Sunday, November 30, 2008

Stumbleupon: More like Stumble Loop?

Rigged! Rig-diculous! Bullshit!
So, like the legions of new bloggers, I've turned to the "social bookmarking" and other new technological services in the ATTENTION ECONOMY. Unless you just swoon at the sound of your own voice (or the sight of your own words, er blog), then you're doing this to address people. Good thing there are all these helping tech-hands for you.

I am really disappointed in Stumbleupon. I've read that it is essential for those attention-deficients like us. Yet when I spent about an hour on it this morning, filling out profile stuff, and then stumbling, I noticed that the order of stumble appearance is rigged. I clicked stumble and then ran into the first ridiculous site "When I was little I thought I had the power to change stop lights," and then the next was simply a page advertising all the different social bookmarking services. This was followed by "How to tick people off." I was amazed that none of these sites seemed to clearly correspond to the interests I had checked, which were supposed to streamline my "stumbles" on to particular sites. The only reason for this, I hypothesize, is that some of these sites create hundreds (thousands?) of stumbleupon entries as new identities and/or they build a massive "friends" network to favorably review them, which builds their appearance power. Strange algorithms for stumbling. What is worse is that these same three sites appeared again and again, when I'd hit "stumble." These same sites appeared twice out of 12 clicks, half of the clicks took me back to these same sites.

So I tried my other stumble ID, for my other blog (as far as I can tell, one can have but one blog per stumble identity). Lo and behold the same experience as before! I give stumble a big thumbs down, or perhaps more fitting: an erect middle finger!

This is the age we live in. The blog is a fantastic new technology, potentially democratic, which reverses older media relationships of production and consumption. But the fact that one produce something, regardless of quality of product, hardly guarantees any attention at all. This dynamic, unfortunately, is much more like older media and the "free market" outside. Attention to products and sales have very little if anything to do with quality of the product. It has everything to do with advertising, at which bigger companies with bigger budgets (time included) have a colossal advantage.

True, the internet attention economy is not just about having an advertising budget. But the point is that the product has little to do with the attention it gets. All of the networking, "friends", multiple profiles with the same blog listed on many of these new attention-getting services--what kind of culture is it promoting? Who are we caught up in this, as we tweet from our cell phones, "I am just leaving the office. God did that blow!" ? Reality TV and voyeurism? The fetish of being the object of a voyueur? Tabloidization of the internet?
Oh, I know, you'll just tell me I have sour grapes for having a couple of hundred registered followers on my blog, the majority probably cool hunters and other bloggers trying to leave comments to direct my readers to their blog...
Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Obama 2.0 Continued: Feeling Accessible

Obama's team has built an excitingly accessible transition site: change.gov.
Access. This site symbolizes democratic access and community.

First it is simple, a two column structure with nine tabs line the header:home, newsroom, blog, learn, agenda, America Moment, America Serves, Jobs, About. On the home/arrival page, you find yourself staring at and being stared at by Obama, who is poised to address you thanks to Youtube. The newsroom, or press releases from Obama, actually appears on the home page, below the video.

The blog encourages you to "Watch Your Weekly Address now," and true to the participatory genre and thus expectations of blogs, it asks the visitor to "then send us your questions or ideas about how to fix the economy." It sounds right, except you can't post comments. And cynics who have tried to write legislators in the past, will be wary of the sincerity of the suggestion. It will probably be considered like focus group and survey information in order to craft more scientifically messages to mass and niche markets--I mean, uh, voters.

By clicking "Learn" you can get a slick biography of Obama and Biden, the information about the transition, information about the administration and the inauguration.

Next is "Agenda," which gives the new administration's statements on issues from civil rights to Veterans affairs. It seems surprisingly extensive.

Agenda is followed by "America Moment." This one has two "drop-down" menu links to "sharing your story" and "sharing your vision." When you click on "sharing your story," you get "We're counting on citizens from every walk of life to get involved. Share your experiences and your ideas -- tell us what you'd like the Obama-Biden administration to do and where you'd like the country to go." You are then prompted to complete an information form, where your email and zip code are obligatory. Access or surveillance and data-mining to make you feel participatory and active while you're being studied to have your opinion managed. The "share your vision" option is similar. The prompt is "Start right now. Share your vision for what America can be, where President-Elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?"

