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Weblog Watchdogs Nip Coble


Coble case shows power of weblogs as watchdogs 


By Edward Cone

News & Record

Howard Coble has once again run afoul of the Weblog Nation.

Our popular longtime Congressman has been making national news for defending the internment of Japanese-Americans by the US government during World War II. And weblogs, the self-published Internet journals that buzzed with anger last fall at Coble’s views on policing intellectual property rights, are once again central to the story.

Coble will survive, but his travails demonstrate the growing role of weblogs as watchdogs on the government and resources for the media.

As chairman of the House subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, Coble’s views on locking people up are of particular interest these days. During a radio call-in show on WKZL, Coble said he did not think Americans of Arab descent should be interned due to current events, but his endorsement of the past use of ethnicity-based internment was more than a little spooky.

Coble justified his stance in part by ascribing some humanitarian motives to the practice of confining American citizens to camps ringed with barbed wire. In subsequent days this became his defensive position—no apology was forthcoming because he was sure that concern for the safety of Japanese-Americans was a key element in the decision to lock them up.

There it might have ended, but for the efforts of a Chapel Hill law professor named Eric Muller, who used his weblog (www.isthatlegal.blogspot.com) to demolish Coble’s version of history with prosecutorial efficiency. Just Coble’s luck: Muller had written a book called Free to Die for Their Country about the internment era, and he quickly posted original documents and detailed analysis of the internment program that clearly refuted the for-their-own-good argument.

By early last week, Coble was backing away from his earlier statements. On Monday he said that internment had been wrong, although he did not admit that his facts on the motives for internment were incorrect, or respond to a request by three Asian-American congressmen for a meeting. Muller doesn’t get all the credit, but his work was clearly a crucial element in the coverage and understanding of Coble’s remarks.

While at least one activist group is demanding that he resign his committee chairmanship, local voters convinced of Coble’s basic decency—the same folks who helped him trounce weblog-wielding challenger Tara Grubb last November--will certainly forgive him.

Whatever its political fallout, the Coble affair highlights a unique power of weblogs: the ability for people with specific expertise to bring that expertise to bear quickly and in depth when circumstances push their chosen subject into the limelight.

In an online essay last year about the way weblogs could drive and sometimes surpass media coverage, I referred to an article in the Washington Times by Jonah Goldberg, who argued that webloggers could never match the resources of a major news organization that had reporters on the ground in foreign capitals. The point Goldberg was missing is that the interesting webloggers on an event in, say, Tblisi wouldn’t just be Americans writing from home, they’d be webloggers in Tblisi.

Muller is demonstrating the same principle, but in this case it isn’t his physical proximity to Coble that matters as much as it is his closeness to the facts in question.

Weblogs played a major role in keeping the story of Trent Lott’s misplaced nostalgia alive until the major media could no long ignore it. But it didn’t take an expert to recognize that the Senate majority leader should not publicly pine for the good old days of segregation. In the case of Coble’s rewrite of history, though, an expert voice was required, and Muller’s weblog let him get the word out.

Actually, Muller wrote an opinion article as soon as he learned about Coble’s remarks and circulated it to major North Carolina and national newspapers. But by the time this newspaper and others ran it last week, his more-detailed web postings had spread across the blogosphere, including widely-read sites like Instapundit.com, where it was sure to be seen by big-league journalists and Beltway insiders.

Muller was also contacted by staffers for some of the Asian-American congressmen who tried to meet with Coble. “They let me know that what I was doing was appreciated,” he says. “I would have no access to them without the weblog.”

Of course the media could have called Muller first—if they had known about him, or were willing to go find him. “These (major media) places have their rolodexes, and they go to the same people, regardless if the story fits their expertise or not,” says Muller. “You see the same telegenic law professor talking about everything.”

Even Muller, it seems, underestimated the power of his own weblog: after we spoke, he was ask to comment on Coble's remarks for a syndicated NPR show.

Edward Cone (efcone@mindspring.com, www.edcone.com), a magazine journalist and Greensboro native, contributes a column to the News & Record on Sunday.

© Copyright 2003 Ed Cone.
Last update: 2/16/2003; 12:06:57 PM.

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