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Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

Fall 2008

Free Radical

The Digital Revolution Is On, Says Blogger Markos Moulitsas

| From Perspectives | By Bari Walsh

With his blog Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (LAW'99) has become a progressive force to be reckoned with, and a major annoyance to conservatives. Photo courtesy of Markos Moulitsas Zúniga

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (LAW'99) is the founder of the influential political blog Daily Kos, credited with giving rise to a new generation of progressive online activists, the so-called netroots. Using emerging digital tools like blogging, podcasting, social networking, and video-sharing, these activists are shaking up old ways of building consensus, doing politics, and shaping culture. In Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, Moulitsas has written a love letter to these pioneers and a call to arms to the rest of us: understand the power of technology, wield it effectively, and you can change the world, right from your living room. He spoke to Bostonia about the new rules of engagement.

Bostonia: What does radical change mean in 2008?

Moulitsas: There is an entrenched gatekeeping elite that strives to maintain the status quo. Their lofty status requires it. Whether it's the music labels or the Hollywood studios or Microsoft or the political elite—these people have it pretty good, and they'll do anything to protect their status.

Radical change means subverting that ruling elite. In politics, the netroots have given rise to a new generation of politicians, while technology allowed Barack Obama to slay the vaunted (and gatekeeping) Clinton political machine. YouTube is giving rise to a new generation of video mavens who bypass the Hollywood studios. MySpace and iTunes are making it possible for musicians to build large fan bases without help from record labels. Hackers all over the world have used the Web to create and disseminate software as complex as entirely new operating systems.

Bostonia: In looking at why protests leading up to the Iraq War failed to change policy, you write, "This is not an era for street protests." Describe the new tools of protest.

Moulitsas: The antiwar protests failed to sway opinion because they were such a tired concept, in message and execution, that the media felt free to ignore them. No matter how much those protesters might think otherwise, "a bunch of people marching in the streets" is not a compelling story. Some may blame the "corporate media," but that same media feel free to ignore the thousands of antiabortion protesters who regularly hit the streets.

In today's world, you have to provide a product that is different, novel, and newsworthy. It has to tie in to a clear and singular message to cut through the clutter. It has to be distributed in the myriad media that dominate our world, from radio to TV to the millions of Internet outlets (blogs, YouTube, podcasts, e-mail newsgroups, message boards) to ethnic media to instant messaging on cell phones.

In the book I discuss the immigration protests of a few years ago; they had a clear message (no "Free Mumia" crap at those marches), they were novel (15,000 Latinos in Salt Lake City? There are brown people in Utah?), they were organized via Spanish-language radio and cell phone messaging, and they were tied to the news—a draconian anti-immigration bill was being considered in the House.

Bostonia: Is it fair to say, though, that the power of the netroots hasn't yet solidified to equal that of Vietnam-era protesters, who, after all, managed to stop that war?

Moulitsas: Vietnam-era protesters managed to stop the war? It took them over a decade to turn public opinion against the war. It wasn't until Tet and Walter Cronkite changing his mind in 1968 that the rest of the country followed suit. If anything, the Vietnam War proved that the only people capable of changing public opinion were the media elite like Cronkite.

Meanwhile, during the Iraq War, public support plummeted in just a couple of years despite a lack of images from the war (including body bags) and without a single high-profile media or political personality in opposition. If the media weren't opposed, and if both parties were cheerleading the war, where did this national opposition stem from? From alternate news sources, that's where. That Bush has ignored public opinion doesn't mean we've failed.

Bostonia: What stands out to you as the most significant success of the netroots to date?

Moulitsas: That regular people feel like they have a voice in the process and are actively engaged in trying to change the world around them for the better. We're mobilizing millions to become more politically active. Any specific accomplishment—and we've had plenty (like kicking Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic Party and electing Senators Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana)—pales in comparison.

Bostonia:There's a clear-eyed pragmatism to your rules, a counterpoint to the perception of progressives as a bunch of dreamers. Are you at all idealistic?

