How will history judge the role of the media during the US presidential race?

/// How will history judge the role of the media during the US presidential race?

November 7, 2012  |  Blog

It’s almost 50 years since Harold Wilson was described as the first British Prime Minister to understand the importance of television. He would probably have boggled had he seen the reach and variety of media on offer in 2012, and it’s that media which is set to define the political lives of both American Presidential candidates as they wait to find out who’s going to enter or remain in the White House in January.

The incumbent President Barack Obama has had the edge in social media since he started engaging through Twitter whilst still a candidate in 2007. Media consultant Alan Stevens from Mediacoach.co.uk gives him a lot of credit for it. “[Obama] has gathered 21.5 million Twitter followers, whereas his challenger has fewer than two million,” he says. “In addition, he (or his campaign team) is more active, having so far delivered over 400 tweets in this campaign to a mere 16 from the Romney camp. Obama scores more highly on YouTube too, with 21 campaign videos to Romney’s 10.”

Social media is normally a two-way channel, but in this election it seems not to be so. “What’s noticeable about both candidates is the use of social media almost exclusively as a broadcast channel,” says Stevens. “Neither has very much engagement with their followers and Facebook friends, and retweets and response to messages are as rare as a friendly word between them. It would have made good sense to create at least some opportunities for engagement by responding to some messages, giving material for those personal stories in speeches that politicians covet.”

Mary Askew, media commentator and lecturer and a former political editor for the BBC, suggests this is the first American election in which social media has played such a prominent part in spite of Obama’s use of Twitter in the previous one, and suggests this will help engage younger voters. She sees significance in the character of the communications: “The campaigns teams have been using social media for much more than pictures from campaign trial or pleas for donations and volunteers — they have been using them to paint a picture of the candidates’ home lives, trying to depict family men with a sense of humour and a life outside of politics,” she says. “We’ve learnt about the White House veg plot from Michelle Obama’s Pinterest site, and seen pictures of the Mitt Romney having takeaway pizza with some of his grandchildren on Ann Romney’s site.”

It’s not quite Twitter and ‘what I had for breakfast’ but it’s not far. “From Spotify we’ve learnt about the candidates’ favourite music, and with Twitter we’re able to know exactly where the candidates are, and what they are doing,” comments Askew. “The New York Times even reported that Mitt Romney’s bodyguard posted a picture of the candidate’s family playing Jenga before a debate.”

The mainstream media remains divided. In the US the laws regulating the UK, which state that a television broadcaster may not be politically biased, don’t apply. This opens the door to the obvious ‘usual candidates’ declaring their hands; there was never a possibility of Fox News supporting anyone but a right winger, for example. “Both camps have claimed media bias against their guy,” says Stevens. “As usual, that means that the coverage is fairly balanced. Naturally, some media outlets such as Fox News make their preference clear. They don’t sway voters at all, simply reinforcing entrenched views about either Romney or the lack of balance of Fox News, depending where your loyalties are. Overall, both candidates are media-savvy, but neither is doing enough to pull ahead of the other.”

Indeed there is some debate about just how important this media stuff is to the candidates anyway. Askew isn’t sure just yet: “More people must know more about the presidential campaigns than ever before, but what I’m fascinated by is what, if any, impact all this effort will have at the ballot box,” she says. “If you can predict an election by how many people like your Facebook page or follow you on Twitter then Obama is a shoe-in — more than 31 million people follow him on Facebook. But this is an American election first, nobody knows the influence of social media yet. What is certain is that nobody is taking any chances.”

In terms of what actually matters to people when they hear it, Romney’s gaffes have undoubtedly helped Obama. His implied mistrust of the UK’s handling of the Olympics has been overstated; the American public has no particular reason to worry about what he may or may not have said about the prospects of a remote country on another continent running the Games. He was particularly memorable in the televised debates insisting that Obama had taken two weeks to describe the Libyan attack on Benghazi as an ‘act of terror’; in spite of the correction (the President had used that phrase the morning after) he repeated the allegation.

Other than that moment TV played a less significant part than unofficial sources. Romney’s famous quote about 47% of Americans paying no tax and being part of a dependency culture leaked online rather than being an ‘official version’. The debates themselves were pretty tame. “Barack Obama was asleep though the first debate and probably edged the other two, without landing a knockout blow,” suggests Stevens. “These days, candidates are so well prepped for head-to-head debates that a big win is unlikely, which makes the first debate look even more extraordinary, and one can only assume that the Obama camp underestimated their opponent.

“Neither candidate delivered a killer soundbite, which suggests either a lack of imagination from their teams, or an awareness that TV debates don’t sway many undecided voters. I think that was a mistake, since campaigns can turn on a pithy, memorable phrase.”

In some ways that’s what’s been missing from this election campaign. In the 1990s Bill Clinton became President on the strength of the word “Change”; during the 1980s Ronald Reagan became President at least partly through taking advantage of his considerable charisma in front of the camera.

It’s possible that the current election is going to be the first in many years in which neither candidate has really grasped what Harold Wilson understood some 50 years ago: the importance of television and, in the early part of this century, the wider media.

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