PPP-100 Press, Politics, and Public Policy

Professor Alex Jones

Paper #2

 

 

 

 

How the Internet has

Changed Political Coverage

 

 

By Alison Thompson

May 5, 2004

 


How the Internet has Changed Political Coverage

Information and connectivity fuel democracy…so the more that people have of each, the easier participation becomes. Time Magazine, May 2004

 

Introduction

            The Internet is changing political coverage by changing campaigns. Politics is about grassroots efforts, especially Democratic politics, and the Internet directly empowers the grassroots. It opens up campaigns to volunteer suggestions and activities; it gives the power of the campaign to the volunteers who actually run the campaign with very little guidance from the top. This differs from the primarily Republican hierarchical model, which tries to control the message; does not allow unmoderated blogging; and does not use the Meetup method because it disallows control of the volunteers.

            The political internet and the government in general are about expressing your voice. Now the Internet lets you do that, through blogs, Meetups, and interactivity. The Internet is about democracy. The Dean campaign harnessed these tools at the presidential level – this paper will largely focus on the Dean campaign as an example of the new Internet-based politics. Many supporters signed on with Dean because they felt heard through his campaign. The alternative for voters who did not feel heard is Ralph Nader:

                “What made Ralph run? …For the first time in his experience, Nader found himself ignored thoroughly by a Democratic administration. Nader and Clinton did not meet a single time in the course of eight years…. Al Gore also turned a cold shoulder…. As for the Clinton-era Congress, Nader found that he was a pariah, even among the most liberal members....  The doors were shut, tighter than ever. As he did during the Reagan years, Nader went to the grassroots, but there were limits to what could be accomplished. Nader wanted to have a say on weighty national issues. But more than ever before, he found it hard to get any political traction. [1]

            In other words, Nader ran in 2000 (and 2004) because he felt he had lost his political voice. Many “disaffected Democrats” feel the same – they made up a large percentage of Dean’s supporters. The Internet provides their voice.

            Ralph Nader acknowledged[2] that the Dean campaign had accomplished via the Internet Nader’s long-standing goal of “civic participation” and “participatory politics.” Maybe in the new era of Internet-based political coverage Nader will re-find a voice.

The lesson of the 2004 campaign is that it changed political coverage in ways people didn’t expect. It’s a wrong assumption that the Internet is the new TV. TV is a passive medium. Internet is not passive. Its real use is doing grassroots basics such as raising money, recruiting volunteers, and mobilizing the volunteer base. Dean is similar to JFK in that JFK made TV work for the campaign and then everyone copied this as a staple of campaigning. Dean did the same thing, used the Internet as a campaign tool. [3]

            In this paper we’ll cite Meetups, blogs, and interactive website tools as the methods for Internet grassroots press, and compare with traditional media. I interviewed six people: three from traditional media, two from the political  Internet, and one from academia of the political Internet.[4]

Interactivity and information on-line

Grassroots and Internet News

            One of the primary issues is that political websites often are not written by professional reporters and editors, nor is the information verified. On the other hand, the mainstream press can be viewed as censoring – and often is viewed that way, by the Internet press (i.e., people who post on political websites). The gatekeeping functions are:

1) the reporter’s personal and professional news judgment values, 2) bureaucratic or organizational news gathering routines that establish the working relations between reporters and sources,  3) economic constraints on news production such as considerations of cost, efficiency, advertiser potential, and audience demographics, and 4) information and communication technologies that define the limits of time and space and enable the design of news formats that appeal to audiences.[5]

            Typically the economic constraints are the barriers to entry. However, with the low cost of setting up a website, low storage costs, and little software knowledge required, there is no barrier to entry. Hence, anybody can participate, as opposed to traditional media, where there’s a clear distinction between broadcaster and viewer:

The public in this relationship between transmission and reception is treated as voyeur, watching events in private, and  reacting with private sensation. The transmission engages the sensation. The  live shot from the White House at night imparts a sense of sharing the same intimate space. The attractive anchor on camera invites a particular identification, an intimacy unavailable with the reporter merely shown  in a photograph doing a telephone feed.[6]

The viewing public on political websites are the primary participants. Our websites most popular features are our political quiz, and our discussion forum. And even our text-based sections elicit sufficient numbers of responses that we can maintain an ongoing volunteer researcher force. The journalist’s role as a transmitter is blurred -- the political Internet is interactive. Passive viewership becomes active participation. the voyeur becomes a participant. The only analogy in broadcast media is talk radio.[7]

            The slogan of WRKO 680-AM Talk Radio is, “We’re more than just the news – we’re the people you can talk to.” Talk radio is interactive too, to a much lesser extent than Internet – but this accounts in large part for its popularity. Politics is all about participation, and the Internet is the key to grassroots participation: 

Dorie Clark, a former press secretary for the Dean campaign, sums up the benefits for their organizing efforts, “Meetup gets people invested in the campaign. They're not just passive supporters – they're active participants. The more connected people feel to a Dean community, the more likely they will volunteer, and the less likely they will be to change allegiance to another candidate.”[8]

Issue coverage versus “the horse race”

            Judging by newspaper coverage, the public is concerned more with who’s ahead in the polls than policy issues, even though that’s recognized as a deficiency: 

