For Ryan Warawa, blog has become a four-letter word.
The Conservative candidate for Vancouver East, a stalwart NDP riding, rose from relative obscurity to top of the news agenda in a matter of days after controversial old blog postings were unearthed.
The posts, which levelled insulting barbs at various MPs including his Conservative running mates, were hidden to non-members. Blogger Jerad Gallinger found and publicized them using a simple Google cache search.
Warawa is chastened by the experience and has shifted his campaigning to “operation grassroots” or door-to-door canvassing as a result. “It’s been an interesting campaign,” he says.
The Conservative candidate is the third politician in Canada’s federal election campaign to become the target of blogger “gotcha” journalism. The mainstream media has often lagged behind blog revelations about candidate misdeeds.
In early September, Green Party candidate John Shavluk was dropped from his BC riding after a blogger publicized a seemingly anti-semitic forum comment he had made two years earlier.
Later that month, the Tories dropped Toronto Centre candidate Chris Reid when another blogger used cached pages to reveal posts that called Canadians “a castrated effeminate population.” Warawa has not been dismissed from his riding.
The high-profile blogger journalistic coups come at a time when the blogosphere has amassed more popularity and credibility than ever. Polls from Environics and Ipsos-Reid show that between 30 and 40 per cent of all Canadians read blogs.
The Ipsos-Reid poll also revealed that a significant number of respondents think blogs influence public policy (41 per cent) and the media (33 per cent). Those figures jump to 58 per cent and 45 per cent respectively among blog readers.
Gallinger, 24, is part of a “left and centre-left” group called Progressive Bloggers. M.J. Murphy, 45, whose blog initiated Reid’s dismissal, belongs to Proggressive Bloggers and a blog community that supports the Liberal party. Robert Jago, 32, who broke the story on Shavluk, describes himself as “(small-L) libertarian and atheist.” His blog is openly pro-Tory.
If nothing else, they share a bond as political junkies. Gallinger says he has been involved and interested in politics for years, and blogging “seemed like a natural outlet for me.” He has worked as a speech-writer for a Toronto MP in the past. Jago, similarly, has volunteered in every election since he was 18.
Professional journalists have been impressed by these amateurs’ work. David Akins, a parliamentary reporter with the Canwest News Service, wrote of Jago’s scoop on Shavluk: “Chalk this one up to the blogosphere. So far as I know, no mainstream paper, radio, or TV outlet reported this before May canned Shavluk.”
Gallinger experienced the same reaction from reporters when he broke the story on Warawa. He said however that some of the praise was misguided. “[Reporters] were saying, ‘Oh, you’re so good at computers,’ but I wasn’t doing anything complicated. I was doing a search for the guy’s name.”
Though citizen journalism is sometimes characterized as a competitor to mainstream media, these bloggers say they occupy a different niche. Jago rejects the term citizen journalist. “Journalists are professionals with ethics, maturity, and editors (in theory). We are not. It’s a hobby.” Jago also contributes to the Western Standard.
Akins agrees that despite the blogosphere’s importance, it is not a replacement for traditional news. “No Canadian MSM [Mainstream Media] outlet has the resources to do that kind of digging on the 1,500 plus candidates…but smart MSM reporters will keep an eye on smart bloggers who do have the time to keep a special eye out in their part of the world.”
The bloggers accept the limitations of newsrooms, but their charity doesn’t extend to the war rooms. Gallinger thinks that parties must alter their views on candidates’ freedom of expression. “Otherwise, I don’t know how they’re ever going to find any competent candidates in ten years time.”
Murphy disagrees. He thinks the parties simply did a bad job of vetting. “The reporters are saying that they don’t have enough time, but I don’t buy that with the parties.” He attributes their oversight to underestimating the average citizen’s facility with the web.
Murphy expects the parties to become stricter with their candidate selection, not more relaxed.
“The next election won’t be nearly as fun,” he says.