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Crowdsourcing Elizabeth Edwards

John and Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue his presidentialbid, despite learning that Ms. Edwards was diagnosed with incurablebut treatable cancer, has sparked impassioned discussions across thecountry and the blogosphere. In fact, Americans have probablydiscussed the family's choice more than anything else Mr. Edwards hasdone during the campaign thus far. That is definitely true online,where debates over the couple's choice even inspired The New YorkTimes to break with tradition and use Internet "crowdsource"reporting from its own blog for the very first time.

Last Thursday, there were 2,000 blog entries citing Mr. Edwards, morereferences than any other day in the past year, according toTechnorati. That record-breaking volume was matched by unusuallystrong reactions to the blog commentaries. An entry about the news on TheNew York Times political blog, The Caucus, drew over 600comments, easily quadrupling the typical feedback for the site's mostpopular entries, with many personal and heartfelt contributions.

Posting a comment from Bosnia, Janet A. Leff relayed how shenever halted her international volunteer work during "treatment andrecovery" for seven tumors. "Elizabeth should be listened to, and letthis couple make their own decisions. At 65 I am still amazed howmany uninformed people make decisions about and for cancer patients,"she wrote, signing off, "thanks for listening, Janet alive and wellin Bosnia i Herzegovina!" Another commenter explained that afterbattling breast cancer twice, she could understand why Ms. Edwardswould want the campaign to continue. "[I] greatly encouraged myhusband to pursue hobbies, hoping to break his focus on my health,"she wrote.

While Americans took to the Internet to share personal experiencesand prayers for the Edwards family, the media and political worldrushed to measure the potential effect on Mr. Edwards' candidacy. Ina thoughtful front page article this weekend, The Times' KirkJohnson tried to gauge the mood of a public that had "seized" on thedifficult choice the Edwards family made. It is a significant topic,but very difficult to report accurately. Besides cold-calling thephonebook, how do you learn what people really think of the news?How do you find people who have followed the story or care about it?And in a country with two million women who have been treated for breast cancer, how do you learn what survivors think? After all, cancersurvivors understand the pain and challenges facing the Edwardsfamily better than anyone, and they are likely to lead public opinionon the rectitude of the family's decision. That's a lot for areporter to tackle on deadline.

So Mr. Johnson, to his credit, tapped the pool of sources and cancersurvivors that had already gathered to discuss the decision on TheTimes' political blog. Citing the comments section, he concludedthat "a major dividing point in how people reacted to the Edwardses'decision was their experience with cancer in themselves or a lovedone." Mr. Johnson also called Ms. Leff in Bosnia and related herinspiring story in the article:

Janet Leff, 65, a breast cancer survivor whose cancer had also spreadto her bones, said all the talk about what the Edwardses should orshould not do is misguided. It is nobody's business but theirs, shesaid. When her cancer was diagnosed five years ago, she wasvolunteering as a social worker in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Family membersurged her to come home, give up the hard life in a war-ravagedcountry. She ignored them, she said, and she thinks that is partlywhy she is still alive. "The two of them know what they both need,"said Ms. Leff, who is still in Bosnia-Herzegovina and describedherself as a Republican. Ms. Leff agreed to be interviewed bytelephone after posting a comment on The Times' blog. "It'snot easy on anybody, but it's no time to sit and watch the grassgrow," she said. "You have to keep your life going, because whetherit gets to the terminal stage or not, you don't know until it's there."

This is the first time a New York Times national article hasquoted a source from the paper's own political blog, according to asearch on Lexis.com.

(The Times quoted a source from its regional blog, The EmpireZone, for the first and only time in January, in a metro article onInternet theories about a "mysterious stench" that had passed throughManhattan.)

It is a significant step, coming at a time when some journalists areexperimenting with ways to tap online networks for new sources,information and even primary reporting. This "open source" model,often called "crowdsourcing," can range from swiftly plucking acancer survivor's story from a newspaper's blog, as Mr. Johnson did,to pooling the collective knowledge of thousands of readers in highlyorchestrated long-term projects. (Apart from journalism,Crowdsourcing has pooled amateur labor to produce complex computerprograms, research and even art.)

