Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Making sense of election selection

Panel discussion focuses on presidential campaign tactics

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts presented the final event of its lecture series at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum with a journalism panel discussion with moderator Van Gordon Sauter, right, and journalists, from left, Julia Boorstin, Ari Melber and Mark Barabak. Express photo by Sabina Dana Plasse

Journalists covering the 2009 election experienced not only the election of the first African-American as president, but technology and tactics that circumvented the traditional role of media in the election process.

For its last lecture series event on Monday, Feb. 9, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts presented a panel on the role of the media in elections to a full audience at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.

The discussion featured three prominent journalists—CNBC-TV's Julia Boorstin, The Nation's Ari Melber and the Los Angeles Times' Mark Barabak. It was moderated by Van Gordon Sauter, former CBS News and Fox News president.

The panel addressed how the Internet has changed politics and our culture, as well as more pointed questions about whether American journalism is moving toward a British system of opinion-heavy media.

"Heads of media organizations have no idea how their companies will look in three years," Boorstin said. "We are just at the beginning with technology. Candidates can speak directly to people (rather than through reporters)."

She also said the candidates are more accountable and "honest" when voters can more easily address them directly.

Panelists agreed that candidates' close connections with voters through social networking Web sites, voters' use of blogs and cable news opinion shows played large roles in election decision making.

Melber said Obama gained the support from people over 40 using social networks, used by 13 million on-line supporters. Melber said that meant that one-quarter of over-40 voters were in social networks communicating with each other.

"A network can talk back," Melber said. "Obama ran a grassroots-organized movement empowering people. More people donated smaller amounts of money."

Melber said John McCain ran "by the seat of his pants." He said McCain had an inside-the-Beltway campaign that did not resonate with people, especially when the economy turned south.

"The dramatic tipping point was in late August when the economy began to fall apart," Boorstin said. "McCain said the fundamentals of the economy were strong."

Barabak, who has covered eight presidential campaigns, said campaigns need to carefully weigh change versus risk.

"It takes a certain amount of analysis," Barabak said. "Things don't always seem as they appear."

Panelists pointed to several interesting factors in the election, including Democratic primary contender Hilary Clinton's vast resources and endorsements, race issues and the nation's downward-spiraling financial crisis, as well as McCain's choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate. Sauter asked if Palin has a future in government.

"Definitely on cable news," Boorstin said. "It all depends on how her image is handled."

Melber said one reason for Clinton's loss was her choice of chief strategist, Mark Penn, whose firm was paid $13 million.

"He had bad management and lacked accountability," Melber said.

He pointed out that Clinton lost despite having had the resources of Penn's polling firm.

Though Melber called opinion polls "meaningless," and the two other panelists agreed with him, all three cited poll results to pinpoint the candidates' level of support during the election.

The panelists agreed that news organizations are struggling under a great deal of financial pressure, but all said they did not feel pressured to write a story in such a way as to sell their product. Barabak said print journalism is in trouble, but that he loves his job and being in the front row of history.

The panelists pointed out that Obama continues to use the tactics of social networking as he makes decisions on the economic stimulus package. Boorstin predicted that Obama would accomplish his economic goals "because the alternative is too horrible to imagine."

Sabina Dana Plasse:

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