Early this summer, Lane Hudson had heard about Congressman Mark Foley approaching young pages inappropriately and, upon seeing a picture of Foley, realized he had been the subject of just such an advance more than a decade ago. Most people likely know how this story ends. Foley left Congress in early October in disgrace and provided one of the larger chinks in the armor of the Republican establishment that helped usher in a Democratic Congress on Election Day.
Republicans were pointing their fingers at some vast, left-wing conspiracy, but it was Hudson, a political novice and College of Charleston grad with nothing more than a blog account, who started the wheels rolling on one of the biggest sex scandals in Washington since the White House immortalized blue dresses and Cuban cigars.
While the mainstream media is busy checking with lawyers and getting both sides, activists like Hudson are taking to the internet to get their story out, getting out in front of the newspapers and TV news that once were key to stirring up scandals. While Hudson took on the lofty goal of uncovering Congressional hypocrisy, others are dredging up the sordid past of a local veterinarian or using the magic of YouTube to call out local school board candidates.
Nothing highlighted the power of the internet more than the November elections. There was Foley's nasty instant messages, Senator George Allen's "macaca" comment to a Democratic operative, and a faux-Playboy bunny telling Congressman Harold Ford to call her — and all of it within hand's reach of anyone with a mouse.
When Hudson was trying to get the message out on Foley, he went to newspapers first. He had received interest from the Los Angeles Times, but while reporters were talking over the story with editors and doing research, Hudson decided he'd get the message out on an anonymous blog.
"Something told me in the back of my head that there was more than one approach to this," Hudson says.
So, with limited experience, Hudson started StopSexPredators.blogspot.com. Over a few weeks, he would note Congressional scandals in the past and report some e-mails that he had received from former pages about Foley's inappropriate behavior. On Sunday, Sept. 24, Hudson posted short, suggestive e-mails Foley had sent to a former page. In less than a week, mainstream media found Hudson's blog, Foley had resigned, and the House scandal erupted.
The L.A. Times reporters showed interest in following up on Foley, but Hudson suspects the establishment would have scuttled the story if it wasn't for the blog.
"In retrospect, the blog was probably the only way to get this out there," Hudson says. "The media is so hesitant to report scandalous stories."
Toni Zotto created her website because of similar frustrations with the traditional media. More than five years ago, Zotto collected a group of animal owners and a coworker and filed a civil suit against local veterinarian Thomas Sheridan, claiming he had abused and killed several animals and caused her and her coworker emotional distress because he did it in front of them. Criminal charges against Sheridan were dismissed and he would eventually settle the civil suit out of court.
But as his vet practice continued to thrive, Zotto grew frustrated with the lack of concern from the local media or the South Carolina Aquarium, which had hired Sheridan to be the aquarium vet. So, earlier this year, Zotto had a friend design a website for her and paid $200 for the two-year domain rights to www.SheridanTruth.com.
"I didn't think the public was aware of his history," she says, noting the media was unresponsive, likely over legal concerns. "Everybody took my story, but in the end, nobody would write it."
On the website, Zotto has compiled legal filings, the news articles on the abuse charges, and more recent stories about an aquarium otter that died under Sheridan's care, though apparently from a reaction to anesthesia out of Sheridan's control.
"It's all around," she says of the information. "You'd just have to go to different places to find it."
Sheridan did not return calls for comment, but his attorney has written to Zotto, demanding that she remove the website. Aquarium spokeswoman Beth Nathan says that Sheridan has provided excellent care to the wide variety of aquarium wildlife and that they adhere to strict standards in veterinary care.
While homegrown websites and blogs have been around for years, the new trend in 2006 was YouTube. On the website recently aquired by Google, anyone can create a video and share it with anyone else, regardless of their computer's video program. YouTube proliferated the ramblings of some celebrities (Sacha Baron Cohen and The Daily Show) and created a few celebrities on its own (lonelygirl15).
In the run-up to the 2006 school board election, a local nonprofit group called the Blue Ribbon Committee was created to counter the conservative A-Team slate of school board candidates. Their early campaign ads critical of the A-Team found an audience on YouTube weeks before they reached TV.
The most popular ad was one referring to the A-Team as an A-Bomb on Charleston County schools that eventually was re-edited into a paid TV ad. But other spots noted inconsistencies in public comments by A-Team members, along with a comical one titled "David Engelman About to Blow" that showed Engelman and his wife, fellow school board member Sandi Engelman, frustrated over a parent moving around the room while filming a school board meeting.
Matt Quinn, spokesman for the Blue Ribbon Committee, says that it's unlikely many undecided voters or A-Team supporters viewed the YouTube ads. The group did attach links to the YouTube ads on a few press releases, but media attention didn't take off until the TV ad.
"I suspect it was mostly the believers," he says. "A lot of it was about being a morale booster."
It's getting the message beyond the believers that can sometimes be daunting. While the easy access of the internet has given these activists their venue, the medium's pervasiveness provides the biggest hurdle in getting the news to the right people. Where the TV news or a newspaper can surprise with an interesting story you hadn't thought about, it's not often that you find something on the internet without looking for it.
Hudson notes encouragingly that Foleygate unraveled quickly — he posted his blog on Sunday, a popular Washington blog had picked it up by Wednesday, and ABC had questioned Foley by the weekend.
"All it took was for one person to find it," he says.
Through clever website tagging, Zotto's site leads Google search results for "Thomas Sheridan vet" and "Thomas Sheridan Folly Road Animal Hospital." But, of course, it means nothing if pet owners head to the yellow pages instead of a search engine to find their vet.
"This day and age, people are checking things out," Zotto says. "Hopefully."
Just as the protesters of the 1960s were jailed, fined, or sued, the actions of internet activists is not without consequences. Nationally, bloggers are starting to get hauled into court for claims made on the web. The Media Law Resource Center, a nonprofit clearinghouse on the media and First Amendment rights, has catalogued more than 60 cases stemming from blogs or other internet posts, including a recent $50,000 award to a Georgia lawyer libeled on the web by a former client.
When Hudson's identity was uncovered, ironically, by other bloggers, he was ousted from his new job with a national gay rights group. The Human Ritghts Campaign says it fired Hudson for using the group's computers to administer the blog, according to the L.A. Times.
While Zotto continues to run her website in defiance of the three-month-old cease and desist demand, Hudson has hung up the StopSexPredators blog, relying on the political firestorm to scare off future Congressional page predators.
"The blog had a purpose and it served its purpose," he says.