Technology

Instant Influence

A new generation of web scribes is shaking up state capitol politics.
by | July 2005

Unlike newspaper and TV reporters, Internet bloggers are not allowed on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. That's why Eileen Smith usually sits upstairs in the public galleries, the "cheap seats," she likes to say, looking down on the action below. One evening in May, Smith rests her hands on her laptop as the House gets sucked into a marathon debate on a doomed bill to create school vouchers. She types away whenever she hears something quote-worthy. Which is to say, she types only when she comes upon an argument she finds absolutely ridiculous.

Here's how it plays the next morning on Smith's Web site, "In The Pink Texas." "DAMN, if they're not still talking vouchers," Smith writes. "They all looked much better a few hours ago. The reps are sweating, their hairdos are all messed up--now I get it...floor debate is like sex to them."

She continues, tongue in cheek, with digs at Speaker Tom Craddick and Representative Kent Grusendorf. Smith jokingly calls Grusendorf, the voucher plan's sponsor, "Schoolmaster G."

"It looks like Schoolmaster G's going down. He's being beaten something awful....And the Speaker? I've never seen him look like this. He's got this crooked semi-smile pasted on his face, like he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry or take someone's ass OUT."

If In The Pink sounds gossipy, snarky, and a bit risque, get used to it. Political blogs, the grassroots media sensation of 2004, are now sprouting in statehouses and city halls across the country. Eileen Smith is the "Wonkette" of Austin. In just five months of blogging, she has built a devoted daily readership of more than 1,000 people--a small but influential niche of legislators, staffers, lobbyists and journalists--who enjoy her scorching instant analysis. "In The Pink has become a must-read at the capitol," says Gary Susswein, state editor of the Austin American-Statesman, the city's big mainstream newspaper. "She's funny, irreverent, and she's not self-righteous. Everybody reads her."

The Texas legislature convenes only in alternate years. The last time lawmakers met, in 2003, nobody had even heard of blogs. This year, seemingly from out of nowhere, there is a sort of "fifth estate" in Austin, popped up on the Internet like bluebonnets in springtime. The Texas blogging corps includes political junkies, college students, the producers of a talk-radio show, mainstream journalists, a lobbyist, and a couple of state reps who blog directly from the House floor (see sidebar). Not only do most people in Texas political circles now know what statehouse blogs are; many read at least a couple of them as part of their daily media diet. It amounts to a sudden and remarkable change in the political culture. With so many independent voices launching small-scale ventures that specialize in satire and stinging commentary, the Texas capitol is beginning to look like an American legislature of two centuries ago, in which slashing editors took out after ideological enemies with venomous low-budget broadsheets.

A blog, if you don't know yet, is a Web site that reads something like a diary. Anybody with an Internet connection can set one up in five minutes, for free. Political bloggers usually write about the day's news, borrowing heavily from newspapers and other sources, and put their own spin on it. Some bloggers do their own reporting, too-- or dig deeper into stories floating around in the mainstream media. Most famously, it was bloggers who last year attacked a CBS News report on President Bush's National Guard service, exposing the suspicious nature of memos cited by news anchor Dan Rather.

Texas bloggers haven't blown open any big scandals. But they do scoop the statehouse press corps from time to time. A few are winning over a sizable audience with their witty writing and their blunt, opinionated analysis. As one lobbyist puts it, bloggers "have the luxury of being able to call bull 'bull.'" This appeals especially to the under-35 crowd, who are the most hooked on blogs. One recent afternoon in Austin, in the office of a Republican House member, five young staffers were chattering about news on the Texas blogs that day.

Not everyone in Austin is so enamored with blogs. Some complain that bloggers play loose with facts. Others are disturbed by the anonymity: A couple of Texas blogs are ghostwritten, and most allow readers to post comments without attribution. There's little to stop a political operative from using blogs to spread rumors that the mainstream media, applying a more stringent ethical code, would not touch.

