Senior digs up dirt on Obama

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October 21, 2008

2:02 AM

When Republican presidential candidate John McCain told the audience at Belmont University during the second presidential debate that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama had earmarked $3 million for an overhead projector at a Chicago planetarium, Daniel Byler ’09 took notice. The College of William and Mary student, along with his high school-aged brother, had unearthed that earmark and posted it on The Next Right, a conservative blog.

“That was really our crowning moment,” Byler said. “[McCain’s] campaign picked it up as part of their messaging. You can’t do any better than that.”

In addition to making its way into McCain’s own campaign language, Byler’s work attracted significant attention on the popular conservative websites Red State, Hot Air and Instapundit — all sites that are part of a growing movement of online conservative punditry.

The origin for Byler’s article, titled “Change You Can Earmark,” came this summer when he began investigating Obama’s record of earmarking funds in the U.S. Senate. Using opposition-research skills honed while working on Republican Chris Wakim’s failed 2006 congressional campaign in West Virginia, Byler was able to narrow his research sources to Obama’s own website and publicly accessible websites like Opensecrets.org.

Using these sources, Byler and a team of College Republicans were able to identify 200 Obama donors who had also benefited from federally earmarked funds secured by Obama. In a post last week on The Next Right, Byler wrote that Obama accepted $2.5 million in donations from these recipients.

Important to Byler’s online articles are the links he provided to his team’s research spreadsheets. According to Byler, this ability to include links to original sources is an advantage of publishing work on the internet as opposed to more mainstream outlets like newspapers or journals.

“We made it a habit of linking all the time in our articles,” Byler said. “When you see a ton of links in an article it says, ‘this is well researched,’ and it also puts the author on the spot. It’s a clear lens for everyone, and lends another level of transparency.”

According to government professor Stacey Pelika, conservatives like Byler represent a change in the online political landscape.

“At the beginning, the blogging movement was very liberally dominated, and it continues at the higher levels to be more liberally dominated,” she said. “But on the conservative side things are definitely growing. It isn’t as unbalanced as it was.”

Byler — who recognizes that blogging is sometimes regarded as a bastion of the political left — believes that the political climate of the last decade has played a part in liberal dominance online.

“Internet blogging has been more prominent during the Bush administration, and it’s easier to write against than it is to write in defense,” he said.

Pelika says that accuracy and transparency are essential in developing reputable online sources.

“One of the interesting things about the internet is that it’s self-policing,” she said. “If it turns out that your information isn’t accurate, people reading your blog will point it out in the comments, or they just won’t continue to read it. Internet sources are an information marketplace: In order to keep readers, you have to provide information that has a base level of accuracy.”

In the future, Byler hopes to see more non-professional journalists — like him and his team of researchers — contributing to the political discourse in America.

“When you’re tapping into readers, you tap into a wealth of knowledge that your reporters just can’t have,” he said. “Using that to generate news is really a decent idea.”

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