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2009: If You Were Here, You Were There

Year-end wrap-ups are perhaps as arbitrary as they are cliché, so I feel a little funny writing this post, but I was struck by something, and I feel I need to share. Just before Christmas, Greg Sargent released his list of the top five online stories of 2009—he did it in video form, with screenshots instead of links (which is kind of a drag), but his cursory summary post lists the following:

1) The release of the torture documents and Cheney’s response
2) The heath care town hall wars of August
3) The “birther” controversy
4) The campaign to force a public option into the health care reform proposal
5) The war on the left over whether to kill the Senate bill

What struck me, and what might strike you, is that, one through five, Firedoglake played an important, and often central, role.

Obviously, the large part we’ve played in driving and reporting on the health care debate, the dominant story of the latter half of the year, gives FDL a big leg up in any annual overview, but the other three stories on that list were also, for lack of a better word, “ours.” And, if you consider that the August town hall agitation was not simply organized around health care, but had its origins in the Astroturf tea parties (astro-tea?) of April, then FDL was in on the ground floor for all five.

The revelation that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times was, of course, Marcy Wheeler’s—and Marcy’s initial write up was maybe FDL’s most viewed post of the year. It is interesting to note that Marcy wasn’t the only person with access to the torture documents, but it was Marcy that took the time to read through them, isolate the numbers, and realize the significance. This attention to detail, this contextualizing and analysis of the primary sources, and the involvement of the emptywheel community, was noticeably different from legacy media’s approach to the issue, and transformed the debate from a “he said, she said” about whether it was necessary to use certain “enhanced interrogation techniques” to an exposé on the amorality and incompetence of the Bush-Cheney torture regime.

The town hall madness of August was covered first hand by members of the FDL community. Eve Gittelson spent time at a number of these meetings in the NY/NJ metro area—getting US Representatives’ positions on record, as well as reporting on the makeup and demeanor of the crowd. But that was only part of the story. The “get your government hands off my Medicare” screamers did not just sprout like so many destroying angels after a summer rain, but were just another iteration of an ongoing campaign by rightwing, pro-corporate organizations like Americans for Prosperity, the US Chamber of Commerce, Frank Strategies, and Mr. Moneybags himself, David H. Koch—and their connection to the faux-grassroots tea party protests was detailed by Jane back before tax day 2009.

If you watch Sargent’s video, you will see that the online component of “the birther controversy” to which Greg refers is the extent to which it was hung around the necks of elected GOP officials. We have Mike Stark to thank for the most graphic example of this. Mike and his video camera chased members of Congress (in some cases, literally) around Capitol Hill, asking them what would seem to be a simple question, did they believe Barack Obama to be a US citizen and, so, the legitimate President of the United States. Some Republicans’ inability to get to “yes” crossed over to become a big story in the establishment media, too.

If you were reading or hearing about the health care battle in the spring, you would have believed that the public option was just a talking point—one that would get dropped by Congress and the White House, and would drop from the public discourse, long before any health care reform bills ever came up for a vote. If you were reading the paper or watching TV in August, you were lead to believe that health reform was wildly unpopular, and that a handful of ill-behaved at a handful of public forums had pretty much put the final nail in coffin. But a funny thing happened on the way to manufactured consensus. . . .

Causality is often a tricky thing to prove—and I am not making any claims—but the public option did not go away over the summer (Firedoglake began whippingcounting the votes that would not be there should the bill not contain a viable public option—in June, eventually raising over $400,000 for Representatives that vowed to stand up for the public plan), and you can match the surge in popularity of the public option in opinion polls to the week that Jane first wrote about the veal pen.

Even the merged Senate bill, when first unveiled, contained a version of the public option. It was not a good version, granted, but that Majority Leader Harry Reid still felt compelled to include it, in spite of pressure from the White House and SFC Chair Baucus was actually quite remarkable, and a testament to the writers, readers, and citizen activists that gathered around this issue at the ‘lake.

And it took the White House a whole lot more work and multiple trial balloons before it could come up with a politically palatable way to remove the public option—and when Short Ride and Bad Ben did their star-turns on behalf of Rahm and his pocket-full of secret industry deals, and the public option and Medicare buy-in disappeared from the bill, but the individual mandate remained, folks at Firedoglake we’re among the earliest of what had been assumed to be a “loyal” left that came out loud and clear for killing the Senate bill. (As the health care battle moves into this new year, FDL has set up a war room to keep everyone up to date on all the information and activism surrounding needed to continue the fight.)

Of course, that break, and the split/dialogue that has begun to emerge between those loyal to policy and those loyal to party, is now the first big online story of 2010. . . and, needless to say, FDL is going to be all over, up, and inside it.

And that leads me to one additional point, one bigger than any one story, and that is a change in the blogosphere itself. I think the establishment press pretty much expected that, since the right side of the online world had served as a rah-rah chorus for the Bush Administration, the left would close ranks behind President Obama for most of the next four (eight?) years. Obviously, that will not be the case—and perhaps the biggest news is that it took almost an entire year for divisions to rise to a level where the legacy media “caught on” (in quotes because they have only noticed something is happening, but can’t break out of their old “Democratic circular firing squad” meta-metaphor—whereas, in reality, these are splits on policy, on core principles, and on the fight for power between the public good and entrenched private interests).

Naturally, I think, the blogosphere needed to change in 2009. It might have been fine to “talk amongst ourselves” during the formative years of this medium—after all, George Bush was president, and between him and his rubberstamp Congresses, no one was going to be much influenced by what we had to say—but with both houses of Congress and the White House now in the hands of Democrats, it is time find ways to translate words into action. I am not claiming that Firedoglake was the very first blog to turn pixels on the screen into boots on the ground, but I think that we (and by “we” I mean all of us in the FDL community—writers, readers, administrators, and activists) took some important steps last year in demonstrating just what a powerful organizing tool a place like this can be. It is this evolution, more than any one story, that makes me think 2010 is going to be so much bigger than 2009 for the online world as a whole, and, most certainly, for our special part of it.

In other words, if you were a regular to our pages last year, you got to be part of some very important work—but stick around this year, because you (not to mention Greg Sargent) ain’t seen nothing yet.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine