The blog swarm Chris Matthews never saw coming

“I get it.” -- Chris Matthews, January 17

“I get it.” -- Chris Matthews, January 17

When Chris Matthews' long-winded monologue at the opening of the January 17 Hardball program eventually touched down with an apology to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) for the way the cable talker had been treating the candidate on the air, the moment represented an unmistakable victory for the liberal blogosphere.

By not only getting Matthews to apologize, but by also forcing the rest of the press -- post-New Hampshire -- to back off its, at-times, overtly sexist coverage of a prominent Democratic contender, the blogs have already had more impact on how the traditional press covers this presidential campaign than they did during the entire 2004 White House run.

Indeed, the way the netroots and the (mostly) online progressive infrastructure have grown in the last four years in terms of battling media malfeasance should give conservatives pause. (Click here to see the anguish and anger the netroots' successful push against Matthews caused right-wing activists.)

It's true that liberal bloggers do not have access to the same levers of power their conservative counterparts do; the way partisan pals at Fox News or National Review or The Wall Street Journal editorial page will often parrot the latest right-wing blogger outrage, no matter how half-baked it is.

But the Tweety Effect, as the Matthews controversy was dubbed online, illustrated how the Beltway press is increasingly susceptible to pressure applied by the netroots, especially when the offenses are as egregious as Matthews'. And that could have enormous impact as the general election unfolds this year.

The Matthews blog swarm -- a viral uprising from the netroots -- was hardly the first of the campaign season. In fact, it was 52 weeks ago that bloggers helped lead the charge to knock down the bogus right-wing meme that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) had been educated in a madrassa, while growing up in Indonesia. In that instance, CNN also played a starring role in debunking the Fox News madrassa propaganda.

But in terms of being born-and-bred online, it seems the Tweety Effect was uniquely original to the netroots (in terms of affecting presidential media coverage), and was powered almost entirely online. The blog swarm then picked up institutional support by Media Matters, which hammered the Matthews issue for a week, and was also embraced by the National Organization for Women, EMILY's List, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Women's Media Center, and the National Women's Political Caucus, which protested outside NBC's Washington, D.C., studios: Matthews and his bosses had no choice but to back down.

“I think the reason this blog swarm hit to the extent that it did was because the blog world played the role that the media and the pundit world really is supposed to play -- to identify and articulate what's happening in the real world,” says Rachel Maddow, the Air America radio host and occasional blogger. She helped kick-start the Tweety Effect blog swarm on the night of the New Hampshire primary while working as an MSNBC election analyst.

Sitting with her laptop in a small satellite studio on the sixth floor of MSNBC's Manhattan headquarters, Maddow was looking for the same answers that night every other observer was: Why was Clinton doing so well in New Hampshire? So Maddow scoured the web in search of clues. One of her first destinations that night was Talking Points Memo, where editor Josh Marshall was receiving emails from readers offering their interpretation of the night's surprising results: It was the media's fault. Under the headline -- “Late Shift?” -- Marshall posted email excerpts from self-described Obama supporters:

Part of me, however, was so pissed about this media narrative about Hillary and the Clintons in general that I had in the back of my mind that I would consider voting for her just to piss the media off. ... I mean this whole weekend we see people like Andrea Mitchell and Chris Matthews salivating over how the Democrats “rejected the Clintons” and want to puke.

And this one as well:

I have been an Obama supporter since 04, gave money to him this year, own the t-shirt, etc., etc. But the sexist bullsh-t these past days (I am a woman) from the media is making me root for her to win this tonight.

Fueled by her drubbing in the Iowa caucuses, the Beltway press corps, which often only went through the motions of hiding its contempt for Clinton, felt unrestrained in piling on prior to New Hampshire.

“These exit polls just destroy her argument for going forward,” NBC's Andrea Mitchell announced the night of the Iowa vote. Days later, Matt Drudge posted one of his textbook “exclusives” -- “TALK OF HILLARY EXIT ENGULFS CAMPAIGNS” -- complete with too-good-to-be-true anonymous quotes from alleged Democratic insiders predicting Clinton's imminent withdrawal from the White House race.

And then there was the rampant sexist commentary coming from Matthews' Hardball. Media Matters' Jamison Foser recently cataloged some of the grim lowlights:

Matthews has referred to Clinton as "She devil." He has repeatedly likened Clinton to “Nurse Ratched,” referring to the scheming, manipulative character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest who “asserts arbitrary control simply because she can.” He has called her "Madame Defarge." And he has described male politicians who have endorsed Clinton as "castratos in the eunuch chorus."

Matthews has compared Clinton to a “strip-teaser” and questioned whether she is “a convincing mom.” He refers to Clinton's “cold eyes” and the “cold look” she supposedly gives people; he says she speaks in a “scolding manner” and is “going to tell us what to do.”

