Net Neuter

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POLITICS MAY 29, 2006

Net Neuter

Love affairs between the press corps and flacks are highly unusual, but they do happen. And, for years, Mike McCurry has been deeply involved in one. In January 1995, when Bill Clinton appointed the former State Department spokesman to press secretary, one of the White House's most high-profile (and high-pressure) positions, The Washington Post celebrated the arrival of "a jolly fellow" who had won "high marks from…the media." The New York Times looked forward to the "equanimity and wit" that McCurry would bring to the White House briefing room. Even the Lewinsky scandal--"a press secretary's worst nightmare," in the words of one reporter--couldn't ruin his relationship with the press. "His easy humor and generally warm relations with the press," the Times wrote, "appear to be getting him through." During his four years explaining away Clintonite indiscretions large and small, McCurry inspired Howard Kurtz to give him an endearing nickname--"spin master"--and McCurry's beloved press sent him off to retirement with a round of heartfelt applause. "You leave with your honor intact," Sam Donaldson declared from an aisle seat in a briefing room crowded with well-wishers.

But, while McCurry's suavity with the press was legendary during the 1990s, it hasn't fared as well recently. In the last three weeks, he has been called, among other things, a "shill," a "joke," and a "wanker." His attempts to defend himself have fallen flat--a remarkable failure for a man who once turned a comparison to the Confederate army into a winning compliment. "Mike McCurry is in one of those tailspins of dishonesty and contradiction that is so wildly out of control, you just have to sit back, grab some popcorn, and watch with laughter," one critic recently quipped.

This hostile reception is not coming from the reporters who once cooed at McCurry during briefings and shared beer with him after hours. It's coming from the new breed of media that can't be winked and bantered into friendly coverage or charmed into passivity with a 21-ounce porterhouse at The Palm. While McCurry was busy reincarnating himself as a techno-communications whiz, the media universe went through a transformation of its own, birthing scads of unruly liberal bloggers that he seemed only dimly aware of. And McCurry seems to have understood their culture about as well as Karen Hughes did the Middle East's. Confident in his once glorious old-media taming skills, Washington's former ringmaster made the tragic mistake of confusing the blogosphere with the quaint world of the White House briefing room.

McCurry's troubles started on April 21, when an op-ed he co-authored appeared in The Washington Times, a go-to place for industry shills, opposing "net neutrality," or government regulation of the Internet. Since leaving the White House, McCurry had signed on as a partner at Public Strategies Washington, a consulting firm that specializes in telecommunications and international trade, among other fields. He regularly opines on telecom questions--usually in defense of the free-market, pro-business status quo--and his Washington Times piece was no exception:

[R]egulation is offered in the name of consumers but really is
anti-consumer, because it will discourage…innovators and
ultimately limit consumer choice.

Matt Stoller of the revered liberal blog MyDD--for "Direct Democracy"--disagrees. Just hours earlier, under the heading "MIKE MCCURRY AND ASTROTURFING NET NEUTRALITY," Stoller had scolded McCurry for serving as co-chair of an advocacy group called Hands Off the Internet and trading his political credibility for "the short-term interests of the telecommunications industry." (Bloggers, whose own Web presence would be threatened if unregulated telecom companies decided to charge to prioritize websites, largely want legislated oversight of the Internet.) Stoller confessed to having become "particularly saddened at what's become of Mike McCurry," especially in light of his idealistic past. "McCurry was in the eye of the storm as press secretary," he reminisced, "and handled a hostile press corps and a strange media environment with grace and kindness." The final blow was a harsh one: "[T]he world needs for him to turn into something other than a former Clintonista Do Nothing." Stoller's rhetoric was fiery, but the reaction was fairly restrained--a trickle of comments--because, as he noted, "telecom issues don't usually spark popular pressure."

There was one notable response, though: Two days later, McCurry showed up in MyDD's comment section. Posting as "HandsOff CoChair1," he tried out some of his famous friendly spin. He noted that an unregulated Internet was "absolutely consistent with the Clinton Administration's policies." He promised Stoller that "writing Internet regulations is not the best way to promote online diversity." And he ended on a lighthearted note--"Look," he admitted, "I have to make a buck sure." ("Candor apparently doesn't get you very many points on the Internet," McCurry later told me.) Stoller, slightly less charmed by McCurry than, say, Andrea Mitchell, retaliated with another, more piquant post. "He's not principled," Stoller wrote. "He's just a paid shill in this fight."

That slap was enough to keep McCurry away from MyDD, but he couldn't let the insult drop. A week later, he resurfaced on The Huffington Post, the celebrity blogging site run by Arianna Huffington, in a decidedly less jovial mood. "You can see in blog commentary lots of great huffing and puffing," McCurry grumbled in a post partly devoted to the debased discourse of blogs. But even this didn't get it out of his system. Two days later, he reappeared, shooting off a misspelled, raging post: Bloggers are ruining journalism because they make reporters "feel intimindated [sic] and [that] they lack public support."

The bloggers smelled blood: Within hours, they unleashed a torrent of snarky attacks on McCurry. (The blog search engine site Technorati tallies over 1,800 posts about McCurry.) Stoller accused him of "frothing and well-paid incoherence." David Sirota seethed that McCurry was "pathological, infantile and dishonest." Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo puzzled over McCurry's blogging and concluded, "I really have no idea what he's talking about." Atrios took him to task for "treating [his] audience as idiots while making dishonest arguments." On May 3, McCurry posted one last desperate entry on The Huffington Post--"WHITHER INTERNET 2.0?" "Do we want the web to be a place where you only get attention if you call people names first?" he plaintively asked.

Stoller isn't done, though. Since McCurry last wrote on The Huffington Post, the MyDD blogger has added three more McCurry-related entries: "EVEN MORE BAD FAITH FROM MIKE MCCURRY," "MIKE MCCURRY: MORE ON US BEING INTERNET RABBLE," and, finally, "CLINTON WH ALUMNI: WTF?" (or "what the fuck?" in bloggerese). "Traditional media tactics," Stoller says, by way of explaining McCurry's faux pas, "can cause problems" in the blogosphere. McCurry, for his part, has finally realized that blogging is less like a witty exchange with Sam Donaldson and more, as he now puts it, like "a primal scream in the darkness." He checks out Daily Kos and other blogs "occasionally," and he admits he should, maybe, have known better. "I knew when I went into the blogosphere and took the argument on that I'd be asking for trouble," McCurry says. "I just didn't know how much trouble."

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.

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