Friday, June 08, 2007

A Sad Day for Nebraska Blogs

by Kyle Michaelis
Leavenworth Street Embraces A New Low in Local Online Politics

Today is a very important day for blogging in Nebraska. I would propose that it is a sad day as well. Although sites such as SmithWatch, Paging Power, Leavenworth Street, the UNO Democrats Blog, and New Nebraska Network each have their respective political agendas, they have always seemed works of passion, reflecting on who their contributors are and what they honestly believe.

But, our Republican counterpart at Leavenworth Street has changed all that with the anonymous Street Sweeper's allowing his site to be used as a tool of shameless, outright political manipulation. Some might contend that Leavenworth has always been such a tool, but - in our own way - the same could have been said of the other sites mentioned above as well (including NNN).

That changed today. With no pretense of fairness, objectivity or public service - without even the author's identity that there might be some measure of personal accountability - Street Sweeper has crossed a line from which I fear there will be no turning back. The world of online Nebraska politics just got ugly, folks, and that ugliness is probably here to stay.

Below, you see a personal note published this morning at Leavenworth Street. It is from homegrown corporate giant David Sokol - CEO of MidAmerican Energy - to U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, expressing Sokol's continued support of Hagel in whatever decision he might make for his future political career.


With Sokol having allied himself with upstart Hagel challenger Jon Bruning - not only paying for Bruning's statewide opinion polling but also recently announced as the Bruning campaign's Finace Chair - the above note might seem a statement of outright hypocrisy that would be relevant to interested political observers. But, this is politics, and a careful reading of Sokol's qualified statement reveals only continued support and "friendship" for Hagel, along with a promise of future contributions. The note does not swear any particular allegiance or fidelity to Hagel that would preclude Sokol's pursuing other options and lending his support to other potential candidates.

Regardless, I don't really care who some Omaha multi-millionaire is hedging his bets with in the 2008 Republican primary. Sokol isn't an elected official. He's a guy with money, and he should be able to do with it whatever he damn well pleases within the confines of the law. If there's some suggestion of corruption here, there's a story to be told. But, if Sokol just wants to play games with Hagel and Bruning - pretending to be buddies with both while playing one against the other in the real world of electoral politics, it's hard to see how that justifies turning the tables on a private citizen in so public a forum with no concern for the principles at stake.

Here's what's probably most disturbing - this correspondence could only have come from Sokol's people or Hagel's. And, considering the tone of Leavenworth's commentary and the site's history of publishing inside information directly from the Hagel camp, it looks to definitely have come from the latter. In fact, Street Sweeper might very well be a paid Hagel lackey.

In my mind, release of this note can only really serve two possible functions - (a) embarrassing Bruning for over-stating Sokol's support or (b) reminding Sokol that politics is a two-way street and that an experienced politician in a free fall makes for a very dangerous enemy. In either event, this is a leaked document that is strictly private in nature. By publishing it, Leavenworth Street has gone beyond the pale. This article is nothing more than an instance of raw political manuevering, making a private citizen a pawn of an anonymous blogger's (not-so) hidden political agenda.

Of course, Leavenworth Street has always been suspect. Despite its first introducing itself as a site for humorous, middle-of-the-road, independent political commentary, it was obvious from the start that Street Sweeper only took the part about being funny seriously. Other than that, the site has proven itself little more than an occasionally amusing online weapon of Nebraska's Republican establishment.

But, no matter how ugly things have gotten in the Nebraska GOP, no matter how quickly, this latest post simply goes too far. Leavenworth has gone beyond the free-for-all world of politics with an attack on a local business leader's integrity that is very, very personal. For this, I don't feel much sympathy for Mr. Sokol, but I am very worried by the precedent it sets across the spectrum of Nebraska politics.

When this sort of private correspondence is fair game for leaking to local bloggers who are without principle and accountable to no one, there is no logical end to the ugliness and stupidity that will eventually result. This day has been a long time coming. From this point forward, I'm afraid we are likely to see more of the same - even if I expect it to be quite amusing should two powerful factions of the Nebraska Republican Party engage in the full-on, open warfare that seems to be developing.

Their loss could be our gain. What troubles me is the just-as-likely scenario in which, quite simply, we all lose.

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Dave Sund said...

Kyle, you won't often find me defending Leavenworth Street, but I think you're off base here. Not in the fact that this is a B.S. political tactic - but that they were responsible for the tactic.

Why? Joe Jordan received the same memo, and cited Hagel's campaign as the direct source.

Now, I'm not a big fan of the folks over at LS - as they tend to take "personal attack" to a new level - but I have found their coverage of the mudfight between Bruning and Hagel to be quite informative.

In the end, they got a leak from Hagel's people, they used it. I hope we weren't harboring any illusions that LS were somehow an independent-minded blog with no partisan agenda. The last year has taught us otherwise.

6/08/2007  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

It's nice to see that Joe Jordan and Channel 3 News have the same low standards...though I must give credit to Jordan for his simple willingness to ask a tough question of these jackasses who call themselves our elected representatives.