"America Serves" continues the theme of getting citizens involved. Apparently, the new administration plans to start several "service organizations" that will offer tax breaks for service. Is this more Reaganesque "voluntarism" and cousin to "faith-based initiatives," or is this a brand new world. Here are some listed:
  • a Classroom Corps to help underserved schools
  • a Health Corps to serve in the nation's clinics and hospitals
  • a Clean Energy Corps to achieve the goal of energy independence
  • a Veterans Corps to support the Americans who serve by standing in harm's way
A "Jobs" tag invites applications to work in the new administration. Strangely, you enter a lot of information for being contacted, but there's no option to upload a CV or describe your competences. Instead, they ask you to list your current position and employer, in addition to commonly mandatory personal information.

Under the last top line tag, you find "About" where they give you a form to "contact" them. They also have an "Accesibilty" link that encompasses many of the points I"m making here: "Commitment to Accessibility: The Obama Administration has a comprehensive agenda to empower individuals with disabilities in order to equalize opportunities for all Americans."

A "Privacy Policy" swears that the administration will not share your information with anyone beyond its staff. That's good to hear. At least they won't be selling the information to other people who want to manage our opinions. (Okay, I'm joking about being cynical. Actually I can't wait to see whether this goes in a more accesible form that produces results other than feelings of participation)

There are also three main categories in the center area, and a sidebar with links to events and the agenda. In the center area, three tabs appear as a menu: "Your weekly Adddress," "Inside the Transition," and "How to Help."

The first tab is groundbreaking in itself, the announcement of a tech upgrade of the old weekly radio president's address. The second helps acquaint the public with the transition team and Obama's goals, via youtube videos of the team in action. It's important that Obama's team calls itself a "team." It's more cooperative as a metaphor, and less bureaucratic than "committee" or "group." "Team work" is a widely used phrase for cooperation and the individual working with others for a good that transcends each person. Of course, other connotations of "team" also suggests there could be a fierce competition, and the browser is invited to identify with this winning team.

"How to help" partly signifies what an inauguration tries to enact, a dedication of cooperative effort between elective executive and the people he represents: "Yes we can." It also signifies a political tactic especially in wide use among political campaign strategists of both major parties:you want to make voters feel like they matter, like they can do something that matters. Very important in a society where very few people feel like they have any effect on government--alienation. During the campaign, parties shifted from trying to use sites to convey information about candidates and the option to donate to giving them information that would equip them to mobilize voters. Now it gives options help with problems such as the California fires. At the bottom left, "It’s Your America: Share Your Ideas The story of the campaign and this historic moment has been your story. Share your story and your ideas, and be part of bringing positive lasting change to this country."
Similar messages stressing your agency and your consubstantiation with government appear on pages such as the "Agenda" page of issues (see left).

How accessible Obama and his team really is another question. The key for belief effects is to create the form of access. Practice will be the judge, provided that one has access to the evaluation of the accessibility! These are some new developments mixed with old uses. Compare, for example, this Obama site with the current whitehouse.gov. Like a lot of sites that really don't want to deal with a lot of email from visitors, they place a tiny "contact" link in the page's footer. There are a fair number of photos, but no videos (at least as I'm looking at it now). It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the whitehouse.gov page changes after the inauguration.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obama 2.0: weekly Prez address to be on YOUTUBE, plus Obama's senate resignation letter

Holy Shit! This guy is at least revolutionizing the presidency for the "new media" generation. Here is the 21st Century vesion of FDR's fireside chat. Just announced, Obie will be issuing weekly Prez. addresses on Youtube.

Lots of talk also about how the White House will use email with the public, even if Obama's communication must be channeled through surrogates, as Federal law demands!? See story here.

Finally, this just in, Obama's letter to the people of Illinois, announcing his resignation and thanking them:

Text of letter from Obama in Illinois newspapers

Text of President-elect Barack Obama's letter published in Illinois newspapers Sunday, when he officially resigned from the Senate:

Today, I am ending one journey to begin another. After serving the people of Illinois in the United States Senate — one of the highest honors and privileges of my life — I am stepping down as senator to prepare for the responsibilities I will assume as our nation's next president. But I will never forget, and will forever be grateful, to the men and women of this great state who made my life in public service possible.

