Commentary: Presidential campaign was awash in paradox

President Elect Obama in Chicago.
President Elect Obama in Chicago. Associated Press

The 2008 presidential campaign offered a study in contrasts.

It revolutionized the political process by harnessing the power of the Internet to forge new relationships between the candidates and voters.

It was also a deeply traditional campaign decided by economic fears and get-out-the-vote efforts.

It was fueled by the raw power of bottom-up, grass-roots efforts.

It was also one of the most tightly scripted, top-down contests in recent history.

It provided voters with more information than ever before.

It also generated so much misinformation that it was harder than ever to separate fact from fiction.

Those were some of the paradoxical observations that four political reporters shared at a Duke University panel on media coverage of the 2008 election.

At the Nov. 15 discussion moderated by professor James T. Hamilton, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times, Garrett Graff of Washingtonian magazine and syndicated columnist and TV pundit Mark Shields described how everything – and not all that much – changed during the historic election.

It was, they agreed, America's first Internet election, as Barack Obama, John McCain and their supporters exploited the vast capabilities of the World Wide Web. It may have also been the last major campaign covered in traditional ways by the print media, as newspapers continue to be besieged by debilitating economic and cultural forces.

The 2008 election, then, provided our first glimpse of a dawning political age in which the traditional role of the mainstream media is supplanted by broad forces seeking to expand and constrict the amount and quality of information available to voters.

As the panelists described this new era, the contradictions mounted. They included:

More contact, less access

Sarah Palin was criticized for her reluctance to grant interviews, but she was hardly alone. Obama, Joe Biden and McCain offered the media far less access than candidates in most previous campaigns.

While elbowing the press aside, they reached out to voters directly through text messages, e-mails and online videos. McCain's camp uploaded 330 videos to the Web while Obama's posted 1,821.

Bypassing reporters and pundits who might parse and scrutinize their statements, the candidates were able to control their message as never before. Supporters could hear the candidates' words and see their images in all their unfiltered and stage-managed glory.

More content, less criticism

Message control was reinforced through the expanded role played by partisan blogs. In our echo-chamber culture, voters increasingly turned to Web sites less interested in finding the truth than in providing talking points for their own side. When so many people are spinning the story, voters conclude that everyone is.

More gotcha, less analysis

The candidates avoided the news media for fear that their words would haunt them. In the era of YouTube, slight slips become overnight sensations.

Even so, the verbal misfires of their supporters received wide attention. Think of McCain adviser Phil Gramm's assertion that Americans were whining about the bad economy, or the harsh comments made by Obama's former spiritual adviser the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As this dynamic intensifies, the number of off-the-cuff, from-the-heart comments will diminish.

More control, less power

As the campaigns exerted greater message discipline, their supporters seized the reins. Online videos such as "I've Got a Crush on Obama" and Will.i.am's "Yes We Can" and "We Are the Ones," which turned Obama speeches into music videos, helped shape public perceptions of the candidate. Such independent efforts will play even larger roles in future campaigns.

More style, less substance

The stakes in this election were high, but the general public's appetite for complicated assessments of policy proposals was low. To attract readers and viewers, the national media focused on personal matters and the polls.

A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 57 percent of the coverage was about the horse race, while 13 percent examined the issues. Unless there is a resurgence of high-mindedness across the nation, future campaigns will probably offer more and more about less and less.

Even as we are heartened by the interest and excitement generated by the 2008 election, the trends outlined by the panelists are troubling.

For all of their limitations, the traditional mainstream media have long provided a level of serious coverage for which no comparable replacement exists. For all the charges -- some spot on -- of media bias, the signs say we ain't seen nothing yet.

If this gloomy panel offered a sliver of hope, it involved the record length of the campaign. The often torturous 21-month period enabled voters to get to know the candidates despite the sound and fury of extraneous issues that often dominated the news and the candidates' efforts to manipulate their images.

We're still two months away from Obama's inauguration, but potential rivals are already positioning themselves for 2012.

If the past campaign is prologue, we may need all that time to be able to cast our votes with confidence.

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