At the end of the day, maybe I am being too hard on SS and Leavenworth Street. The fact that Hagel's campaign are the ones openly sending this hand-written note to bloggers and reporters reveals them to be either more desperate or more petty than I had ever previously imagined.

What really bothers me is that Joe Jordan at least writes under his own name and reveals his sources. Leavenworth did neither in its own version of the story - opening the door to so much abuse and rumor-mongering that it really does bode quite ill for Nebraska politics in general.

6/09/2007  
Anonymous Bill said...

Kyle, I have reread your commentary twice now and must admit I just don't understand why you are so upset with this turn of events. I read a handful of political blogs on a regular to semi-regular basis, and every one of them would have used this note from Sokol to Hagel. Every blogger has an ax to grind; some we agree with and others we don't. I filter those biases as I read each one. I see nothing immoral or illegal with running this type of story. Actually, I find it informative. I am glad you err on the side of caution in your blog, but you shouldn't expect everyone else to share your sensitivities.
That said, keep up the good work. It has taken months for me to finally find something to disagree with you about.

6/09/2007  
Blogger HumeanBeing said...

I have nothing interesting to add to this discussion other than agreeing with the other two commenters.

I don't see any problem with posting this letter. Any suspiciously timely post of a personal letter should contain some sort of sourcing or disclaimer regarding authenticity. In the end, consumers of opinion and what passes for news should submit all they hear and read (and some of what they observe) through a bullshit filter.

And how is this a horrendous attack on a businessman? It's just a publicly disclosed correspondence. If Sokol appears a pathetic chump, so bet it. If he doesn't want communications to potentially go public, don't ever commit them to paper or email or whatever medium. If a sender wants to show bad faith on the part of any potential discloser, just add some silly soulless corporate-speak confidentiality footer to the bottom of each page of correspondence. Or meet in a parking garage in the middle of the night. Or better yet, stop kissing politician ass.

And whether or not the author of a work reveals identity is not very meaningful. It should merely raise questions a bit and lower trust a bit. The Economist magazine has almost zero articles with an author byline and it crushes Newsweek and Time for the density and diversity of its news content. Trust should be earned and biases should be determined (ex. It soon becomes obvious that the Economist literally gets off on all things free trade, yet it also does not seem to print skewed empirical observations or omit key data from arguments).

I'd just recommend no one take any blog that seriously until they've gotten to know the content and slant.

And remember, no matter what we want to believe, and no matter what the hype-masters at CNN say, almost no one reads blogs.

6/10/2007  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Blogs can contribute to the public discourse, or they can degrade it. While I'm the first to admit how limited they are in their influece, there is a very steep and slippery slope in their being too close and too cozy with Nebraska politicians.

Although we saw a similar development with Leavenworth's publishing Attorney General Jon Bruning's obviously leaked liberal writing from his college days at UNL, those were ultimately a matter of public record. Not to mention, Bruning is a public official who's invited a high level of scrutiny.

This hand-written, personal correspondence from Sokol, though, is very different and sets the stage for future leaks that might ultimately turn our little corner of the blogosphere into a fetid sewer of political sludge. Pardon my mourning this unfortunate occasion - as inevitable as it probably was in this Information Age presenting many perils along with its infinite potential.

6/10/2007  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Now even the Lincoln Journal-Star's Don Walton is reporting on Sokol's note to Hagel. Was I really so off-base with my criticism or is our media just so scandal-starved that they'll publish damn near anything?

Perhaps I should be taking up a new hobby. Clearly, I don't have the stomach for this nonsense.

6/10/2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As streetsweaper pointed out, you certainly had the "stomach for this nonsense" when you "outed" a
Senate candidate's family member last year. You weren't worried that doing so was delving into private personal matters or that it was "turning our little corner of the blogosphere into a fetid sewer of political sludge". I understand why you did it, and I'm not necessarily faulting you for it. It was relevant to the political debate, even though it was personal in nature. But so is the Sokol memo, and you should be so quick to cast the proverbial first stone.

6/11/2007  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Pete Ricketts' sister is an out & proud gay rights activist on the board of directors of the most prominent gay rights legal defense foundation in the country, which has been very active in the struggle for equality right here in Nebraska.

Everything I reported was entirely public and available by doing a simple Google search. More importantly, it was part of a larger discussion of the cultural and political hypocrisy that allows talk of "family values" that devalue our own family members, sometimes to the point of outright persecution.

I went out of my way to acknowledge the ethical concerns surrounding my writing about the Ricketts family, and I made an honest, heart-felt justification that I will stand-by with head held high come Judgment Day.

Of course, there are always going to be gray areas in journalism and in matters of privacy. I won't deny that I have probably taken a step or two down the slippery slope myself, but what we've now seen from Leavenworth (and others) is a running leap.

By the way, Leavenworth's Street Sweeper has condemned my choice to report on Ricketts' sister on several occasions. So, who has cast your "proverbial first stone"?

6/11/2007  

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