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December 22, 2003

Politically Significant Cluelessness

Frank Rich sent a "get a clue" letter to colleagues, members of a tone deaf political class. They don't get Dean. Or the Net. And they don't know what year it is out there.

Frank Rich wrote effectively this week on a culture of cluelessness in Washington. Ignorance of what’s happening with the Internet, and thus the movement for Howard Dean, is a kind of emergent force in itself— active in political events, according to Rich. (This is a subject I have explored here and here.)

He charges that shifting coterie—the Washington establishment—with being condescending and simple-minded about the Net, unable to get a fix on Dean and what’s happening around the candidate, even though the information is available. That includes reporters, pundits, other candidates, party insiders.

Rich wants to switch historical comparison points, from figures positioned like Dean ideologically (McGovern and Goldwater, according to common analysis in the press) to figures poised to make the leap Dean is making with technology.

Rather than compare Dr. Dean to McGovern or Goldwater, it may make more sense to recall Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. It was not until F.D.R.’s fireside chats on radio in 1933 that a medium in mass use for years became a political force. J.F.K. did the same for television, not only by vanquishing the camera-challenged Richard Nixon during the 1960 debates but by replacing the Eisenhower White House’s prerecorded TV news conferences (which could be cleaned up with editing) with live broadcasts. Until Kennedy proved otherwise, most of Washington’s wise men thought, as The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1961, that a spontaneous televised press conference was “the goofiest idea since the Hula Hoop.”

And, continuing the pattern, “such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign’s breakthrough use of its chosen medium.” Clueless. What does Rich want to tell us about this state? First, it takes the form of cultural backwardness. The Washington press corps—along with those it interviews most—are an elite lagging in Net time:

In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharpshooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and right. When used by campaigns, the Internet becomes a synonym for “the young,” “geeks,” “small contributors” and “upper middle class,” as if it were an eccentric electronic cousin to direct-mail fund-raising run by the acne-prone members of a suburban high school’s computer club

Second, the cluelessness is tonal, a hearing and speech problem, which causes journalists to dismiss what they have not struggled to understand, and then to advertise that lack of effort. Here things become comic.

The condescending reaction to the Dean insurgency by television’s political correspondents can be reminiscent of that hilarious party scene in the movie “Singin’ in the Rain,” where Hollywood’s silent-era elite greets the advent of talkies with dismissive bafflement. “The Internet has yet to mature as a political tool,” intoned Carl Cameron of Fox News last summer as he reported that the runner-up group to Dean supporters on the site was witches.

Third, it is unable to locate change in the very field political journalism is given to understand. Reporters and pundits know the Net is supposed to be a big deal in 2004. To huge portions of the press that still means “websites”— primarily for broadcasting the message and raising money.

But the big Dean innovation is to empower passionate supporters to leave their computer screens entirely to hunt down unwired supporters as well and to gather together in real time at face-to-face meetings they organize on their own with no help from (or cost to) the campaign hierarchy

Fourth, the press and the insiders who run campaigns are over-confident in their ways of knowing. Most especially, the poll. Rich brings on Steven Johnson (a pretty good explainer) to explain:

The underlying principles of the Dean Internet campaign “are the opposite of a poll,” Mr. Johnson says. Much as thousands of connected techies perfected the Linux operating system’s code through open collaboration, so Dean online followers collaborate on organizing and perfecting the campaign, their ideas trickling up from the bottom rather than being superimposed from national headquarters. (Or at least their campaign ideas trickle up; policy is still concentrated at the top.) It’s almost as if Dr. Dean is “a system running for president,” in Mr. Johnson’s view, as opposed to a person.

A system running for president. Makes you think, right?

Rich offers a simple fact to shame the press establishment: “Unlike Al Gore, Dr. Dean doesn’t aspire to be hip about computers.” This means he started with no advantage over journalists. Yet he was able to grasp something inchoate but powerful out there, and move his campaign toward it. Dean made himself Net literate enough to understand (and encourage) what’s going on. He got smart people to explain it to him, and went from there. And any reporter could have done that.

Before it’s too late, Rich advises, get Steven Johnson’s 2001 book, Emergence— “essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this culture.” He knows not many in the Washington press even know about Johnson or that book— or why they should care. And he thinks that is shameful. For there is a big story gathering. We as nation ought to understand it whole. Political journalists should be leading the way. The story: Asymetrical warfare comes home in the form of campaign 2004.

Should Dr. Dean actually end up running against President Bush next year, an utterly asymmetrical battle will be joined. The Bush-Cheney machine is a centralized hierarchy reflecting its pre-digital C.E.O. ethos (and the political training of Karl Rove); it is accustomed to broadcasting to voters from on high rather than drawing most of its grass-roots power from what bubbles up from insurgents below.

I asked Mary Hodder of UC Berkeley, who has started a new blog on the napsterization of everything, what she knew about patterns in cluelessness. One of her explanations involved providers of a service that, once upon a time, people could not easily get elsewhere or create on their own. When that starts shifting because of dramatically lower information costs, the traditional suppliers are often the last to know. After all, they’re still offering the same “essential” service at the same quality.