What bothers Kate Linkous is the blogs' incessant negativity. Linkous is a press aide for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican whose substantial power in Austin makes him a frequent target for the liberal side of the blog spectrum. "We live in a cynical age and the blogs are pretty cynical," Linkous says. "The more critical they are, the more readers they get. There are no lines anymore between what's fair game and what is not. I personally don't give blogs a lot of credibility."

PAJAMA POSTINGS

In a way, blogging is nothing new to Eileen Smith. A former journalist, the 33-year-old Smith has entertained her friends and family for years with sarcastic e-mails lampooning politicians in the news. In 2000, she chased dot-com dreams to Austin, but after two months, her employer, a Web site called drkoop.com, laid her off and then went bust. Smith landed a government job at the capitol, as a staff aide for the House Appropriations Committee, and got her first inside look at Texas politics.

Last year, Smith decided to take one more shot at the Latest Internet Craze. Political blogs were whipping up a buzz nationally, even if only a handful of bloggers had figured out how to make money doing them. With her husband's support--and no business plan--Smith quit her job in January and launched "In The Pink Texas" in February. She picked the name in honor of the pink granite from which the state capitol is built. Smith's blog is splashed with pink headlines and links; her nom du web is "Pink Lady."

Smith is at home, in her pajamas, when she begins her first round of Web postings each day. She wakes up, reads all the big Texas newspapers, newsletters and other political blogs, then puts up an item or two by 8 a.m., just in time to catch early birds at work in the capitol.

Two or three days a week, she packs her laptop into her backpack and trudges up to the capitol to prowl for stories. She hits up friends and acquaintances, admittedly not the highest-placed sources, for gossip. And she "liveblogs" from the Senate gallery or from committee rooms, taking advantage of the wireless Internet access that covers most of the capitol complex. "To me, this is such a pure form of journalism," Smith says. "I don't have editors telling me what to write. And I don't have to kowtow to advertisers."

In The Pink is mainly a medium of entertainment. If readers pick up useful information along the way, Smith says, so much the better. In this way, she's not much different from the "Daily Show" or the Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live." To keep readers glued to her Web site, Smith grabs funny or titillating photos from the Internet, and writes punch lines. Her posting on school vouchers ends with two pictures of Britney Spears--one from the pop star's prim bubble-gum days and another from her bustier leather-clad phase. "Look what vouchers did to Britney Spears," Smith writes. "First shot taken from Britney's days at public school. Second shot is post-voucher, taken after she started attending private school. Oops!"

Smith insists that In The Pink is nonpartisan. "I was trained in journalism and do have a code I stand by," she says. "I'm not a party puppet." You don't have to read her blog too closely, however, to deduce Smith's politics. She rips hardest at social conservatives for their efforts to ban gay marriage and crack down on late-term abortions.

In The Pink dresses down Democrats, too. But it slams Republicans more. Smith contends that has less to do with personal bias than with the fact that Republicans control the House, Senate and all statewide offices in Texas. Reading her blog, you get the sense that Smith doesn't so much want to stoke partisan hatred as simply to poke fun at the daily carnival that is a legislature in session, filled with powerful people, egomaniacs and social climbers. "One thing I try to do," she says, "is to take the people in power and make them into real human beings."

Of one Republican senator, she writes: "His big head doesn't match his body. And, you know, his ego's writing checks his body can't cash." On one Democratic representative, who switched his vote on a bill: "Your job is to flip like the little pancake that you are, you little pussy cat." On the governor: "Apparently Gov. Rick Perry has awakened from his session-long nap just in time to realize that a $20 billion increase in state spending is too much."

Smith's sarcastic take on just about everything has landed her in a couple of controversies. In one case, she ridiculed an economic development award that Site Selection magazine gave Governor Perry. In The Pink claimed that Perry's economic development staff had a cozy relationship with the magazine; a state official dismissed Smith's characterization as "nutty." The dispute bubbled up into the pages of the Austin American-Statesman.

