Media Access to the Political Process Expands: From Bloggers to Videojournalists, the Digital Revolution Is Transforming How Campaigns Are Covered

By Scully, Steven | Nieman Reports, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Media Access to the Political Process Expands: From Bloggers to Videojournalists, the Digital Revolution Is Transforming How Campaigns Are Covered


Scully, Steven, Nieman Reports


The campus of Southern New Hampshire University lies at the end of hilly roads lined with tall pines. At 8 a.m. on the Sunday before the 2004 Democratic primary, it is New England picture-postcard beautiful, snow-dusted pine limbs breaking into a cloudless blue sky. It is also take-your-breath-away cold with temperatures hovering around seven degrees.

The guard at the university's entrance gate is already bored with the monotony of repeating his directions. "Just follow those cars," he says, as we crack the window of our rented SUV. Topping the hill, we can see that hundreds of cars already fill the parking spaces, 90 minutes before the start of this morning's "Women for Dean" rally.

Three satellite trucks are parked outside the University's Hospitality Center. Inside, the room is elbow-to-elbow and anxious aides have set up an overflow room with a television tuned to C-SPAN, which is also filling up fast. Ultimately, when that room reaches capacity, Dean aides have the unhappy task of turning aside another hundred or so arrivals on this critical final weekend of campaigning.

Equally as impressive as the voters willing to brave the frigid Sunday morning temperatures is the crush of media trailing the former Vermont governor. A dozen television cameras are lined up, aimed at the waiting podium. Our network, C-SPAN, has sent two cameras, a satellite uplink, two producers, an interviewer, and six technicians whose task it is to beam the event live to 80 million C-SPAN homes across the country; to listeners on WCSP, the FM station C-SPAN operates in Washington, and to Web users, who favor the network's nonstop video stream of political events at C-SPAN.org. We will transmit live for nearly two hours--following Governor Dean through the crowd until the last voter hand is shaken. At this point in the campaign, it is the unscripted interaction between the candidates and voters that brings us our best material.

Governor Dean's traveling press arrives with the candidate, grumbling about a room unable to fit them. Local police repeatedly clear the hallway of people attempting to jam themselves in the room's three open doors and threaten to remove still photographers who have climbed on folding chairs at the back of those crowds, angling for a decent shot.

Standing outside, with Governor Dean's stump speech echoing in the hallway, is a feast for political and media junkies. Republican pollster Frank Luntz circles, looking for a way to circumvent the closed-off access. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter arrives, spouse and children in tow; MSNBC's Chris Matthews talks it up with veteran television booker Tammy Haddad, then gets pulled aside for an interview with a Portuguese television crew. ("Not to worry, we have a translator," he's told.) A Boston TV anchor leans against the wall, gossiping about station politics with his predecessor, who is on hand to cover the event for the cable network he now works for. A radio reporter from India, tape recorder in hand, is unable to get inside the room and anxiously asks if she can plug her device into C-SPAN's audio mult box. Numerous individuals are recording the scene with pocket-size video recorders or sending photos home instantly via cell phone.

It is a scene repeated throughout the day and for every one of the top Democratic candidates battling for position in this year's competitive primary. By 7 p.m., when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry arrives more than an hour late for a rally at a Hampton fire hall, organizers are boasting of "another thousand people watching down the road on television." Kerry's advance aides direct the overflow crowd to a school gymnasium to watch C-SPAN's live coverage of the senator's question-and-answer session.

C-SPAN and the Primary, Then and Now

What has happened to this once-folksy first-in-the-nation primary? C-SPAN's first foray into New Hampshire was in 1984. It was still the "boys on the bus" generation, when print reporters trailed the candidates, scribbling observations in wire-bound reporters' notebooks. …

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