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Blogger breakthrough: Vermont’s net-savvy citizens go from obscure to mainstream

julie waters
Julie Waters

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted October 6, 2006

In less than 24 hours, an item posted on an obscure blog ended up embarrassing a congressional candidate and led to the firing of a top campaign aide.

Welcome to the 21st century and campaigning in the day of blogs and the ever-increasing pressure of the media to compete with the instantaneous cycle of Internet news.

And, an era in which citizen journalists, including bloggers, are picking up on details missed by traditional reporters and using what they find to have a more direct impact on the elections.

“I didn’t think we would see the blogs really impacting the races like this until next cycle, but the feedback I’ve received from the campaigns makes it clear that they’ve been watching,” said John Odum, one of the founders of Green Mountain Daily and the person who filed a post that showed how some of Martha Rainville’s health care proposals came from a speech delivered by Pres. George W. Bush, challenging the candidate’s claim to be an “independent thinker.”

That post is what inspired a Westminster-based musician and teacher to check out other statements on Rainville’s website, and what she found led to an embarrassing discovery for the Rainville campaign.

Republican congressional hopeful Rainville now joins the ranks of Rep. Charles Bass, R-NH, and Tom Kean, Jr., a Republican challenger to Sen. Robert Mendendez, D-NJ, in the leagues of those embarrassed by the actions of staffers. And the actions of those staffers being caught by bloggers.

A Bass staffer was found to have taken on an array of online identities and used them to portray himself as a Democrat, urging others to believe that Paul Hode, the opponent, would easily beat Bass, and to focus their efforts and donations on other races.

Liberal bloggers traced the staffer’s user name to the host computer, which was connected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

A similar tale unfolded in New Jersey, where a Kean campaign staffer allegedly adopted online screen names and posed as a Democrat with concerns about voting for Menendez.

In Vermont, the chain of events began Sept. 30 when a Community College of Vermont professor, Julie Waters of Westminster, became intrigued by something she read on the popular blog Green Mountain Daily and decided to see if Rainville’s statements were her own.

What Waters found — and then posted on her own blog on Oct. 1, Reason and Brimstone — unleashed a firestorm in the Vermont blogosphere the following day.

Within 24 hours of Waters’ posting, a top Rainville campaign aide, Chris Stewart, was fired and Rainville’s campaign website was disabled while staffers combed the site to determine how many passages were potentially plagiarized.

As of the afternoon of Oct. 4, the site remained disabled.

“We are currently performing a thorough review of public campaign documents. This is an isolated incident,” said Brendan McKenna, Rainville’s spokesman.

McKenna said when Rainville was made aware of the situation, she said that Stewart had to go. When confronted with the findings, Stewart offered a letter of resignation.

The campaign also sent a letter to Waters thanking her for bringing the issue to their attention.

“It was actually a very professional letter,” said Waters. The letter thanked her, and urged her to vote for Rainville. The letter cited Rainville’s actions that led to the firing of her staff member and said she’s an independent thinker.

Waters isn’t so sure about that, and certainly the mini-frenzy her blog post caused was not what she set out to accomplish.

It all began when she decided to take what she does to her own students’ work — check it for accuracy and plagiarism.

What Waters found surprised her.

In one instance, Rainville cited as her own words a statement on U.S. energy policy that appears to have originated from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY.

Waters also found a Rainville statement on the need for transparency in federal budgeting that she believes originated with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-TN, and was copied from a transcript of the public television program NOW, which aired on Aug. 25. The Rainville statement appeared on her campaign website on Sept. 8.

This latter post is what really got Waters’ attention as a teacher, and she made note of it on her blog.

“Here’s the best part about this: Notice the grammatical error in Cooper’s original comment: “There should be no secrets unless it involves certain parts of national security.” (The noun is singular but the verb is plural),” writes Waters on her blog. “Rainville’s statement makes that exact same grammatical error — it’s not just a rendering of the same idea. It’s cut and pasted from the statment (sic) by Cooper.”

Waters, who said she normally works for causes rather than candidates, said her motivation to keep digging came from her professional passion as a teacher. She is not working for the Welch campaign, although she does do some minor podcasting work for the campaign of Rep. Bernie Sanders.

She said her students don’t often understand the difference between citing authors and plagiarizing them, so she is constantly vigilant.

“I work hard to teach my students what is and is not honest from an academic perspective, and I’m flabbergasted that Rainville’s own campaign clearly does not understand the difference,” Waters said.

For Waters, what she found only raises more questions in her mind about Rainville’s authenticity as a candidate.

“To me, however, this calls into question a great many of her public statements: What are her own ideas and which ones are the things that just sound like good sound bites? What’s her true perspective and what is something test-marketed to appeal to Vermont voters?” said Waters.

Stewart’s role at the Rainville campaign was multi-faceted. He was a researcher and regularly attended the press conferences of Welch, Rainville’s Democratic opponent.

He had also worked for Republican Rich Tarrant’s campaign as a field rep for three southern Vermont counties, but was let go from that campaign for unspecified reasons.

