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In Warp Speed Campaign, What Ground Are We Covering?

In a Clinton media scrum, here while the candidate files for the N.H. primary, who's watching? (AP)

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.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  December 5, 2007; 2:54 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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rat-the is not geographically illiterate, merely illiterate (lots of spelling mistakes, partner).

Just wondering who constitutes HIS country?

Speaking of invasions, who invaded this country originally, displacing the native population?

And finally, HIS country would be rather poorer but for the immigrants who do all the back-breaking, low paid work HIS countrymen turn their noses up at (ready to get out in the fields to start picking partner?).

Posted by: daavey | December 6, 2007 12:49 AM | Report abuse

I've still not seen the media cover Edwards campaign in any meaningful way. He's been outspent by the other two frontrunners and been given less media coverage yet he is still tied for 1st in Iowa. Why isn't the media finding out why the two candidates the media crowned as "mega stars" aren't able to shake Edwards supporters loose? With all the advantages they've had shouldn't they have better poll numbers?

Posted by: pmorlan1 | December 5, 2007 11:12 PM | Report abuse

In Oct. 2006, conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled "Run Barrack Run." In launching his campaign, Barrack has followed Brooks' advice to the letter - it shows up in Barracks soaring rhetoric. Here's the link:

In December 2007, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the Atlantic Monthly essentially the same thing in his enthusiastic promotion of Obama as the Democratic nominee. Here's that link:

Now Karl Rove has climbed on board the Obama bandwagon, even offering to coach him in defeating Hillary Clinton.

I guess politics really does make strange bedfellows.

Posted by: ichief | December 5, 2007 8:19 PM | Report abuse

In Oct. 2006, conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled "Run Barrack Run." In launching his campaign, Barrack has followed Brooks' advice to the letter - it shows up in Barracks soaring rhetoric. Here's the link:

In December 2007, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the Atlantic Monthly essentially the same thing in his enthusiastic promotion of Obama as the Democratic nominee. Here's that link:

Now Karl Rove has climbed on board the Obama bandwagon, even offering to coach him in defeating Hillary Clinton.

I guess politics really does make strange bedfellows.

Posted by: ichief | December 5, 2007 8:19 PM | Report abuse

7900rmc-Nice try!

You know very well what I was refering to. What I have trouble with, is what was it I said that was "Racist"?

Did I imply Africans, from the Spanish named Country of Jamaica? Aztecs from Mexico? Did I insult Mayans from Guatemala?
Maybe it was the Elitist Penesulars?

No, I do not recall a SINGLE Racial Slur toward any Race.

Nationalism, and Racism, are two very distinctly different things. When I can go to Mexico City and legally Protest, or even open a Business without a Mexican, meaning Citizen of Mexico, Partner, THEN, I'll maybe lighten up about the invasion of MY Country's Sovereignty_By OTHER COUNTRIES CITIZENS!!!!

Till then, I view as an INVASION!

Posted by: rat-the | December 5, 2007 6:35 PM | Report abuse

I think Dan Balz is really trying not to "get it." The constant, unifying thread among all "engaged" voters -- and by that, let's use as a measure those of us who dutifully read the Post and other papers and comment on either the reporting or blogging on a daily basis -- what we complain about most is "horse race" or "Friday Night Fights" style coverage we are spoon-fed. Voters didn't decide that Hillary or Rudy were "inevitable," the talking heads did, and reported as if that were the only storyline.

Voters didn't assume Hillary was the most qualified, the media did and reported as such. Voters didn't assume that Hillary was the most experienced, the reporters did -- and failed to do their own due diligence by reviewing their own reporting from the Clinton I years 1992 to 2001 to vet whatever was being put forth by the Clinton machine.

Voters are smart enough to know Barack Obama's real background, but even as late as last week with Perry Bacon, Jr.'s poor reporting, the Post, specifically, has engaged in a kind of "rumor as fact" reporting that just doesn't wash.