There are three fundamental kinds of campaign coverage, and two have sort of gotten conflated into bad campaign coverage, and one is supposed to be good. The bad are the horse race coverage and the in-depth profiles that are essentially unearthing secrets. Then you have the good campaign coverage on issues of policy and great national concern.[9]

            That’s why we need the political Internet. Reporters will go on reporting on the horse race, while the people who want to know about policy issues will read the Internet. The polls, the stats, who’s ahead where, the horse race – it’s written by wonks for wonks – a closed loop. The more that the horse race is reported, the further away we are from the real issues. Political Internet practitioners see political coverage online as solving the problems of “horse race” reporting:

Newspapers and TV broadcast media are inherently flawed in their coverage of political races. Reporting on the issues is dry. Reporting on the horse race and on scandals is sexy. Yet people want to read about the issues – they just don’t want to  read about them every day. The trick is to present the issues when people are ready to read about them. Newspapers and TV can’t do that, and the Internet can, by letting people choose what they want to read about, at the level of detail they want, when they want it, to debate their views directly with people who agree and disagree with them, and even to have some fun while doing it. The interactivity is what lets the political Internet avoid the “horse race.” Newspapers and TV broadcast media are unidirectional -- pundits state their opinions, and the best you can do is yell back fruitlessly at the TV screen. On the Internet, your voice counts[10]

            It’s important to keep mainstream media as a base of reference for blogs and interactive websites, so we know that the reporting has been verified. Sites like NYTimes.com, ABC.com, CNN.com and other such sites will always be important sites. Also, some people (because of jobs, families, and other commitments) don’t have time to figure out exactly what they want to read about. Although they may occasionally do a search on a topic, they may want to be just given a news show. Regarding fair and balanced coverage by the traditional media:

The New York Times, I’m afraid, is part of the power structure, along with the other newspapers and TV broadcasters. They’re happy to report on political races from “both” sides, when really there are many more than two sides. They tend to make exactly two sides to every issue -- because that’s how articles have traditionally been written. For example, their war protest coverage included the pro-war protest groups, as if they were equal in size to the anti-war protestors, and they considered that “fair and balanced” coverage. They neglected to report that the anti-war movement was the largest gathering in recorded history -- 15 million people worldwide in one day -- because it was so clearly against the incumbent power structure. The NY Times utterly failed in their duty as journalists to provide reasonable coverage of what should have been reported as a popular uprising. The Internet did report it, which is how we got 15 million people to gather in one day. That number of people could not have been organized that quickly through any other medium.[11]

            The New York Times do verify their materials and do seem to have generally fair coverage. Perhaps Mr. Gordon has more radical viewpoints than the New York Times, but they do plenty of horse race coverage, nonetheless.

On-line Interactivity

            Another issue is the newly enlarged quantity of news available via the Internet:

…the conventional response of the so-called serious press to the new media culture has been that its place was to add more context and interpretation to the news. The idea was that this would help audiences sort through the information overload, giving the news more meaning. This response to the new technology, we think, is misstated. For one thing, it is impractical to imagine people being their own editor and sorting through reams of unfiltered information. While it is unquestionably true that Internet-connected consumers have more news outlets at their disposal… studies show the time people spend with the news has remained basically static.[12]

            Although they may not spend more time with the news, they may be focusing on one story for a longer period of time, getting background information through links or search engines, instead of hearing about 15 other news items which are of no interest to them. The context and interpretation cited above is exactly what people want, but don’t always get through newspapers and TV news.

Context and interpretation are useful – that’s indeed what www.nytimes.com adds to the printed version of the newspaper. But those are new-tech add-ons to the old way of thinking – to wit, “we, the knowledgeable, provide news to you, the masses.” The new way of political news on the Internet is from a wholly new perspective: We, the voters, provide insight and interpretation to ourselves. Rather than just passively learning from the pundits, people getting political news from the Internet are active political participants. There’s less difference between news-gathering and political activism – which is good news for democracy. [13]

            Howard Dean’s candidacy tapped into the anti-incumbency, anti-power-structure attitude by providing people a means to express themselves politically. Dean’s support was never about agreeing with him on the issues -- it was about agreeing that the power structure needed changing:

On our VoteMatch quiz, people wrote us regularly saying how they supported Dean and couldn’t understand why Dean came up so low on their VoteMatch score. Kucinich supporters regularly begged Dean supporters to look at the issues (which they assumed would convert progressives to Kucinich’s clearly more progressive candidacy). Marshall McLuhan in the early days of television as a political medium said, “The medium is the message.” It’s true again now in the early days of the age of Internet politics -- candidates who use the Internet as a means of letting people express their opinions will capture the support of people outside the power structure. Dean couldn’t quite convert that into an electoral victory, but his post-campaign message of “Take Back America” -- via Internet methods, mostly -- is about challenging the incumbent power structure. [14]

            Neither newspapers nor traditional campaigns allow individuals to express themselves (with some exceptions like letters to the editor). Grassroots campaigns allow people to express their political views and the Internet is the only place where one is free to speak out.

On-line Archives

            On-line archives provide a means to lookup material when voters are interested – via issue stances, debate transcripts, voting records, etc.

