Covering Politics in the Internet Era

Article excerpt

Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch political writer Jo Mannies recalls the Missouri political campaigns of 1992 when an extraordinary amount of dirt was flung in the statewide races. But little of the dirt stuck to the pages of the Post.

"We ran three paragraphs in the Post" about one of the races, Mannies said. "It was something about, 'They had been on the low road for a time and this week it headed into a ditch.' That was it."

She said part of a big story would be "about why the campaigns were engaging in this kind of stuff, and which voters does it move, which, I think, is a legitimate story."

Today, candidates' dirty laundry and mudslinging by commentators are major parts of the 24-hour news cycle. That is not necessarily a bad thing, said Mannies, who retired from the Post last fall and now writes a political blog, Beacon Backroom, for the St. Louis Beacon web site.

She said the mainstream news media today does stories about a candidate's youthful pot smoking or messy divorce. Internet sites have virtually unlimited space to carry such stories, allow political players to fling more dirt and make it necessary for the news media to address controversies.

"Do you know why you have to do it? It is not because the newspapers or major news outlets want to do it, it is because of the Internet. This stuff is all over the Internet, just like this 'birther' controversy about Obama (supposedly not being a U.S. citizen). The mainstream media has to do stuff on it because it is out there and people are asking about it. The mainstream media can no longer pick and choose what they cover."

Mannies joined the Post in 1976 and began covering government and politics a few years later. She worked in the paper's Washington, D.C., bureau from 1981 to 1985 then returned to St. Louis where she was the Post's chief regional political writer until accepting a buyout offer last November.

"I enjoy watching the political process. I think Harry Truman said this--I am roughly paraphrasing--that government has a high-minded aura but it takes politicians who are willing to roll in the dirt to make it work. Public policies that affect people's lives are often enacted or changed based on factors that are totally unrelated. All of a sudden people end up with policies they have to follow and wonder, 'How did this happen?'"

Mannies began a blog called "Political Fix" on the Post web site in 2005 as a repository for small but meaningful news items that weren't getting into print. "By 2006 we were going great guns," she said. As major elections approached, the blog was receiving 100,000 page views a week.

The Internet's role in politics has mushroomed in the past five years, Mannies said. "In 2004, there were candidates who had web sites, but it was not sophisticated. In 2006, the difference from what they were doing in 2004 was really something. In 2008, it was light years ahead."

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