More than two decades ago, I arrived in Illinois as a young man eager to do my part in building a better America. On the South Side of Chicago, I worked with families who had lost jobs and lost hope when the local steel plant closed. It wasn't easy, but we slowly rebuilt those neighborhoods one block at a time, and in the process I received the best education I ever had. It's an education that led me to organize a voter registration project in Chicago, stand up for the rights of Illinois families as an attorney and eventually run for the Illinois state Senate.

It was in Springfield, in the heartland of America, where I saw all that is America converge — farmers and teachers, businessmen and laborers, all of them with a story to tell, all of them seeking a seat at the table, all of them clamoring to be heard. It was there that I learned to disagree without being disagreeable; to seek compromise while holding fast to those principles that can never be compromised, and to always assume the best in people instead of the worst. Later, when I made the decision to run for the United States Senate, the core decency and generosity of the American people is exactly what I saw as I traveled across our great state — from Chicago to Cairo; from Decatur to Quincy.

I still remember the young woman in East St. Louis who had the grades, the drive and the will but not the money to go to college. I remember the young men and women I met at VFW halls across the state who serve our nation bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I will never forget the workers in Galesburg who faced the closing of a plant they had given their lives to, who wondered how they would provide health care to their sick children with no job and little savings.

Stories like these are why I came to Illinois all those years ago, and they will stay with me when I go to the White House in January. The challenges we face as a nation are now more numerous and difficult than when I first arrived in Chicago, but I have no doubt that we can meet them. For throughout my years in Illinois, I have heard hope as often as I have heard heartache. Where I have seen struggle, I have seen great strength. And in a state as broad and diverse in background and belief as any in our nation, I have found a spirit of unity and purpose that can steer us through the most troubled waters.

It was long ago that another son of Illinois left for Washington. A greater man who spoke to a nation far more divided, Abraham Lincoln, said of his home, "To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything." Today, I feel the same, and like Lincoln, I ask for your support, your prayers, and for us to "confidently hope that all will yet be well."

With your help, along with the service and sacrifice of Americans across the nation who are hungry for change and ready to bring it about, I have faith that all will in fact be well. And it is with that faith, and the high hopes I have for the enduring power of the American idea, that I offer the people of my beloved home a very affectionate thanks.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bailout Spin:On Government, Economy and Freedom

My Yahoo headlines are infected. Every time I look at them, there's the term "bailout" somehow working its viral way into yet another banner. The latest: "Senate to take up auto bailout on Monday"

Turns out Bush is asking Congress for $25 billion more. I get the feeling that I'm watching an Austin Powers film (if only this were as funny).
Austin Powers - 100 Billion Dollars

This came a little over a month after Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to bailout the banks.

Even so, the day before an international summit on the financial crisis, Bush delivered his party's time-honored harangue about the evils of "big government" and the wonderful virtues of the free market and "growth"in a speech at the Manhattan Institute. It sounds slightly contradictory and hypocritical. Or maybe the man and his party likenesses live in parallel universes, from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. No big government to bailout the poor, the sick, or to guarantee equal educational opportunity; or to protect the environment and insure the existence of a planet for our children. Just big government for giant corporations and banks. What we need, Bush said, is not more government, but "smarter government." Mr. President, the people have spoken: pack your bags.


But these are the marketing-cognitive traps his communications wizards have set for us, and they may trap us well after Bush has retired to his ranch. More government (i.e. laws and oversight)=stupid government. Of course the rhetorically savvy respond, "But sometimes we may need more AND smarter government," at which time the Bush team robot burns a fuse and smoke plumes rise from his ears. The talking points culture has been served the notice: giving billions of government (i.e. taxpayers') dollars to banks and corporations is simply smart government, while giving billions to to social problems puts the social in "socialist."

Compare these bailout numbers to what goes to citizens with their own troubles. In 2007, the budget for welfare and unemployment was $294 billion; for education $89.9 billion; $243 billion went to interest on the federal debt; Medicaid $246 billion; while the Iraq war 2003-present has cost over $3 trillion! Here we see the odd priorities of the outgoing administration, quite happy to spend lots of money, run up lots of debt on some matters and people deemed worthier than others.

What the outgoing administration and their supporters are most afraid of now is that these contradictions will result in a considerable shift in mainstream political discourse, spending priorities, and political economic structure--imposing more regulations on business than the country has seen in a long time. They should be scared, since while the current crises (plural) do not prove the complete bankruptcy of market economies, they show the bankruptcy of simplistic anti-government, pro-free market rhetoric. They want to scare vulnerable Americans into accepting a manichean dichotomy about government and economy a bit like Bush's simplisitic post-9/11 foreign policy: with us or against us. You can have "Big Government," a clever rhetorical evocation of "Big Brother," and totalitarianism, where the government steps in and controls every last detail of your life; or you can have the "free market," supposedly free of dangerous government meddling with and control of your work, buying, and exchanging of goods (though there's an implication that the meddling will be on multiple or all levels of life).

There is no such thing as the "free market," and never has been, if by which one means all production, distribution, and consumption is outside the government purview and all economic acts are by rational self-interested individuals. Big businesses depend on government (federal, state and local in the U.S.) to give them tax breaks, protect contracts, set work hours and safety standards, and not force them to give benefits to their employees,etc. Thus, they spend billions of dollars each year with professional lobbyists maneuvering to keep laws that favor them and prevent new ones from disfavoring them.

The problem is the age-old glitteringly ambiguous but emotionally powerful term"free." If market exchange were really free of third party mediation in the name of common laws applied to all (that is to civilized life), we would have the economic life of Locke's mythical state of nature, a war of all against all, where the strongest prevails, with no other restraint in the name of community. Government through law and enforcement can shape what kind of economy we practice, so that small businesses, for example, are privileged and rewarded while big ones are penalized and taxxed more, or vice-versa. Either way, government allows some behavior and discourages other kinds. 'Twas ever thus. And 'twill ever be.

The question is what kind of freedom do people want, what are the potential threats to it, and who benefits from persuading people that another form of freedom/security favors one party less or more than another? Since political debate in the U.S. rarely gets that deep, we get slogans repeated over and over, which are associated with parties, politicians, and people. Big Government! Socialist!

Franklin Roosevelt, dealing with a nasty bunch of money lenders and speculators of his own day, negotiated the situation by talking of different kinds of freedom (freedom from want, from fear, of speech, and of religion), and to the socialist slurs of his day, he responded that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself. Freedom of speech and religion are easily and traditionally understood as having the greatest potential threat in overbearing government. But freedom from want and fear, can be more easily understood in the caprices of modern economic cycles and the values of powerful players in the economy. The people as sovereign can save themselves from the dangers of excessive government controls of all individuals. But who would save the people from the economy, completely unelected and by nature full of power imbalances that can ruin a person's life in every other sense. "Necessitous men are not free men," FDR contended. The ousted Bush alliance will suggest any regulation in the name of freedom and security in the form of a false dilemma: either evil all-controlling socialist state or the individual-freedom-loving market.




The Reagan Revolution shrewdly read the FDR complication of freedom and power as a threat to their own pro-big business ideology, so they declared rhetorical war on it and won. They already had the help of The Cold War association of government control with Communism and Socialism (which were the same thing in everyday media culture). Their rhetoric, like Coolidge and Hoover's in the roaring 1920s, was honeysuckle until economic bad times hit. The problem is they have done a disservice to Americans who are trying to understand the complexities of POWER in a globalized world, which will in turn affect their understandings of freedom.

"I hope we shall crush... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare
already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the
laws of our country," founding father Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to George Logan in 1816. As much as I like Jefferson's staunch rejection of the perilously un-free condition of citizens in a "manufacturing economy" opting instead for a quaint agrarian economy where every (politically free) citizen was also economically free, his vision lost out. But some have revived his language about freedom and minimal government, while taking it out of its historical context of an agrarian economy (unlike the post-industrial mess we live in today).

Jefferson's concerns with government and freedom were/are valid. But the new structures of power (largely unelected) in a very different economy create new obstacles for comprehending threats to freedom. Anti-government but pro-individual freedom visions can not account for the changes in society that have created huge corporate bureaucracies and made millions of people dependent on inscrutable market dynamics invisibly shaped by actors who care very little about their fellow citizen's security in the end.  Government should respond in a sociologically informed way to the historically changing threats to freedom in different forms, about which there should be serious and careful public discussion before government takes action (though crises put constraints on deliberation).

