In Warp Speed Campaign, What Ground Are We Covering?
DES MOINES -- Tuesday's Democratic debate was a rare exercise in civility in an otherwise contentious presidential campaign. It delivered a few headlines that pushed forward the narrative of the battle among the Democrats, but in most other ways it was an opportunity for a deeper discussion of several of the large challenges that will confront the next president.
The NPR/Iowa Public Radio debate probably satisfied few of those who hunger for dramatic clashes during debates -- moments that are seen as potentially changing the shape of the race, even when they aren't. Even some of the candidates' advisers, who normally are at battle stations during debates, seemed relaxed enough to be attending to other matters, judging from e-mail traffic that was flowing into journalists' inboxes.
The campaigns regarded it as a snooze, a rather leisurely two-hour interlude in a campaign that is otherwise moving at warp speed. But the debate pointed to a larger issue that ought to be of concern to everyone involved in this campaign. That is whether the internet pace and sensibility have so overwhelmed the process that voters are ultimately ill-served.
Bill Clinton made a point about this in New Hampshire on Tuesday. His was in the nature of a complaint that, if more attention were being given to his wife's record, she might be doing even better than she is. He cited a recent study by Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center that showed that the overwhelming percentage of the coverage -- 63 percent -- focused on politics and process. Just 1 percent of the coverage looked at candidates' records or public performance.
"No wonder people think experience is irrelevant," he said.
The former president's lament is overstated. His wife's political success to date stems largely from the fact that voters give her very positive marks on experience and leadership. They must have gotten that impression from somewhere. So I'm reluctant to fully associate myself with what he had to say -- and certainly not the point he was making about the problems his wife has run into lately. He knows better than most the many factors that go into a voters' decision in presidential campaigns.
But there is a question worth considering that is an offshoot of what Clinton was talking about. Has presidential campaign coverage become so lopsidedly tilted toward the instantaneous that reflection, deeper reporting, perspective and the purely informational are being squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner?
Campaigns war rooms contribute to this, as do news organizations. We are all focused on the now, and in this presidential cycle, that is measured in minutes rather than hours. There is no news cycle any longer, just a continuum along which information flows in bits and bites and then is recycled repeatedly in a circle that spins at a dizzying speed.
Each new piece of information is treated as was the last -- something to chew on until the next piece arrives. A new ad -- good or bad? Another debate -- winners and losers? A charge about a candidates -- followed by an instant reply? An endorsement for one candidate -- trumped by an endorsement for another candidate? A new poll - who's up and who's down? All are part of the grist.
All this is quickly absorbed and often soon forgotten. Does anyone remember why it seemed so important when Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani? Or when Sam Brownback gave his support to John McCain. Iowa Republican voters certainly don't seem that impressed, based on the support that Giuliani and McCain have here. Yet the endorsements produced a flood of coverage.
That's partly because skillful campaigns have learned to leverage even relatively small developments, move them quickly from blog to mainstream media or cable talk show and back. At a time when everyone needs more content, information is coin of the realm and everyone in the constellation of the media is an equal. Smart campaigns know how to exploit this.
That is the new reality. Everyone is trying to adapt -- frankly often with innovation and creativity. But there are some questions that ought to be addressed in the context of the campaign. Has this become a closed conversation? Are the campaigns and the news organizations devoted to covering the campaign closely talking mostly among themselves? To what extent are voters tuning in -- and to what? Do campaigns have the upper hand in this enterprise? Are journalists able to maintain their critical eye? Has process overwhelmed everything else?
The answer to all this may not be a string of debates like the one that NPR hosted on Tuesday in Des Moines. Nor is it to pine for the good old days, as if they were inherently better than today. Communication channels are inherently more diverse and probably more democratic than they were back when.
But there are tradeoffs to every important technological advance, and in this presidential cycle, some of the most thoughtful of my colleagues in journalism as well as those in the campaigns sense an imbalance -- greater volume and velocity of information that may be contributing less than we think to the collective knowledge of the electorate.
Voters are very savvy and often underestimated. It's useful to remember that they are the ultimate audience for all that is being pumped out during this campaign by candidates and the press. It is also important to keep asking whether they are being well served by what they are being given.
Washington Post editors
December 5, 2007; 2:54 PM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take
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