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January 19, 2004

Dean, the Internet and the National Press: A PressThink Primer

Here are the most important posts from PressThink on the Howard Dean campaign, the way it's changing politics, and how those changes are eluding journalists. Taken together, the six posts tell a story. But of course the story is still unfolding.

I will be in Davos, Switzerland this week for the World Economic Forum, including a panel on the emerging signifcance of the weblog world, which I am chairing. (Click here, follow the links.) I hope to have a guest writer at PressThink, and also to post some observations from Davos.

But in the meantime, here are six longish, detailed posts on a single theme: how to understand the Dean movement and its challenge to orthodoxy in presidential politics, including recommendations for the press and an analysis of journalism’s ocassional cluelessness. PressThink does not endorse candidates. But intellectually, I do endorse what the Dean campaign has been about in the part of it that is reaching out through the Internet to find new connecting points between people and campaigns for president. That deserves serious attention from anyone who cares about democratic politics— pro, amateur, partisan, citizen.

Along the way, the movement for Dean is breaking with a variety of “communication conventions” that had governed presidential campaigns for too long. That makes it a story, but the nature of the story is to challenge the master narratives that mainstream journalism has relied on, as its conventions— and for too long. Which raises a question about the American press…

I intend to keep asking it, just because it’s my kind of question: How many journalists really believe in the horse race narrative (and its instrument, polling) plus the other rituals that have governed campagn reporting for most of the media age? (“Bill, what does Gephardt have to do tonight to come out a winner?”)

Dan Rather says the party conventions will probably be dropped by network news. Not a shocker. But how about other outmoded conventions that may exist… but in journalism? The following six posts are a PressThink primer for asking that kind of question. (Use the comments button to answer it.)

The comments to each post below may also interest some; and of course those comments are still open. Cheers.

1. Politics in a Different Key (Nov. 8. Comments: 17.) There’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Rove?… Mr. Rove? On how the emergence of the Dean movemet challenges the assumptions of the political class, the “pros,” on which journalists focus so much attention.

It is the K Street politics of the savvy class. Its members are the insiders. They are the pros. They are the pundits, handlers and funders, vultures and parrots who run and staff the campaign story, which is above all the inside story of how you get elected in this country. Its outstanding feature, Joan Didion wrote, is “remoteness from the actual life of the country.” They are the people of this remoteness. The people of the campaign bus, the war room, the press lounge. They surround the campaign, travel with it, come under its employ. They create the public narrative of politics, which is about the candidates but controlled by the pros.

Some live off politics, some live for it— but they are all in and out of the same hotels. The pros are realistic. Their job is to understand how things really work. But then they also tell you they understand because their class includes people who bring us news of politics, and talk on television about it. When Lydon writes about “a drastic subversion of a discredited game,” he means the whole game of Get Elected, starring the savvy class in ten different professions. And if there is anyone who is the big winner in that game right now it is Karl Rove, savviest of all, wizard to the White House, which is still winning big.

2. A Politics that is Dumber Than Spam. (Nov. 17. Comments: 50.) When 95 percent of the nation can be ignored by the operatives who run presidential politics, there is something wrong. Yet realism in the press says this is the way it is. Will that continue to be so?

Spammers pay no cost for annoying the 99,999 who do not buy the toner cartridge. It is a dim intelligence indeed that assumes this is so in politics. Via e-mail, the Lieberman campaign lost me as a listener, and he now has zero chance to change my mind. That’s a cost. After all, I am Jewish, blessedly undecided, a registered Democrat in New York, which is a Super Tuesday primary state, so I fit his profile. And I doubt the campaign knows or cares whether these costs are greater than the gain from sending “Liebernotes” out en masse.

