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Digital Media Is Changing The Election—and More

One of the major undercurrents of the 2008 presidential campaign is the use of alternative media and how it is connecting with a population glued to mobile communications devices. Yes, something is happening here (Mr. Jones), but it's beyond the clouded mirror of traditional media.

As network reporters have tried to create a campaign narrative this election year, their conventional theories have toppled as quickly as events happen. From the alleged rise of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the denial of Barack Obama's star power, the press has been proven wrong again and again.

In this remarkable environment, Obama continues to rise. One of the reasons is that the man from Illinois has told his story and connected with his supporters outside the mainstream press.

Throughout the Democratic convention, while the mainstream media pursued bogus story lines, the campaign went around it.

Most Americans are in a far greater state of media transition than even they know. Obama turned what was supposed to be a "risky" stadium speech into a performance watched on TV by more U.S. viewers than watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics or any finale of "American Idol." It was a quite a triumph.

As to the polls used by traditional media, they show a close race. But is it? How do we really know? Are the technology and methods used to measure ratings current, or borrowed from an earlier era? Unless we're experts, we don't know and can't even guess.

But we do know that polls have been inaccurate so far this year. Polls failed to predict Clinton's win in New Hampshire. Obama led by an average of 8.3 percentage points in polls taken over the three days before the primary on Jan. 8. Yet Clinton won by 2.6 points. In South Carolina, it was even worse, with Obama winning nearly 30 percent ahead. The polls predicted 11.6 percent.

The problem is polls use the models of who is likely to go out and vote. Those models come from past elections. And they don't focus accurately on race and gender issues.

"They have no scientific basis," Jon Krosnick, a survey methodologist at Stanford University in California, told NewScientist magazine.

Because digital media is causing such change, we simply don't know how accurate traditional media measurement systems are because they can't fully measure today's issues and media. What we do know is that in 2008 everything has been turned upside down. Rather than focus on the same conventional wisdom, we should be asking why, and examining some of the forces at work causing this change.


I won't try to predict the outcome of the election, but I will argue that most Americans are in a far greater state of media transition than even they know. We now have powerful new media outlets that didn't exist four years ago. And, perhaps—just perhaps—we are seeing the last breath of the newspaper and anchor-driven broadcast television coverage that has so long defined political conventions.

This is the first election that we've had YouTube, a huge new media force. We also have blogs, social networks, online petitions, Google and Yahoo groups and e-mail lists.

Remember, Obama announced Joe Biden, his selection for vice president, at 3 a.m. in a text message. Today, about half the U.S. population has access to high-speed broadband, millions of people blog, and who can say how many people are on candidate e-mail lists or have signed a petition online.

Candidates Obama and John McCain can go around the media gatekeepers now and are doing it. One can now watch the live feeds of the political conventions online without commentary. That is an enormous change from earlier elections.

Another unknown factor is the Internet's ability to allow collective action. People can easily knit themselves into online groups to battle old hierarchies. This is another invisible part of campaign 2008—a part that much of the traditional media doesn't get or even understand.


I don't pretend to understand all the implications of digital media in this election year, but I certainly can see the flaws. I can see that many people—especially among the young—are paying a huge personal price for their high level of connectedness.

Just walk any street in any major city and observe the people—BlackBerrys, iPhones or some other mobile device is connected to their ears. They mumble to themselves, isolated in crowds.

"Voice messages pour in, telling of children who got speeding tickets, of margin calls, of jobs offered and lost," essayist Ben Stein wrote in the New York Times. "These are people we absolutely have to talk to. The bonds of obligation, like handcuffs, are clapped back onto our wrists, and we shuffle off to the servitude of our jobs and our mundane tasks."

Without such devices, Stein wrote, we'd still have the same obligations, but "they would not be at our heels, yipping at us constantly, barking at us to do this or that or worry about this or that. We would have some moat of time and space around ourselves."

Unfortunately, this isolation is another huge change that comes with our connected society. Regardless of whether we like it or not, we now live in a cocoon of wireless communications technology.

History has taught us that technological change comes with both up and down sides. There are always winners and losers in change. Rarely are we, as a species, smart enough to anticipate the implications of a technology when we first adopt it.

In fact, we rarely have a choice at all. Technology is always introduced in a favorable light by corporations that sell it. It's all good—no negative side is presented. We either buy it or not. In the case of digital technology, we bought the technology big time. Now we are beginning to live with it and see its effects on our culture.

As we watch the 2008 presidential election play out, it's helpful to pay attention to what is not so obvious. It's in these patches of darkness that the light is found.

It might not add up to a better world, but it certainly will be a different one.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.