“It’s a combination of denial, refusing to see that the costs have changed for those they provide services for or rely on to vote for them, and in the case of the internet, totally misunderstanding the properties and values of information and digital media,” Hodder told me.

In closing his column, Frank Rich supplies a fact: “Today the record business is in meltdown, and more Americans use file-sharing software than voted for Mr. Bush in the last presidential election.” (In other words: What if they had a candidate?) This is intended to spark what he finds most lacking in the political class— a specifically cultural imagination.

Long before he became chairman of Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes had sketched the limited horizon of campaign journalism: “There are four things the media are interested in,” he said back in 1988. “They’re interested in polls, they’re interested in pictures, they’re interested in mistakes, and they’re interested in attacks.” I would add some items to that list: money-raising, dissaray and infighting within a given campaign, the so-called “character” issue (and the revelations that may or may not illuminate it), the role of key advisers and consultants, the art of positioning the candidate— and of course, any possible plot turn in the horse race. That’s ten story lines, but only one narrative. (And here’s nine alternatives.)

According to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, the national press is busy jamming the race into its usual story frame of who’s-gonna-win, which gets very dull if one candidate has already won. So the search is on for the Leading Challenger, a figure required by another figure, the Front Runner. Here is Kurtz on a current trend in press coverage: (See Dec. 22 entry)

What’s happening here is that journalists are trying to dope out the next turn in the presidential race. Indeed, they’re hoping there will be another turn in the presidential race, since all those Dean’s-running-away-with-it stories are getting a bit old. There’s starting to be a hunger for a Credible Alternative so reporters can get what they want for Christmas: a two-man race.

Credible Alternative: is that someone the press finds or something the press makes? The argument for “makes” would take note of how certain rituals enacted by the press become tests of the candidate’s fitness for office. “At the moment,” says Kurtz, “no other candidate [but Dean] is getting the kind of proctological exam about their past and current positions that the media inflict on candidates they believe might win the nomination.”

In his 1990 book about presidential campaigns, (See How They Run) Paul Taylor, then a political correspondent for the Washington Post, talked openly about the press as one key actor in “the pageant of democracy.” Taylor knew from experience. He was the one who in 1988 asked Gary Hart whether Hart had committed adultery, a moment of fateful expansion in the “open up, candidate” exam Kurtz is stiill writing about today.

Taylor told stories explaining how the press had played the role of sorter for the public— which means in place of. In 1988, for example, one reason journalists were so obsessed with character questions was the large number of candidates competing for press attention. He writes:

Somebody had to prune the field, to “get rid of the funny ones,” as one 1988 campaign manager put it. There were too many choices, too much information to present, and “the culture was too apolitical” to sustain interest in such a large number of candidates. With the party bosses out of the equation, there was a huge vacuum at the front end of the process. Who would screen the field? The assignment fell to the press — there was no one else.

If it’s true the press plays a vetting role in the campaign, then it must be true that the press is a player. Or to put it another way, political journalists have come to understand themselves as supplier of a service—vetting the field—that the body politic cannot handle itself, because of high information costs and low motivation to bear them. “Too many choices, too much information to present.”

But what happens when these costs shift, and new motivations spring up? Suddenly the supplier may be supplying something that people can make for themselves, or no longer want from that source— like, say, political proctology via the pens of Washington journalists. We know this show is still running because Ted Koppel decided to administer the exam in a recent candidate’s debate in New Hampshire. Part of his method involved setting off confrontations with Dean. This is Kurtz on Koppel:

That two-hour meeting virtually ensured that the nine-candidate face-off here Tuesday night would be not only about Dean but about Koppel, and the approach would prove highly controversial. But the Koppel team was convinced the other candidates would take the cue to confront Dean, and that, they hoped, could produce some televised fireworks.

“They’re all being dominated by a formerly invisible governor from Vermont who must know something they don’t,” Koppel said of the other candidates after the debate. “Why is that?” Well, this elusive something the examiner might undertake to explain himself, if he knows, and then get the candidate’s reactions. Instead, Koppel chose to ask some of Dean’s rivals: why are you such a loser?

There, I think, was a case of the press supplying something for which there is no genuine demand.

Frank Rich, “Napster Runs for President in ‘04,” New York Times, Dec. 21, 2003.

Howard Kurtz, “Anchor Provocateur,” Washington Post, Dec. 10, 2003.

Wired magazine’s Garry Wolf, “How the Internet Invented Howard Dean.” Good overview.

Chris Lydon interviewing Dick Morris at BOP News: (Listen here.)
Lydon: Where in the media , Dick, to find useful information on this rather transformed game of American campaign politics?
Morris: I don’t from the media. I think they are very far behind it. But the Internet era is here to stay for a looooooong time.

PressThink: Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative.

Kurtz has started blogging in a serious way, extending himself beyond the printed Washington Post.

Jeff Jarvis points to Editor and Publisher’s round up summary of weblogs: “Blah, blah, Blogs: Probably the most hyped online development in 2003 (along with growth in site registration), but will these self-important online journals actually change the way newspapers do journalism on the Web?” A quote that could have appeared in Frank Rich’s article.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 22, 2003 11:47 PM