Pro panel covers
democracy and media


School of Communications Advisory Board members representing the film industry, the Internet, public relations and communications marketing discussed politics and the public interest at a Sept. 28 panel discussion titled "Formula for American Democracy: Politics, Public Relations and the Public Interest."

Participants, led by Frances Ward, an associate professor in the School of Communications, included Reggie Murphy, director of research for Gannett's newspaper division (publisher of USA Today); Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and former managing editor of U.S. News & World Report; Joe Gleason, managing director of Manning Selvage & Lee public relations in Washington; and Kelly Carlton, creative director of motion graphics for Intralink Film in Los Angeles.

Panelists discussed the changing landscape of the media world and noted that today's voters have a wider variety of choices when it comes to news.

"In this election, more than any other election, we as citizens have a unique challenge, because we have so many outlets to go to when it comes to news," said Murphy. Murphy also discussed a recent USA Today survey of undecided voters in Ohio. He said the paper found that "ads that were most memorable were also the most negative." He also pointed out that voters said the negative ads would not influence the way they plan to vote.

"We, as citizens, are faced with a unique challenge," Murphy said. "We have so many places to get information... How do we sift through all this information? How do we find accurate accounts of the candidates' records? ... We have to ask ourselves, 'What is it that these candidates are going to do for me and my community?' Base your decisions on state, local and national levels on careful research."

Murphy said this takes more effort than most people are giving it right now. "Most of us are lazy, and we don't go out and work to get the information," he said. "We get snippets and bites here and there, and we're not focused on that information because we're doing other things simultaneously as we take it all in ... We can hope people will get more energized to do the right research before they vote."

Gleason condemned what passes today for campaign advertising and planning. "If you look at what's going on, it is sinister and it is not public relations," said the former Capitol Hill press secretary. Gleason said the various Web sites and media events being arranged by political campaigns are propaganda, not public relations.

He said the media once did a better job of fairly filtering information for citizens. "The fractionalizing of media and the advent of the Internet have forced a streamlined presentation of news," he said. "...There is a use of propaganda to hold off public opinion, it's the sheer weight of information coming to you as a consumer - you're not really being informed. If we were to (package information this way) in the commercial environment, we'd be fined, and we might even be put in jail. You can't regulate this stuff because of freedom of speech."

He was critical of ads that attack a candidate's character. "I caution all of you to be careful of the attacks on character you see in campaign ads," he said. "Those are designed to make you doubt ... Most campaigns then leave people with the choice of the 'lesser of two evils.' It's what turns voters off. Try to find out what the candidates are for." He also said that once one side in a political race employs the negative approach, the other is forced to follow. "In this environment, it's a slugfest," he said. "If you just keep taking punches, you lose."

Carlton worked on television ads for Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11." He discussed the limits placed on advertising for the movie by federal election laws, and said legal issues made it difficult to edit together the advertising spots for the film. "We produced spots and gave them directly to the lawyers to ensure compliance with election laws and third-party laws," he said. "Michael Moore says the media is biased, and it is his job to let people see another side, so they can make up their own minds. A film is a two-hour message that commands people's attention, and they don't turn the channel - although they could walk out."

Carlton said "Fahrenheit" has made a powerful statement about films as political messengers. "I think we're starting to see the conservative side coming back to use cinema to tell their side of the story," he added.

Rainie discussed the Internet and its growing influence on the political process. He said the growth in technology and opportunities for people to vote before election day are good things.

"We have multiple news sources now," he said. "I think that's good for our democracy. There are more ways for people to get engaged because of these new media sources, and we do have big things to talk about."

He traced the history of politics and the Internet in a quick briefing: 1996 - Bill Clinton sent the first political e-mail and Bob Dole gave the wrong e-mail address for his Web site during a debate and nobody cared. 1998 - Jesse Ventura won the governor's race in Minnesota in great part due to an e-mail grassroots campaign, what Rainie labeled, "a fabulous breakout moment of hope." 2000 - There were now many citizens online, and the Internet was reaching a mainstream audience; John McCain's campaign taught everyone you can raise campaign money online. 2003 - The Howard Dean campaign's use of social networking on the Internet was an overwhelming success that every other candidate began to copy.

Rainie said that citizens still rely on television and newspapers more than the Internet for political information, but it is making some inroads and its influence is now felt more than ever before. He said it is especially significant in an age in which Americans are seen to be retreating into themselves and becoming more isolated. He cited Robert Putnam's book "Bowling Alone" as evidence of the trend. In the book, Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone - more Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Rainie said the Internet can help rebuild our social networks in new ways. "There are smart things happening subsurface that are going to be important," he added.

Answering the common criticism that today's media allows people to limit their information intake so that it only matches their own political ideologies, Rainie said he believes the multiple sources are good. "There's a serious concern that these technologies allow us to tailor information to only that with which we agree," he said. "My little information bubble has my favorite partisan sites, and my neighbor has her own bubble and we never share. But our most recent data - it hasn't been released yet - shows that broadband users - the hungriest of all users - don't confine themselves to limited information bubbles. They are enjoying the feast. They go out there and see it all. Research shows that the heaviest users of NPR are also looking at Fox and everything else and reading newspapers. They're not the ones we need to worry about."




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Last Modified:  9/28/04
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