Former Republican staffers look to narrow ‘citizen journalism’ gap

Michael Giuliani could do little but watch last year as the Mark Foley page scandal graced the newspapers in his boss’s southeast New York district. And as a former head of the House page board, his boss, former Rep. Sue Kelly (R), was often invoked.

Michael Brady was director of strategic communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and he saw the strategic handicap his party suffered in election losses across the country.

Both attribute their losses — Giuliani’s boss and Brady’s 30 seats — in part to the left’s arsenal of websites that investigate Republicans and push stories into the mainstream media. So when the two were out of jobs after 2006, they knew what to do: try to start a countermovement.

In late April, the longtime congressional aides launched the Majority Accountability Project, a website devoted to exposing the Democratic majority’s misdeeds and providing a counterbalance to what they view as an overwhelming Web advantage that Democrats have had in recent years.

“I saw the effectiveness of what the Democrats did in ’06,” said Giuliani, who was Kelly’s chief of staff. “They had a lot of organizations around the country doing a lot of work and research on folks and analyzing things. It was very effective — look at the results.”

A month later, the site’s results have been slow coming. But a number of pickups of their recent story on Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have demonstrated what they’re trying to do with the site.

Earlier this month, they wrote that Gillibrand had held fundraisers in London and France even though she had criticized her 2006 opponent, then-Rep. John Sweeney (R), for raising money in Utah.

The conservative blog recently chronicled the evolution of the Gillibrand piece, which eventually found its way into a New York Times story about Gillibrand’s 2008 prospects.

Along the way, it was picked up by a blog for the Albany Times Union, then other local blogs, then in a column in another New York paper, and finally in a story in the Times Union newspaper.

“The traditional media — The New York Times and the Albany Times Union — saw the incredible hypocrisy in this and picked up on our story,” Brady said. “That’s the kind of thing we want to do.”

Gillibrand’s office has defended itself by pointing out that Sweeney went to Utah to raise money with lobbyists while Gillibrand paid for her own trip and met with friends. Her aides also emphasize that the congresswoman raised money only from U.S. citizens and that her husband is from England.

Brady and Giuliani have both long worked for bosses who represented New York — Brady for two decades with Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and Giuliani with former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and Kelly. Brady has also worked as a political analyst in Buffalo, while Giuliani — no relation to GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani — spent a cycle at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in the 1990s.

They’re working right now at building the website and a brand while churning out a story a day. They also do a weekly video blog.

Eventually, they aim to develop a premium subscription service that will help them finance the venture and expand.
David All, a consultant for the site, said they also want to expand with a separate site for each state, beginning with California.

All describes the project as a “Web 2.0 headache for the Democratic Party” and said there’s nothing comparable on the Internet right now.

The idea is that people will start noticing their work and step forward to become “citizen journalists” keeping an eye on Democratic members of Congress, he added.

“The funnel has shifted,” All said. “Now we’re having a bottom-up news strategy, which starts as some investigative citizen journalism, goes up into the blogs and to the influential political reporters, and that becomes a front-page story.”

Citizen journalism is one of two major things, along with tracking money and influence, that people on the Internet are starting to grasp, said Julie Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.

But even if that investigative component isn’t as established on the Republican side, she said, Republicans’ prowess in the blogosphere should not be underestimated.

“There’s still a very active Republican blogosphere; you just don’t hear about them as much,” Germany said. “The Republicans are just as tech-savvy, and I think this is a good example of that.”

While bloggers are increasingly finding themselves immersed in the campaigns they support and accepting paychecks from candidates and parties, however, Brady and Giuliani have set up the website as an independent venture.

To be sure, it will focus on Democratic members of Congress, but it won’t accept money from Republicans.

“Frankly, we want our work treated very seriously,” Brady said. “While people may question our motives and the point of view we’re coming from, they’re not going to be able to question our facts.”