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New media has new impact on campaign

David Thorburn
David Thorburn
Henry Jenkins
Henry Jenkins

The Democratic National Convention in Boston illuminated new faces in the party, including Barack Obama of Illinois, as well as the new face of media coverage of American politics generally, with bloggers bringing the news to their readers alongside reporters from mainstream media doing the same.

According to two MIT professors of comparative media studies, the bloggers' unprecedented participation and the 2004 campaign's huge virtual audience represents a quiet yet astounding change at the intersection of information, politics, culture and society.

"We are in a formative historical moment as new communications technologies emerge. This is the most digital campaign yet, especially in the way the web has created new forms of association and advocacy and has allowed citizens access to information available previously only to experts and gatekeepers," said David Thorburn, professor of literature and director of the MIT Communications Forum.

Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities and Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, are co-editors of "Democracy and New Media" a book of essays in the MIT Press series, Media in Transition.

Essays in "Democracy" include "Who Needs Politics? Who Needs People? The Ironies of Democracy in Cyberspace," "Journalism in a Digital Age" and "Hypertext and Journalism: Audiences Respond to Competing News Narratives."

Both Thorburn and Jenkins cite Howard Dean's wild ride from Vermont to Iowa as an example of the impact of new media in the 2004 election cycle. The "active role which groups like and are playing in mobilizing grassroots support" is a new phenomenon, Thorburn noted.

Digital media were used for competitive partisan spinning when John Edwards was announced as John Kerry's running mate, Jenkins said.

"Kerry made the announcement first to an electronic mailing list of his supporters, using the prospect of getting heads up on the choice, to increase the registration list he will use to mobilize voters in the fall. Then, the GOP put up its talking points against Edwards on its home page within hours of the announcement. You can bet that they had pulled together information, using digital technologies, on all of the likely candidates. Think of this as the next generation of spin -- first, spin was invisible, then there was spin about spin, and now there's do-it-yourself spin," Jenkins said.

"The democratic possibilities of digital technology are astounding," said Thorburn. But, he emphasized, the goal of the book and the series is to explore a media transition, not a media apocalypse.

"Our guiding principle is continuity, not revolution. New media enter culture far more quietly and less disruptively than is often believed. The idea that new technologies obliterate their ancestors and transform culture is a widely-accepted fallacy.

"Though the long-term consequences of digital technologies will be decisive, even revolutionary in a sense, these consequences will emerge gradually. New media systems and formats will exist side by side with their ancestors and competitors for extended periods," he said.

Speaking of ancestors, Thorburn quickly dispelled any thought that television's influence was on the wane. The media moment is complex, with new media on the rise alongside the old.

"Television remains a central influence on our politics," Thorburn said. "It is still far more powerful than any other medium."

Jenkins cited the example of Dean, who "raised a fortune on the Internet and spent it on television. He built a following online and lost it on the air. We should not underestimate the continuing power of the mass media. But in a campaign where there are likely to be few undecided voters, the participatory media may well tip the balance."

"Democracy and New Media," published by MIT Press, will be available in paperback this fall.

The Media in Transition series provides a forum for humanists and social scientists who wish to speak not only across academic disciplines but also to policy makers, media and corporate practitioners and their fellow citizens.

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