On Labor Day weekend, just as the presidential campaign was shifting into high gear, the Gore-Lieberman "war room" in Nashville faced a meltdown unthinkable even a few years ago. The computer system's server went down, isolating the press operation from the outside world. The fax machine was no help: In the 2000 race, "blastfaxing" is out, and both campaigns have shifted to mass e-mailing to influence the media with 'round-the-clock rapid response. Unable to get online, the Gore team couldn't fight back against Bush e-mails. As a team of tech-savvy twenty-somethings--the core of Gore's research and communications operation--waited impatiently, Information Technology Director Steven Berrent rerouted their Internet connections through a dial-up line on his desktop computer. After a precious 20 minutes, the electronic battle against the Bush team in Austin resumed.
The Acceleration of Spin
Welcome to the virtual campaign, where wonks rely on techies to get out the spin du jour. Electronic rapid response at Gore's Nashville office takes place in the jeans-and-sweatshirts environment of what's known as "the cage"--a walled-off section containing some 15 researchers from around the country, none of them older than 30, most fresh from college. As one Gore staffer describes it, the cage "has a certain air around it of monkhood--they're constantly studying up." Yet the atmosphere can at times be loud and raucous, as staffers get caught up in the excitement of back-and-forth rapid response. The cage denizens work long hours day in and day out, trawling the Web or rifling through piles of clippings for information on Gore policies, Bush's record, or whatever else their specialized area of research may be. They are the brains--and often the voice--of the Gore campaign.
This year's presidential race features four major epicenters of electronic spin: the Gore camp in Tennessee, the Bush camp in Austin, and the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington. All have their own press e-mail lists, compiled from individual contacts and sometimes media directories, and categorized for different media markets (one RNC staffer proudly says they've even got a "late-night talk show" list). A reporter on the e-mail lists of both campaigns and party committees could easily get upwards of 30 messages per day, ranging from updates on candidates' travel plans to citations of favorable news stories and editorials, to dueling press releases, both on the issues and on the flubs.
Particularly the flubs. The DNC and RNC specialize in ridicule--digs at Bush for being stupid, at Gore for being a liar. The DNC puts out an e-mail serial called "Bush Lite," which records Bush's "constant campaign gaffes and pratfalls," as DNC Deputy Press Secretary Rick Hess puts it. The RNC, meanwhile, swings back with its own gags and publicity stunts. "If you can have something pithy and witty enough to get their attention to drag the mouse over and click that, that's what you need," says Mark Pfeifle, deputy communications director at the RNC.
The official campaigns, in turn, engage daily in what Philadelphia Inquirer national political reporter Dick Polman calls a "subterranean battle" via e-mail. First, one campaign advances a policy or sends out an attack. Then the other rebuts. There's plenty of one-upmanship, even chest-beating. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, author of Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics, says the campaigns overdo it. "These e-mails are being churned out late at night and at ungodly morning hours... . It's virtually a 24-hour operation. It's insane."
In recent years, there have been many predictions about ways new technology might be used to improve politics: Campaigns would use the Internet to post position papers on their official Web sites and would reach out to the grass roots by e-mail. Such approaches are now common, but possibly the most sweeping change has been in the way political operatives barrage the media with their latest findings, pronouncements, and denunciations. Polman notes that e-mail goes directly to reporters and editors in a way faxes often didn't. And using e-mail greatly increases the chances a press release will get read by a reporter traveling with a laptop. What's more, he says, the new technology "ratchets up the thrust and counterthrust of the whole campaign," making rapid response even more rapid. In a September article, New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney described the new lighting-fast style in campaign politics. During a September 13 debate in Buffalo between Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton, Nagourney reported, Lazio's team issued no less than 10 rebuttals to remarks made by Clinton within minutes of her saying them.
The accelerated style comes at a time when a proliferation of media channels, particularly on cable and the Internet, have brought about the demise of the traditional news cycle. Now commentators speak of the "24-hour cycle." This means the news hardly pauses at all. Instead, in the course of a day, a particular story will go through several incremental revisions and iterations. The earliest versions will likely be the most quickly rendered. But later versions, also prepared in a hurry, will retain much of the old structure and framing. In such a situation, those who plant a suggestion in the minds of journalists first stand the best chance of shaping the story and thus controlling future coverage of the issue.
How It Works
The Bush and Gore campaigns seem to be getting their money's worth with e-spin. One score for the Bush squad came shortly after a September 18 Boston Globe report challenged a story Al Gore had used to dramatize the high cost of prescription drugs. A month earlier, Gore had told a group of Florida senior citizens that his mother-in-law's arthritis medicine (Lodine) costs three times as much as the equivalent medicine for his dog, Shiloh. The Globe reported, however, that the costs Gore cited came from a study done by House Democrats rather than Gore family bills. Furthermore, the figures represented the manufacturer's wholesale price, not retail prices for the drug.
The Bush team seized upon the Globe piece as an example of Gore's dishonesty, quickly e-mailing parts of the story to reporters. The next day, the Bush campaign sent out an e-mail titled "More Questions Than Answers on Lodine." The message included a clever section with the header "How Much Does Lodine Cost in Al Gore's Neighborhood?" which included prices for 30-day supplies of the drug at three local pharmacies, and phone numbers for the stores, so reporters could verify the costs.
