Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Body-Slamming the Election and Media

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Body-Slamming the Election and Media

Article excerpt

Kevin Featherly, a new media author and professor is a part-time editor at the PioneerPlanet, the Web site of the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press.


Though the signals were flashing, Brett Benson missed them. Not that he was alone among Minnesota's journalists. When it came to missing the boat that was steaming headlong toward Jesse Ventura's Nov. 3 gubernatorial victory, Benson was standing on a crowded dock.

What strikes him now, he says, is that weeks beforehand, he had evidence something unexpected was afoot, and he paid it little mind. In hindsight, Benson says, the indications seem obvious. In the last three weeks of Minnesota's tight, three-way gubernatorial campaign, the PioneerPlanet (the St. Paul Pioneer Press Web site) began receiving big batches of e-mails from people adamantly supporting Ventura's Reform Party campaign and his libertarian message. There were more e-mails about Ventura than anything else. "I discounted it," Benson admits. "Quite honestly, I thought there was this lunatic fringe out there that had gotten hold of our e-mail address."

How Important Was the Web?

The press has since debated the role the Internet played in Jesse "The Body" Ventura's narrow, 3-percentage-point victory over Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert ("Skip") Humphrey III. An argument circulating in newspapers, on Web sites and in campus discussion panels across the country, is that the Ventura victory can be attributed directly to his seminal Internet campaign strategy.

Shortly after the election, for instance, The New York Times quoted Phil Nobel, president of PoliticsOnline, calling Ventura "the JFK of the Internet" for his acuity in exploiting the emerging technology. Nobel even compared it to John Kennedy's groundbreaking use of television in his 1960 presidential bid. Meanwhile, the respected Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., referred to Ventura's efforts in the absolute: "The Net Wins its First Political Election," its online headline read. "It seems prudent -- even an understatement -- to say that politics will never be the same again," wrote Jon Katz, a First Amendment Center scholar. And it's a notion that has more than a few critics. "That's overblown," exclaims Benson.

Couldn't Have Won Without It

The man who mapped out Ventura's online strategy, campaign Webmaster Phil Madsen, is himself demure on the subject. "The neat thing about a 3% victory is that, no matter what you did for the campaign, you can take credit for the victory. The lawn-sign chairman can take credit for the 3%. In that way, the Internet was no more influential than any other part of the campaign." But Madsen also clearly believes that his Internet team made a big -- perhaps a decisive -- difference in the race. Katz's interpretation has at least provisional supporters, among them Steve Clift, a Minneapolis-based consultant and project coordinator for the Markle Foundation's national White and Blue election Web site. Clift remarks, "Here's my line: Ventura did not win the election because of the Internet. But he could not have won without it."

There is no disputing the effectiveness of Ventura's Internet strategy; the cash-strapped campaign was nearly totally dependent on the medium -- especially e-mail -- to organize and deploy its base of 3,000 volunteers. And the campaign's Web site was essential in raising funds. Ventura's post-election numbers show that of his total campaign war chest of $450,000, fully $80,000 was raised directly from people surfing to the campaign's Web site to purchase T-shirts or to pledge money.

So what does it all mean to the media that covers elections? Was the Ventura election a harbinger of a new age of politics and political coverage? Or is the Ventura-Web argument simply a pipe dream for bewildered pundits and pro-Web wonks who seek a technological explanation for the election of a former feather-boa-and-pink-tights-wearing pro wrestler as governor in one of the most progressive states? …

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