Poli Wonks Meet Tech Wonks

This week at the "Politics Online" conference at Georgetown University, the usual suspects churned out the usual arguments about blogs, politics, and the media.

The funny thing about conferences dealing with the blogosphere is that the more of them there are, the more everything sounds the same. It’s not necessarily the fault of the participants, (though it kinda is) or even the organizers (though it kinda is); it’s just that the role of the Internet in politics is so new, and has already been so thoroughly picked apart (at least within the small world of policy wonks, journalists and bloggers) that it’s hard to know whether the still-congealing conventional wisdom holds water.

Nevertheless, I headed down to the two-day “Politics Online” conference at Georgetown University earlier this week, which was run by the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet. It was a mixed bag, as events like this usually are, with a cast filled with the usual suspects (although Jeff Jarvis was nowhere to be seen) churning out the usual arguments, with an eye toward offering advice to “grassroots” organizations gearing up for the midterm elections in the fall.

On the first day, I attended the first two sessions, which actually seemed to hold the most promise: “How Technology is Changing Politics” and “How Technology is Changing the Media.” There was quite a bit of overlap and quite a bit of cheerleading involved, but there were some interesting takeaways from both panels.

The first one, on technology and politics, was moderated by Chuck Todd, editor in chief of The Hotline, the National Journal’s online publication. Panelist Gerald Rafshoon, former advisor to Jimmy Carter, got off one of the first shots, giving something not often seem in the blogosphere — historical perspective. The panel began by talking about television, with Rafshoon reminding us that television was once as revolutionary a medium as the Internet is (even more so, since broadband has yet to reach even a bare majority of the U.S. citizenry.)

“When television first came into being,” Rafshoon recalled, “you could present candidates as they were — and it was a force for good.” For the first time, he said, “It allowed candidates to go over the heads of the power brokers,” who controlled the message and the access to a politician, and let them speak directly to the American people.

The concept of interactivity was touched upon. Doug Bailey, founder of Hotline and former staffer in the Ford administration, contrasted the impact on politics of television and the Internet, saying, “On TV, interactivity meant turning the channel,” and that while television essentially made citizens passive consumers of the political process, the Internet is able to bring them into the process. Hotline’s Chuck Todd chimed in here, saying that he thought the September 11 attacks had been a seminal moment for the American public for a variety of reasons — obviously — not the least of which being that it spurred many people to start paying attention to the news again.

While others have said this (and a sweep of the blogosphere proves it), the obvious counterargument is that consuming information for the sake of consuming information is an empty exercise, and, as Rafshoon said, the public may well be “more informed,” but it is “not well informed.” This started him on an extended monologue about how slick politicians and their handlers know that they can score some cheap points and make some noise on a controversial issue, because in a few weeks voters will forget that the argument had even happened in the first place. “People have forgotten about Alito already,” he complained, to which CNN’s Jacki Schechner volleyed back, relating the story of how a group of liberal bloggers are working against the reelection of Joe Lieberman in Vermont this November precisely because he didn’t vote against Alito.

The impetus for their rage, she said, was the abortion law recently passed in South Dakota, which led the bloggers to tie in Alito’s abortion stance to the upcoming elections and to castigate Lieberman for not standing against it. Advantage, Schechner.

On a happier note, Chuck Todd and Schechner later teamed up to reinforce, to some degree, a pet theory of mine. I’ve long held that podcasts were the Laserdics of our time —an idea that at first blush seems great, but one that in practice no one will buy into. When Todd asked for a show of hands of who in the wonky, tech-savvy audience had listened to a podcast in the past week, a smattering went up (no more than a dozen in a room of about 200 people), and remained about the same as he extended it to two weeks, and a month.

Proof positive, as far as I’m concerned, that podcasts, despite the constant bleating of tech writers and talking heads, are barely registering a blip on popular culture’s radar screen.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.