There are only two major problems with newspapers: they’re news, and they’re paper. They’re news means they cover what happened recently, like covering policy speeches when candidates first unveil them, rather than close to Election Day, when voters are deciding for whom to vote. The Internet can archive materials so that people can read them when they’re interested (near elections).  They’re paper means they’re limited in how much material they can present. The Internet has unlimited links.[15]

            With the Trent Lott story of December 2002, some reporters had heard his comments about how “we wouldn’t have all these problems” if Thurmond had been elected. Similar comments had been made several times before in public speeches, and an archive search would have turned them up immediately. But it had been put to sleep by the press because as each day passed, this was not considered news any longer.

...the story of Lott’s speech surfaced sporadically in newspapers and on TV talk shows, but was not given sustained or prominent coverage. Among one group of political writers, however, Lott’s words received close and unremitting attention. These were the “bloggers....” While the mainstream media stayed largely silent on Lott, the “blogosphere” hummed with indignation and outrage. Within two weeks, however, the hum would grow into a roar and, under intense pressure from his own party, Lott would step down as majority leader – an event unprecedented in the annals of the Senate. In the aftermath of this unforeseen and, to many, astonishing outcome, some credited bloggers with playing a central role in the unraveling of Lott’s fortunes and hailed them as a potent and unconventional new voice in the nation’s media. [16]

            The blogosphere reporting pushed the mainstream reporting – by repetition and by discussion and research by non-professionals. The blogger Atrios observes that blogs offered  a short course on Dixiecrat politics” to help explain the Lott incident. Gordon observes that “OnTheIssues.org includes background information galore – not a frequently-viewed section, except for explaining terms like ‘Dixiecrat.’”

Blogs

One Person, One Blog

            The appeal of blogs is that they’re written by one person (easy to do, quick response, opinionated, spurring other responses).

            The problem of blogs is that they’re written by one person (not edited or vetted, not verified, unclear who exactly the author is, and if that author represents anyone except himself).

The essence of blogs is that they express the unedited voice of one person at a time. That often has implications for voicing issues that the mainstream media avoid:

The media, [Atrios, a blogger] maintains, “generally have a tin ear when it comes to racial issues,” and were, moreover, constrained by their own conventions. “‘Straight’ journalism,” Atrios argues, “is supposed to play it straight; news articles are supposed to simply be a ‘he said/she said’ kind of thing: report what Trent Lott said, report the responses…. end of story.” But the blogosphere... observed no such journalistic conventions. Bloggers weighed in quickly on Lott...[with] their own acid commentary on the matter. [17]

From a different perspective:

Like talk radio, blogs in some respects provided an arena in which news and commentary could get a first airing without the balanced viewpoints – the ‘he said/she said’ template – that the mainstream media imposed on its news stories. Bloggers were unburdened as well by what Ed O’Keefe calls the “pack mentality” of reporters, which made them hesitant to wade into news stories alone. “Journalists want to report the news,” he says. “They don’t want to make it.” With its unconstrained, outspoken rules of engagement, O’Keefe suggests, “perhaps the blogs were the only place that the [Lott] story could have been birthed.”[18]

Lance Bennett notes that “blogs can be written by multiple authors, and edited or not.” However, the characteristic element of blogs is that they are not subject to editorial scrutiny, and regardless of exact form, represent an “unedited voice.”

Blogs are a form of journalism that provides information and analysis. However, some are biased. There are blogs on the political right, such as InstaPundit, with a string readership community who are also participants. There can be hundreds of comments – as a blog grows some people may be asked to join the primary authors. [19]

There can be several authors who do not edit each other – that’s still a blog. Responding to the need for the “gatekeeper” function:

If one or two people are the only bloggers, they of course should recognize that they’re fallible – or their readers will. It’s a good idea to use reliable sources like nytimes.com and to link to them from a blog posting: “Here’s what the NY Times says, and here’s what I think about it.”[20]

 

Adam Nagourney notes, “There are a lot of suspect things out there. A lot of things that are phony or just damaging, and there’s no real control.”[21] Blog readers generally note that if the blog isn’t good, readers will know, and they won’t read it. Weissman notes that multiple authors increase blog quality, and that broadcast media suffer the same problem:

“Many eyes makes bugs shallow.” A lot of people looking at these sites will come to recognize the bull. As to individual bloggers being a “problem,” well, Anne Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh can be more damaging than blogs. [22]

            One can find propaganda in many places. Some blogs may be full of biased comments, but the same is true for the mainstream media.

