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Will New Media Pressures Make Political Pros Even More Cautious Than They Already Are?

(AP Photo/Bob Child)
Some of the more optimistic media types around see the intersection of politics with blogs, social networking groups and YouTube-like communities as an advance in democracy, erasing old barriers of the past and opening the door to greater civic participation. I'm more pessimistic – I think this convergence will make campaigns and candidates more programmed, more cautious and less likely to take chances that they are even now. Here's why:

The increased availability of communication tools (especially video) and the means to distribute material for any individual with a computer, a video camera and passion for politics threatens to take away something political pros value more than just about anything else -- control. There's little more frightening to a media consultant or handler than a lack of control and, when faced with losing it, they're going to try and get it back. One of the biggest nightmares for even the most carefully planned and executed campaigns remains that one moment, caught on camera forever, that can fatally wound them.

The risks have always been there for politicians, but they've been lower in the past. Let's take presidential campaigning as the prime example here. Back in the old days, candidates traversed Iowa, New Hampshire and other places in relative obscurity. In the early part of the process, a candidate may be joined on the stump by a local reporter. Perhaps someone from The New York Times or Washington Post would drop in from time to time to check out the candidate.

Once the voting drew near and the campaigning intensified, reporters tailed candidates from event to event, and the campaigns grew more suspect of the attention. Even during long days on the trail, candidates could remain somewhat loose though. After all, there was only so much airtime and so many column inches that could be filled – and that was saved mostly for the meat-and-potatoes. That meant an off-color joke could get a laugh from the press corps and stay out of the papers and off TV. More importantly, it cut down on the possibility of that unintended flub or comment which could ruin a career.

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Gary Hart helped change that in 1988, when he famously dared reporters to tail him and discover just how boring his life was. Well, they did, and found it pretty exciting, uncovering an extra-marital affair that ended his candidacy. Hart got what he asked for and other politicians got a lesson in just how powerful the modern media could be. Image control, something earlier politicians like John Kennedy seemed natural at and others, like Ronald Reagan, seemed to raise to an art form, became an essential part of campaigns.

That kind of control results in a widening distance between politicians, the press and the American people. When John McCain launched his "straight-talk express" campaign, inviting reporters onto his bus to sit and talk with him, he received the kind of coverage every candidate dreams of – partly because he provided a level of access reporters just don't get anymore. It was a stark transition for journalists used to being kept far away from unscripted moments. But McCain, who already had a courting relationship with the political media, might be alone in his ability to truly pull it off without lasting damage.

If you want an example of real damage from an uncontrolled moment, look no further than Howard Dean's seemingly disastrous collapse during the 2004 Democratic primaries. His loss was the result of many factors not having to do with embarrassing video, but in the minds of most Americans, he will always be remembered primarily for the "scream" that emanated from him as he tried to rally the troops from a disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses.

An interesting case study of how the current landscape -- where bloggers, activists and mischief-makers can tail just about any candidate in a public forum – is the Connecticut Senate race. So much attention has been paid to the fight between the "netroots" and embattled Senator Lieberman (D) on ideological issues that the tools employed here have gotten scarce attention. It's a great example of what we can look forward to between now and the 2008 presidential election.

The worry for political pros is no longer that bloggers are simply building communities and making some noise, it's that they are increasingly arming themselves with cameras and using powerful techniques to bridge communities. Why should politicians and their handlers be worried about this? Because video transcends platforms in a way that words do not. What is captured on video, verified or not, can reach massive audiences and help shape public opinion.

Just watch this video from blogger Connecticut Bob to get a glimpse of what I'm talking about. This is video of Lieberman and Senator Barbara Boxer, a fellow Democrat in the state to campaign for her colleague. It's basically about two-and-a-half minutes of bloggers haranguing Boxer and Lieberman over his position on Lieberman's position on forcing publicly-funded hospitals to make emergency contraception available.

There's nothing outrageous or incorrect at all about what's happening in this video. These are citizens, as entitled to ask their political representatives questions as someone employed by a newspaper or television station. It's part of what makes the Web and the blogosphere great. As someone who's committed to the idea of transparency in the media, I applaud seeing it in our politics as well.

However, as someone who's watched the political process very closely for the past dozen years, the likely response I see coming from the political class is less encouraging because the potential risk is just too high. The use and circulation of video about this Senate campaign on the Web might be unprecedented for a non-presidential event. YouTube has plenty about Lieberman and almost everything about his primary opponent, Ned Lamont. There's video shot by individuals and video taken from the airwaves, chopped up and spit back out. There are the ads Connecticut viewers are seeing and news reports from local TV stations.

It's all great for life in the public square, but watching the Boxer footage today made me wonder once again, how often our politicians will join us there in the future. Already we have precious little opportunity to have individual, un-scripted contact with them. What happens if, or when, they cut that off even more? All it may take is one blogger, with one digital camera catching one off-guard moment of one politician to send them all running for the hills. It almost happened to presidential hopeful Joe Biden recently, whose remarks about Indian immigrants in his home state of Delaware were widely discussed after someone took the snippet off of C-SPAN (which carried it) and sent off throughout the Web.

I know a whole lot of folks would say that this is all a good thing. It gets our politicians off the script and forces them to be responsive. And we can use our technology and new-found importance to break down those walls that have been built. But history tells us it's far more likely our political operators will just find new scripts to write and new walls to build.

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