Internet And Democracy Essay, Research Paper
IF THE UNSUBSTANTIAL sound bite is the shame of televised
election coverage, then information overload is the parallel pitfall on
After spending one interminable day in October reviewing Web
coverage of the presidential campaign, I can verify that the online
universe is indeed infinite, and that politics, not pornography,
seemed the most prolific theme.
Stunned by thousands of news articles, background pieces,
surveys, discussion forums, transcripts and commentary, this
human brain nearly screamed for spoon-fed mush. Election sections
on most of the major news sites were so enormous that a person
couldn’t possibly process all the sections and subsections and
sub-subsections. About 20 percent of the stuff seemed digestible; the
rest was far more than the average visitor would care to chew.
But that’s the nature of the Internet, isn’t it? Throw enough stuff
at the wall, and most of it will be used by someone. Let folks pick and
choose their news. If nothing else, all the fodder provided a number of
ready-made high school civics reports and fed the repurposing
requirements of fellow reporters.
And why not? Airtime and column inches don’t exist on the
Internet. There’s no need to decide between an interview with a
candidate’s grade school sweetheart, a 5,000-word analysis of his
position on health care or a comparison of campaign platforms. You
can do all of that and more.
This is a good thing, isn’t it? Yes. As long as an organization has the
resources and vision to distinguish its core coverage from the
ornaments that surround it.
Along those lines, cheers to all of the major news sites for their
efforts at live speech and debate coverage, solid election news and
Nearly every news organization with access to live video streamed
it quite successfully during the debates and provided cataloged
archives for future reference (abcNEWS.com even offered a stream
in Spanish). Nearly live text transcripts were also available on most
The innovation award goes to Web White & Blue 2000
(www.webwhiteblue.org). Sponsored by the Markle Foundation, the
project was a consortium of 17 major Internet sites and news
organizations from AOL and Yahoo to MTV and MSNBC. Each day the
presidential candidates or their surrogates would respond to a
question submitted by a visitor at one of the partner sites. The
answers and rebuttals could come in any format and were unlimited
Not only did the Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigns respond
regularly, but also the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan, Libertarian
Harry Browne, Natural Law candidate John Hagelin and the
Constitution Party’s Howard Phillips. Only Ralph Nader declined to
Contrast those home runs with the controversial morning-after
polls that asked visitors to choose the “winner” of each televised
A full day after the third debate, abcNEWS.com’s poll showed more
than 83,000 responses and MSNBC.com’s registered more than
52,000–a much larger sample size than those used by scientific
pollsters. The trouble is that the online polls (to recall an old rant)
can be terrifically inaccurate.
Both surveys showed Bush as the victor with about 60 percent of
the votes, and Gore in the upper 30s. Meanwhile the polls conducted
by research firms like Gallup reported a dead heat.
The discrepancy was explained by two factors: Republicans
outnumber Democrats on the Internet, and Republican National
Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson mounted a preemptive
survey-stuffing campaign, according to reports on abcNEWS.com
and CNET. Both sites clearly noted that their surveys were not
scientific. Still, presenting them in the context of news coverage
could be misleading to viewers not aware of the differences between
scientific polls meant to give an accurate snapshot of viewer response
and random surveys.
Less controversial was the commentary and pseudo-news, like the
“fact-checking” features that were all the rage during the debates.
The trend started with the Bush and Gore campaigns, which
launched competing Web sites, then seeped into the mainstream
Washingtonpost.com’s “On Politics” section featured a segment
called “Debate Referee.” Click on the referee and a commentary
window pops up to cut through the debate rhetoric.
The 2000 presidential election shows that the Internet has the
potential to make debates and campaigns much more substantive. It
also has the potential to paralyze, confuse and overwhelm. But the
game is not really hit-or-miss anymore. As we learn what sticks and
what doesn’t, we should anticipate a more digestible election spread
the next time around.
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