Now, with the historic economic woes in the U.S., people are looking for answers, and that means some of them will pay attention to the way causes of the crisis are framed, too. Some individuals and groups stand to lose a lot with economic reforms, and so it is not surprising their well-paid spokespeople are trying to transfer their own fear of Obama onto less powerful citizens with totally different objective economic interests. They have much less "freedom" in the "free" market, and more oversight/less freedom of the banks and major corporations can equal more freedom economically and otherwise for them. But their belief is the object of a fiercely fought PR war. Look for the "Obama is a socialist" rumor bombs to be dropped onto more and more media targets in the near future. Will he build more rumor bomb shelters? Will he be able to counterattack, and by what means in this debate-deprived political culture?

"The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no
passion or principle but that of gain." --Thomas Jefferson to
Larkin Smith, 1809.

[If you found this worth reading, please take the time to yahoobuzz, digg, and or reddit it]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama and Democracy 2.0


Obama's shrewd exploitation of "new media" continues. After effectively using test messages, websites, meetups, video games,etc. in the campaign, now he intends to connect with supporters and construct public opinion (or listen to the people, depending on how you see it) using the web for governing. This is a new media version of what political communication scholars have called "going public," where presidents bypass legislatures that propose and make laws and instead go directly to "the people" to influence them, produce public opinion about issues that are in fact first of all the president's agenda (which he wants the people to accept). In turn, the president wants the Congress to accept his issues because supposedly the people (represented by public opinion) want it. But then, perhaps Obie is not so cynical. Maybe he really is trying to break down barriers between citizens and their representatives. This will be very, very interesting to watch.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

5 reasons why Obama is Human (Not Zeus, Jesus, or Mohammad)

This last week has been full of reflections on and theories of why Obama won. The economy (linked to Bush linked to McCain). The Palin factor. Increased voting registration. Organizing. Media bias. Or the great man theory about Obama the demigod. Few are actually nuanced, rounded treatments that can help us understand how campaigns work these days and what to expect in the future.

Shakespeare famously wrote that some men are born into greatness; some achieve greatness; and others have greatness thrust upon them. Political Communication scholars would add that some have communications teams that spend great time and money in constructing greatness.
Barack Obama is a great man, with excellent communication talents, but that is not enough to have won this election alone. Consider these five reasons, and a caveat.


1. The political economy of campaigning
Square one in U.S. presidential (to say nothing of other) campaigns. It pays for the campaign's enormous industry, everything from food for staff and volunteers, to ad production and space/distribution, travel, polling, focus groups, etc. In 2000 and 2004, Republicans and their surrogate attack groups outspent and out-financed the Democrats, especially in the crucial final push of the last two months. Obama built on the insights of Howard Dean, whose net-fundraising astounded in the last presidential election and continued in his role as Chairman of the party. Obama outspent McCain 4 to 1 the first half of October and by 3 to 1 on TV ads the final week of the campaign.

Obama's record shattering fundraising in August and September helped him expand the field of competitive states, putting pressure on McCain in places where he had hoped to coast without investing more money. The "Great Man" outspent by his opposition is at much greater risk to lose. But now one should consider the shrewd and novel use of that record fundraising.

2. Communication strategies
Contrary to some claims, Obama hardly skipped through a media lovefest. He was forced to respond to his associations with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the attacks of which were considerably weakened after Obama delivered a powerful speech on race, a polarizing subject he struggled to keep off the media agenda (as he more or less did with gay marriage). Rumors that his wife used the derogative "Whitey" stalked him throughout. As late as September, a Yahoo-AP poll revealed some important information about the race issue. When asked "how much discrimination against blacks" exists, 10 percent of whites said "a lot" and 45 percent said "some." In contrast, among blacks, 57 percent said "a lot" and all but a fraction of the rest said "some."

Obama was able to preempt his opposition from baiting him with issues like affirmative action. Instead of completely opposing it, he called for expanding it to poor whites, while denying it to privileged blacks like his own two daughters. Instead of falling into the trap of exclusive language, he went inclusive. This may be part of the reason why he was more popular than Kerry with white male voters, even though they still favored McCain, a point his team carefully considered. Therein lay the paradox that race didn't play much of a role in this election. It didn't play an overtly big role, it played a covertly big role, erupting on the media agenda inconsistently, partly due to Obama's astute maneuvering.