Smith may not have press credentials, but her view from up high in the galleries lends her creative license. The distance between her and lawmakers enables her to write unambiguously. Mainstream reporters, down on the House or Senate floor, are more clued in to nuance. They hear legislators grumbling over a difficult vote, and sometimes identify with them for the hard choices they must make. "All I see is their vote," Smith says. "I sympathize with them. But in the end, that's their vote. That's their record."

FILLING A VOID

Nowhere is the influence of blogs felt more than among the statehouse press corps. Mainstream reporters and bloggers have a weird relationship, one that is symbiotic and competitive at the same time. Texas bloggers owe the press corps a huge debt. After all, most of what they write is based on news that appears in the pages of daily papers and newsletters. Meanwhile, political journalists read the blogs closely. One reason is that reporters, like legislators, enjoy seeing their names in print. But they're also looking for tips to follow up on, or new angles on an old story. "Blogs are good for reporters," says Karen Brooks, a statehouse veteran now with The Dallas Morning News. "They're another way to keep up with the chatter."

The Texas blogs have yet to beat the mainstream press on a big story. Traditional reporters nevertheless see bloggers as competition. "They keep us on our toes," Brooks says. This is surely a good thing. Coverage of state politics has been waning in every state where a Hollywood actor is not governor. To be sure, the press corps in Austin is not as bare as those in smaller state capitals--the Morning News alone had seven reporters at the capitol this year. But those reporters can't be everywhere. Charles Kuffner, a Houston-based writer whose "Off The Kuff" blog is well read in Austin, thinks bloggers are filling a void. He says that he frequently goes to campaign events where no other media are present. "I may not have a big audience," Kuffner says, "but if I'm writing about a state House race, that's probably the only place where you'll find any coverage of it."

Blogs are forcing the dailies, which are fighting to gain younger readers anyway, to adapt. The American-Statesman, for example, launched its own statehouse blog this year, called "Postcards From The Lege." Five reporters contribute quick-hit items, typically drawn from their own reporting. The pieces are shorter than typical newspaper stories, and timed to please the obsessive reader who clicks "refresh" on his browser all day long. "A lot of these items didn't have a home [in the newspaper] before we started," says editor Gary Susswein. "They were things that only a few thousand people in the capitol care about, but most of our readers don't. They would've died in our notebooks."

Postcards is more serious, and less freewheeling, than In The Pink and the other independent blogs. "The entertainment value is low," says Gardner Selby, the American-Statesman's chief political reporter, "but the information value is high." Stylistically, the paper has loosened its necktie a bit with the blog, but not much. A pair of editors vets every item. "We're still a newspaper, and we can't expose biases and opinions openly," Susswein says. When asked about In The Pink, he replies, "She can definitely go in directions we might not go in. She can tell it as she sees it. We don't want to get in the business of telling it exactly as the reporter sees it. That would undermine our credibility."

Blogs may pose a more direct challenge to political newsletters. Texas has three of them, the Quorum Report, Capitol Inside, and Texas Weekly. Each charges $250 for an annual subscription, and is aimed more or less at the same niche of insiders that the blogs reach for free. Currently, the blogs come nowhere close to the newsletters in terms of providing useful information for staffers or lobbyists. But that could change. It all depends on who decides to take up blogging-- and what sort of information they're willing to share. "Blogs now have more gossip and entertainment value than the kind of stuff that would dominate the decision-making political conversation," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report. Kronberg admits that he reads In The Pink, but he doesn't see Eileen Smith or her contemporaries as a threat. "Blogs don't have the range, the reach or the institutional memory. That's not to say someone won't come along who does."

Indeed, the notion of a "blog corps" is a very fluid one. Even as statehouse reporters come and go, newspapers as institutions remain more or less the same. That's not at all true with bloggers. A Texas legislator, staffer or lobbyist may start a new blog tomorrow. Likewise, Smith, Kuffner or one of the other current bloggers could decide that blogging is no longer worth their time. The next time the legislature convenes, blogophiles may have a whole different set of Web sites to bookmark--new blogs that will rise and fall on their power to entertain and inform.

