A virtual route to the White House

The internet is poised to play an unprecedented role in determining who will succeed George W Bush a

Republican hopefuls in the battle to win their party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential election have so far opted to announce their bids from traditional venues: Rudolph Guiliani on CNN's Larry King Live and Mitt Romney from the Henry Ford Museum. John McCain varied it slightly by opting for a more comedic approach, making his presidential intentions public on CBS's Late Night with David Letterman.

Slightly less traditional, Democrat John Edwards dispensed with the usual prepared text and crowd of political groupies when he was filmed announcing his bid in New Orleans' hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. But it was Edwards' hot-ticket competitors, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who made made big political waves for political Web surfers: they scrapped television entirely to instead announce their bids online.

Obama's announcement video appeared on his website on 16 January and, thanks to the provided code, was embedded within hours in hundreds of blogs and websites. Just five days later, Clinton followed Obama's lead, and a strangely similar (but not shareable) video on her website announced “I'm In.”

What's the strategy behind these surprising online announcements?

There are a few possibilities. For one, online videos let the candidates have complete control of timing, an aspect Clinton took full advantage of when she announced so soon after Obama and on the same Saturday as Bush's State of the Union address. Beginning their presidential campaigns online also allowed the candidates to take control their image from the get-go and make up for any personality flaws. Clinton, for example, is sometimes criticised as being cold and not personal, but you wouldn't guess that when she's beaming at you like a best friend relaxing on an overstuffed couch.

In a time of blossoming online relationships, it's only natural to assume people will find watching a video from the comfort of their personal computer a more intimate experience than watching a nationally televised speech of a politician flanked by crowds of screaming supporters. Viewers watching Obama speak close-up online might feel his words are directed solely at them and may be much more likely to listen if they feel he will concentrate on addressing their individual needs.

Obama and Clinton eliminated distance, creating a virtual bridge from sea to shining sea, and causing an explosion of excitement as Americans discovered who could occupy the White House in two years' time. By avoiding the traditional format of television, the two Democrats cunningly prevented their launch messages from becoming adorned by the partisan commentary of political journalists. Instead, their online videos subtly encouraged viewers click at will, forming their own opinions and often creating free publicity for the candidates through linking and discussion.

Announcing online is just another creative political stunt, but don't think it won't happen again, and there's no denying the Internet is playing a bigger role in the 2008 presidential election than ever before. Candidates from all parties are devoting valuable time and resources into developing their websites into key campaign tools that let voters “interact” extensively with them. Suddenly it's not only the media but ordinary voters who are the scrutinizing watchdogs of candidates' every moves.

Watch out, the road to the U.S. presidency is going to be strewn with more cyber surprises, and logging onto candidates' websites may begin to feel like participating in a highly interactive, informational online arcade. But the campaign that gets most creative in virtual strategising might just end up on top in 2008.

Hana Bieliauskas is a junior at Ohio University majoring in magazine journalism. She is currently studying in London.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder