Quick Take On The Presidential Debates

I’ve never followed an election season as closely as the one America is in the middle of right now. Granted, at the tender at of 22, that’s not saying a whole lot, but working on a congressional campaign myself, I felt a professional obligation to keep up with the Obama-Romney race. The presidential debates, in particular, set the tone for the campaigns down the home stretch and shape the talking points of the public square (at least for a week or so). That’s why I made it a point to watch all of them.

As much as people may like to complain about the formats, the questions, and the state of political discourse in America in general, I think there’s something to be said for the presidential debates. One problem with politics is that’s it’s fake. Everything you see of a candidate is a carefully constructed image and surface-level presentation. This is most true on the campaign trail. It’s one thing to deliver a faultless, teleprompter-assisted speech on the stump or shake hands with thousands of enthusiastic supporters. Going face-to-face with your opponent, someone inevitably seeking to exploit all of your greatest weaknesses and failures, is an entirely different matter. It seems, then, that a debate gives us a slightly better glimpse of who our candidates really are because we see them in the face of opposition.

That said, the nature of politics and our society at large means that these debates are just as much (if not more) about style as substance. As such, you have to judge them on two levels. One, how did the candidate come across to people? Was he likable? Knowledgeable? Presidential? Two, what are his views and what kind of vision does he have for the country? Are his arguments sound? How much does he manipulate the facts? Will his policies actually work?

I would argue that the Romney/Ryan ticket was, on the whole, better than Obama/Biden on both of these counts. Continue reading →

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Political Journalism and Lolcats–Together?

Politico writer Ben Smith made waves last week when news broke that he was leaving most of his duties at the young political news site to head up a new  team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a website devoted to distributing popular social content across the Web. The editorial team, Smith said, will cover traditional beats like sports and politics plus other, “non-traditional” news categories.

On the surface, it seems like an odd move. In the world of elite political news coverage, Politico is where it’s at. Everyone in Washington, DC reads it. It’s one of three things that former president George W. Bush reads every morning (the other two are the Bible and the Wall Street Journal). When I spent a semester in DC, the first journalist I met had some advice for me: read Politico–every day.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, collects and promotes anything that lots of people are clicking on, seeking to provide “the viral world in real time.”  It is thus geared toward everyone on the Web; we all know the posters and gag videos that come up on such sites. I do not frequent either of the two sites myself these days, but from what I know of the two, I would have no qualms about spending a few hours a week reading Politico.

BuzzFeed? It hosts a weekly battle to choose the “best”, most time-wasting flash game and makes lists of top viral videos.

So why did Smith make the switch? Clearly he has an entrepreneurial spirit, but I think he realizes something more. Simply put, the internet is powerful. Some have called it the “Second Gutenberg Moment,” and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. Those who learn to tap into this power have the potential to gain a lot of influence in a short amount of time. I doubt that Smith hopes to become the next Drudge or Zuckerberg, but as many articles about the move have pointed out, BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti is a co-founder of the successful HuffingtonPost. Peretti knows how to work the web better than most, and it appears he hopes to duplicate his success with BuzzFeed (although he refuses to speak directly about comparisons between the two). Continue reading →

Freedom of Religion is Only for Christians

Photo: Gage Skidmore

As a human being, I have a bias towards certain things, and I think a large part of it is towards the media. It seems like everyone these days can find a way to criticize journalists and tear down the work they do. In any controversy (or lack thereof) the media is always one of the first groups to get blamed.

I’ll be the first to confess that journalists are human and make their fair share of mistakes. Worse, their presuppositions, religious beliefs, and political framework play into their coverage. However, I still want to believe the best about journalists and the stories they write. Most of the time, I don’t think they’re out to get one side or the other.

Sometimes, though, they really are “that bad”. Yesterday I nearly spit my drink out when I came across this AP story about the Aug. 6th prayer meeting headlined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Dubbed “The Response” and attended mainly by conservative Christians, the prayer meeting was promoted as a time for believers to gather and bring their mutual concerns and hopes before their God.

Many of the stories and commentary I’ve seen on it have either emphasized the political aspect–Perry’s marshaling the conservative Christian base–or questioned it’s appropriateness. Is it okay for a governor to lead such a narrow religious event? What about separation of church and state? etc.

If you want to talk about that, fine, but in this case, it seems, the writer has let her fear and disdain of these evangelicals slip through in a really sad way. Where did the AP story trip up? Look near the middle, where April Castro writes:

Perry’s audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music on stage. And Perry, himself, huddled on the stage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Perry’s idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians. (empahsis mine) Continue reading →

A New New-Media Strategy

Everyone knows that traditional print is in decline, but as I was reminded over and over again during my semester at the Washington Journalism Center, journalism isn’t going away, it’s just evolving.

Several months ago, the New York Times started charging for online subscriptions. That sent plenty of waves through the industry, but now, two newspapers in Philadelphia are adapting to the evolution of new media in a much more creative way. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, which share Philly.com as part of Philadelphia Media Group, are now offering their paid subscribers an Android tablet at a discounted price. The details of the deal, like pricing and length of subscription needed to get the deal, are still to be announced.

Apparently this is the first time that any publication has bundled a device with its content. It seems like an idea that should be very effective at sustaining paper readership, even if it only ends up being a smaller yet more dedicated core. I think it’s a brilliant way to ensure subscribers for at least the foreseeable future. The genius of it is that it preserves the paid subscriptions. Unlike most publications which have released almost all of their content for free online, this deal would break readers of the “free-app/free-website” model and bring them back to a more traditional model of reading the paper.

My main question is sustainability. Greg Osberg, CEO of Philadelphia Media Group, predicts that the program will cost his company six figures. This is all fine and good for now, but will they continue to offer this deal to all potential subscribers in the future? For a paper that just recovered from bankruptcy, is such a deal economically viable over the next few years?

If not, then this seems to be little more than an effort by the papers to delay their own destruction. You can bet that a lot of papers in the mid-market range will be watching the deal’s beta test this august and debut on Black Friday with great interest.