Minutes after 9 p.m. ET on the night of the New Hampshire vote, Maddow at MSNBC studios scanned the TPM emails about voters pushing back against the press and she knew what angle she wanted to hit when she went back on the air.

“I was like, 'Bingo,' ” she recalls thinking. “It was not statistically sound information, but it was a very sharp, clear articulation of what I had been hearing people mutter about and what I had been seeing other people write about less articulately in the blogs all day long. I felt like that was a really clear distillation. And it was a real punchy, specific thing to get Chris Matthews' attention.”

Minutes later, Maddow's on-air tag-team partner that night, right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan, announced that Clinton's strong showing in New Hampshire, despite the torrent of predictions about her demise, meant that voters had “body-slammed” the press corps. Maddow saw her opening:

MADDOW: You want to know who they're blaming for women voters breaking for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama? Who they're blaming for this late showing in a big vote for Hillary Clinton? They're blaming Chris Matthews. People are citing specifically Chris as a -- not only for his own views -- but also for as a symbol of what the mainstream media has done to Hillary Clinton.

Never at a loss for words, Matthews immediately asked for the name of the website where Maddow had found the reference to him. In general, though, Matthews, an old school pol and journalist, seemed mostly amused, if slightly confounded, by the online attention being paid to him that night. He brushed off the idea that he had affected the New Hampshire vote or that he had, in the days and weeks leading up to the primary, been unfair to Clinton. To him, Maddow's comment was no big deal.

But watching MSNBC that night in Washington, D.C., was Firedoglake founder Jane Hamsher, and she knew Maddow's comment was a very big deal. Hamsher quickly posted an item on FDL headlined, "New Hampshire: Tweety Did It." (“Tweety” is the netroots' shorthand for Matthews.)

The notion that Matthews' sexists attacks on Clinton had created a media backlash among voters in New Hampshire was now taking root online, and the narrative was being met with a torrent of enthusiasm, as bloggers, who days earlier had been bitterly protesting the media's coverage of Clinton, were now, in light of her surprising win, turning that bitterness into glee and racing to tag Matthews as the villain, as well as the night's big loser.

“The importance of tonight's win can not be understated. It was a revolt of women sick and tired of the likes of Chris Tweety Matthews and the Media Misogynists. Their hatred of Hillary Clinton was soundly rejected by the voters,” announced TalkLeft, an influential liberal blog published out of Denver, Colorado, by defense attorney Jeralyn E. Merritt.

Blogging from her home in Durham, North Carolina, that night, Pam Spaulding quickly spotted the TalkLeft post and immediately copied-and-pasted it into the comments section at Pandagon, a prominent feminist blog that was posting lots of New Hampshire coverage and commentary.

No fan of Clinton's (Spaulding says she'd written “horrid” things about Clinton's candidacy prior to New Hampshire), the feminist blogger, whose widely read site normally focuses on gay and lesbian issues, felt compelled to come to the former first lady's defense.

“The gender bias, this was stuff that women bloggers had been writing about for some time and now the Clinton coverage was proof of what we've known all along,” says Spaulding. “Even though I would prefer not to see Hillary Clinton as president, I do no want to see that kind of discourse on the talking heads programs. You expected the Republicans to slap her like that. But the fact that you had purportedly objective members of the media pontificating like that, it was almost like a gang up on her. It truly was unacceptable.”

Right after highlighting the TalkLeft posting, Spaulding, whose day job is an IT manager at Duke University Press, saw NBC's Brian Williams discussing the New Hampshire vote on MSNBC and wondering out loud if there had been a Bradley effect.

“That was the first effect that came to mind, but I don't think in the end that is what caused it,” she says. Instead, at 11:50 p.m. ET, Spaulding suggested on her blog that a brand new phenomenon had been on display in New Hampshire -- “The Tweety Effect”: "where the misogyny of a talking head in the MSM so enrages a demographic that they go out and vote in a manner that will put egg on the face of the talking head."

Now the firestorm had a name and it had been properly framed for further debate and discussion. “It was a shorthand that people became comfortable with and that's [what] Republicans are usually good at,” says Spaulding. “They're good at 'cut and run' and 'flip flopper.' They know how to use the language and press it over and over again.”

And to help spread the word of the Tweety Effect, Spaulding went back to the Pandagon site and posted another election night comment, this time including her post about the Tweety Effect.

Just moments before Spaulding typed up the Tweety Effect, the stalwart liberal blogger and sharp-eyed media watcher known simply as Digby had lowered her own boom on the press that night: “All the sickening media sexism we saw over the past couple of days didn't work and all liberals of good conscience should be relieved by that.”

