U.S. treasury: royalty payments due the government for the right to drill off the gulf coast.

NOW's senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa investigated the bungling of those leases this summer.

HINOJOSA: They say the devil is in the details. The details in this law, it turns out, generated some enormous loopholes. When oil went over $34/barrel, the companies were supposed to start paying royalties. But a strange thing happened on the way to the bank. The interior department, under President Clinton, forgot to put in those price limits for about 1,000 long term leases granted over a two year period. According to a draft report from the government accountability office, or G.A.O., the estimated cost to taxpayers from this government goof is... ten billion dollars. That's ten billion dollars in royalties that the U.S. will not be able to collect because they weren't included in the lease agreements. And it gets worse. Not only were there loopholes and missed revenues because of poorly written leases — insiders say the oil and gas industry is doing almost anything it can to avoid paying the full royalties they owe.

BRANCACCIO: At the hearings this week Devaney said officials at the interior department hid information about the leases for six long years. Billions of dollars in revenue had been lost.

DAVIS: Was anybody fired over this?

DEVANEY: No.

DAVIS: Was anyone suspended over this?

DEVANEY: No.

DAVIS: Was anyone reprimanded over this?

DEVANEY: Not yet.

BRANCACCIO: What critics find especially troubling is this: Devaney testified that in spite of the ethical lapses, bungled leases and billions lost to the taxpayer, he says the changes necessary to fix the system haven't happened.

DENT: Can you describe the revisions that have been made in the internal communication and managerial systems to prevent a similar mistake or incident?

DEVANEY: My honest belief is none.

DENT: Wow. None.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.



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