Gatekeeping

            The “gatekeeping” function of mainstream media is a key issue on the Internet:

There is very little – though some – original reporting on weblogs,” the blogger Atrios observes. “…It’s more about focusing on stories which would otherwise be buried or simply focusing on key details from stories which may be overlooked, as well as providing an interesting or different spin on those stories.” For a blogger like Marshall, providing what he calls “a kind of counter-conversation to what’s going on in the mainstream media, particularly the national daily newspapers” was a driving force in his weblog writing. [23]

            The gatekeeping function which is considered positive by the mainstream media ends up overlooking issues relevant to non-mainstream groups. In addition, people can participate in politics via blogs instead of just reading and listening. This has been noted for new television news sources prior to the Internet:

Simultaneously, political information began to stream to the public from myriad new sources. No longer are the nation's newspapers and broadcast networks the sole purveyors of political insights. Modern political junkies can sift through campaign silt as eager prospectors panned for gold, evaluating candidates' strengths and weaknesses on C-SPAN, learning about campaign machinery through Internet sources such as Hotline or The Note and absorbing hours of campaign analysis by cable pundits. The information overload has heightened reporters' responsibility to remain discerning authenticators and synthesizers.[24]

            The counterpoint to the gatekeeping function refers to politically excluded and marginalized groups. Some may view gatekeepers as the establishment, who exclude non-establishment groups in the political world. Hence the value of the political Internet would increase for more marginalized political groups:

Clearly, the Internet has brought changes to the conduct of election campaigns and other forms of political behavior. However, scholars disagree about whether the Web has leveled the playing field for marginalized political actors (e.g., third parties or interest groups out of the mainstream) or segments of the electorate (e.g., young people). Moreover, little is known about how cost effectively web sites generate financial and human capital for political purposes, and how best to tap this capability. For established groups, cyber advocacy increased their costs but allowed them to project influence more widely. For resource poor groups, the Internet may serve as a substitute for money and staff. [Others] note a divergence in established and radical groups’ Internet use.[25]

            The political Internet has not marginalized segments of society, as is often described as the “digital divide,” but made them feel more included. The appeal of blogs is that when you see other individuals who are not associated with a network, or major paper, you feel like you can also make a contribution. Otherwise, there is a feeling of having to break into the club of a huge newspaper or network. It gives you confidence that you too have a voice:

The issue should not be framed as a “gatekeeper” function. It should be framed in terms of “democratization.” People want a public voice, and broadcast media denies them that voice, period. Politics is about (or should be about) expressing the views of the electorate, and hence political news coverage is inextricably related to democratization. The “gatekeeper” function is about limiting the public’s voice -- yes, that’s what newspapers and broadcast media have done, but now for the first time, it’s possible to terminate the gatekeeping function and let people speak for themselves. “Democratization” means being able to reach an audience DESPITE opposing the incumbent power structure.[26]

            Yes, it’s important to let people speak. Many people have good ideas that should be heard. This returns the discussion to the previous topic of low quality on blogs, in a political context. Is there some value to political gatekeeping?

It’s not hard to tell when a political website expresses an extreme opinion -- no one responds to it, and no one pays attention to it. Anyone can get up on a soapbox in the park and make fools of themselves without the technological intermediary -- voters know quickly whether the soapbox is a lone nut or a representative of a larger organization. The important aspect of democratization of the news media is for organized expression of dissenting political opinions -- for third-party candidates, for candidates who oppose the party line within their own party, for people who are part of a reform movement that’s not popular with the powers-that-be. The issue for those sorts of groups is that the powers-that-be who want to keep them silent are also the powers-that-be behind the gatekeepers.  [27]

            But what about quality standards in the absence of gatekeepers? The problem with erosions of standards applies to mainstream news media as well:

The reasons they cite for this erosion of standards include: The twenty-four hour news cycle requires a never-ending supply of news and updates on running stories. Since few stories have serious continuous developments, journalists are pressured to supply speculation, leading questions, and their own analysis and commentary in place of documented information.[28]

            This is what Gordon means above by “the problem with newspapers is that they’re NEWS.” The more typical complaint about blogs is that they’re unverified:

...the rise of E-journalism and Internet information sites increase the circulation of poorly checked stories that are simply too tempting  for the scandal-hungry mainstream media to resist. The classic case, of course, was the Clinton-Lewinsky presidential sex scandal -- a story broken by Matt Drudge in his E-gossip sheet, The Drudge Report. The unsourced report of a blue dress with a presidential semen stain quickly made the mainstream media.... While this is rapidly becoming an iconic case of the end of gatekeeping, it is not entirely clear how extensive this sort of problem is, whether it only applies to some kinds of stories and not others, or why it even occurs.[29]

            I’d consider this a reasonable critique except that, in fact, Drudge was RIGHT! Just like the Trent Lott case. A much better example would be the later Drudge report on Kerry’s intern scandal. So Bennett’s point is made.

Blogs As a New Medium

Something that's new in this election is that even though we had the Internet in the last presidential campaign, what we have this time around is a more mature blogging environment in which bloggers are going to be increasingly part of the news cycle.[30]

Because blogs are so new, in the future they will be more of a major force in reporting.  The New York Times’ Jennifer 8 Lee notes that she routinely can find “the perfect quote” on a blog, when researching an article. The Dean campaign’s Weissman notes that suggestions from blogs spiraled UP to the top of the campaign, and then decisions were made based on blog input. For example, Dean carried a red bat to the stage at a NYC political event after a blogger suggested it to show completion of the fund drive, which was symbolized by a progressively reddening bat on the website. Regarding the self-editing nature of the blogosphere: 

The advice and wisdom from the blogging community is: if you want to become a credible blogger, you pay your dues. You don’t necessarily just go out and start up your own blog site, you contribute to existing blogs, and after some time you’ll be recognized by the dedicated bloggers and recognized as credible. [31]