After publishing her post and still thirsty for more information and more opinions, Digby, from her home in Santa Monica, California, went over to Pandagon to see what the site's bloggers and readers were saying about New Hampshire. Wading deep down into the comments section, Digby came across Spaulding's “Tweety Effect” reference and knew it was too good not to pass along. “It just spoke to me,” says Digby. “It had a nice ring to it and it really seemed to explain what we had all been feeling over the last few days.” So the blogger went back and updated her post to include a link to Spaulding's Tweety Effect item.

And at that point, the Tweety Effect really began to pin-ball around the liberal blogosphere. “The hits were out of control,” says Spaulding. “I really didn't think that it was going to take off like that. People who have never linked to my blog picked up on it.” (Days later, Spaulding was invited to appear on CNN as a guest.)

At 3:25 a.m. ET, Mark Matson at MyDD, another key liberal destination site, officially logged the new term into the always-evolving netroots glossary:

Tweety Effect

1. where the misogyny of a talking head in the MSM so enrages a demographic that they go out and vote in a manner that will put egg on the face of the talking head.

By the time bloggers went to bed that night, even though few of them had been openly rooting for a Clinton victory, they were still basking in the media's loss in New Hampshire. They were thrilled at the notion that the press' heavy-handed attacks on a prominent Democratic candidate may have so infuriated voters that they may have taken actions into their own hands.

The best part was that, by night's end, Matthews himself seemed to signal a new direction by acknowledging, however tacitly, that for weeks and months, he had been spectacularly wrong about the campaign. Not wrong that Clinton might lose in Hew Hampshire; but wrong that Clinton was overly ambitious and without a moral compass. That she was a bad person and a crummy politician.

Interviewing Clinton's campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson just before midnight, MSNBC's non-stop talker pledged he would “never underestimate Hilary Clinton again.”

“When I saw him solemnly intone that he would never underestimate Hillary Clinton again, I was like, 'I must remember this moment. This could be interpreted in an important way [that] could change the media,' ” says Maddow. “And then the next morning, I saw Matthews' comment and thought, 'God, I'm such a dope!' I'm so gullible, I believe people when they talk.”

What Matthews said the next morning, less than nine hours after proclaiming he would never underestimate Clinton again, was that Clinton's entire political career was based on her previous marital difficulties: "[T]he reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around." And that millions of New York state voters felt sorry for her and that's why they elected Clinton to be the junior senator from the Empire State.

Firedoglake blogger Christy Hardin Smith nearly dropped her coffee when she walked into her living room that morning in her northern West Virginia home, right as Matthews unfurled his whopper. Just moments earlier, Smith had been reading Spaulding's take on the Tweety Effect from the night before, and then Matthews promptly took the phenomenon to another level. As soon as she could, Smith ran the MSNBC tape back on her TiVo just to make sure she'd heard Matthews correctly. “I was just so completely appalled that anybody would be so crass.”

She quickly transcribed the tapes and posted it at Firedoglake under the headline, "Media Analysis: The 'Tweety Effect' Runs Rampant."

Less than 45 minutes after Matthews made his infamous remark, Greg Sargent's Horse's Mouth at Talking Points Memo posted the MSNBC video online. Having that visual, and allowing readers to simply click and watch Matthews' jaw-dropping commentary just hours after Clinton's victory, gave the story another dimension; another way to propagate the firestorm.

The TPM video was quickly picked up by The Huffington Post's front page, which fueled the exposure as well as the immediate and expanding outrage. Soon, blogging from Amsterdam, Netherlands, DailyKos contributing editor Page van der Linden (aka “Plutonium Page”), posted “Chris Matthews Outdoes Himself” and brought readers' attention to Smith's post at Firedoglake. She also added a YouTube clip of Matthews' “messed around” comment. The post prompted 655 DailyKos reader comments. And out on the West Coast, John Amato, at the widely popular Crooks and Liars video blog, plastered the Matthews clip as well.

Soon, dozens and dozens of bloggers were posting and cross-linking wave after wave of Matthews condemnation. Eventually, the mainstream press took notice of the Matthews controversy as well, with columns and news articles published by the Associated Press, The Denver Post, National Public Radio, New York magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, as well as on CNN and even Fox News, among others.

Still oblivious to the firestorm he had ignited, Matthews initially told the AP his “messed around” comment about Clinton represented “an unexceptional statement.”

One week later, under growing external pressure from people who, as the MSNBC host put it, “normally like what I say, in fact, normally like me” (i.e. the Beltway chattering class), Matthews publicly walked back his “messed around” comment.

Delivering his nearly five-minutes opening remarks on Hardball last Thursday, Matthews still appeared bewildered about the uproar that his behavior had sparked; confused that people couldn't see his “good heart.”

In truth, Matthews still didn't know what hit him.