“It is a confidential matter between Mr. Stewart and the campaign,” said Tim Lennon, Tarrant’s campaign spokesman.

McKenna said the campaign knew that Stewart had “parted ways with the Tarrant campaign,” but didn’t say if the campaign inquired about the reasons.

Getting respect

With the rapid way in which this went from obscure blog to mainstream blog to the media, several bloggers believe this means Vermont’s blogosphere is officially on the map.

And, that bloggers are seen by more traditional reporters as legitimate fact-seekers.

Waters said it was a post by John Odum on Green Mountain Daily that got her thinking, especially since Rainville was claiming to be an independent thinker not beholden to national party leaders.

“I was looking for information on the polling for the House race and found a reference to a Green Mountain Daily post which suggested that Rainville’s health care information was stolen from a Bush speech. I couldn’t find the original Green Mountain Daily post, so I looked it up myself. That got me to find one instance of copied material and I thought it was fairly odd, so I started investigating others,” Waters said.

In that original blog post, Odum pointed to similarities in Bush’s State of the Union Speech and the bullet points of Rainville’s healthcare reform plan.

“The fact that our supposed ‘independent thinking’ Republican candidate for the U.S. House just obediently took her party-line dictates from the GOP leadership in Washington doesn’t surprise me one whit. What surprises me is that her campaign seemed to make no effort whatsoever to hide this dutiful obedience,” wrote Odum in his blog diary.

“Don’t they know we’re gonna check this stuff?” he added.

Waters said after she checked the sources and posted her findings, she contacted several media outlets about it, including Peter Freyne of Seven Days, who first posted it on his blog the morning of Oct. 2, The Burlington Free Press, and the Barre Montpelier Times Argus. All three papers posted information about the incident on their blogs during the day.

WCAX-TV, the state’s largest TV station, did not air anything about the story during its 6 p.m. newscast on Oct.2. The NBC affiliate — WPTZ-TV out of Plattsburgh, NY — did air the story. The Associated Press also wrote a story by late Oct. 2.

Odum sees what happened as quintessential blogger moxie and an indication of things to come.

“This issue — which percolated through the blogs exclusively until it hit the boiling point — means this decentralized, people-powered medium has arrived and, quite frankly, from this point on, the Vermont political landscape will never be the same again,” Odum added.

Waters, who doesn’t see herself as a blogger like Odum and others, was fascinated by how the story took hold and how mainstream journalists picked it up.

“I’m not a blogger per se. I have a blog that I tried for a short while, and then I moved on to other projects,” said Waters. “But that said, this was definitely spurred on by genuine bloggers and it clearly has had some small influence in the campaign. Within 24 hours after my discovery and making it public, a statewide congressional race has taken down the main page on its website and a man’s been fired,” said Waters.

That landscape, for now, is largely shaped by liberal bloggers, not conservatives, though the right in Vermont is not without its own voice.

Charity Tensel of Burlington, who hosts the She’s Right blog and a public-access TV show of the same name, said she was fascinated by the Rainville story.

“The fact that [the mainsteam media] picked up the story, and that it ended up being credible, goes a long way in the effort to establish blogs as a legitimate source of reporting — an effort that is a constant struggle for bloggers who want to be taken seriously. Even though this was an effort of the liberal bloggers, it benefits all bloggers when the state’s largest papers are crediting a blogger for a big news story,” said Tensel.

Tensel agrees that the left has made better use of the so-called “netroots” medium.

“There are a growing number of conservative blogs, but there does not seem to be that ‘netroots’ formation like you see on the Democratic-progressive side with collaborative sites like Green Mountain Daily. I don’t see anything similar on the horizon for the Vermont right. I would love to take on something like that if I had the time,” said Tensel.

Neil Jensen, who contributes to Green Mountain Daily and operates his own blog, What’s the Point? (http://www.peasantswithpitchforks.com/point), agrees with Tensel that this story could do a lot to give credibility to the work of bloggers in Vemont.

“I think until recently, bloggers have for the most part seen themselves as ‘citizen pundits’ who help to form a distributed message machine, trying to influence the mood and direction of public discourse,” said Jensen. “I think blogs are increasingly seen as playing a role in breaking stories, not just commenting on them. And so I think bloggers acting as citizen journalists, as opposed to just citizen pundits, will be a more common part of the political/media landscape.”

During the primary, Jensen and fellow blogger Jack McCullough of Rational Resistance (http://www.rationalresistance.blogspot.com) hosted a debate between Democratic challengers John Tracy and Matt Dunne. The debate got coverage on Vermont Public Radio and WPTZ.

“The important thing to remember about the lieutenant governor debate between Tracy and Dunne was not the technology involved, but that statewide candidates agreed to participate in a debate sponsored by ‘average’ citizens, and not by established news or civic organizations,” noted Jensen.

“This willingness to participate was a clear demonstration that blogs were being taken seriously by the establishment,” he added.