A campaign junkie rates the sites.
By Matthew Cooper
(1,163 words; posted Tuesday, July 23; to be composted Tuesday, July 30)
I’ve seen the future, and it’s hurting my back. I’m in the basement on a July night, my body contorted, my laptop balanced on my knee. I’m watching MSNBC and using my computer. This is how they hyped this new network and yet, I wonder: Surely, Bill Gates did not want me going to a chiropractor. My eyes flicker between screens close and far, making me wonder whether I’ll need bifocals. More annoying, my mind whips between the laid-back, have-a-beer feeling of watching TV and (at least for this novice anyway) the intensity of operating a computer. “It’s time to get connected,” they say in the ads for MSNBC. Yet the only interactivity open to me is to write a question to the president, who is being interviewed by Tom Brokaw. I can’t do this, though, because I didn’t submit an “Ask the President” question at an appropriate time. (Besides, some 8,000 questions came Clinton’s way, so I wasn’t really going to get in on the action.) There are glitches. Every time my browser goes to the page, it hits some sound file that belts out Brokaw’s booming baritone: “This is Tom Brokaw. …” I can’t make it stop.
The Web is supposed to be manna for me, a news hound who devours newspapers, who watches C-SPAN on vacation, and who occasionally tries to fall asleep by counting senators instead of sheep. (Straining to remember Idaho’s backbenchers, Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne, usually does the trick.) But the Web is not succor. It is often technically frustrating, as was evinced by my wrestling with Brokaw and Clinton.
Yet, there are things I’ve come to love about the Web in the couple of months since I got on it. For me, the best thing about political Web sites–and by that I mean stuff put up by everybody from major media outlets to candidates–is that they can get me where I would have gone anyway, only much more quickly. As a journalist often on the road, I can now get the Washington Post or the Washington Times, two indispensable papers for news junkies. Both sites, like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, are well-designed and ready the night before the paper appears, the better to find out what my competitors have that I don’t. When Henry Cisneros, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, came to my magazine the other day for an editorial lunch, I was able to prep up quickly at his Web site.
Unfortunately, much of what is on the Web is diatribe or propaganda, foaming with hate or boosterism, irrelevant either way. “There’s this explosion of information, and much of it is crap,” says Michael Riley, executive producer of AllPolitics, the site maintained by CNN and Time. This makes sites like Riley’s especially valuable because they become, basically, reliable brand names in a sea of muck. Along with its counterpart, PoliticsNow a joint venture of several news organizations, including the National Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times–AllPolitics remains a place where you can get lots of political news and know that it’s quality journalism, as opposed to some guy blowing steam. Like Time and Newsweek each site revels in the narcissism of small differences. PoliticsNow fancies itself more insiderish; and, indeed, some of its features, like a regular column called The Buzz are meant for true aficionados. Over at AllPolitics, they pride themselves on being more beyond-the-Beltway. In fact, the chat rooms, filled with regular folk, are the most popular parts of AllPolitics. “They do more business than any bulletin boards on Pathfinder says Riley, “including the sex boards, which gives me pause.” Both sites are good bets.
Ican’t say the same for sites maintained by candidates. When the Clinton-Gore campaign opened their Web site earlier this summer, they treated it like a major event, even bringing the vice president over to headquarters to tout the site. “The mouse proves the elephant wrong,” Gore said, sounding like Confucius. The veep meant, of course, that computers will allow Team Clinton to respond quickly to Republican attacks. Bob Dole’s site is equally turbo-charged. And while most candidate Web sites are rich in position papers and press releases and sound clips and applets, they’re the cyberequivalent of a table set up at a campaign rally where you can pick up brochures. They are too biased to help you think clearly about which candidate is better. Perhaps this will change. For the moment, though, campaigns reach most voters through TV, not the Web. The Net remains more a gimmick, a way to signal to voters that Sen. Blahblah is a man of the future.
By contrast, I get a visceral thrill surfing over to various political organizations. A home page may be a group’s face to the world, but opening it still feels like getting to eavesdrop on a conversation. Visit the NRA site and read all about Second Amendment rights, described in the hysterical, “the-liberals-are-coming!” tone that you would expect from, and which is echoed throughout, libertarian-minded sites on the Web. There’s also an odd universal cheeriness to political Web sites, many of which I was guided to by MSNBC’s terrific Internet correspondent Mary Kathleen Flynn “Be sure to visit the Sinn Fein Web site says a line in the Captive Voice magazine written by IRA “political prisoners.” It’s hard to imagine Martin Luther King writing the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail With Hotlinks.” There is a strange moral equivalence to the sites, too. Each one pops up and makes its claim, regardless of any relation to the truth. One can call up the Serb Action Web site and find out how to order books like The Eradication of Serbs, 1992-1993. This may come as news to the Muslim citizens of Sarajevo and Srebrenica. (Less slick is the home page of the Bosnia-Herzegovina embassy in Washington, D.C.) There is an incongruous pride in technical prowess. Go to an Islamic site and it has that funky icon boasting of being in “the top 5 percent of all Web sites.” How shall I visit Mecca, I wonder? With Netscape or Internet Explorer?
The one thing that political sites can’t replicate is the smell of politics, the feeling of being at a campaign. Earlier this year, I was at a Bob Dole rally in Omaha. I loved everything about it: talking to the folks who schlepped there on a Sunday morning; the comic effect of having a guy dressed like McGruff, the Crime Dog from public service ads, standing behind Dole. I loved leafleting when I was in college, handing out flyers to passers-by. Not everyone, of course, can get to a rally. But there are political meetings and activities in every neighborhood. There’s plenty of reason to be out on a July night, instead of sitting in the basement.