 In other words, bloggers have a means of establishing credibility, just like the mainstream media whom we trust because of their credibility based on different criteria. Regarding who was permitted to post, different campaigns have different rules:

The only rule [on BlogForAmerica, the Dean blog] was that profanity was deleted. There’s a log-in requirement. You pick a screen name, and then you’re a blogger. It’s a forum for open discussion. Senior management at Dean HQ addressed some of the concerns. [32]

At the Robert Reich campaign in 2002, I implemented an open discussion forum, under the same rules as Dean, and the campaign manager shut it down – saying it was “off-message.” Dean’s campaign manager did not make that mistake. [33]

Gordon and Weissman agree that this is one reason why Dean got so much further on the Internet than Reich. He allowed a more inclusive environment, and told supporters they had the power to take back this country. They believed him, and tried. Dean’s support via the Internet became reportable in itself, like other campaign phenomena:

The Dean Scream became a cult phenomenon, which can become pop culture. The Dean Scream developed into a subculture of parody on the Internet. It had a long life, and we could then report about the way people were writing about it. The Dean phenomenon was created by the Internet – but then we could report on the phenomenon. [34]

Blogs As an Undeveloped Medium

Blogs are still evolving as a political tool (and as an Internet tool):

For me, the blogging hasn't risen to that point where it is a large force in American politics. I think that the major impact in the Democratic nominating race was, by far, the major media, not the new media... So I think the major media is still the big player, and these other players are still evolving. We are primarily in the old politics and on the threshold of something different.[35]

I agree that they’re still evolving. Blogs need the mainstream media as a base, one to which they can refer. However, even in their undeveloped current form, they have influence on a campaign, and on the major media.

Yes, TV still rules. Blogs influence news, but TV still rules, and you still need the mainstream media. The Internet demands that the mainstream media picks up an issue. For example, Ben Chandler from Kentucky, an underdog candidate for the US House, had only $2,000 for advertising. He [raised money on the web]. This resulted in contributions of $100,000. With that $100,000, he used traditional media and got ads up on TV to get the message out. It’s not just the Internet alone that can win a campaign. The campaign must be successful at traditional media.[36]

The activists got the word around – this is the power of the online donation. The power of the new technology is used to get back onto the old technology, which may be superior for targeting geographical areas and swamping with TV ads. The Internet, however, is superior at measuring viewership:

The Internet provides you with metrics. The hard numbers become powerful, but you could be deceived by it. If someone asks, “How many blogs does Dean have?” It looks like he’s the most popular candidate. But is that a correct number? [in terms of votes]. [37]

Gordon notes that Internet metrics can be extremely specific, but acknowledges the inherent statistical skew:

OnTheIssues.org can measure which issues our viewers are most interested in (always abortion and gun control, except during the gay marriage debate); how many pages they read (viewers of third-party candidates read almost every page, while normal viewers read 3 or 4); and how long they spend (discussion forum readers average several minutes, while issue readers spend 1 or 2). No Nielsen box can measure anything like that, except with expensive surveys. Of course, we cannot measure how many of those people actually go out and vote, other than by demographic analysis. But neither can Nielsen. [38]

Political Implications of Blogs

What about BlogForAmerica, arguably the source of the claim that Dean commanded the Internet? What are its political implications?

The person who held the keys to the Dean blog, the director of Internet communications, had her office next door to the campaign manager. She originally pitched the idea of blogs to the Dean campaign.[39]

Dean’s blogmaster was extremely influential in the campaign. The office next to the campaign manager is traditionally reserved for the Press Secretary or Fundraising Manager. Because of that prioritization, Dean was able to accomplish a lot of work through grassroots volunteers, which is one reason why mainstream media, mainstream Democrats, and mainstream fundraisers were threatened by Dean. The blogs and websites were providing news, the volunteers were raising money, and Dean was challenging the Democrats. The volunteers were changing the way politics was done, and doing the work for free. Weissman notes, “Lieberman paid a lot of money to NH staff because no one was enthusiastic about Lieberman. Dean didn’t have to pay.” People wanted to invest in their government with their time and energy and talents. Dean let people run their own local campaigns and share information any way they wanted -- which is the potential long-term future of the political Internet. 

Blogs are aimed at counteracting the mainstream media, spinning the message to the media, to influence them. (You can’t post anything on the Bush website.) Will influential blogs increase public policy debate? No, it will polarize it, instead of adding to the debate. People will read what they want to read, close to their own opinion. Potentially it can change coverage, such as the Trent Lott story, which pushed the national media attention back to it. [40]

Technology allows more interplay before the candidate and the volunteer base. The example is there now. There’s pressure from the base volunteers to open up campaigns to have more contact. This created more openness. Blogs are a rapid style posting of news and commentary. There’s little skill needed to install the software. Blogspot.com is free. It’s democratization, to have a voice. Everyone wants to tap the fundraising faucet. However, you also need to engage activists who are inspired about the candidate.[41]

News Value of Blogs

Blogs can provide immediate reporting of relevance to news reporters as well as for campaign volunteers.  