Last week marked the official launch of NYU Professor Jay Rosen's Assignment Zero, anambitious site that empowers people to research and write storiestogether, with guidance from a professional editor who has worked forSalon and National Public Radio. The effort, which is fundedby Reuters, The MacArthur Foundation, Craigslist's Craig Newmark andWired Magazine (which coined "crowdsourcing" in its Juneissue), will test how a "smart crowd" of volunteers can enhance thework of professional journalists.

Even if projects like Assignment Zero do not immediately succeed infostering collaborative journalism, crowdsourcing is already usefulfor quoting the public's reactions to current events. The passion,authenticity and strong opinions shooting across the blogosphereprovide far more feedback than a reporter can assemble via "person-in-the-street" interviews, which are less likely to pinpoint people whoknow the given topic anyway. The traditional media may still bereluctant to crowdsource because the tactic seems too new or too self-selected; a common argument is that journalists should stick to theircraft and readers don't want to read the notes piling up in blogs andreporters' inboxes. But the Internet will continue to stimulate andenable a more participatory society, further blurring the linebetween writer and reader, producer and consumer, quotable expert andblog commenter. Journalism will increasingly engage thisdevelopment, both because it is a reality that accurate reportersshould cover, and more practically, it is what the audience wants.Or, as Professor Rosen would say, it'swhat the "people formerly known as the audience" want.

Lying to Congress

Note to future Capitol Hill witnesses: it's a crime to lie to Congress, even if you're not under oath.

Stephen Griles, the former number two official at the Department of Interior, learned this recently, pleading guilty to misleading a Senate committee about his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Griles claimed to have had no special relationship with the lobbyist, even though he was romantically involved with one of Abramoff's intermediaries and Abramoff referred to him as "our guy" at Interior.

Top officials at the Justice Department could soon find themselves in a similar predicament for their ever-shifting explanations of why eight US prosecutors were unexpectedly dismissed. No wonder the White House doesn't want a transcript of Karl Rove and Harriet Miers's testimony.

And it's no surprise that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has yet to testify before Congress about his contradictory role in Attorneygate. When he goes up to the Hill next month, Gonzales must watch his words carefully. If he tells the Senate Judiciary Committee what he told reporters two weeks ago ("was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on") he may be more than out of a job.

Republicans Detect "Cloud" Over Gonzales

What do the following statements about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- the embattled presidential appointee at the center of a growing scandal over the firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to politicize their prosecutions --have in common?

1. "The Justice Department has bungled this attorney thing. There's no question about it. There's no excuse for it."

2. [You] cannot have the nation's chief law enforcement officer with a cloud hanging over his credibility."

3. "The Attorney General has been wounded because of his performance, not because of politics ... He has said some things that don't add up."

4. "If we find out he's not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on."

Answer: They were all made over the weekend by Republican members of the U.S. Senate; Utah's Orrin Hatch, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, respectively.

Specter, it should be noted, is the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hatch is a former chairman of the committee and Graham serves on its Administrative Oversight subcommittee. Hagel sits on the powerful Rules Committee and remains a GOP presidential prospect.

No, these key Republicans have not officially joined the rising chorus of calls for Gonzales to step down immediately -- a chorus led by New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu, who has said that if the Attorney General will not leave willingly he "should be fired."

But their statements do put the lie to continuing claims by White House apologists in the media that "there is no scandal."

Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly may want Americans to believe that "the U.S. attorney thing is absurd, a fabricated event designed to hurt the president and make it easier for the Democrats to consolidate their power and elect a president in 2008."

But that line is a tough sell when the Senate's leading Republicans -- partisans want to support the Bush administration in general and Attorney General Gonzales in particular -- say things like: "The Attorney General has been wounded because of his performance, not because of politics..."

The fact is that Gonzales is finished.

The casual question of the moment is no longer "if?" but "when?" will the Attorney General exit the Department of Office.

The more serious question for observers of the Bush administration crack up is a more fundamental and far-reaching one: Who if anyone will this presidential loyalist -- a man with no track record of acting on his own in matters of the law or politics -- take with him when he goes down?