Sure enough, two days later, New York Post columnist Deborah Orin cited the price of Lodine at Rodman's pharmacy in Gore's neighborhood--one of the stores recommended in the Bush press release--in a column hyping "Doggygate." Orin was up front about the partisan origins of her angle: "No wonder Republicans, who e-mailed out the price at Rodman's (which confirmed it), say that until Gore coughs up proof of purchase, they're not ready to believe his mother-in-law or dog even take the drug."
The day Orin's column ran, the RNC sent out an e-mail release of its own, "Al Changes Tune Again on Drug Bills," which quoted at length from Orin's piece in "today's New York Post" (the e-mail didn't bother noting that Orin is an opinion columnist, not a reporter). The next day, excerpts from Orin's column--culled from the RNC e-mail, perhaps?--were printed in The Washington Times under the heading "Bow-Wow" in the Inside Politics section.
But Demo-spin, too, has found its way into papers virtually unedited. While Gore was getting grilled about Lodine and Shiloh, Bush had a rough moment after a stump speech in Pennsylvania. The Texas governor was asked by an audience member his position on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and responded, "Is it up for reauthorization now? Give me the facts." Bush continued: "Give me your name and address, and I'll write you a letter."
As soon as they heard Bush didn't know the legal status of VAWA--and possibly didn't even know what the bill was--the DNC press team pounced, recalls staffer Rick Hess. They immediately sent out a message titled "Sen. Boxer, Rep. Maloney Stunned at Bush's Ignorance of Violence Against Women Act," also using the PR Newswire to spread the word. The next day's stories showed that the strategy worked. An article by Jena Heath of the Cox Washington Bureau, carried in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Bush's hometown paper the Austin American-Statesman, among others, used quotes straight from the DNC press release, including this one from New York Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney: "I can't believe that the day after Bush sought women's votes by performing on 'Oprah,' he revealed his stunning ignorance on a topic that is so important to women voters. This isn't a pop quiz. For some women, it's a matter of life and death." What's more, when it ran in the Constitution, Heath's story bore an unfairly pro-Gore title: "Bush says he's a candidate who 'trusts people'; But he draws a blank when Pennsylvanian brings up the Violence Against Women Act, says he'll get back to her."
The prepackaged quote from Representative Maloney made it from Heath's story onto The Hotline, and from there out into the political ether.
Yet with e-spin, it often seems that for every success on the part of a campaign, there's a comparable blunder. In August, Florida Governor Jeb Bush's office was accused of "bigotry" and of being "anti-Semitic" after a staffer accidentally e-mailed out a Bible verse to reporters instead of Bush's schedule. (The verse read in part: "[E]very spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist.") And in a more serious slip-up in May, the Hillary Clinton campaign inadvertently sent out the e-mail addresses of hundreds of reporters at the top of an update on the First Lady's travel plans. Matt Drudge got his hands on the list and put a story about it on his Web site; before long, other sites advertised the whole list. Soon, reporters were getting blitzed with hate e-mails from right-wingers lurking in the FreeRepublic.com neighborhood of the Internet. One such message, reported in The Washington Post, read: "Since Hillary Klinton was nice enough to publish all your e-mail addresses, us in the right wing conspiracy wanted to drop each of you a note to say that you're all slime."
Of course, mistakes are easily corrected in the ephemeral electronic medium. Sometimes the historical record can be "corrected," too. In September the Bush campaign sent out a statement quoting Dick Cheney attacking Gore for apparent inconsistencies in "Doggygate." "I see the Gore campaign is now out with new numbers," Cheney was said to have said. "What they may or may not be spending on the arthritis. I guess I continue to be disappointed by what we see here." But someone apparently didn't like the sound of the colloquial Cheney. Shortly thereafter, a revised press release quoted Cheney saying, "I see that Al Gore is changing his story again about what his family is spending on arthritis medicine. Clearly Al Gore is going around the country making up stories about this issue--and that's not right."
Campaign e-mails can inundate reporters. Kevin Flower, a CNN producer who travels with the Bush campaign, says he gets 30 to 60 e-mails per day. "If I'm on the road, going from filing center to filing center, I rarely have the time to sit down and read all of them," he says. Adds Larry Sabato: "Less is more in this field, and a lot of these operatives don't understand that."
Some also worry about how the virtual campaign may be affecting the press and, through the press, the electorate. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, thinks the new rapid response detracts from the quality of reporting. "The more time you're pinned to your desk, coping with this onslaught of stuff, the less time you have to actually be outside your office, talking to other people, talking to voters, and doing what you might call proactive reporting," he says.
