This election year, in sum, look away from a focused party message, and towards more forceful online organizing. While this is not new, it will be more intense this year than during any previous year. The result will be a flood of attack ads on TV and the internet, inundating voters with unverified information, while mainstream media accentuates the horse race.
Victor Pickard, assistant professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Light” thinks that reduced mainstream media staffing, especially at the crucial state level, has led to more blogosphere opinionators filling in the vacuum. The result: instead of the mainstream media’s playing it down the middle to avoid alienating any major constituency, there will be an emphasis on opinion over fact, and name calling over debate.
This shift, in turn, is already altering mainstream coverage. Front page New York Times stories, once dominated by the inverted pyramid of who, what, when, where, why and how, now often take on a more analytical or anecdotal tone, he said.
Meanwhile, given internet-facilitated access to paper trails, videos and first hand materials, chances of a candidate getting caught in a lie or flip flopping increases. And as campaigns get increasingly crowd sourced, incidents once buried in the back pages will increasingly be featured front and center. George Allen and the videotaped 2006 “macaca” controversy may well have been a precursor of bigger things to come.
But while the blogosphere allows more people to tweet what they see, often overcoming government censors, such posts are not always credible. One alleged eyewitness to Syrian massacres, for example, was later discovered to be based in Britain. Similarly, American pranksters have disseminated false information – including a made-up birth certificate pasted over a real one, claiming to show that President Obama was born in Africa.
Meanwhile, fewer Americans are tuning in to traditional Sunday TV talk shows, said Marc Cooper, associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. Although these shows remain powerful among an older demographic, younger viewers see TV’s anointed gurus as part of the system, pushing their own agendas. And given the rise of specialty blogs, such as Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight in the New York Times, “People who want to handicap a race instead consult their smart phone,” Cooper said in a phone interview.
Still, Cooper believes the internet’s most important role is that of providing citizens with the tools to organize cheaply and efficiently. This gives small groups an impact beyond their numbers, forcing candidates to respond rather than to lead. The internet is integral, for example, to how the Tea Party, Move On and similar organizations organize. And when a politician makes a gaffe, that gaffe no longer dies at the end of a news cycle. Rather, it goes viral – think Anthony Weiner and his explanation of his underwear photos. “Trying to stop that is like trying to stop the tides,” he said. “You can’t.”
Meanwhile, the internet further erodes a candidate’s private life. Thus, when a mainstream reporter informally hears a candidate say something off color, that reporter will often not report it because the reporter needs to maintain access to the candidate, says Cooper.
But Internet blogs are largely written by private individuals who do not need this ongoing relationship, resulting in a different calculus of when and what to reveal. What’s more, the popularization of smart phone cameras whose photos can be quickly downloaded greatly reduces a candidate’s off the record moments outside his hotel room.
“Every candidate has to understand their digital Miranda rights,” summarized Cooper. “Everything they say or do will be held against them at all times.”
Internet blogs have also eroded the once clear line by which mainstream reporters are often herded to the side of a room while a candidate talks off the record to well-moneyed supporters. New technology allows a well-moneyed supporter to record what the candidate says, and then post it on a private blog – which may then go viral.
At the same time, 24/7 internet coverage makes it harder for a candidate to generate attention for a policy position via the traditional press conference. Thus, a widely blogged kerfuffle of the day may eclipse an important policy message. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” anyone?
Nor are voters’ attention any longer monopolized by four broadcast networks and one town newspaper. By the time they go home at 6 pm; they’ve checked their smart phones throughout the day and know all the news – and not necessarily from traditional sources.
Meanwhile, the internet has both elongated and sped up the campaign season, said Victor Navasky, chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, in a phone interview. Primary polls were once considered virtually useless in predicting results in the general election.
That was then.
Now, increased internet scrutiny, with videotapes and so forth, has promoted the visibility and importance of those primary battles. This year, for example, Mitt Romney will have a harder time hewing back to the center after having been pushed so far to the right during the Republican debates.
The danger, says Navasky, is that a candidate may make faulty decisions based on early polling and marketing pressures, neglecting long term considerations for a short term “solution.” The emergence of Sarah Palin, anyone?
The result, however, is not always negative. “In the short run, the internet media degrades journalism, speeding up old media in ways that don’t help anyone,” summarized Navasky. “But in the long run, it invites more people into the conversation. And the more people who can be part of the conversation, the better off we are as a society.”By Aslan Media Columnist, Joseph Hanania