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Haunting Legacy of Slavery

Here in London, many people are making a pretty big deal out of the 200th anniversary of an act passed by Parliament in March 1807 that outlawed the involvement of British ships in the slave trade. Just a block or two from where I'm staying, the British Museum has a lot of special events relating to this bicentennial (e.g., this one, today.) The movie Amazing Grace, which is based on the life of the abolitionist MP William Wilberforce, is about to be released here. I see the British Quakers have put together an interesting little online exhibition to mark this bicentennary, featuring some texts and other items from the collections of Friends House Library.

I think it's excellent to remember this anniversary, and to find ways to reconnect with the strong ethical and religious sense of all those who worked and organized to end the transatlantic slave trade, which was outlawed by the US Congress in 1808. However, the enslaved persons in the Americas were the first slaves since the days of the Romans whose condition of bondage and status as chattel was passed down from parent to child; and in a cruel irony, as the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans died out the price of the slaves who were already in place, working under horrendous conditions in the US, many Caribbean islands, and some South American nations, merely rose... And there was thus a strong incentive, until the whole institution of slavery was outlawed in the United States, which took several further decades, for slave-"owners" to try to breed their slave-stock as much as much possible, a matter to which many white men in slave-owning communities made a big personal contribution.

If you look at the (US Census Bureau-derived) demographic table in this section of the relevant Wikipedia page, you can see that between 1810 and 1860 the number of enslaved persons in the US rose from 1.2 million to nearly 4 million.

Imagine how many enslaved women were raped by white men and boys as part of that "breeding" program...

Earlier, back in the first half of the 18th century, many, many portions of the white settler community in the US had been heavily involved in the institution of slavery... including some portion of just about all the many Christian denominations that had proliferated in the settler communities by then-- and yes, that included the Quakers-- and also a portion of the Jewish settlers. As far as I know it was only the Mennonites, among the Christians (and perhaps the other Anabaptists?) who had never participated in the owning or trading of enslaved persons. But many Quakers certainly had.

There were huge hyper-profits to be made in the business; and some were made by Quaker plantation owners in the southern states or Quaker slave-traders in Rhode Island and other states to the north.

Then in the 1750s, along came Quaker social activist John Woolman. He saw at first hand the misery and inequity of the institution of slavery. He heard all the allegedly "do-gooding" claims of the slave-holders and slave-traders among the Quakers... that they were "saving these poor souls from the misery of wars in Africa", etc... and he slowly confronted these slave-holders with his witness, one-by-one, and also in small groups and at impassioned meetings for worship and business.

He was not alone. There were other American Quaker abolitionists who joined him in his campaign. But he was the one who kept an extremely moving journal of all his efforts... And between them, these Quaker men and women made a big difference. They managed to persuade all the Quakers of the US to dissociate themselves from the "peculiar institution"; and it was on the basis of that achievement that many Quakers of later decades then became leaders in the broad national movement against all aspects of the institution of slavery.

I guess I wish the events here in Britain being held to mark the bicentennary of this country's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had a little less smug self-satisfaction, and a little more real reflectiveness to them. After all, should we really be doing much celebrating if someone stops beating his wife??

When I say "reflectiveness", I just want to note that I've seen nothing in all the many newspaper articles and other items of commentary here on this anniversary that looks at how many of the fine institutions of the "Enlightenment" here in Britain, as in the rest of Europe and also, certainly, in the Americas, were financed with the hyper-profits from the slave trade... And then, no reflection at all on the degree to which the legacies of the slave trade and other crimes of colonialism still live on in the pauperized, war-ravaged portions of Africa; or, on whether the very rich and settled former slave-trading societies of northern Europe should not take seriously the task of effecting some real form of reparations to those ravaged home-communities of Africa.

Church leaders here in Britain are calling on Tony Blair to at least offer an apology to the descendants of the enslaved communities. So far, Blair has expressed "regret" for the suffering caused, but has stood firm against offering any apology-- since, in the view of many, an apology could open the door to demands for reparations...

(See this further post on the topic of Quakers and slavery, on my home blog, Just World News.)

