Political Journalism, Social Media and the Election

Four speakers debated the future of political journalism at Montclair State University on Monday.


On Monday, Montclair State University invited four experienced speakers to try and make sense of the changing landscape of the news media in the 21st century. 

The speakers were:  

• Jonathan Alter, political columnist for Bloomberg.

• Robert George, editorial writer for the New York Post.

• Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. 

• Timothy O’Brien, executive editor for the Huffington Post. 

Throughout the debate, moderator Merrill Brown, director of the university’s School of Communication and Media, asked the speakers about the impact the traditional news media and social media played in the recent presidential election. 

The following is a selection of the speakers responses. 

What kind of impact did the media play in the 2012 presidential election?

Alter: “In the old days, ... if someone thing wasn’t on one of those three broadcasts, it didn’t happen and had no consequence that day on the campaign."

“But that world is gone. It is gone as the pre-television era."

The most impactful single thing that happened in this campaign was someone using social media in Boca Raton, Fla., to catch Governor Mitt Romney’s “47 percent" comments, Alter said.

George: “The most powerful impact of the media was things that most of us didn’t see: all of the advertising that was pummeling the swing states."

“The 47 percent [comments] may have cemented certain views people had about Mitt Romney, but I don’t think that it was quite the game changer that many in the media thought at the time." 

“What we are seeing is the diminishing power of the legacy media -- partly because of Twitter, partly because of Facebook.” 

Harrison: “We are really seeing the bifurcation between the legacy media and the citizen journalist which we’ve all become. And I think there are some flaws to that, because with that you lose some of the quality control and ... accuracy."

“And I think ... one of the other functions the media preforms is mobilizing [people]. ... What we know is that the use of social media is driving participation, particularly amongst 18-to-29-year-old voters, who essentially voted more frequently than any generation other than 2008 and now today’s data says they did [vote] in equal number in this election." 

O’Brien: “I think ... the media [covering] campaigns is a big echo chamber. And I think in the Internet era, we are awash in minutia on a daily basis."

“There were a lot of absurd moments in this campaign that weren’t about issues that had traction necessarily with voters .... The Etch A Sketch with Romney ... got perpetuated on Twitter, it got perpetuated on Facebook. The politico ecosystem right now is in the same kind of crisis ... because of the advent of the Internet and social media.” 

“Business and political coverage these days are handicapping around minutia than around substance.” 

What was the effect social media has had on the landscape of news coverage?

George: “The public now has ways of finding ... stories ... that are not necessarily being reflected in the Washington Post or New York Times” 

Alter: “Today, the burden is on the voter. If they want to be informed, they can be informed.” 

“...When I started out doing this in 1984 it was basically a club .... We had a strangle hold on the political coverage. ... It was not issue focused.” 

O’Brien: “It is extremely noisy now. There is a lot for voters to access, but there is also a lot of confusion. ... There is a buffet of information there for the people but I think the media has to try to tee some of that up in some ways above the noise.” 

Did the main stream media tip the scales in favor of Barack Obama? 

Alter: “There is no evidence for that. ... Fox News has a bigger audience than MSNBC. ... So if the liberal was so powerful, how do you explain that?” 

George: “The most powerful time of Republican ascendancy in terms of the presidency was from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. And that time actually overlapped with the most powerful point of the so called legacy media. 

"And that is when all politics really was directed by the front page of The New York Times or by the Washington Post. ... And there is this odd irony that the conservative media is more powerful now than it ever has been.” 

Harrison: “Yes there’s bias. Fox News is biased, so is NPR. We select which media we are going to use, but it’s irrelevant because that is not what’s controlling people’s view point, it’s not what’s controlling participation.” 

O’Brien: “To me, ... [what] felt more dangerous than the main stream media was what might have been the impact of [the Supreme Court’s decision in] Citizen United -- the unfettered flow of money into the electoral process.

“What we do know is that Karl Rove ascended into this sort of Zeus-like position that imploded in a very public and ... delicious fashion.” 


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