One likely addition to the blogging mix in Texas is new voices from the political right. Most of the current blogs come at politics from the left. That's probably to be expected--not because bloggers tend to be Democrats but because those first drawn to blogging tend to be dissenters. Nationally, conservatives first took up blogging because they believed a liberal media ignored their views. In Texas politics, the reverse has happened.

David Benzion, one of the few conservative bloggers in Texas, agrees with this theory. Benzion is managing editor of the "Lone Star Times," a blog that he and Houston talk-radio host Dan Patrick started in January. "If you're a 'progressive' in Texas, you feel like you're under siege," Benzion says. "You're living in George W. Bush's conservative Texas. Some people on the liberal side picked up blogging in state politics as a way to vent. There are probably some on the conservative side who would be blogging about state politics, but don't feel the need to because they're basically content."

Sometime soon, Eileen Smith knows, In The Pink will reach a crossroads. Smith started blogging just to have fun and see where it goes. Very quickly, it's gone further than she expected. Now she's starting to think about business models, advertising, income. Her husband has been patient with her foray into blogging so far, but Pink Lady can't run an amateur enterprise forever. "I can write," she says. "But I don't know how to make money at this."

It's doubtful anyone will ever get rich writing a statehouse blog. There simply aren't enough readers. What's more likely, as the medium evolves, is that blogs will go legit. When the Texas legislature holds its next regular session in 2007, Smith predicts, bloggers will have press credentials and roam the capitol freely just like mainstream reporters. Smith brings up this point enough in conversation to suggest that the former journalist in her craves this kind of validation.

But if In The Pink went legit, wouldn't that ruin the cavalier quality that makes it so much fun for its fans now? Up in the cheap seats, Smith takes a break from typing to reflect on that. "I'm on a porch, a loft. I'm not down there building relationships with legislators," she says. "I like the separation between me and them. I'm the observer. It would be harder for me to say the things I do if I were their friend."

BLOGROLLING

Aaron Pena's "A Capitol Blog" isn't the sexiest in Texas, but of all the statehouse web offerings, his is arguably most in the know. That's because Pena is a state legislator. He blogs all day long from his laptop on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Pena, a Democrat, started blogging in January as a way to stay in touch with his constituents. But he also broadcasts little insider tips he hears on the floor--what time a vote is coming up, for example--that make his blog a must-read for some of the lobbyists, staffers and journalists who care about such things. He was the first to announce that his colleague, Richard Raymond, would be running for Congress. "No, Richard has not announced," Pena reported in February, "but you can trust me on this one."

Pena, who is 46, doesn't seem like an obvious entrant into the blogging universe. Until recently, he didn't even use a computer. But he likes the intimacy that he says blogging makes possible. He uses his blog, for example, to explain in his own words why he votes the way he does on certain bills. "Constituents can get to know more about me than what they see in a press release," Pena says. "They get a sense of who I am, and what I'm thinking, on a personal level."

There are lines that Pena, as a legislator, can't cross. He has to think about what sorts of information are appropriate to pass along, and what he should keep to himself. "Trust is the most valued commodity on the floor," he says. "Legislators need to know that when they talk to me, I won't just go and put whatever they said on the blog."

In Pena's view, however, all legislators should be blogging. His desk mate, state Representative Joe Deshotel, began doing it in May after Pena cajoled him for months. Pena set up a group blog, called "Lone Star Rising," and encouraged Democrats and Republicans alike to use it as a public forum to discuss issues. In fact, however, most of them have stayed away. "I notice the hesitation," Pena says. "They don't want to open themselves up, for fear that people will attack them."

Nobody would accuse Aaron Pena of not opening up. "It's fun to read what's inside a lawmaker's head," says Karen Brooks, statehouse reporter with The Dallas Morning News. "Every time I see Pena, I call him 'Dear Diary.'"

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Technology