Writer Threatened By Powerful Fanatics

Internationally renowned writer Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist activist, is facing harassment and threats from fundamentalist extremists in her country. Her play, "God Resigns at the Summit Meeting," has been condemned for alleged attacks on "God, the prophets and the heavenly religions." A petition supporting her calls these accusations "a license for her assasination" which could "encourage any madman" to come after her. El Saadawi has been hassled over such matters in the past, and cases have been filed against her with the government's prosecutor general office; in 2001, extremists, using Sharia law, tried to force her to divorce her husband, as punishment for apostasy. Last month, an Egyptian blogger was sentenced to prison for four years on similar charges, so the climate is obviously a scary one. According to a recent reportby Index on Censorship, El Saadawi has fled Egypt for now. Readers who want to help should help distribute this http://www.nawalsaadawi.net/news/07/petition07.htm">petition. Addresses of relevant Egyptian authorities can be found here.

A Principled Dissent

Of the handful of House members who cast conscience votes against further funding of the war in Iraq Friday, the most unexpected may well have been New York Democrat Michael McNulty.

A moderate Democrat from ther Albany area, McNulty voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq. And he continues to be more identified with domestic issues -- such as protecting Social Security -- than foreign policy.

Unlike most of the other Democratic House members who refused to go along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plan to provide Bush with funding for the continuation of the war -- while adding benchmarks and a timeline as tools to begin setting the course for an exit strategy -- McNulty has never been identified as an anti-war activist in the House.

On Friday, when Pelosi's bill came up for a vote, Democrats generally voted "yes" while Republicans generally voted "yes." Only a Democratic handful of members broke ranks to make a clear anti-war statement.

The "no" voters included Democrats such as Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, Georgia's John Lewis, Maine's Mike Michaud, and Californians Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson and Lynn Woolsey, and Republicans such as Texan Ron Paul and Tennessee's John Duncan.

And then there was Michael McNulty.

Why had this usually loyal Democrat joined the dissenters?

McNulty explained why in a short statement issued Friday afternoon:

In the spring of 1970, during my first term as Town Supervisor of Green Island, I testified against the War in Vietnam at a Congressional Field Hearing in Schenectady, New York.

Several months after that testimony, my brother, HM3 William F. McNulty, a Navy Medic, was killed in Quang Nam Province.

I have thought -- many times since then -- that if President Nixon had listened to the voices of reason back then, my brother Bill might still be alive.

As a Member of Congress today, I believe that the Iraq War will eventually be recorded as one of the biggest blunders in the history of warfare.

In October of 2002, I made a huge mistake in voting to give this President the authority to take military action in Iraq. I will not compound that error by voting to authorize this war's continuation.

On the contrary, I will do all that is within my power to end this war, to bring our troops home, and to spare other families the pain that the McNulty family has endured every day since August 9th, 1970.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The GOP's Lonely Antiwar Wing

We've heard a lot about how Republicans are/were uneasy about the political and policy prospects of George W. Bush's war in Iraq. But when it came time to vote on whether to set a timeline to begin to bring that war to a close, only two Republicans said no to the President.

They are Representatives Walter Jones of North Carolina and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, and they can best be described as the lonely leaders of the GOP's dormant antiwar wing. The situation is the same in the Senate. After Bush announced his escalation plan, Republican after Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee raised a stink. Yet on the recent Senate vote to redeploy troops by March 31, 2008, Senator Gordon Smith was the only Republican to vote with the Democratic majority.

Even Senator Chuck Hagel, one of the most vociferous critics of the war, refused to be associated with the antiwar camp. "I am not an antiwar candidate," Hagel said. "I have never been antiwar." Strange words from a man who described the troop increase as an "Alice in Wonderland" strategy that was "folly."

What gives? Currently Republicans are trying to have it both ways--criticizing the war while sticking with the Bush Administration on actual pieces of legislation, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Because the next election is still 20 months away (even though it doesn't seem like it), they haven't had to choose between the President and the war. But eventually, if Iraq stays violent and Bush unpopular, they will. Only then will the war begin to come to a close.

Lamar Smith’s Would-Be Banana Republic

Just when 600,000 permanent residents of the District of Columbia were about to receive voting representation (you remember it, Lamar – that thing we fought the King of England for) approval from the House, the Texas Republican tied up the bill by attempting to use it to gut the city's gun restrictions.

This ploy reflects the most craven, cynical, inside the Beltway maneuvering since – well – just months ago when we kicked these anti-democratic, power-hungry cronies out of the Majority.