Spam is a stupid medium, knows it’s stupid, does not care that it’s stupid, and knows you hate it for its stupidity. Lieberman’s spam (telling me of the “Joe-Vember to Remember outreach program”) is stupid, but does not know any of these things. So there’s another cost: advertising your own cluelessness, which the Lieberman web site also does in most every detail. On top of that, spam is not supposed to be solving the spam problem in Congress, but Lieberman is. And on top of that, he thinks I don’t notice that by using only his first name as much as possible he plays down his Jewish last name—as if that would fool anybody. The big story on his website today: “Joe Unveils New Ad.” You can watch it, you can read about it, and you can send money to keep it on the air.

Do we need a new pattern in presidential politics? Yes we do, because this kind of politics is dumber than spam.

3. Important if True: Online and Offline Meet Up to Change Politics. (Nov. 18. Cmments: 19) Writing in Baseline magazine, Journalist and weblogger Ed Cone explains exactly why Howard Dean’s “open style” of politics is a big deal—and a big story—whether he or not he wins. This will scramble the mind of the press if the press retains its master narrative: winning.

Without addressing them directly, Cone says: fellow journalists, the art and science of running a campaign are changing before our eyes. Whatever happens in the race, (which could go many ways) there’s the import of what Dean and Company are discovering about the Internet: now. They are showing us how tools developed online can generate action offline, and affect people’s lives— including the nation’s political life. “I’m obsessed with offline,” says Zephyr Teachout, the director of Internet organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. (That’s a switch.)

4. Private Life, Public Happiness and the Howard Dean Connection. (Dec. 9. Comments: 10) With Dean, the campaign is somewhere… out there. It is not at headquarters any more, but it talks to headquarters. This is a de-stabilizing premise, and a reporting nightmare. But Samantha Shapiro of the New York Times magazine had a notion.

Jefferson, writes Arendt, “had at least a foreboding of how dangerous it might be to allow the people a share of public power without providing them at the same time with more public space than the ballot box and with more opportunity to make their voices heard in public than election day.” The wards were an idea he devised to “save the people from lethargy and inattention to public business.”

And maybe the weblogs of Dean (and Clark) are ways to the wards of Thomas Jefferson. Maybe what’s missing in people’s private lives is not only girlfriends and boyfriends, but something larger, “public happiness”— the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way and show the system a thing or two. Somehow the country remembers this tradition, despite long stretches where it is taken into eclipse. Recovering the claim we have on public happiness may help save the system from the “lethargy and inattention to public business” it had produced as byproduct to winning ways and ways of winning.

Campaign politics had gotten away from them, the professionals. It had become public misery on their watch. Now they have to find it again, and that may yet make for great political journalism in 2004.

5. Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative. (Dec. 17. Comments: 14) Dean’s success puts pressure on a campaign narrative inherited from the pre-Internet era. There are changes underway that are not the normal evolution from cycle to cycle. More original reporting is needed on the “open” style emerging in politics. Here are some routes in, new story lines journalists—or citizen journalist—might follow as events unfold.

Here are nine threads in a revised public narrative. Anyone can follow them to find vital stories that show us there is something happening in presidential politics, but not in the pattern we had grown to expect. And I do mean anyone willing to do such reporting, whether the title is citizen, student, weblogger, journalist, writer, linker, amateur, pro…

Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative

1.) The Control Revolution
2.) Donating Talent
3.) Distributed Ownership
4.) The Inactive Switch Sides
5.) Campaign as Curriculum
6.) The New Sociability in Politics
7.) The Discovery of Voice
8.) The Self Informing Citizenry
9.) It’s a Two Way World

So these nine items are not so much story ideas, as ideas for generating an arc of stories. You could call them points on a map of shifting terrain in politics. Maybe it is easiest to call them beats, as a newsroom would. But they are beats from beyond the standard master narrative, in which the baseline story of the campaign is winning the campaign.

6. Politically Significant Cluelessness. (Dec. 22. Comments: 10.) 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.

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.

Authors are always greedy for feedback, so if any stout souls have read all or almost all of these posts, do let me know in comments what you think they’re “about.” Or quarrel with the posts, which is good too. Thanks.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 19, 2004 2:01 PM