Net Election

Dot-Com Journalists: This Year’s “Men From Mars”

Slate, the Industry Standard, and join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

With all the hype surrounding the role of the Internet at this year’s political conventions, it’s hard to remember that television was once the brand-new technology sweeping America. Television had its own coming-out party at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1948 and 1952.

This year, the continued invasion of the dot-coms is expected to be all the rage in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Their influence on convention coverage is likely to provide a quantum leap from what Walter Cronkite described in his memoir as the “man-from-Mars” equipment worn by television reporters in 1952.

Going into the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, technology advocates are raving over how the Web is going to make everything that is old about political conventions new again. It will end the dominance of television, they proclaim, and excite the electorate about the process once again.

Not since television’s presence displaced radio as the primary source of information at the 1952 conventions in Chicago (both parties held their gatherings there that year) has there been the potential for such a sea change in the way Americans experience political conventions. Technology could actually become the main story line out of the 2000 conventions, since the parties are not expected to make any real political news at the two highly choreographed events.

The tried and true traditions of convention coverage are changing. The days of viewers turning on the television to gain the insights of network heavyweights such as Cronkite and David Brinkley may seem “old school” after this year. Talking heads from the networks will be replaced by Web wanderers darting around with digital handycams, looking to provide new ways to get the story out. Web sites are planning to provide their users with panoramic, 360-degree views of the convention hall almost 24 hours a day. Transcripts of speeches will be available on many news sites almost immediately after a speaker steps off the podium. Most important, the ability of the Internet to archive its coverage will give users the freedom to log on and watch what they want, when they want.

“Nobody is going to watch the conventions on the Internet like they watch television—but they don’t need to,” said Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University’s Democracy Online Project in Washington, D.C., “People now know they can watch at their own convenience.”

But the key question for Web sites is whether dwindling TV coverage and audiences will translate into a surge of Internet users. In a recent Pew poll, only 6 percent of political junkies said they use the Internet as their primary source of campaign news.

“There’s not much drama left to it,” said Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Center for Government Studies, in a recent interview with “They [the parties] have squeezed every drop out of the conventions. There’s nothing left. Why go?”

Two competing factors will determine whether Internet coverage breaks new ground this year, as television did in 1952. First, the apparent abandonment of convention coverage by the networks could work to the benefit of most news Web sites. The networks’ displeasure at the manipulation of the conventions into made-for-TV events was highlighted in 1996 when ABC’s Ted Koppel packed up and left in protest. The result this year is a drastic cutback in TV coverage. The unhappiness of TV journalists seems to be equally matched by the enthusiasm of the dot-commies—who seem more than willing to fill the vacuum with whiz-bang ideas and gadgets.

“It’s impossible to know right now whether the traffic will be there—or even how we should be counting. But dozens upon dozens of Web organizations will be there,” said Cornfield. “There is going to be a burst of creativity. Before everyone knows the most profitable way to do things, there will be lots of experiments.”

When television swept onto the scene in 1952, there was bona fide news that kept voters riveted to their brand-new TV sets. That year, three ballots were needed to choose the Democratic nominee. As Martin Plissner, the former executive political director of CBS News, recalled in a July 23 column for the Washington Post, conventions actually made a difference in 1952. That year, Sen. Robert Taft came into the GOP convention with a lead but watched it slowly disappear to the eventual nominee and future president, Dwight Eisenhower.

“At both conventions, the man who came to town with the most votes left a loser,” wrote Plissner.

Experimentation with new technology may have to replace political tension this year. Like the Internet’s initial foray into convention coverage in 1996, television first showed up at political conventions in 1948. Technological developments made television available at the end of World War II, yet, as David Brinkley recalled in his memoir, TV broadcasts were available in only a small area on the East Coast in 1948 and “could only be seen in the tiny number of households owning television sets.”

Both parties gathered in Philadelphia in 1948, with the Republicans meeting first. Brinkley recalled that NBC sent cameras to Philadelphia to cover the Republicans, but was not exactly sure what to expect. And the number of cameras in Philadelphia would hardly be adequate today—even for a small local affiliate.

Numbers didn’t matter, however, since GOP officials allowed just one camera in the convention hall, Brinkley recalled. It was positioned so high up in the rafters that NBC was unable to conduct interviews—mainly because delegates and party officials were unwilling to endure the long climb just to be on television.

That snobbery was gone in 1952. By then, about 17 million homes had TV sets, allowing the conventions to be seen in 64 cities and 38 states. In a space of four years, the television age had arrived. No longer were presidents, candidates, and delegates faceless voices coming out of radio boxes. Viewers and voters became more a part of the electoral process because they felt they could watch the events themselves, rather than depending on newspapers and radio commentators to interpret events for them.

Now the change being wrought is one that allows users to bypass that interpretation even more. Web sites—some estimates say more than 100 will be present—are expected to have a presence at both conventions. Those at the GOP convention will see America Online and skybooths alongside the networks and a swarm of mini-cams and digital cameras.

Like television in 1948, the Internet wasn’t welcomed to the convention party in 1996. But this year, both political parties have Web sites that are planning to broadcast video from Philadelphia and Los Angeles. The candidates are also trying to stay atop the Internet game and have Web sites filled with bells and whistles. Yet the unlimited bandwidth and viewpoints offered by the Web means that Republicans and Democrats are unable to totally control the message this year.

Even with all the new technology available in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the elements that boosted television to prominence will be missing: news, controversy, excitement. The nightly speeches may provide some drama, but no real news is expected from inside the convention halls.

In 1952, the attraction for voters was being able to see and hear and feel a part of the activities. In 2000, the Web allows voters to select which information they want to see, hear, and read—and when. But it’s unclear whether flexibility equals excitement.

In his biography, Cronkite describes the unique moment that television held in 1952: “Those 1952 conventions were a brief moment of glory in television’s infancy before the politicians discovered its vast potential and set out to master it. For the first time millions of Americans saw Democracy in action—as it chose its presidential candidates.”

It remains to be seen whether the Internet’s moment of innocence—during which political parties did not seek to manipulate the medium and the message to their own ends—is here, or has passed.