A Diversity of Opinion, if Not Opinionators

Jose Antonio Vargas, Washington Post, August 6, 2007

It’s Sunday, day 4 of Yearly Kos, the major conference for progressive bloggers, and Gina Cooper, the confab’s organizer-in-chief, surveys the ballroom of the massive McCormick Place Convention Center. A few hundred remaining conventioneers are having brunch, dining on eggs, bagels and sausage.

Seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates have paid their respects this weekend, and some 200 members of the credentialed press have filed their stories. A mere curiosity just two years ago, the progressive blogosphere has gone mainstream. But Cooper sees a problem.

“It’s mostly white. More male than female,” says the former high school math and science teacher turned activist. “It’s not very diverse.”

There goes the open secret of the netroots, or those who make up the community of the Internet grass-roots movement.

For all the talk about the increasing influence of this growing group—“We are a community . . . a movement . . . an institution,” Cooper said in a speech Saturday night—what gets scant attention is its demography. While the Huffington Post and Fire Dog Lake, both founded by women, are two of the most widely read blogs, the rock stars are mostly men, and many women bloggers complain of sexism and harassment in the blogosphere.

Walking around McCormick Place during the weekend, it became clear that only a handful of the 1,500 conventioneers—bloggers, policy experts, party activists—are African American, Latino or Asian. Of about 100 scheduled panels and workshops, less than a half-dozen dealt directly with women or minority issues.

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Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, who is part Latina, attended a panel on Friday called “The Changing Dynamics of Diversity in Progressive Politics,” organized by Cheryl Contee, an African American woman. Ancona works for Vote Hope, a California-based activist group, and said one reason she came to Yearly Kos was to get an answer to this question: “Why is the blogosphere, which is supposed to be more democratic, reinforcing the same white male power structure that exists?”

Everyone agrees it’s a problem, yet no one is sure how to address it. Historically, the progressive movement has included a myriad of special-interest and single-issue groups, and the challenge has always been to find common ground. The same is true on the Internet, but with an added twist. The Internet, after all, is not a “push” medium like television, where information flows out, but a “pull” medium, where people are drawn in.

Build a liberal site such as Daily Kos, as the Persian Gulf War veteran and former Republican Markos “Kos” Moulitsas Zuniga did five years ago, and bloggers either join the discussion or not. For two years now, Moulitsas has lent his name to the conference. But on Saturday, Cooper announced that next year the event will be called “Netroots Nation.”

Cooper is worried about generating more “inclusion,” using the word no less than six times in 15 minutes.

“I hate using the word ‘diversity.’ I don’t know what we use there. But what we definitely need are voices from different communities,” she says. And the problem, she adds, stretches beyond ethnic and gender inclusion. There’s a socioeconomic gap, too.

“Naming the conference ‘Yearly Kos’ was useful for us. It gave us a brand,” Cooper continues. “Now that more people know about us, people should know that everyone is welcome. The big question is, how do we include everybody?”

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