Surfing the 'Political Net'

WHETHER it's used as a launchpad or simply as a booster rocket, new media in the 1990s is becoming an indispensable vehicle in the expanding universe of political communication. Candidates are reaching new audiences through new media, whose feisty and unpredictable formats often foster news themselves. This communications counterpart to voters' growing frustration with officialdom is both a political weapon and a powerful symbol.

There are now more than 1,400 web sites on the Internet dedicated to politics and government, with as many as 14 million Americans capable of accessing such sites on the world's largest computer system. Already, media organizations such as Congressional Quarterly, the National Journal, and C-SPAN have Internet sites on politics and the 1996 campaign, as have the House and Senate Democratic Party campaign committees.

In 1962 Marshall McLuhan observed, "Gutenberg made everybody a reader. Xerox made everybody a publisher." Today, the Internet has made everybody a commentator. As the world's largest copying machine, it allows users to duplicate and direct thousands of messages at the touch of a keystroke. The potential of such enormous leverage over communication - combined with infomercials, satellite interviews, and talk shows - is playing a central role in the realm of national political campaigns. Such new media vehicles collectively comprise the trend toward "vox politics": use of new media by political campaigns to gain direct access to the public.

The 1996 campaign is already building off the remarkable showcase of the political use of cyberspace during the 1994 midterm elections in places like California, where 3 million people "visited" a web site featuring candidate biographies and voting tallies on election night; and in Minnesota, where gubernatorial candidates debated each other online. During the '94 campaign, Sen. Edward Kennedy had his own "home page," while a political action committee in Spokane, Wash., called "The De-Foley-Ate Project" used the Internet to raise funds, campaign against, and finally defeat, then-House Speaker Tom Foley.

Besides offering a new link to voters, use of new media in the political realm is an extension of a growing sophistication in press relations by political consultants, media advisers, and the candidates themselves. It comes at a time when many other institutions, such as business and the military, are developing their media savvy to better convey their voices in the press.

But as candidates turn to online services and the Internet in 1996, there will be at least one difficult-to-assess downside: speed. If speed is the calling card of new media, there's a strong likelihood that as campaign communication accelerates, so will the journalism that chronicles it. The scenario is one of sound bites that be- come launch-on-warning media strikes and counterstrikes that will make President Clinton's 1992 "rapid response team" look slow as molasses.

The use of talk shows in 1992 confirmed their power to reach new audiences and salvage a candidate's character after it had been savaged in other media outlets. In 1996, the center of gravity in political communication will shift even further toward new media, this time to cyberspace, where networked communications provide direct access to niche audiences who happen to be far more likely to vote than audiences of other mediums.

Like talk shows were in the 1992 race, digital discourse is poised to be the most pivotal new playing field in 1996, moving the fast-growing, high-velocity world of new media another step closer to the mainstream of the national political conversation.

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