By Bill Boyarsky
Pity the poor mainstream news media, confronted with many debates, demands for instantaneous coverage, competition for website traffic and the specter of ever-multiplying Super PACs.
All these factors have changed the dynamics of the presidential campaign, putting election coverage beyond the capabilities of the news media, which has been hit hard by heavy newsroom budget cutbacks.
The loss has been severe for the nation, resulting in harried coverage too often divorced from our national struggles, including the effort to recover from the Great Recession.
I’m looking at this strange campaign year from a viewpoint shaped by covering political campaigns since 1966. I am also a fanatic consumer of political and other news, subscribing to four daily papers, checking websites ranging from the left to the right, listening to NPR, following Twitter, watching the three cable news networks plus Keith Olbermann and maybe more. Worse yet, I think I’ve watched all 19 Republican presidential debates. Maybe I missed one or two. I can’t remember.
Here are my observations:
The debates: The debates minimized the importance of the traditional features of the first two contests, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. These events have long been beloved by political reporters, who enjoyed tramping through small towns and diners, checking the popular pulse and hanging out with journalistic buddies and local pols who supposedly knew the score. The debates also were important in shaping the South Carolina and Florida campaigns. In each case, the debates on national television grabbed attention away from grass-roots campaigning.
What’s interesting is how a few lightning quick moments in the debates shape the news—Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, Mitt Romney’s $10,000 bet offer. This is especially true the first minutes of each debate—Newt Gingrich’s blast at CNN moderator John King in South Carolina, Romney’s banging at Gingrich in Florida.
Twitter and blogs: Twitter and instant blogging have made political campaign coverage increasingly high-speed, superficial and often misleading. Gingrich was crowned a winner on the Internet early in the debate seconds after his media-bashing assault on King and just as quickly was written off as a loser when he was too slow to respond to Romney’s assaults a week later. The verdicts came in real time on Twitter and blogs.
Websites desperately compete for traffic. Just how that drive for traffic shapes and distorts political news was illustrated the day after Romney won the Florida primary when Soledad O’Brien interviewed him on the CNN morning show.
Romney said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We’ve got a safety net there. If it needs repair there, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 to 95 percent of America who now are struggling.”
O’Brien said, “I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds strange.”
Romney replied, “You have to finish the sentence, Soledad. I’m not concerned about the very poor; they have a safety net and if it has holes in it, I will repair them.”
The video and a story were posted on the CNN website at 8:09 am. Tweets flashed through Twitter, including two from CNN promoting the interview. Politico quickly came through with a story (“ ‘Very Poor’ Not a Concern for Mitt”). The always quick-on-the-draw Huffington Post bannered it—“Clueless.” By 9:30 a.m., the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple was blogging a critique of O’Brien’s questioning technique—“Gotta Be Tougher Than That.” Chris Cillizza’s political blog at the Post was in with an analysis at 12:58 p.m. (“Romney plays into Democrats rich-guy attacks”). And so on.
Romney’s a rich-guy candidate. His gift to the middle-class Americans would be tax laws that hurt them and repeal of a health care law that is giving them more protection than they had before. But that’s not the point. Twitter and the blogs gave a speedy but incomplete and misleading account of the Romney-O’Brien dialogue, and it dominated the news through the day. Romney was treated unfairly. I don’t feel sorry for him, but I’ll sure be mad when someone I respect is treated that way.
Super PACs: The super PACS constitute the biggest and worst change in the presidential campaign. These committees collect completely unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals with loose requirements for contributor reporting. Reports didn’t have to be in to the federal government until Jan. 31, the day of the Florida Republican primary. In that contest, as well as those in Iowa and South Carolina, super PACS swept in with huge expenditures, most of it for negative advertising. With their help, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina and Romney took Florida. Not since Watergate have the rich been able to jump in practically anonymously and change the course of an election.
We can survive the instant communications on the Internet. You don’t have to pay attention. And nobody is forced to watch all those debates. But the pernicious influence of big money, particularly from the shadowy super PACs, will be a permanent game-changer in this and future elections.
AP / Charles Dharapak
Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, celebrate his victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary late that day in Tampa.