"Galling," said FairVote Executive Director, Rob Richie. "Particularly the combination of overruling home rule decisions about gun control in DC while also fighting to deny the District representation in Congress. What hypocrisy!"

If Richie sounds mad, he is. And he should be. As our government lectures the world on the fruits of democracy, people like Smith continue to treat our fellow citizens--living in the backyard of Congress-- as subjects on some outlying Banana Republic. For Smith and his ilk, there's a gut fear of promoting greater democracy here at home.

But proponents of the bill will not be deterred – and the residents of the District are sure to be even more fired up.

"We are already working closely with the Democratic leadership, our Republican allies, and coalition partners to regroup," DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said today. "This is a momentary pause in the push to bring civil rights to the residents of the District of Columbia. [We] will use this time to defeat these stall tactics and bring congressional voting representation to Washington, DC."

House Backs Pelosi's Iraq Spending Bill

After weeks of bitter wrangling, the House voted Friday for Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plan to attach benchmarks and an exit timeline to funding for the continuation of the Iraq War.

The vote was 218-212, with anti-war progressives who had initially objected to the Pelosi plan because it continued to fund the war, helping to provide the margin of victory.

216 Democrats voted for the spending bill, as did two Republicans -- Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest and North Carolina's Walter Jones, both veteran war critics. Among the Democrats who voted for the measure were many who, in the past, had opposed supplemental funding requests from the Bush White House, including Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, Michigan's John Conyers, Washington's Jim McDermott and Massachusetts' Jim McGovern.

198 Republicans voted against the bill, as did 14 Democrats. Some of the Democrats who opposed the bill were southern conservatives who essentially support President Bush's handling of the war. But eight of the "no" votes came from anti-war Democrats, who object to any additional funding of the war joined them -- including Georgia's John Lewis, Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, California's Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson and Lynn Woolsey.

Several anti-war Republicans, including Texan Ron Paul and Tennessee's John Duncan, also voted "no."

One anti-war Democrat, California's Pete Stark, vote "present."

On Thursday night, Lee, Waters, Watson and Woolsey had released a statement that said, "After two grueling weeks of meetings, progressive members of Congress brought forth an agreement that provided the momentum to pass a supplemental spending bill that, for the first time, establishes a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq."

As such, Waters, a founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said to anti-war members: "We have released people who were beginning…to be pulled in a different direction. We don't want them to be put in a position where they look like they are undermining Nancy's speakership."

Lee said, "I have struggled with this decision, but I finally decided that, while I cannot betray my conscience, I cannot stand in the way of passing a measure that puts a concrete end date on this unnecessary war."

By suggesting that anti-war members could give their votes to Pelosi, the four California progressives provided significant aid to the speaker's effort to pass the spending bill. Pelosi needed roughly 218 votes to prevail, and she could not have gotten near that number without the support of anti-war Democrats who had voted against previous supplemental spending measures.

When it became clear that their specific support would not be needed to get to the 218 figure, however, Lee Waters, Watson and Woolsey cast votes of conscience against further funding of the war. How would they have voted if Pelosi's bill had faced defeat without them? That's a question that will continue to be asked. Lee almost certainly would have cast a "no" vote, as she did when the bill was considered by the Appropriations Committee. The others might well have voted "no," as well. But they did not have to face the stark question of whether they wanted to cast the votes that killed a measure that, while too soft for their tastes, still expressed a measure of anti-war sentiment.

The dispute over the bill opened serious divisions within the anti-war movement. some of which will be slow to heal. While Lee, Waters, Watson and Woolsey -- who had been some of the most vocal critics of the bill -- ultimately cast "no" votes, other anti-war members such as Vermont's Peter Welch voted "yes." As the representative of a state that has espressed strong opposition to continued funding of the war, Welch and others like him are likely to feel heat at home.

But, just as many in the anti-war community have complaints about the Pelosi package, the Bush White House is also unhappy.

Even though Pelosi's bill provides the White House with the money the president requested, Bush has promised a veto of any measure with benchmarks or a timeline.

The Senate has begun consideration of a spending bill with a tougher timeline. If it passes such a measure, the House and Senate bills will have to be reconciled before going to the president's desk.

Translation: This fight is a long way from over.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"