Moulitsas: No. I'm a cynic. And if you want to effect change, you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish and be coldly realistic and pragmatic about how to get there.

Bostonia:Battlefield metaphors pervade the book (the new insurgents, holding enemy ground, seeking out fellow troops). How did your service in the U.S. Army shape your worldview?

Moulitsas: The Army taught me self-confidence and self-reliance. I also grew up in civil war-torn El Salvador, in a martial environment. But I think the battlefield metaphors stem from the understanding that taking on the entrenched elite virtually always leads to conflict. Saul Alinsky once wrote, "Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society." We live in a world where the music labels are threatening housewives who put up thirty-second YouTube videos of their toddlers dancing to Prince. Can we reason with those executives and come to solutions that make everyone happy? Not really. In the past, we had to grin and bear it. Now, thanks to technology, we can take those entrenched elites head on.

But like I said, they fight back with a multitude of tools at their disposal, from lawsuits to technological barriers. And so we have conflict. And when we have conflict, there's no reason to try and put a happy face on it all. War is war.

Bostonia:What has inspired or excited you in the current political campaign?

Moulitsas: For a while, I thought the netroots were becoming stultified, with few new voices emerging. I feared that sites like mine were becoming the new gatekeepers, which would sort of defeat the whole point of a medium built on merit. But this year we've seen dozens of prominent new voices emerge, from the unlikeliest places (as usual), and it's renewed my faith that I work in a medium that will constantly welcome new and innovative voices to the table.

Speak With One Voice
By Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (LAW'99)
An excerpt from Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era (Celebra)

The traditional protest march inevitably devolves into a hodgepodge of conflicting interests and causes, each using the march as a vehicle to try and bring attention to their pet issue. In a fragmented media environment, cutting through the noise requires a clear and simple message. Otherwise, the reaction you get will be, well, like The Daily Show’s John Stewart:

Stewart: On Saturday, a 100,000-strong peace march descended on Washington seeking to crystallize America’s dissatisfaction with the war into one single idea.

Clip of Young Male Speaker: Peace!

Stewart: Okay.

Clip of Young Male Speaker: Justice!

Stewart: (pause) Fine.

Clip of Young Male Speaker: Environmental protection!

Stewart: (pause, confused look on face)

Clip of Young Male Speaker: No racism!

Stewart: (dumbfounded, speaking in Valley Girl–like voice) Dude! I didn’t hike from Oberlin for this!

On December 16, 2005, the Republican-controlled U.S. House passed HR 4437, a draconian bill that would classify not only undocumented immigrants as felons, but also anyone who helped them enter or remain in the United States — in essence criminalizing families for helping out their kin. The bill, sponsored by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, would “[subject] an individual who knowingly aids or conspires to allow, procure, or permit a removed alien to reenter the United States to criminal penalty, the same imprisonment term as applies to the alien so aided, or both.” It passed 239–182 — an odd Christmas present for an estimated 11 million people in the United States.

The Senate, on the other hand, took a different approach. Prodded by President Bush, the Republican-controlled Senate debated an immigration reform bill granting undocumented immigrants a “path to citizenship,” so long as they paid a fine, learned English, had proof of gainful employment, and hadn’t run afoul of the law. For the virulently anti-immigrant House, such efforts were unacceptable regardless of the impossibility of forcibly expelling 11 million people from the country. Years of rising anti-immigrant rhetoric and scapegoating of immigrant communities (and particularly those from south of the border) boiled over into the mass media. And in a culture where the family unit is particularly central to their lives it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