Not surprisingly, journalists dispute that reporting has declined as electronic spin has intensified. "I'm high on it," says CNN correspondent Chris Black. "It's a process of management to keep from being overwhelmed by too much information, but we need information--we need facts." Jeff Birnbaum, the Washington bureau chief for Fortune magazine, says the campaign releases can be helpful. "It's not true that these responses are not substantive," he says. "Sometimes they are, and sometimes they're not." A perusal of the campaigns' rapid-response research shows there's some truth to this. One September 23 Gore rebuttal to Bush statements was more than 4,000 words in length, containing point-by-point refutations in a "rhetoric/reality" format. For each "reality" section, the Gore campaign provided extensive citations, such as "Oil & Gas Journal, January 30, 1978."
Some reporters say they think such instant research makes it easier to file balanced stories. Because of e-mail, reporters begin their days armed with the point of view of both campaigns, rather than having to track down a spokesman. Press critics like Sabato don't buy it: "Isn't a fresh quote in reaction to a cleverly worded question more valuable to a story and to the readers than canned spin via e-mail?" (As the VAWA and Cheney stories indicate, not all quotes that make it into print are necessarily fresh--or, for that matter, are even actual quotes.)
In the end, deciding on appropriate use of campaign materials is a matter of journalistic judgment. Lazy reporters may be seduced by the ease of readily provided research. That's not a new problem, except that the prevalence of electronic communication has made it easier to be lazy. "If I'm doing any crucial reporting at all, I'm not doing it over the Internet," says Nagourney of the Times.
"It's not like The New York Times is being spun," says Dietram Scheufele, a professor of communications at Cornell. But, Scheufele notes, The New York Times is only one part of the picture. Wire services, Internet-based news organizations, and networks like CNN and FOX News generally are the first media organs to put their touch on breaking stories. Using televised debates as an example, Scheufele says, "by the time The New York Times is in print, the whole thing will already be spun. E-mail gives campaigns the tools to do this."
Hot Air Time
Political debates present unique challenges for spinmeisters. During a debate, candidates spew out a stream of statistics, facts, and assertions. A self-respecting rapid-response team cannot allow the opposing candidate's claims to go unchallenged, but keeping pace with debate repartee is no easy task. In this respect, both campaigns broke new ground during the first presidential debate of the 2000 race, held on October 3 at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
On the days prior to the debate, there was a lull before the electronic storm. But on October 2, in an e-mail bearing the header "A Different Kind of e-publican," the Bush operation announced it would be conducting "real-time fact checking" of "misstatements and exaggerations" made by Gore during the debate on the campaign's official Web site. The Gore team quickly responded that their Web site would be doing the same. Then, leading up to the debate on October 3, Gore's war room issued two huge e-mails: a "Boston Preview" laying out Gore's agenda, and a similarly immense "prebuttal," with an 11-page document attached, described as "a guide to the misleading and false statements you can expect to hear from Governor Bush tonight."
As soon as the debate was underway, the rapid-response teams got cracking. By the night's end, the Bush campaign had posted a total of 34 rebuttals to statements made by Gore, many of them showing clear signs of having been composed in a matter of minutes. (These were later compiled into two large e-mail releases.) Near the close of the debate, for example, Gore challenged Bush to join him in supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. The Bush rapid response began, "10:29 pm Gore said that he has consistently fought for campaign finance reform," then went on to argue the vice president had been "silent on the issue at most of the key moments of his political career," citing Gore's announcements of his presidential candidacies in 1987 and 1999 and his Democratic National Convention speeches in 1992 and 1996.
The Gore team made fewer Web site postings but, in the space of just over two hours, sent out at least 10 e-mail responses, including a comprehensive rebuttal to Bush's performance. One response came after Bush said he did not think a sitting president could overturn the FDA's approval of the abortion pill RU-486. The Gore campaign cited a Bulletin's Frontrunner article noting that Bush spokesman Scott McClellan had said that, as president, Bush could appoint a new FDA commissioner who could review the drug's risks.
The debate response was fast and frantic--so much so that it would have been nearly impossible for any journalist to both watch the debate and absorb the content of the rapid response. But as reporters went to file their day-after stories, the rapid-response e-mails were lingering in their in-boxes--an easy and quick source of information for someone assigned to dissect the debate.
Communications scholars have hardly begun to analyze the effects of the virtual campaign and ever-more-rapid response. Some observers expect e-spin to truly come into its own in the 2004 campaign. Nevertheless, Adam Nagourney is inclined to look on the bright side. Campaigns will always jostle for favorable treatment in the media, with or without e-mail; electronic delivery of material "saves a lot of trees," he notes.
But there's a case to be made that as spin techniques by political operatives become more advanced, the news media will need to be more sophisticated, too. If reporters are more rushed, and campaigns more clever and quick, the balance of power may shift in favor of the latter. The trends don't bode well for substantive political reporting, argues Sabato. "Spin dominates the e-mail, as does negativity," he says. "And inevitably then, the spin and negativity become a larger part of the coverage."
Still, there may be a tipping point in the e-mail onslaught. If the widespread adoption of the word "spam" is any indication, e-mail users may become increasingly resistant to unwelcome propaganda. Campaigns may only be able to escalate the volume and negativity so far before political reporters get fed up. It's only a matter of time, predicts Sabato, until reporters, scholars, and other observers of the campaigns take control--with one click of the mouse. "We have that wonderful delete button," he says. ¤
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