Much Love to African American Political Pundit for highlighting this story.

Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune recently spoke to the Reggie Royston at the Maynard Institute about black bloggers and our growing impact on politics. BTW, the Afrosphere/Afrospear of black political bloggers now numbers 116 bloggers.

Check out the story. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts. And props to blue-eyed brother Howard for his reporting. (emphasis mine)

Were you encouraged or intrigued by the blogger reaction to your stories?

I was. The whole experience was kind of an awakening for me as to the even existence this black blogosphere. I didn’t really pay much attention to blogs until early this year. I think I shared the stereotype of bloggers that most mainstream journalists have, which is [that] they were this bunch of lunatics sitting in front of the computer screen at midnight in their underwear expostulating on things. I thought it was a bunch of navel-gazing and a waste of time, but I changed my opinion pretty dramatically after the Shaquanda Cotton story.

[In the spring of 2006, Witt wrote about 14-year-old Shaquanda Cotton, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for shoving a school hall monitor in Paris, Texas. That story led to national criticism of the Texas juvenile prison system.]

That story was published in March of last year, and very quickly a day or two after that I started getting a lot of e-mails from people who were encountering that story across the Internet and I was just curious where they were finding that story. I did a little Google searching and discovered that the story had been picked up on a number of these African-American blogs. They were, generally speaking, quite thoughtful and had interesting things to say. It wasn’t at all what I had assumed to be of blogs, which is generally a bunch of narcissistic stuff.

I also discovered that this was a very potent way for my stories to get distributed to audiences who would otherwise never see them. People who would never know about the Chicago Tribune or look at the newspaper were suddenly having access to the story via blogs or e-mails from people who saw it somewhere else.

I was discovering the bloggers I think as they were beginning to discover themselves. What I came to discover later, and what the bloggers themselves started to talk about, [was that] prior to the Shaquanda case they were kind of isolated. While they had a few interconnected links to each other, they were mostly a bunch of individuals kind of giving their thoughts on issues of the day.

What happened with the Shaquanda case is that, with the bloggers, a kind of activism started to take root and the blogs themselves kind of organized in this organic way a petition and a letter-writing campaign aimed at the Texas youth prison authority and also aimed at the governor of Texas, demanding that Shaquanda be released and her case looked at again. In addition, there was some protests held in the town where she lives in Texas, and the word about this protest was kind of spread among these blogs.

That resulted in many thousands of petitions and letters being sent to the governor and the Texas prison authority, and that actually seemed to play a pretty significant role in raising the profile of her case. In less than a month after my first story got published she ended up getting released.

That experience with the Shaquanda story kind of opened my eyes regarding what was out there in this Afrosphere, as they call it. And then pretty quickly afterward I wrote my Jena story.

When did your first story about the Jena Six appear?

I wrote a Jena story May 20. That was the first story anybody had written about Jena outside the small, local paper in the region down there. What I did with the Jena story, now that I knew the existence of these blogs, as soon as it went online, I sent a link out to probably a dozen of these blogs that I had been looking at and was kind of impressed by the level of their commentary and I just said, “Here’s another story that you might be interested in.” Well, that caused a very quick reaction because the Jena [case] had a lot of resonance too. A lot of people tended to get very upset when they heard about what was happening in Jena, and then that story took off instantly.

There was just this huge ferment and attention that was focused on Jena, which as we already know led to more than 20,000 people marching in Jena. The success of that protest owed in very large measure to the attention that was brought to the case by these blogs, which by the time the Jena case happened, we are talking about several hundred blogs on the blogroll. At the same time, these blogs were taking up a lot of other cases. They spent a lot of attention with the Don Imus controversy, and also with the Genarlow Wilson case. And through those cases, basically those are four big cases the bloggers talk about themselves – Shaquanda, Jena, then Imus and then the Genarlow case – those cases seemed to coalesce the existence of this Afrosphere such that they themselves started to talk about the influence they could potentially bring to bear on public policy.

In the future now they’re going to have a seat at the table. And the other really interesting aspect about this is there is no single leader. This is not a traditional civil rights organization as such headed by Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. This is an organic, very distributed phenomena. Nevertheless it is incredibly powerful largely because it unites like-minded people and people who are already well-positioned to have an impact on politics. Most of these bloggers are professionals. They have other jobs. They are obviously very tech-savvy and a lot of them work in technology. There’s a lot attorneys.

Rather than kind of a scattershot approach, what these blogs do is they put stories of interest and relevance in front of readers who are already inclined to be interested in this story and active about them … I think that’s the power of this stuff.

What role do you think race played in raising the profile of these bloggers? Are black bloggers more influential than white bloggers or leftist bloggers, per se?

Certainly the black bloggers have defined for themselves a particular area of interest and broadly we’re talking about civil rights-type issues. I think the difference is, if we’re talking about “white blogs,” if we’re talking about the liberal political blogs like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, those blogs to me, they’re much less interesting. They are basically just regurgitating what they read in the mainstream media, particularly the big-name columnists, Paul Krugman and the rest. It’s kind of a hall of mirrors to me, and I find none of it interesting.

But what I find in the black blogosphere you have people who don’t profess to be political professionals. They’re just ordinary folks coming from a range of interests and professions but they have these very thoughtful takes on the civil rights issues of the day. They bring to bear their own experience and they give voice to a lot of stuff that just doesn’t get aired either in the mainstream media or in the kind of liberal blogs. Plus the black blogosphere is not distinguished by a particular political orthodoxy.

It’s not like they’re all liberals. There’s a lot of conservative black bloggers out there who I imagine would vote Republican, but nevertheless they don’t hew to a particular political line. They’re just interested in issues relating to justice and equality and all that and it’s kind of refreshing. They don’t read like political screeds.

Interestingly, what the black blogs proved [with Jena] is they don’t need for the “white blogs” to pay attention to them for these to become big national stories, to get their story out. They get a lot of attention. They get a lot of results.


You are white, correct?

I actually find it entertaining. A lot of the bloggers think I am black, and they give props to brother Howard Witt. And you know, I’ll take that as an honor. But, no, I am Caucasian.

What do you think of your role as a white reporter covering this story?

I honestly don’t think it makes a difference one way or another. I am a reporter. I go and ask people questions and try and find out what’s going on. And whether I am black or white or Indian or Asian or whatever, I just don’t see where that makes a difference, one way or another.

People will choose to talk to me or they won’t, but I don’t think it’s based on the color of my skin. I think it’s based on the kind of questions I am asking or whether they think it’s in their interest to talk to me, whether I scare them or put them at ease or whatever. I work with many black colleagues, they do the same thing I do. Certainly, my skin color has nothing to do with the fact that I think these are interesting and important stories that should be told. I don’t think that skin color determines the beat you’re going to cover, or the stories you’re interested in.

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