One of the first indications of the reaction in the Latino community came on February 14, 2006, when 1,000 demonstrators rallied at the Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Three weeks later a modest 20,000 rallied in Washington, D.C. Then came a surprisingly big march — 100,000 strong — in Chicago. Then, the week of March 23, the protests exploded nationwide: 30,000 marched in Milwaukee, 20,000 in Phoenix, while 80,000 immigrants refused to show up for work in Georgia. Then, on March 25, half a million marched in Los Angeles, an impressive number even for an area with a high Latino population. What followed in April was more impressive — not in the numbers as much as in the inland, non-border locations: 50,000 in Denver; 7,000 in Columbus, Ohio; 5,000 in Detroit; 9,000 in Nashville; 500,000 in Dallas; 40,000 in St. Paul; 6,000 in Des Moines; 50,000 in Atlanta; 75,000 in Ft. Meyers, Florida; 3,000 in Grand Junction; 20,000 in Indianapolis; 10,000 in Lexington, Kentucky; 100,000 in Phoenix; 25,000 in Seattle. You could almost feel the shock in lily-white Utah as 15,000 Latinos took to the streets in Salt Lake City, or when 3,000 marched in the small farming community of Garden City, Kansas. In Boise, Idaho, the 5,000 who took to the streets may have been the largest public demonstration in the state’s history. One shocked anti-immigrant group in Idaho hilariously pleaded for an “American” response:

“Distressed and dismayed at the protest for amnesty? Close Our Borders Committee has reserved the park at the above times. The hope is to have as many people as possible show up with their own old-fashioned AMERICAN snacks, picnics, barbeque grills, any variety of games — from jump ropes, hula-hoops to horseshoes or Frisbees etc. A celebration of American culture would be great on the illegal aliens protest-day.”

All power flows through media, and these protests demonstrated that in several ways. First, the Anglo-American media was mostly clueless about what was brewing in the Latino community, and so was taken by surprise when the marches erupted. As spontaneous as the demonstrations appeared, they were, in fact, preceded by a lot of buzz and organizing work in the Latino community. Spanish-language television, and more important, Spanish-language radio, provided much of the spark for the protests and also laid down the ground rules, such as insisting that only American flags be flown. Invisible to Anglo America, these ethnic media outlets spent weeks laying the groundwork. This was explained by Félix Gutiérrez, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, in an interview with Jeffrey Brown on PBS’s NewsHour program on April 11, 2006:

Jeffrey Brown: Paint a picture for us, Professor Gutiérrez. Paint a picture of Spanish-language media today. How — how diverse, in terms of voices, in terms of politics, in terms of ownership?

Felix Gutierrez: Well, it’s — it’s a growing medium. … [H]ere in Los Angeles, we have sixteen radio stations, about six TV stations, two daily newspapers all in Spanish. And this is part of a nationwide trend. It’s big business. It’s not mom-and-pop local operations, but Univision, Telemundo. Telemundo is part of NBC. We have the big newspaper chains, like Hearst, Tribune, Knight Ridder, all doing things in Spanish, one way or another. […]

Jeffrey Brown: Now, Professor Gutiérrez, there has been a lot of mulling lately about how the mainstream media really picked up on all this quite late in the game, raising the question about whether it is missing a lot of what’s going on in this country. What do you think about that?

Felix Gutierrez: You can’t be well informed if you pay attention to the so-called mainstream media, the general circulation dailies, network TV, for instance. People just have more choice. … And if the general-audience media had been paying more attention to the Latino media the week before the demonstration here in Los Angeles, where we had half a million people, they would not have been surprised at what turned out on Saturday. That was a consistent message, and, as we counseled earlier, that people should show up, they should demonstrate their rights, and that they should do so in a peaceful way, which is part of our First Amendment rights in this country.

The Los Angeles efforts even drew people from the faraway Central Valley. “Lots of people started calling the station asking for information about the march, so we decided to do something about it,” said DJ Diana Miramontes of KLOG 98.7 FM in Merced, California, in a Spanish-language report for New America Media on March 27, 2006. “We interviewed an activist who could explain HR 4437 and shared information about the march. Calls flooded in, including someone offering a free bus.” Merced is 273 miles from Los Angeles, and like much of that region has a huge population of immigrant farmworkers. Stations hundreds of miles away gave tips to its listeners planning on trekking to the protest. A report from the Univision affiliate in Fresno, California — about 220 miles away from Los Angeles — helpfully suggested listeners check their cars’ oil and antifreeze levels before embarking.

