Election Reflections

January 31, 2009

Less than two weeks after hosting a crowded and passionate election-night watch party, the Sanford Institute of Public Policy was the site of a panel discussion that took a more measured approach to the 2008 elections, focusing on media coverage of the presidential campaigns.

The 2008 John Fischer Zeidman Colloquium on Politics and the Press panel featured political journalists Mark Shields of PBS and CNN, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times, and Garrett Graff, editor at large of Washingtonian magazine and founding editor of mediabistro.com's "Fishbowl D.C."

Public policy professor Jay Hamilton, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, moderated a discussion about the shifting media landscape, one in which traditional print and television media have lost ground to blogging and other forms of "new media."

Noting the Obama campaign's pioneering use of text messages as a means to provide updates to supporters, the Washingtonian's Graff said, "The campaign was able to set up a sort of media channel completely separate from the traditional media filter."

Other panelists agreed that the non-traditional flow of information in the 2008 campaign—which saw YouTube, social networking sites, and countless blogs become serious and important forums for political news and commentary—was something revolutionary. "This is a campaign that we'll be talking about for a good long time," said the Times' Zeleny, adding that there may be cause to wonder whether the print media will be around to cover future campaigns.

Graff argued that the use of YouTube by campaign insiders and outsiders alike was the most important development of the 2008 campaigns. He cited the case of former Virginia Senator George Allen, a man whom many had assumed was next in line for the Republican presidential nomination; Allen instead made an early exit from the campaign after a verbal gaffe at a public event made its way onto the popular video-hosting site. "In 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent $60,000 to get their ads on TV," Graff said. "Someone posted Allen's 'macacca' comment on YouTube for free."

Shields agreed, lamenting that "we won't see another campaign like the 2000 Straight Talk Express.… Any number of the things McCain said to us on the bus could have killed his campaign if they had ended up on YouTube."

This year, the Obama campaign in particular was extremely careful about public statements, even those made outside of formal press events, Zeleny said, adding that the idea that there was a congratulatory and genial interplay between reporters and the candidate and his staff was no more than a myth. "Obama is certainly a friendly person, but he was guarded and didn't speak with us as much as we would have liked."

Added Shields, "The Obama people wouldn't tell you if your coat was on fire."

Panel members expressed concern about the increasing "blurring of opinion and fact." The Post's Marcus mourned the gaps in public understanding when it becomes too easy for news consumers to choose which "buffet line" to enter—Fox or MSNBC, Drudge Report or Huffington Post. Shields summed up the panel's distaste for this development: "People can now more easily pick and choose what they expose themselves to instead of taking in the various sides of an issue. They learn what they want to know, not necessarily what they need to know."