In 1973, Rolling Stone writer Timothy Crouse published The Boys on the Bus, a visceral account of journalists reporting on Richard Nixon’s reelection bid. The book brought unwanted publicity to the workings of political pack journalism. A central theme was the relentless cultivation of relationships with politicos in the “womblike conditions” of the campaign.
Formerly the director of strategy for British Prime Minister David Cameron, Hilton no longer plots in the Downing Street labyrinth. Instead, he’s cofounder and CEO of a California start-up. His for-profit company, Crowdpac, promises nonpartisan information on US political candidates, policies and funding.
“Young people,” he said recently, “if you give them the right data – in simple form that is cool and easy to use – they do get involved.”
As a writer-in-residence focusing on digital politics and communications, I’ve looked at the supporting data, and Hilton seems to be on to something.
An even smaller screen
There was a twofold increase in mobile device political engagement between the US’ 2010 and 2014 midterms, driven by the rapid rise of smartphones. Social media use by American adults has also expanded significantly – from 29% of the population in 2008 to 50% in 2010, and 74% in 2014. It is the 18-29-year-old age group that is most likely to use mobiles for political news.
Hilton sees 2016 as the “social media election,” potentially boosting voter engagement. Perhaps it’s not surprising therefore that Crowdpac held discussions with Snapchat, an image-sharing application that deletes photos and videos after viewing. Hilton didn’t expand on an electoral tie-in, but the 45-year-old admitted being “totally too old” to be a Snapchat user. Reported demographics of the app reflect his comment, with 50% aged between 13-17. Only 19% of users are over 25.
This youthfulness, however, has not stopped candidates like Senator Rand Paul from using the app.
“They’ve got me getting on Snapchat, and we reach thousands of kids that we might not ever have reached before,“ Paul said. “In fact, we’re probably reaching some kids who aren’t yet 18, that will be 18 when the elections roll around the next time. If you can get into the different platforms … these are audiences you never would have reached otherwise.”
The birth of Polivision
There are historic parallels with the threats new media is posing traditional campaign methods. Most noticeably, radio’s debut in 1928, and then television’s in 1952 when Dwight D Eisenhower approved the first political spot ad TV campaign.
At the time, influential journalist James Reston lambasted “Polivision” focusing on personalities, not policies, according to Bernard Rubin, author of the 1967 book Political Television. But it worked.
Eisenhower forced running mate Richard Nixon onto screens nationally to apologize after the New York Post disclosed that the vice presidential hopeful had taken money from Californian Republicans for campaign expenses, Rubin explained. Overnight, Nixon went from liability to indispensable asset, and became the “best-known largest-crowd-drawing vice president candidate in history,“ according to Earl Mazo in The $18,000 Question.
Television’s importance grew following Eisenhower’s election, as did the role of the White House press secretary. Ironically, eight years later, the medium that had saved Nixon was commandeered by John F Kennedy and his photogenic family. Rubin argued that it was the Kennedys, along with live news conferences, that firmly established television’s preeminence.
Five decades later, a new broadcast medium – live streaming – is maturing. Apps include Twitter-owned Periscope, Meerkat and Facebook’s Livestream. The watershed moment was in May during an Iowa stop for Hillary Rodham Clinton, where she finally addressed questions about a private email server she used while serving as secretary of state. The incident led NBC correspondent Luke Russett to tweet:
Former Obama White House Communication Chief Dan Pfeiffer supports Hilton’s optimism for social media democratization.
“Every minute – literally every minute – of every day of the campaign will be available live to anyone who wants it,” Pfeiffer said. “It allows people across the country to see events the way voters in New Hampshire and Iowa do, without the filter of TV networks deciding what events deserve their coverage.”
Meet the new boss
But skeptics remain.
For Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, we’ve been here before: 2004 was billed the Meetup election; 2008 as the Facebook election; 2012 the Twitter election. He believes the repetitive claims are extrapolated from a few headline-making incidents. Digital politics is “an additive process where new forms of campaign communication are gradually added on to existing, well-known ones in the pursuit of victory.”
The biggest impact for 2016 may come from social media’s blurring of reporter roles: a flurry of print and radio reporters live-streaming content, acting more like television reporters. It’s a point Pfeiffer notes:
The insatiable 24/7 appetite of cable news for punditry has already turned many print reporters into television stars. [Streaming] will dramatically accelerate this trend. As the campaign heats up, more and more print reporters will supplement their articles, tweets and blog posts with live video reporting and analysis. This trend will be dangerous if our limited supply of objective reporters joins the inexhaustible supply of pundits.
Crouse’s seminal account of Nixon’s 1972 campaign revealed the cavorting of the male-dominated press pack, leisurely deadlines and boozy nights.
“The press itself was now a story, and it has remained one – for better, but mostly for worse – ever since,” is how The Washington Post described the book’s legacy.
In 2015, the self-absorption lingers, but other things have changed.
The gender balance in the news corps has improved, deadlines are endless and the drinking is toned down – as is the cozy access to candidates.
The size of the pack has grown, and social media thwarts veteran journalists trying to set the news narrative.
“Anyone with [an account] can tweet out a story and generate buzz for a story, so it doesn’t matter if you’re the senior correspondent or you’re a blog with a scoop,” Ashley Parker of The New York Times said of the book’s 40th anniversary.
Nevertheless, some things seem to forever remain the same. Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post added:
There is obviously a physical bus, and there’s a bubble that we’ve all been in, but because you can follow the campaign … in real time, I’m struck now, even sitting in an office, how inside the bubble I can feel without actually picking up the phone and calling my reporters.”