The Saturday edition of La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language daily in the United States (circulation: 125,000), screamed “A Las Calles!” — “To the Streets!” — at the top of its page, with photos from various pro-immigrant protests from around the country filling the broadsheet, plus a map of the protest route. Spanish-language television, such as the stations Univision, Telemundo, and TV Azteca, urged their viewers to take to the streets.

Besides print, radio, and TV, cell phones (and the internet, to a much lesser extent) were critical to the massive participation of young immigrants. Some schools kept students from walking out and joining many of the protests, as students learned about the protests by shooting text messages to each other. “It’s a very, very potent form of communication,” University of Houston communications professor Garth Jowett told KPRC Local 2 in Houston on March 29, 2006. “In a matter of minutes, literally, they can get a crowd to assemble someplace within half an hour, of tens of thousands of people, simply by everybody text messaging five people.”

While all the organizing took place through Spanish-language media and cell phones as well, the marches were a nationwide success because of their single, unified message. They were not protesting and giving speeches about a bunch of different issues. When the first few marches generated controversy over the flying of Mexican and other Latin American flags, the word went out — only American flags were to be displayed at the marches. The narrative was set: America was a nation of immigrants.

Signs proclaimed: “We are America.” Spokespersons reinforced that message: “We come to this country not to take from America, but to make America strong. And we do not deserve to be treated the way we have been treated.” Demonstrators were asked to bring their children, which lessened the chance of violence, since the children would serve as restraint for both the demonstrators and the police. But more important, it would reinforce the notion that anti-immigration efforts were fundamentally antifamily. Demonstrators wore white to symbolize solidarity, offering great visuals for the cameras.

The message was so clear, so universally intuitive, that every participant easily adopted it. As one seventeen-year-old marcher said: “My parents are immigrants. We Mexicans are not here to fight against Americans. We’re here to become Americans.” Spanish-language radio DJ Pedro Biaggi explained to Jeffrey Brown on PBS NewsHour on April 11, “[I]t doesn’t get any more complicated than just delivering the pure and simple message of where we’re going and why we’re going there.”

The Senate passed its immigration reform bill without the draconian House language on May 25, 2006 (S.2611), but House Republicans quickly declared the bill dead on arrival. As a New York Times editorial said on May 27:

“The Senate has given the cause of immigration reform a lot of momentum, which it will need since it is now heading for a brick wall: the House of Representatives. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, James Sensenbrenner Jr., in the role of head brick, called the Senate bill ‘a nonstarter’ the morning after it passed.

“Discussing the odds of reconciling the House and Senate legislation into one bill, Mr. Sensenbrenner struck a tone of deathly pessimism. The chambers had once been miles apart, but now they were ‘moons part or oceans apart,’ he said, grasping for words to convey the vastness of his gloom, and the ferocity of his bargaining stance.”

With the House unable to come to an agreement with the Senate, the legislation — both the Senate and House versions — died with the expiration of the 109th Congress.

While the Senate’s immigration reform bill with its “path to citizenship” would’ve been a step forward for the immigrant community, the defeat of the mean-spirited House bill was a huge milestone. The “debate” had previously been a one-sided affair, with their targets — undocumented immigrants — too afraid of deportation to assert themselves politically. It was easier to lay low and pray that they wouldn’t get rounded up by the authorities. Yet suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, brown people had risen with one voice, in some of the least expected corners of the country. As one community organizer said, “We decided not to be invisible anymore.” It was a wake-up call for the media and the broader public, and even community activists watched in wonder as the seemingly leaderless demonstrations spontaneously arose.

The protests were novel and unexpected, they had a clear, sympathetic, and media-friendly message, they provided great visuals, and they even tapped into a hot-button national issue of immigration laws. Momentum built from the first demonstrations in February through the end of April. Millions marched, and the nation was transfixed.

