Media power in the campaign

New web tools like social networking and high-quality video make campaigns more competitive, but other factors boost old media's power.

A month ago I asked for your thoughts about the media – what you liked, disliked, and didn't understand. I received scores of replies, most of which were full of thoughtful questions and comments. In coming weeks I hope to go through your questions carefully – even as I hope more arrive.

One theme in several of your e-mails concerned politics and why the press isn't covering a specific candidate you support. The question is a perennial one, but with a new wrinkle as 2008 approaches.

In the simplest terms, the media give the most ink, airtime, and Web pages to the candidates they feel have the best prospect of capturing either major party's nomination. And they determine that cast of characters by sorting through a combination of factors: the cash candidates have raised, the buzz in the party establishment, the candidate's history in big campaigns, an estimation of the candidate's appeal, public opinion polling data, and more.

Is it fair? Probably not. And while this alchemy can do a fairly decent job of predicting eventual winners sometimes, it can fail miserably at other times. Does anyone remember the unstoppable momentum Howard Dean had as he raced toward the Democratic nomination in 2004? Or how Texas Sen. Phil Gramm built a huge fundraising advantage going into the 1996 GOP primary season? Neither of them made it past February in their respective campaign years.

Until the votes from a few primaries are tallied, the fact is that nobody knows anything. It's all conjecture until people go to the polls during the drawn-out primary season and put the candidates in a real competition for real voters that everyone can watch. This has always been a guard against the media's anointing.

For the campaigns, however, especially those of outsiders, that year leading up to the primaries has always been a problem. There has been no way of stopping the press from telling the public who the favorites are, which hurts those that aren't. It's hard to build momentum with fundraisers and voters when the press says bad things about you or worse, ignores you.

Isn't this just a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the media as kingmaker? Not entirely. It is based on real factors, and not all candidates are created equal, at least in terms of organization, money, and electability. But the media do magnify those factors.

This coming election, though, is supposed to change those rules. Because 2008 is the first presidential race to come during the Web 2.0 revolution, it seems to offer candidates the opportunity to work around big media and the party establishment.

Polished websites can offer high-quality video. Blogs can help spread the word. Social networking can help create a grass-roots structure.

Who needs the old media anymore? Candidates can talk directly to voters and mobilize supporters. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton even announced their candidacies with online videos.

Has the old-time media monopoly on the year leading into the campaign been broken? Not completely.

Weighing against the old media's power is an open field with a few presumed front-runners but no dominant candidate. The news media are trying to find one. When all is said and done, however, we may go into 2008 with baskets full of stories that have done little to winnow the field but left voters fatigued before a single vote is cast.

At the same time, another factor is in play that may have actually increased the press's power for 2008: an extremely compressed primary schedule. Some states, tired of seeing the power that Iowa and New Hampshire wield each presidential season, have moved up the dates of their votes. Because of those changes, and others proposed, by March 4, 2008, 40 states will have held their primaries – including the 10 most populous.

What would that mean? The long-shot candidates would be in a very difficult situation. That compact schedule would rob them of the two things they need: the time to catch fire with voters and the money that comes with a sudden rise in public consciousness.

The money to compete in this new, short primary season will probably need to be raised in 2007 before any votes are cast. And what determines who gets that money? Well, those things that went into the original formula: money (fundraising success generally feeds on itself), support of the party establishment (which has deep pockets), and old-media press coverage (which reports on the first two parts of the formula and feeds into them).

In other words, at the dawning of Web 2.0, when a growing democracy in media is allowing people and candidates to go around the old news sources, the group that have gained the most power in the 2008 election is not the candidates or the voters but … the old media.

Technology is a powerful force, but, ultimately, it's no match for the law of unintended consequences.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.

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