Politics is about the message,. It’s about the controlling of the message and the repetition of the message. Blogs increase your chance of getting your message across to the base of volunteers. We can also post reports on grassroots efforts and hence acknowledge and reward the grassroots. We had a staff person who posted a log of blog entries about personal experiences on the road. [42]

Blogs provide intimacy between the candidate and the volunteers, as well as real participation in the campaign. Many Deanies report having seen their ideas implemented via the blog. Blogs provide immediacy for reporters too:

The Sunday stories go up on the web on Saturday. Sometimes campaign people who see this call up to complain or challenge a fact or a document. Sometimes this changes the print version. It’s very real-time.[43]

            The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney says that the Internet provides both “good debate and good background information.”[44] When asked about whether the Internet might also be good for third-party coverage, Nagourney responded, “Pass. Too close.” The Times this week produced fifty articles about Kerry and Bush, but only three on Nader, and all three reported on the horse race and how Democratic leaders are asking Nader to withdraw.

Of course he passed – it’s an attack on either him, or the NY Times, or both. He passed because obviously the question got at something important that the NY Times is failing to do. OnTheIssues.org doesn’t fail on that. When Nader’s campaign asked me for money in 2000, I responded, “I’ve contributed more to your campaign than anyone in the country,” and I meant it. I gave Nader equal billing with Gore and Bush, and a half-million people read Nader’s issue stances on my website. I doubt that many people read his issue stances in the NY Times, because they so rarely reported them. [45]

I was uncertain if Nagourney meant too close to home, or too close to the election. Either way, if we can’t get the reporters to talk about third-party coverage, then third parties really don’t have a chance.

Campaigns & Meetups

            The website Meetup.com allows people to sign up online for an offline meeting, for example, a Howard Dean meeting in a Cambridge pizza shop. Meetup.com encourages participatory grassroots political campaigns:

The primary political value of Meetups is to get volunteers to perform tasks that benefit the campaign. For example, the Dean campaign had some success using Meetups for direct volunteer tasks such as writing [tens of thousands of] personal notes to registered Democrats in other states, telling them why they supported Dean, or urging Democratic officeholders to endorse Dean. [46]

Letter-writing at Meetups is the ultimate in removing the gatekeeper. There is no press involvement at all, there is no intermediary at all – one voter writes to another voter. On the other hand, some claim that technology de-emphasizes community:

Three key forces are causing this shift away from journalism connected to citizen building. The first is the nature of the new technology. The Internet has begun to disassociate journalism from geography and therefore from community as we know it in a political or civic sense. It is easier to see how to serve the Web’s commerce and interest-based communities than its political community….[47]

Meetup claims to resolve the disconnection between technology and the loss of community, by providing a virtual community that converts to a political community. This rapid growth could not have happened based on phone, mail, and/or news.

Meetup.com hasn’t been around much longer than these campaigns:  it launched in June 2002.  Six months later the company tested the political market by posting potential Meetup venues for John Edwards, John Kerry and Howard Dean. When 400 signed up for the Dean Meetups on the first day, William Finkel proposed that Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman team up with Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi to establish a business relationship.  The “Draft Clark” Meetup was the second largest Meetup topic before Wesley Clark even entered the race.  John Hlinko, founder and leader of the “Draft Wesley Clark” movement says that without Meetup, they never could have grown from one campaign web site to local chapters in over 100 cities in less than 90 days.[48]

Meetups and grassroots campaigning

Meetups allow grassroots campaigning without any formal connection to formal campaign organization. Politics is all about the grassroots and the Internet allows real grassroots participation. One Dean volunteer said, "I was angry with the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq against the will of the American people, and I wanted to get involved immediately. I signed up for the Dean Meetup via the Internet – and it allowed me to get involved easily and immediately.”[49]

The Internet is the best way to get people involved quickly. There’s also the possibility of the grassroots activists connecting directly to the campaign. Steve McMahon, Media Advisor, Dean for America, emailed the massive volunteer list and asked them to choose 1 of 3 grassroots ads that were created by Dean volunteers, to try to win Wisconsin.  He wrote, “After all, you bought the Wisconsin air time with your incredible fundraising -- so now you choose the message that Wisconsin will see.” We chose the message that the pundits must then cover.

Steve Grossman, former chair of the Democratic National Committee and former national finance chair of the Dean for America campaign, sees the opportunity this way:  Meetup can be used by the Democrats to level the playing field -- and truly bring back a commitment to participatory politics in America.  That's the hallmark of the Democratic Party.  Adapting Meetup as an organizational tool of choice addresses our core strengths and values. You can't simply look at the Internet as a fundraising tool. For example, you can buy names to build your e-mail lists, and your campaign will still fall flat if you don't get those people on-board as stakeholders…. Meetup is a tool for grassroots organizing -- and small-donor fundraising is a natural by-product of a Meetup-based campaign.”[50]

Meetup is the facilitator; otherwise people would not find each other. What drives Meetup is face-to-face piece. It’s a hybrid model, not one or the other. The value is [meeting] face to face to share ideas, cooperate in tasks, the interpersonal part… Meetup is the electronic way to make that happen. How do people find out about a campaign? Do they go to a campaign event first or Meetup first? For Dean, Clark and Kucinich, 40% went to Meetup first. for Kerry and Edwards, people got involved first in the campaign, then went to Meetup. They didn’t make as much use of Meetup. Their survey indicated that people went to the candidate’s national campaign site first, and then found Meetup on there.[51]

