The predominance of sound bites in campaign coverage—in attack ads passed around by the press, in the addictive parsing by talking heads on cable, in the wordplay of print headlines—has confused politicians and pundits alike. If a misleading sound bite receives lots of airplay and ink, does this necessarily mean it is affecting voters’ views of the candidates? How much attention did voters actually pay to the media’s apparent addiction to discussing the inanity of discussing Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” comment? In the flurry of multi-pronged campaign press strategies (send it out everywhere!) and coverage from an equally-multi-pronged media (can we Twitter-blog-YouTube it?), it has become much more difficult to discern exactly which truths, and which lies, are sticking.
Here’s kudos to Adam Nagourney for straightforwardly pointing that out in today’s New York Times:
senior campaign aides say they are no longer sure what works, as they stumble through what has become a daily campaign fog, struggling to figure out what voters are paying attention to and, not incidentally, what they are even believing.
Nagourney calls out the recombinant way in which “voters follow campaigns and decide how to vote” (nearly science fiction in the varied strains produced), noting the “proliferation of communications channels, the fracturing of mass media and the relentless political competition to own each news cycle.”
He makes an important, if simple, argument: that even if the McCain camp’s tactics partially succeeded in distracting the media with the “lipstick on a pig” comment, it’s not a given that the comment distracted the voters. “At the end of the day no one was really sure how much those charges broke through or mattered to regular voters,” he writes.
Nagourney’s use of the phrase “broke through” suggests some element of culpability on the part of the press. He acknowledges both the inevitability of the campaigns’ (over)reactions—which, according to him, for the Obama camp’s response to the “lipstick on a pig” faux-scandal, involved two ads, a speech, alerts to political Web sites, and a series of satellite interviews in battleground states—and the media’s role in perpetuating a misleading sound bite by trying to clarify it. But if it’s true that in a news cycle marked equally by speed and diffusion, “a simple speech or angry statement will no longer do” whereby the response (and media analysis) must be as exaggerated as the initial attack, is it a foregone conclusion that this wordy fog of call-and-response-and-analysis on the media stage will continue through the elections’ end?
The question points directly at the sometimes hapless relationship between the media and the many communications arms sprouted by both campaigns in an attempt to comprehensively reach out to the media—with, for example, a rebuttal whose efficacy might depend on the timeliness and efficacy of its release.
But judging the efficacy of those rebuttals in the minds of voters, as Nagourney writes, has been more difficult. He submits a hypothesis, for now: “ this glut of information has created a level playing field where voters are taking in all this information, but ultimately will believe most of what they see with their own eyes.” And he is right to point out that the next instance of relatively unmediated information will come from the debates.
In line with the positive discovery of uninterrupted C-SPAN footage during the conventions, voters may find that, as far as the media have reached in providing comprehensive and split-minute coverage of this presidential race, the debates’ national staging are what will really change or cement their minds. And at least while the candidates are answering questions, their campaigns—and members of the media—will know exactly what the voters are hearing.