Voters haven't asked for the stupid "yes or no" raise your hand questions -- do you believe in evolution? When will Jesus bring the porkchops, Tuesday or Thursday? Should Martians get color-photo driver's licenses or 3-D holograms? -- but that's what we're served up by people who get paid damn good money to know better.

Voters aren't looking for "gotcha" questions, but sincere answers from candidates running for president. We'd like to have real, head-to-head debates, not soundbite contests. The winner isn't the one who spins the catchiest phrase, but answers hard questions with straightforward, honest answers that may come in minutes rather than seconds.

As for Bill Clinton, his wife is running on the part of his record that doesn't include impeachment and "what the meaning of 'is' is" and that infamous blue dress. She is getting off easy. How glib for him to lie about his non-support for the war when good reporters have documented his gleeful support for it.

The problem Mr. Balz doesn't want to address is how we the readers have become we the writers -- perhaps not as polished as some of the Post's staff (although I could just as easily argue some are more so) -- and we call you on your failings quickly, do your homework for you (the Bacon article again) and talk back like smart-a**, know-it-all teenagers who are a lot smarter than we let on.

A more apropos headline for this article is simply "What Campaign are YOU Covering?" Many of us would say it's not the one we're watching.

Posted by: jade7243 | December 5, 2007 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Hey, rat-the, "Hispanola"? Do you mean Hispaniola, the island composed of the Dominican Republic and Haiti? I wasn't aware the US was suffering a glut of immigrants from those two countries. It's really hard to take racist rants like yours seriously when you're so obviously geographically illiterate.

Posted by: 7900rmc | December 5, 2007 5:22 PM | Report abuse

As could be expected, Dan Balz is out to lunch. The "deeper discussion" was as shallow on immigration matters as the previous debates.

For proof, compare the questions I submitted to them (second comment here: with the ones that were asked. Nothing even remotely as tough as those were asked, and instead NPR asked about trivial matters like voice mail messages.

NPR didn't have to ask one of my questions, but if they wanted real questions they could have obtained them from those who follow this issue on a day-to-day basis.

There's no excuse for NPR not to be able to come up with real questions either in-house or from others, and it's clear that they weren't interested in a real debate.

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | December 5, 2007 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Dan, I appreciate this thoughtful article. I'm not sure about the source of the problems you mention, but I've certainly noticed that both the blogosphere and the MSM appear to be more concerned about stirring up controversy to increase their site traffic than to actually present reliable, ethical information to readers. I seldom read an online news item that is written objectively. I find the blatant sexism, for example, stunning.

But do keep raising the questions and thinking a litle more deeply about what the media's responsibilities actually are.

Posted by: ichief | December 5, 2007 5:12 PM | Report abuse

There is a definite shallowness to the information being consumed.

News has become entertainment, and news organizations are afraid to ask consumers to concentrate, and do some civic duty.

Instead, we are fed info-tainment, which titilates, rather than educates. We are at a sad state of affairs.

Added to this are the corporations that screen whose message gets out, and how it is framed. Guys a like Edwards are already fighting the corporations.

Posted by: river845 | December 5, 2007 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Senor Balz, but some of us do look back and compare statistics and relative Qualities of life.

My favorite, is the average Blue Colar American's MIDDLE CLASS life in 1980, compared to 1990(When we recieved Morer Illegals than most other periods(Thanks to an INSANE Amnesty), and then 2000, and then NOW!

Point? Out of control flooding of our Country by Hispanola, is DESTROYING our quality of Life!

EVERYTHING, is becomming a Third World HELL!


Because of an IDIOTIC and Disfunctional Congress and Exectutive branch that REFUSES to enforce FEDERAL LAWS, like ONLY THEY CAN!!!!!

Making new laws, to correct a lack of enforcing the ones that should have been, IS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE SOLUTION!

Posted by: rat-the | December 5, 2007 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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