For Liberal Bloggers, Libby Trial Is Fun and Fodder
The perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr., former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, has drawn every major news organization in the country to the federal courthouse in Washington. But none has fielded a bigger team — or was more openly crushed by the defense decision this week not to put Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby on the stand — than Firedoglake.com.
Even the Web-savvy may ask, Fire dog what? A collective of liberal bloggers, fueled by online donations and a fanatical devotion to the intricacies of the Libby case, Firedoglake has offered intensive trial coverage, using some six contributors in rotation. They include a former prosecutor, a current defense lawyer, a Ph.D. business consultant and a movie producer, all of whom lodge at a Washington apartment rented for the duration of the trial.
All day long during the trial, one Firedoglake blogger is on duty to beam to the Web from the courthouse media room a rough, real-time transcript of the testimony. With no audio or video feed permitted, the Firedoglake “live blog” has offered the fullest, fastest public report available. Many mainstream journalists use it to check on the trial.
But the bloggers’ fun is almost over. Mr. Libby’s lawyers rested their case yesterday shortly after the judge said he had been misled about whether Mr. Libby would take the stand. [Page A27.]
For blogs, the Libby trial marks a courthouse coming of age. It is the first federal case for which independent bloggers have been given official credentials along with reporters from the traditional news media, said Robert A. Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association. Mr. Cox negotiated access for the bloggers.
“My goal is to get judges to think of bloggers as citizen journalists who should get the same protections as other journalists get,” Mr. Cox said.
He acknowledged that the Libby case had vividly illustrated the limits on those protections, as one reporter, Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times, went to jail and others were forced to testify about once-confidential sources.
With a yeasty mix of commentary, invective and inside jokes, Fire-doglake has seen its audience grow steadily during the trial, reaching 200,000 visitors and requiring an additional computer server on its busiest days — like Tuesday, with the revelation that Mr. Cheney would not appear.
“After all that, Shooter lets me down,” wrote Jane Hamsher, creator of Firedoglake and organizer of its trial team. Mr. Cheney is nicknamed on the blog for his infamous hunting accident, which handily rhymes with the nickname for his former aide, Scooter.
At Firedoglake and other sites on the left, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, comes across as a righteous avenger, exposing the perfidy of Mr. Libby in particular and the Bush White House in general.
Over on the right, meanwhile, conservative bloggers portray Mr. Fitzgerald’s case against Mr. Libby as a gratuitous exercise that is slowly coming apart. At American Thinker, Clarice Feldman has repeatedly taken aim at the prosecution’s most important witness, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press.
“Tim Russert has some explaining to do,” Ms. Feldman, a lawyer sitting in on the trial this week, wrote of the host in her blog.
Sheldon L. Snook, the court official in charge of the news media, said the decision to admit bloggers — 5 to 10 of about 100 reporters present on busy trial days — has worked out well.
“It seems they can provide legal analysis and a level of detail that might not be of interest to the general public but certainly has an audience,” Mr. Snook said.
Even as they exploit the newest technologies, the Libby trial bloggers are a throwback to a journalistic style of decades ago, when many reporters made no pretense of political neutrality. Compared with the sober, neutral drudges of the establishment press, the bloggers are class clowns and crusaders, satirists and scolds.
“They’re putting in a lot more opinion and a lot more color than the traditional reporters,” said Mr. Cox, adding that the bloggers were challenging “the theory of objective journalism.”
Like the newspaper and network reporters, the bloggers have alternated between sitting in on testimony in Courtroom 16 and watching the video feed to the media room, where laptops are allowed.
In the courthouse, the old- and new-media groups have mixed warily at times. Mainstream reporters have shushed the bloggers when their sarcastic comments on the testimony drowned out the audio feed. But traditional reporters have also called on the bloggers on occasion to check a quote or an obscure detail from the investigation.
Some bloggers at the trial have seen their skepticism about mainstream reporting confirmed.
“It’s shown me the degree to which journalists work together to define the story,” said Marcy Wheeler, author of a book on the case, “Anatomy of Deceit,” and the woman usually in the Firedoglake live-blogger seat.
Ms. Wheeler, a business consultant from Michigan who writes under the nom-de-blog “emptywheel,” believes that some trial revelations have been underplayed in the conventional media because “once the narrative is set on a story, there’s no deviating from it.”
Ms. Hamsher, 47, created Firedoglake on a shoestring — its major expense is a $200-a-month charge for Web hosting. Online donors are paying trial coverage costs, including the travel expenses of the bloggers and the $3,500 a month rent on the Washington apartment, dubbed Plame House after Valerie Plame, the maiden name of the C.I.A. operative whose exposure led to the criminal investigation and Mr. Libby’s indictment.
The bloggers, some of whom are taking vacation or have flexible work schedules, are all unpaid. Ms. Hamsher describes the blog as “a collective watering hole” where contributors with diverse expertise “scour every possible source for information and then pool their resources.”
Its name is easily explained, she said: “I like lying in front of the fire with my dogs and watching the Lakers.”
A movie producer best known for “Natural Born Killers,” Ms. Hamsher, who recently moved to Middletown, Conn., from California, arrived at the trial just days after cancer surgery and is scheduled for chemotherapy after the verdict.
Last year, while working for the Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont in Connecticut, she publicly apologized after posting on the Huffington Post blog a doctored photo of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Mr. Lamont’s opponent, in blackface. But she said that while she still worked on film projects, blogging was what really engaged her.
“There’s a snarky, get-under-the-surface-of-things quality to it that’s really me,” Ms. Hamsher said.