The last competitive Tennessee governor's race, without an incumbent, was 2002. That seems like only yesterday, but in another way it seems a lifetime ago. Just how has the landscape changed?
Working in the Van Hillary for Governor campaign, I often wondered how people ran statewide campaigns before cellphones and laptops. You could react quickly to breaking events, but then so could your opponent. Early every morning you could analyze the previous 24-hour news cycle to see who carried the day.
This campaign for governor will feature slick websites, Twitter, Facebook and, more importantly, blogs. Candidates can be camcorded at an obscure campaign breakfast stop and an offhand remark can be on YouTube by lunchtime. Former Sen. George Allen's "macacca" moment is a cautionary tale for any candidate these days.
The news cycle is now about 15 minutes. Political junkies can refresh Humphrey on the Hill, Pith in the Wind, A.C. Kleinheider, KnoxViews, or any number of other political blogs throughout the day. And you never know when an item will get an "instalaunch" with a post on Instapundit. Or go viral on YouTube.
Many of these communication devices have been around for awhile. My point is that this is the first competitive gubernatorial race in Tennessee when all these new technologies have been online, focused, and in daily use. The days when a political campaign could ignore the new technologies are over. And a candidate who doesn't "get it" is laboring under a handicap. Some candidates are having sessions with bloggers. Some are making a lame attempt to "twitter." Press releases get to bloggers before they get to traditional newsrooms.
One of the surprising things I discovered early in 2002 is that traditional news organizations just weren't that interested in covering candidates so far out from the election. Television news directors only had one issue they were passionate about—would their station host the debate? Candidates tended to make "news" in Nashville, the Capitol Hill press corps being the only reliable concentration of political reporters to get the word out. Newspapers and television news departments are even more short-staffed these days.
Blogs will play an important role in this election by default. Over the next year, traditional news organizations will do the occasional "take out" on the race. (The News Sentinel had a nice piece a couple of Sundays ago on Republicans and conservatism.) But day in and day out the gossip, the trivia, the minutiae, and the obscure details that thrill political junkies will be found on the blogs.
That is as it should be, I suppose. Blogs can provide information that is not general enough for mass media. That will be especially true for special-interest issue blogs. No doubt SayUncle will keep us informed on where the candidates are on gun issues, for example.
Blogs do not, by and large, have the reach of traditional news organizations. At least right now. But they do have a great deal of influence with political insiders. And they are often read by newspaper editors and television and radio news directors. Thus they often set the tone of campaign coverage. They can get the "talk right" for a candidate, or reveal the candidate to be a bumbling fool. This campaign, they may set the storylines that play out in the course of the campaign.
The debate over the credibility of bloggers versus "mainstream" media reporters is a silly one. A reporter's credibility is reflected in his or her body of work and reputation. Tom Humphrey of the News Sentinel and Jeff Woods at Nashville Scene's Pith in the Wind are former wire-service reporters. They have both covered politics for decades. Conversely, you can also identify "mainstream" newspaper columnists from The New York Times to the Podunk Post who are uninformed horse's asses.
Content is king. And during this gubernatorial race, we will take the content where we find it. Too often these days, that content won't be in the traditional mass media.