Nonetheless, race haunted him with religion rumor bombs on the Internet. Viral emails and comments on blogs claimed he was a Muslim and an Arab, often with appeals to the supposed evidence of his name, which was ruthlessly exploited in turns such as "Obama Bin Laden," and Barack HUSSEIN Obama. He was said to have been raised in Muslim schools, and was not even born in the U.S. These rumor bombs laid the ground for later ones that claimed he was a terrorist, their circulation aided by Palin's innuendos up to election day. He "pal-ed around" with former Weather Underground "terrorist" Bill Ayers, she said. Videotaped excerpts of McCain-Palin rallies demonstrate a widespread repetition of this tripartite rumor bomb, never mind the obvious contradiction with the earlier attacks on Obama for his association with Christian minister Jeremiah Wright.

Obama dealt with these latter attacks astutely. Careful not to reproduce the rumor bombs himself, he benefited from important character testimonials, the most powerful of which may have been the endorsement by Colin Powell in the last month of the election (even while pundits like Sean Hannity accused him of simple race favoritism). He spoke of his great capitalist friend Warren Buffet, which allowed him to partly defuse rumor bombs that he was a socialist. He spent money on well-crafted ads (and before that, a book/recording) that told how his very life was a version of the American Dream. Unlike some past candidates, he was hardly privileged, even though his achievements took him to the top of his class at Harvard law school, and beyond.

One could also consider the well-wrought, competitive cliches that formed Obama's brand, which were influenced by recent research into the effects of particular words on the brain and its emotional responses. Not more government, but better leadership. Not more taxes, but a break for the middle-class, the middle-class, the middle-class. Change. Hope. McCain was linked with Bush, stasis, depression, dishonesty, as much as McCain tried vainly to emphasize his "maverick" record and life testament to patriotism.

All of these skillful messages and responses should be considered within the context of his fundraising. He and his team not only responded well in message; they also diffused them strategically and widely, which cost money.

3. Negotiation of Media Convergence
Obama's communication strategies also must be viewed not just in terms of their content but also their groundbreaking genres and forms, again a product more of his organization than of him as a man of superior abilities. His campaign negotiated convergence culture, the contemporary collision of old and new forms of media, from newspapers, radio, and TV, to satellite, Internet, text messages, and video games. Some of the most groundbreaking included buying "stealth" ads embedded within the sets of X-system video games; and a satellite Obama channel with 24-7 ads. His team was incredibly up-to-date with especially young adults' complex media consumption habits.

If the Internet was full of dangerous potentially persuasive rumor bombs dropped on vulnerable undecideds, his campaign would update the WWII version of the anti-propaganda “rumor clinic." Instead of relying on factcheck.org, snopes.com, etc. the Obama campaign started their own: Fightthesmears.com

Furthermore, the Obama campaign was hip to the fact that studies show Internet users don't just get their political information from the Internet; they blend it with traditional news sources. Thus, TV and radio ads, and an ultimate ½ hour slot on Oct. 30 (last used by Ross Perot) were complemented by SMS, emails, and viral video (the latter with which the McCain campaign had scored, comparing Obama's allegedly hollow celebrity status to Paris Hilton). Again, these strategies were brilliant but could not have been executed as effectively without powerful financial backing and labor. And yet, despite all these factors that exceed the man himself and on which his successful candidature was necessarily dependent, one can not deny that he is a man of extraordinary talent.

4. Obama’s own communication skills
McCain face Pictures, Images and PhotosObama was calm, respectful, affable (not too stiff, not too loose), more gaffe-proof than his opposition. As James Fallows reminded us in a keen preview of the debates, image is everything; it is the argument. "As with trial testimony, job interviews, and blind dates, seeing people interact is the only way to understand what is going on," Fallows wrote. "We don’t watch debates to learn what someone thinks about Social Security. We watch to see how the contenders look next to their opponents, how they react when challenged, how well or poorly they come up with the words we later see in print." Thus, McCain was seen as condescending, not deigning to look directly at Obama. He was parodied as senile, wandering around the stage, looking for his dog Mr. Puddles, as John Stewart joked. Or he was racist, said some pundits when during the last debate McCain referred to Obama as "That one!" Obama, on the other hand, remained cool, showing human warmth from time to time with moderate laughs, and grins. His performances were free of eye-rolling, frustrated sighs, and cheesily memorable phrases of recent predecessors.

One should not forget that Obama also responded eloquently on the spot during key events. When McCain sought to construct himself as the heroic statesman willing to drop his campaign until he could broker a senate package for the financial crisis, calling for the postponement of the second debate, Obama quipped, "Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time; it is not necessary for us to think we can do only one thing and suspend everything else." Similarly, when Palin's terrorist-crony accusations were at a high pitch and he was asked about his relationship to Bill Ayers, Obama was able to turn the ethical question back on the McCain-Palin campaign. “This is someone who committed despicable acts 40 years ago when I was only eight,” Obama insisted, leaving his audience to infer that the association was an illogical, dishonest smear. One could go on with the examples, perhaps revisiting his struggle with Hillary Clinton. But the fact stands: despite Obama's considerable oratorical prudence, it is unclear his own qualities and message could’ve carried the day without all the other confluence of factors in his favor, which brings us to media coverage.

5. The media coverage: agenda, distribution of attention, and bias charges
Recent studies have shown that Obama received more coverage/attention overall than did McCain, while Sara Palin received more than Joe Biden. Likewise, Obama received more "positive" coverage than McCain, while Palin received more negative coverage than Biden.
But there are other inferences besides bias that can be drawn from this data. For many Americans Obama was an obscure public figure in national public life when this campaign began. McCain and Biden have had considerably longer careers in national public life, McCain especially after having been Bush's major challenger for the nomination in 2000. Palin was perhaps even less known than Obama. One could interpret this data as evidence that the media was serving an important democratic function, giving the public important information it needed to make a serious electoral decision.

Additionally, consider the abilities of the candidates again and the material they provided to reporters and unofficial newscasters, such as John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live. There were not really the risible pseudo-events that the French John Kerry provided, riding a motorcycle into the Tonight Show, or going hunting, both to reassure voters of his masculinity attacked by Swiftboaters and French-callers. On the other hand, McCain, as has already been mentioned, provided plenty of visual joke fodder. But it was nothing compared to Palin's airheaded interview with Katie Couric, and comments about not really knowing what the vice-president does, as well as spying Russia from Alaska as somehow training her for foreign policy work. It was not necessarily that the media favored one over the other, though I'm sure some reporters were as horrified as other citizens by the base populism Palin peddled to cover up her appalling ignorance.

Besides, the Obama-as-celebrity phenomenon fit nicely with contemporary news values which love celebrity in general. It's difficult to put it any more precisely than conservative CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck, who observed (CNN.com, 7/24/08), ‘The Media’ aren’t around for their health, they’re around to make money, and if Obama drives sales or ratings, then I can’t really blame them for continuing to tap that well until it runs dry.” Besides, the celebrity treatment was hardly all backrubs. The rumor bombs about race, religion, and terrorism belong to the widespread culture of infotainment.

The Caveat
In conclusion, a candidate, even a great one, is the product of a complex economic and symbolic process that certainly transcends his or her own personal abilities. And in addition, there is always the factor of historical specificity. The issue agenda partly responded to events beyond the control of the candidates. Immigration issues faded into the Iraq war, which faded into the economy, which was abruptly overtaken by the more specific financial crisis. Gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, immigration--past Republican wedge issues--did not play well on the mainstream agenda, even if Obama had the difficult choice of largely ignoring them. Obama was making history, just as history was making him.

Just as Carter was severely weakened by a hostage situation beyond his control and a sluggish economy in 1980, McCain was the party brand associated with a disastrous war in Iraq and the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. No matter how much he cried "maverick," he was still the bearer of a discredited brand, a man who though a great patriot lacked rhetorical skills to tame history, evidenced by his visual and verbal gaffes. Obama had to take advantage of this situation or lose it. Obama performed outstandingly, and 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, he has made history while all the world looks on at his indisputable greatness.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

5 Reasons Why Obama is Human (not Jesus, or Mohammed)



Shakespeare famously wrote that some men are born into greatness; some achieve greatness; and others have greatness thrust upon them. Political Communication scholars would add that some have communications teams that spend great time and money in constructing greatness.
Barack Obama is a great man, with excellent communication talents, but that is not enough to have won this election alone. Consider these five reasons, and a caveat....
Stayed tuned for this post in its entirety appearing on a bigger site.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Rumor Bomb Shelter, Election '08: Congratulation, Survivors


As in the last American presidential election's Swiftboating and name-calling "French!", rumoresque communication was a staple of election 2008. The most widespread of these rumors claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim, an Arab, and a terrorist (by association), though another extreme form appeared the last week of October when a woman told police she was attacked by a black man for being a McCain supporter. This species of political rumor deserves its own name, which I call the Rumor Bomb. The pervasiveness of rumor bombs demonstrates a new kind of disorientation and volatility in American political media, even if political rumors themselves are timeless.


