By JONATHAN TILOVE
December 20, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ Come the New Year, America plunges headlong into a whirlwind presidential primary and caucus calendar with wide-open races in both parties.
It may be the most exciting and volatile presidential election season in generations, all the more so given a new media landscape in which scandalous rumor can strike like lightning out of cyberspace, even skewing outcomes before charges are vetted or rebutted.
“It’s `Feeding Frenzy’ to the tenth power,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, referring to his influential 1991 book, which was subtitled “How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics.”
When it comes to scandal-mongering, Sabato said, the Internet is viral in every sense of the word. “It’s just taken what was a serious problem and turned it into the bubonic plague,” he said.
Salacious e-mails accusing candidates of every manner of misdeed arrive every day, Sabato said. The blogosphere is a perpetual wellspring of innuendo, and the mainstream press, desperate not to be left behind, finds itself ready to rationalize reporting on rumor.
“If it’s `out there,’ that’s enough excuse,” he said. “`It’s affecting people’s votes,’ they say, and so it’s OK to go with it.”
Dhavan Shah, a professor of journalism and political science at the University of Wisconsin, sees the makings of a “perfect storm” that could play havoc with the nominating process. “It’s happening at such a pace that some of this information doesn’t have the normal filters of political journalism,” he said.
And Matthew Hindman, professor of information technology and politics at Arizona State University, said he “would bet large sums of money that there is going to be a scandal emerging in this election that would be discovered or disseminated first on a blog.” Hindman has written a book, tentatively titled “The Myth of Digital Democracy,” due out next fall.
In the long run, said Brown University political scientist Darrell West, the truth will out.
But the Iowa caucuses are Jan. 3; the New Hampshire primary is five days later. By Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, more than half the states will have voted.
“The trouble is in the short run, and we now have a very compressed nomination schedule where the short run is everything,” said West, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment.”
In 2003, West, playing off Sabato’s coinage, wrote about “responsibility frenzies in news coverage” _ occasions when the mainstream press refrained from covering the “salacious and tawdry.” But he thinks that kind of restraint is less likely now.
“Over the last decade we have seen the flourishing of the Internet and the rise of bloggers and nobody’s policing discourse anymore,” West said. “You can basically say anything you want.”
To many, of course, this freedom is not a problem but a great virtue.
“I think this kind of uh-oh-what-bad-could-happen story has been done a thousand times … and the world has not collapsed,” Jeff Jarvis, who blogs about the media at Buzzmachine.com and is director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote in an e-mail.
“We’re not a nation of idiots. There are lot of gatekeepers and filters, among them the minds of the voters (if you don’t trust that, then hang up the Constitution).”
What’s more, Jarvis wrote, “You could talk about the rumors that get debunked quickly _ more quickly than some media outlets print corrections.”
Indeed, Mickey Kaus, whose blog, Kausfiles, is on Slate.com, views the wild ride ahead as the surest path to the truth.
“Good investigative journalism depends on a little bit of mania,” Kaus said. “Sources have to be panicked to come forward.”
Kaus has been criticized for mentioning the specifics of scandal rumors on his site, but, as he said in a December exchange on Bloggingheads.TV with Robert Wright, only by posting one rumor did he learn to his satisfaction that it was unfounded. “You get feedback from your readers. The truth is found faster that way.”
And in a Nov. 1 post, Kaus relished rumors that a “potentially devastating sex scandal involving a leading presidential candidate” was in the offing, rumors he hoped would serve as a kind of “depth charge,” blowing every latent scandal public.
“Let all the scandals that lurk in the mud hatch out,” he continued. “I assume depth-charging will become a permanent feature of electoral politics.
“They tell me the Internet has changed things! Is there a problem? The true rumors will be confirmed and the phony rumors won’t be confirmed. But it will be harder to suppress the former. Isn’t the purpose of the primary campaigns to find out everything about the candidates before they are nominated?”
But political scientist Michael Cornfield believes the hurried campaign schedule is the enemy of truth.
“In the short run, the rapid-response teams and journalistic fact-check operations can push back and be heard by the electorate,” Cornfield, author of “Politics Moves Online: Campaigning and the Internet,” wrote in an e-mail. “But I think the `short-run’ requires a week at least.”
Who knows? Everything is new. The campaign timetable. The fluid field, which includes groundbreaking candidates certain to engender fierce passions and resistance.
“We have a woman, a black, a Mormon and a Christian fundamentalist who are leading candidates,” said West. “There’s something to upset nearly everyone in America.”
Even the technology is for all practical purposes new.
Cornfield, for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, did an analysis of the 2004 election. “That was pre-YouTube,” he noted.
Were it not for YouTube, George Allen of Virginia might still be serving in a Republican-controlled Senate, perhaps a candidate for president himself. Instead, an Indian-American videographer working for his opponent caught Allen on camera calling him a “macaca,” an apparent slur. Soon enough it was on YouTube for the world to see, and Allen lost his 2006 bid for re-election.
Every few years, it seems, the media ethic and etiquette of scandal is revised.
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, the press refrained from writing about his sex life until the Star ran Gennifer Flowers’ account of her affair with Clinton, a story for which the supermarket tabloid paid her.
In 1998, it was the then-obscure Web site the Drudge Report that broke the news of Clinton‘s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky by reporting that Newsweek had spiked the story.
Now, nearly a decade later, the Web is rife with rumors of far more uncertain veracity and provenance that ricochet around the blogosphere until at last some in the mainstream media feel obliged to write what all the racket’s about.
And here is the conundrum.
“Only about 6 to 8 percent of Internet users read political blogs,” said Kevin Wallsten, a Berkeley political scientist who studies them. But reporters and others in the political elite read them voraciously.
“The real question,” Wallsten said, “is whether journalists decide to pick up the ball from bloggers and run with it.”
Stories about online smears, repeating the rumor, have run everywhere from The London Times to The Washington Post, from The New York Times to Pravda. Usually these stories are intended to dismiss the smears, or at any rate, like the article in Pravda, bemoan the “rumors and slander” sullying the dignity of democracy.
According to Hindman, at Arizona State, a small number of political sites, many affiliated with the mainstream press, get the lion’s share of traffic. Most political blogs have little readership and little impact on the public debate, he said, with one notable exception:
“The one place it does seem to matter is in the discovery and dissemination of scandals.”
For example, when a year ago a then-anonymous blogger posted suggestive e-mails between U.S. Rep. Mark Foley and a male former congressional page, it might have been a tree falling in the woods. But Wonkette.com, a popular D.C. gossip site, linked to it, and by the next day ABC News posted a story on its Web site. A day later, Foley resigned.
Web sites can also link to tabloid newspaper stories, extending their reach and influence well beyond the check-out line, and increasing pressure on the more “respectable” media to report something.
Indeed, the blogosphere makes it possible to watch the gestation of a rumor into a scandal, a process that in this new age has the air of something developing behind the scenes even as it happens in full public view.
To Kaus, that is the way it is and ought to be.
“The Web is backstage and the mainstream media is the main show,” he said. “That sort of works as long as the entire public isn’t reading the Web and the public that is knows that backstage is backstage and only when it appears on the main stage do we treat it as true.”