“Bowling Alone”

            Williams breaks down the goals of Meetup attendees as follows, with the first goal overlapping with the role of political campaign coverage:

Information-seeking:  Explaining in their own words why they came to this Meetup, respondents offered comments such as: “to learn more about the candidate and to see who else is interested in him.  Also to learn what else we could do to get involved locally.”                
Social interaction or community building: The founders of Meetup.com addressed as their explicit goal the need for building “social capital” as expressed in books like “Bowling Alone.” Many respondents wrote that they liked the camaraderie and casual, informal atmosphere of Meetups: “I like the informality and also the flexible yet helpful structure provided by the host.”  Other typical responses in this category include: “I liked the local flavor, meeting individuals and sharing ideas;” and “It’s a good way to meet people who are interested in the same cause and team up with them to get involved.” 
Empowerment and task orientation: The monthly Meetups provide the only regular meeting-place for casual volunteers, and the only regular planning sessions and means for volunteers to learn about the activities for the upcoming month.[52]

One Dean volunteer commented how she got “hooked on Dean Meetups” the first time she went to one. She felt some relief and support through talking with people who shared her anger at the Bush administration, and felt that together they would be stronger and could possibly effect change. She felt like she tapped into a new community, and is still involved with the same group. She and the friends she made through the Dean campaign are now moving on to other progressive organizations, and will continue to be involved in grassroots organizing. I believe this is civic participation at its best – what political campaign coverage should also foster.

Meetups will work better for grassroots people, and interest groups and advocacy groups. It’s a more valuable application of Meetup. The more Meetups people went to, the higher the contribution, the more they volunteer. And Meetups created more enthusiastic, energized and more loyal members. This will be of great interest to grassroots groups that need people to contact others, and be interactive, not just professional groups. There is a faster involvement of more / different people, normally unreachable people.[53]

Political coverage is changing now to cover the Meetups, to cover grassroots participation, and to cover the phenomenon of Meetups, such as its demographics and purpose.

Will Meetups Outlast the Dean Campaign?

Remarking on this surge in interest, William Finkel, Meetup’s Outreach Manager, acknowledges that “Meetup has been very surprised and impressed with the response that our presidential topics have generated.  The fact that well over 200,000 Americans have expressed interest in meeting with their neighbors to plan for an election many months away shows that Americans do care about their government and want to find ways to impact their government locally.  Meetup is very lucky to have found a way to address voters desire to be politically active, while contending with their already overloaded schedules.”[54]

People want to participate, do the work, and create their own future, and not be controlled by corrupt politicians, nor to be controlled by a media filter. They trust their friends and neighbors to do the right thing for the community.

At a Politics Online Convention, I discovered that Republicans don’t use Meetups. This would be too decentralized for them, and they would have to let go of control of national level. They are more hierarchical and scripted. This is a typical organizational difference that has been apparent for a long time. The Dean Meetup organized letter writing, but institutionalized and provided guidelines and resources, for example, the addresses, stationery, sample letters, and stamps. However, Republicans do House Parties that are organized through the Bush website. These house parties mobilize and organize also. Regarding the invitation to do the survey, 1 out of 820 who responded was a Republican.[55]

In Prof. Williams’ view, the Republicans don’t want to empower people. They just want clones to repeat the message they hand out (of course, one could say the same about Democrats). Once people start educating themselves, they want to make their own decisions about social policy that affects them, their family and community.

Technology and the Press

Technology did not create the attitudes of those who participate. Machines do not change human nature. …The new forums… cannot supplant the search for fact and context that the traditional journalism of verification supplies. …If those who gather and then deliver the news no longer spend the time and money to report and verify and synthesize—if they fear that applying judgment is an act of elitism, or that the technology now frees them of these old burdens—then Free Republic is all we are left with…The debate will cease to educate; it will only reinforce the prejudgments people arrive with. The public will be less able to participate in solutions. Public discourse will not be something we can learn from. It will dissolve into noise, which the majority of the public will tune out. [56]

The stubborn people with pre-judgments are not going to be convinced through the mainstream news. It usually takes long conversations with people they know and trust in order for their minds to be changed. You need mainstream media – you have to be able to link to it from the blogs.

Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” That was in the days when politics was based on geography – now it’s based on demographics, on interest groups, and on shared ideology. Yes, that creates groups like the Free Republic – “the Freepers,” who I’ve battled personally in the hacker world. But groups like the Freepers, which are “virtual” political organizations, based on shared ideas rather than shared geography, demonstrate that all politics is no longer local.[57]

Conclusions

            In the early 60’s, a few TV commercials could reach almost everyone. Now, with all the different media, it’s necessary to create a much stronger presence to get your message out. I believe the Internet is the answer. Meetups and blogs, and the political Internet in general, have changed political coverage by changing campaigns. The new Internet-based tools empower people to get involved by direct participation. Grassroots participation is changing political coverage on campaigns, reflecting people’s discontent with political decisions. The political Internet gives people a voice and creates community, much like community newspapers once did. Many predicted that technology would kill community and isolate people – instead it has fostered a new political community.