What exactly is a rumor bomb? A rumor bomb (RB) is a public statement whose truth is in question (classic definition of rumor). Did John Kerry lie about his military record? Did George W. Bush lie about his National Guard service? Does Obama have ties to terrorists? Did Saddam Hussein have WMD's and/or ties to Al Qaeda? A public issue is made of the claim's uncertain truth status. And in many cases the status is deliberately ambiguous for innuendo's sake, which leads to its transformation from claim to question.


Second, a RB is a rumor dropped in a context of public anxiety or uncertainty about a political group, figure, or cause, which the rumor bomb overcomes or transfers onto an opponent. The U.S. is in the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s, is fighting two wars that have been marketed as a war on "terror" or terrorism, and its president hasn't had a plus 50% approval rating in years. That's public uncertainty and anxiety about a country's leadership and its future. Enter rumor the tri-partite rumor. Similar to John Kerry is "French" in the context of freedom fries and images of supposedly mass protests against French "treason" by Americans pouring out their $14 bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau.


Third, a RB has a clearly partisan even if an anonymous source (eg. "an unnamed advisor to the president"), which seeks to profit politically from the rumor bomb's diffusion. Witness Jerome R. Corsi, the man who in 2004 joined forces with The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by publishing the best-selling rumor bomb "Unfit for Command," which of course attacked John Kerry's war decorations, courage, and leadership. In August he publishedObama Nation. It entered the NY Times bestseller list at #1 and has been widely quoted in the rumors' multi-media tours. Or the Clinton campaign volunteer who happily circulated the viral e-rumor. Also like the "unnamed White House official" who during the 2003 declarations of Democratic presidential candidacy told the New York Times John Kerry was "French-looking."


Lastly, RB's appear and circulate in a culture of rapid electronic diffusion. The rapid diffusion is partly technologically motivated: the inter-media influences of the internet, TV, cable, radio, print, cell phones and digital cameras/video. It's partly business motivated: dwindling resources for journalistic fact-checking, incentives to accept PR press releases, in an information culture that supposedly demands constant updates and entertaining stories. It's also partly due to the professionalization of politics, where communications experts study what the news wants in business terms and tries to control it with staged events and highly scripted addresses and interviews. All of these characteristics together form the contemporary uniqueness of RB's, making it different than political rumors of the past. And there are signs that we will only see more of them.


The latest RB was dropped October 26 in Pittsburgh by 20-year-old college student and McCain campaign volunteer Ashley Todd, who faked an assault and robbery report to Pittsburgh police in hopes to benefit some anti-Obama media publicity. In her report to police, she claimed it was a politically motivated attack by a black man who, after seeing she had a McCain sticker, pinned her to the ground and scratched a "B" for "Barack Obama" into her face. It took only one day between the report and the debunking. However, the influential Drudge Report quickly announced it as news, and other media outlets followed suit. Something quite similar happened in France in July 2004, which led then-President Jacques Chirac to address the nation over racial tolerance, after which the hoax was revealed. The ability of both amateur and professional political communicators to set mainstream news agendas speaks volumes to the disorientation, danger, and paradoxical democratic nature of their production.


A testament to the acknowledged seriousness of this form of political speech lay in the reaction of the Obama team, which chose to fight back with more than interviews with journalists. If the Internet was full of dangerous potentially persuasive rumor bombs dropped on vulnerable undecideds, his campaign would update the WWII version of the anti-propaganda “rumor clinic." Instead of relying on factcheck.org, snopes.com, etc. the Obama campaign started their own: Fightthesmears.com


If there have always been unverified claims printed in "professionalized" journalism (before that turn, of course, rumor was a news staple), the degree to which they are sliding in and also swirling about both new and old media forms we consume suggests we are in a very new kind of convergence culture, even if the damage their users' inflict can not guarantee an election triumph. In fact, when they're discredited too quickly they may backfire on the political brand they hoped to benefit. Political Communication has never been so volatile.