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Media speculation over Obama's 3 AM text message overlooks the CNN Effect

“Why three in the morning?” was the question on many people’s minds after they received the Obama campaign’s early morning vice presidential notification text message last Saturday.

Mainstream journalists and bloggers alike have surmised that Obama intentionally released his announcement as a way to make a subtle reference to Hillary Clinton’s red phone attack ad.

Au contraire, says CNN political editor Mark Preston, who claims that the Obama campaign intended to release the news at eight o’clock Saturday morning. But after CNN reported that Biden was the confirmed nominee at 12:42 AM, other new organizations soon followed suit. Obama’s campaign decided that the news “was going to get out,” so they issued the 3 AM text message.

“Every election, there’s one story that every news organization clamors to break, and that’s the VP nomination,” CNN political director Sam Feist told CJR. “I think the Obama campaign did a good job keeping the announcement secret as long as they did.”

The news broke after most print outlets’ deadlines had passed. The New York Times’s Saturday front-page headline was decidedly stale: “Field Narrows for Obama’s Running Mate.” The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times were among the few major papers to get the announcement into their final editions.

Gibbs told CNN that a “vast majority of the people” still learned of Biden’s nomination in the morning.
Despite anger in the blogosphere over the assumption that Obama notified news outlets of Biden’s nomination before his own supporters, Feist maintained that the news did not come from a leak in the Obama campaign. “We had four rock-hard sources,” he said, all of whom were outside Camp Obama.

After hours of impatient blather and on-air BlackBerry updates CNN was finally able to confirm that Joe Biden was the nominee. John King, who delivered CNN’s on-air announcement, was also responsible for breaking the news of Al Gore’s nomination in 1992 and Lloyd Bentsen’s in 1988 while he was a reporter for the AP, Feist said.

So far, relatively little media coverage has been devoted to the Obama campaign’s admission that CNN’s reporting influenced its announcement. Much more has been devoted to discussed unsubstantiated rumors that the announcement’s timing could be a political barb directed at Obama’s former Democratic opponent. The CNN Effectdescribes the impact that round-the-clock news coverage has on the political process. With the advent of cable news, this academic theory was originally put forth as a description of the news media’s influence on international politics. But in this case, the CNN Effect can also clearly be seen as an ingredient in domestic.

Because of CNN’s report, and the pressure that news outlets placed on one another in their relentless pursuit of early news on the Democratic veep nomination, Obama’s publicity stunt may not have gone exactly according to plan. But his campaign still used a new medium in a way that has not been seen in presidential campaign history—harvesting contacts and generating press coverage in the process. How’s that for using media to impact the political process?

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Sacha Evans is a writer in New York.