[1]  Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, by Justin Martin, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge Mass., September 2002

[2] Nader Exploratory Committee meeting, Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 2003

[3] Chris Williams, Professor of Government, Bentley College, email & phone interview 4/27-4/28/2004 

[4] Adam Nagourney, New York Times reporter; Jennifer 8. Lee, New York Times reporter; Lance Bennett, Professor of Political Science and Ruddick C. Lawrence Professor of Communication, U. Washington; Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org and Technology Director for the Robert Reich for Governor campaign; Mike Weissman, NH Director of E-Communications and Organizing for the Howard Dean campaign; and Christine Williams, Professor of Government, Bentley College.

[5]  Lance Bennett, “Gatekeeping and Press-Government relations: A Multi-Gated Model of News Construction” in Lynda Kaid, ed., Handbook of Political Communication. p.3

[6] Lance Bennett, “Gatekeeping and Press-Government relations: A Multi-Gated Model of News Construction” in Lynda Kaid, ed., Handbook of Political Communication, p.35-36

[7] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[8]  “The Role of Meetup in the 2004 Presidential Nomination Contest”, unpublished draft; by  Christine B. Williams and Jesse Gordon, Revision Date:  Mar. 26, 2004

[9]  Alex Jones, in John F. Kennedy School of Government Bulletin, “Campaign Talk,” p. 44ff, Spring 2004

 

[10] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[11] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004. On May 26, 2004, the New York Times published an editorial apology for their failure at properly covering the leadup to the Iraq War.

[12] Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 47

[13] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[14] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[15] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[16] Kennedy School of Government 2004 Case Study, by Esther Scott for Alex Jones, p.2

[17] Kennedy School of Government 2004 Case Study, by Esther Scott for Alex Jones, p.13

[18] Kennedy School of Government 2004 Case Study, by Esther Scott for Alex Jones, p.26

[19] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[20] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[21] Interview with Adam Nagourney on April 28-29, 2004

[22] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[23] Kennedy School of Government 2004 Case Study, by Esther Scott for Alex Jones, p.5

[24] American Journalism Review, Rachel Smolkin, “The Crowded Bus”, April 2003

[25] “A Comparative Study of NonProfit and For-profit Web-based Issue Advocacy,” by Christine B. Williams, Ellen R. Foxman, Satya Prakash Saraswat

[26] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[27] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[28] Lance Bennet, “Gatekeeping and Press-Government relations: A Multi-Gated Model of News Construction” in  Lynda Kaid, ed., Handbook of Political Communication, p.11-12

[29]  Lance Bennet, “Gatekeeping and Press-Government relations: A Multi-Gated Model of News Construction” in  Lynda Kaid, ed., Handbook of Political Communication, p.14

[30] Alex Jones, in John F. Kennedy School of Government Bulletin, “Campaign Talk,” p. 44ff, Spring 2004

[31] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[32] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[33] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[34] Jennifer 8. Lee, New York Times reporter, phone interview, April 29, 2004

[35] Tom Patterson, in John F. Kennedy School of Government Bulletin, “Campaign Talk,” p. 44ff, Spring 2004

[36] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[37] Jennifer 8. Lee, New York Times reporter, phone interview, April 29, 2004

[38] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[39] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[40] Chris Williams, Professor of Government, Bentley College, email & phone interview 4/27-4/28/2004

[41] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[42] Mike Weissman, Dean campaign NH Director of e-Communications, phone interview, 4/29/2004

[43] Jennifer 8. Lee, New York Times reporter, phone interview, April 29, 2004

[44] Adam Nagourney, New York Times reporter; phone interview, April 28-29, 2004

[45] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004

[46] “The Role of Meetup in the 2004 Presidential Nomination Contest”, unpublished draft; by  Christine B. Williams and Jesse Gordon, Revision Date:  Mar. 26, 2004

[47] Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 31

[48] “The Role of Meetup in the 2004 Presidential Nomination Contest”, unpublished draft; by  Christine B. Williams and Jesse Gordon, Revision Date:  Mar. 26, 2004

[49] Interview with Dean volunteer

[50] “The Role of Meetup in the 2004 Presidential Nomination Contest”, unpublished draft; by  Christine B. Williams and Jesse Gordon, Revision Date:  Mar. 26, 2004

[51] Chris Williams, Professor of Government, Bentley College, email & phone interview 4/27-4/28/2004

[52] “The Role of Meetup in the 2004 Presidential Nomination Contest”, unpublished draft; by  Christine B. Williams and Jesse Gordon, Revision Date:  Mar. 26, 2004

[53] Chris Williams, Professor of Government, Bentley College, email & phone interview 4/27-4/28/2004

[54] “The Role of Meetup in the 2004 Presidential Nomination Contest”, unpublished draft; by  Christine B. Williams and Jesse Gordon, Revision Date:  Mar. 26, 2004

[55] Chris Williams, Professor of Government, Bentley College, email & phone interview 4/27-4/28/2004

[56] Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 145

[57] Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief of OnTheIssues.org; email & phone interview 4/27-5/4/2004