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Blogs good for democracy

Michael Leavitt
Michael Leavitt

Want to know what is on the Secretary of Health and Human Services' mind? Just go to secretarysblog.hhs.gov.

That's where you'll find Michael Leavitt's blog. On Oct. 22, Utah's former governor wrote about the nation's stockpile of medical supplies, known as the Strategic National Stockpiles, and his worries about how to distribute them and how to keep states from relying too much on the federal government.

The fact that Leavitt would take the time to write a regular entry on the Internet is considered newsworthy. The Associated Press reported on it this week. He says he writes the blog entries himself. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has a blog, as well. But his entries are written mostly by staff. The Department of State has a blog, but Secretary Condoleezza Rice has yet to post an entry.

She probably shouldn't. A department that navigates the delicate art of diplomacy can't afford to reveal too many random thoughts jotted down just before bedtime.

Blogs from public officials are a healthy thing in a democracy — so long as the public accepts them for what they are. And what they are, generally speaking, are a public official's one-sided explanation of actions or policies. There is no substitute for even-handed reporting from trained journalists who can put things in perspective or include the views of the administration's opponents. However, democracy clearly benefits when elected and appointed officials communicate more with their constituents. And sometimes a public official can feel as if his or her side hasn't been adequately explained.

Chertoff's blog, for instance, has taken on editorials in The New York Times. Leavitt has explained why he supports the president's veto of a bill to expand the children's health-care program.

This is one of the Internet's strengths. It can bring public officials closer to the people, and it allows them to communicate frequently without the expense of printing or mailing. Each of these blogs includes a way for readers to respond, although there are clear rules forbidding personal attacks or vulgarities.

No one knows what these blogs will look like one day when an official becomes embroiled in scandal. The official may simply disappear for awhile, or he may fire back at critics with verbal guns blazing.

We suspect the latter. Once people start explaining themselves to the public, it's hard to stop.