If those marches were an example of how to conduct streets protests with a clear unified message and theme, the May Day marches that followed soon after showed how not to do it.

The organizers of the traditional May Day marches on May 1, celebrating International Workers’ Day, announced that they would further the cause promoted by the immigration rights groups. And while the intentions may have been good, the execution was a disaster. I watched the marchers begin to line up in San Francisco that morning, and along with the brown immigrant protesters were the usual suspects — hippie retreads demanding legalization of marijuana, the tired “Stop Imperalism!” zealots, the predictable “Free Mumia!” signs, the inevitable “Free Palestine!” crowd, even a few “Free Tibet!” proponents. Any unity of message or purpose was lost. As a planned march, there was nothing novel or interesting about the effort. There were no new story lines or narratives for the media to run with. And there’s nothing more boring and stale than writing a story that’s essentially “a bunch of people marched and chanted stuff.”

It was a lost opportunity. Had all these groups surrendered their pet causes for one day, they could have reinforced the original narrative by showing how pro-immigration efforts had spread beyond the brown community and become a more multiethnic, multinational phenomenon. Instead, a bunch of selfish people hijacked the effort, so it completely dissipated. The spontaneity, the uniqueness, the dramatic stories from the original protests had disappeared. The story was dead.

To be fair, perhaps there was nowhere else for the protests to go. The original organizers had responded quickly, almost organically, to a sense of frustration. In a perfect world, the protests would’ve evolved into a lobbying operation, pressuring lawmakers to pass friendly legislation, finding the best stories (divided families, hard workers struggling to achieve the American dream, and so on) to package and market to traditional media outlets, hence continuing to build popular sympathy and support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Then again, something far more fundamental than mere street action was spurred by the three-month campaign. Many Latinos, previously afraid of asserting themselves, had suddenly found their voice and realized that real change required participation in the political process. Protesters had marched with signs that read “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” and they made good on their promise. Part of the increased voter turnout in the 2006 elections was prompted by hostile actions against Latinos, wrote Gabriela Lemus, an AFL-CIO executive: “Cities like Hazelton, Pa., passed ordinances that racially-profiled Latinos and demanded that English be the only language spoken. Minutemen became the vanguard of vigilantism against immigrants, but also harassed Hispanic voters in places like Tucson, Ariz. Congressional campaigns ran attack ads designed to motivate the anti-immigrant base. Al of these efforts backfired. Instead of a massive uprising against immigrants at the polls, we witnessed a tide of Hispanic voters casting their ballots.”

It was quite a tide. While the Latino vote in the 2002 midterm elections was 5.3 percent of total voter turnout, that number spiked to 8 percent in the 2006 midterm elections — a 37 percent jump. The numbers were even more dramatic in 2008, according to a study by the NDN Hispanic Strategy Center: Latino turnout in the presidential primaries was three times higher than in the 2004 primaries, increasing their percentage of the overall vote from 9 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008 — a 44 percent increase in just four years. If the message was “We Are America,” there was no better way to drive it home than to cast that ballot on Election Day.

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On Friday, 10/31/2008 at 3:02pm, Ian Lamont (COM'01) wrote:

William, if you are talking about Bill O'Reilly (who received his masters from COM) he actually was profiled in an issue of Bostonia several years back. I enjoyed the interview with Zúniga in the latest issue. Regardless of one's political affiliation, it has to be noted that both he and O'Reilly have made huge impacts on politics and mass media in this country. Their views and observations are interesting and important -- not just for their takes on the 2008 elections, but also for their insights into the state of the media industry. Ian Lamont

On Tuesday, 10/21/2008 at 9:51am, William A. Faris wrote:

What absolute drivel. This is not journalism. It is not only an afront to the reader but also a measure of how low the left has fallen. Certainly the blogger has a right to express his opinion, but the University has no obligation to promote such bovine scatology. Perhaps Bostonia will devote as much time to another fellow graduate who happens to have the top rated TV show, and who regularly illustrates what a waste of space both the blogger and Stewart occupy.

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