Mercer Essay 1

Politicians devote countless hours of their personal time as well large portions of their budgets toward creating a consistent and strong message that affords them control over how the public perceives them. Doing this involves using and manipulating traditional media outlets such as newspapers, television, and books. Most politicians master this skill, especially once they have reached the highest levels of elected office in the United States. However, the rise of the popularity of websites such as LiveJournal since 1999 which empower users with basic knowledge of how to create and maintain a webpage to have a web log or “blog” of their thoughts, pose a threat to the well oiled machines in the political communications realm.

The lack of control over the information on blogs compared to the control traditional media provides offers an explanation for differences in public reaction when politicians make remarks that touch on some of today’s most sensitive topics. In the past decade, two separate case studies involving racist remarks made by Senate Majority Leaders from different parties became major news stories.

In 2002, Senator Trent Lott made comments which some in the media audience saw as supporting segregation policies long since abandoned in the United States. Bloggers first published the comments and pushed them into the spotlight. In 2009, comments Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made about Barack Obama as a black candidate for president were published in Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Senator Lott’s colleagues in the Senate as well as other elected officials encouraged him to step down from his leadership position as the Majority Leader in the Senate. Under such intense political pressure from both sides of the aisle, Senator Lott followed their wishes. Senator Reid on the other hand was able to keep the same leadership position after the story of his comments broke.

Most pundits attribute differences in reaction either to each Senator’s party affiliation or to differences in the nature of the comments. However, none explore the important difference in the type of media that played a principle role in attracting widespread attention to the comments through traditional media.

In 2002, blogs and bloggers were the new players in the world of reporting, and until one December evening, existed largely underground. As Clay Shirky writes in his book Here Comes Everybody, Senator Trent Lott and his political communications team, accustomed to using and controlling traditional media outlets, had no way of controlling the media-storm bloggers created after a speech he made at Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party.

Senator Lott, in front of friends, family, a few reporters, and a CSPAN camera said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." Senator Thurmond in his 1948 presidential campaign ran on the slogan of, “Segregation Forever.” According to Shirky bloggers – not the traditional media – were the first media to give that statement attention in the context of racial undertones, and also to connect that statement to Senator Lott’s questionable record on discrimination issues. Shirky writes that a link between newsworthiness and the press has disconnected because bloggers have the power to push a story into “public consciousness” with new media.

The case study of Senator Trent Lott’s fall from his position as the Majority Leader displays clearly the lack of control that political communications professionals have over the new media blogs. A similar situation came about in 2009 when Senator Reid commented on the success Barak Obama found as an African American candidate for President. The situations played out very differently in part because of the type of media used to break the story.

Senator Reid stated in an interview for the book Game Change that Obama was “light-skinned,” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Negative reactions to the quote came in on blogs and on comment features of news websites, such as CNN.com, when the story about the soon to be published quote became a part of the traditional media news cycle. Even though Senator Reid’s comments generated anger because of the racial implications, when the story about the comments became a part of the press, the story about them already featured an apology from Senator Reid and an acceptance of the apology from President Obama. This kind of defensive measure could only occur with maximum control of the story. Once the political communications professionals working for Harry Reid got wind of the story about the comments to be published, they were able to handle the problem. The Senator’s comments for the most part addressed only the then presidential candidate and so an apology to him and an acceptance served as an effective defense.

In the case of Senator Lott, because traditional media picked up the story slowly from the blogs, the political communications professionals working for his interests had no time to intervene and negate inevitable negative outcomes because they could not tell where the story might move next. Not everything that shows up on a blog will become mainstream news, so even if Senator Lott’s people had seen the information on the internet, that did not mean they needed to prepare for an attack from the press. However, Senator Reid’s communication staff knew that comments published in a book written by reputable reporters had the potential to create the same kind of storm which Senator Lott’s fell victim to. In order to respond and protect Senator Reid’s image, they were able to address traditional media attacks, with traditional responses, such as an apology from the Senator and from the President who the remarks addressed.

On the other hand Senator Lott’s team did not use traditional responses effectively. After The Washington Post published an article on his remarks at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, Senator Lott’s communications staff issued formal apology statements through press releases. This relatively small scale response from the Senator indicates that the communications staff did not understand the full weight of the power of the new media blogs. The political communication model used for dealing with this kind of political crisis was clearly outdated because it did not appreciate the power bloggers starting a story and propelling it to the national press and into traditional media. Because of the traditional and predictable way that Senator Reid’s comments became a part of the national press cycle (a book) the communications staff used their understanding of what becomes a big story to craft a response that negated damage and provided control. Communication responses to new media versus traditional media provides an explanation as to why Senator Reid held onto his leadership position as the Senate Majority Leader and why Senator Lott did not hold that same position only a few years earlier.

Political pundits for the most part jumped to two conclusions in response to the differences in the treatment each Senator received as a result of the press coverage of each Senator’s comment. One conclusion was that the comments contained very different connotations. Another, that the party affiliation of each Senator impacted the reaction. With more analysis, holes present themselves in these theories that give more importance to the blog factor in the case of Senator Lott.

In response to Senator Lott’s remarks, some pundits argued that he deserved to have to step down from his leadership position because he arguably endorsed a system that systematically disenfranchised African-Americans for a large part of American history. Pundits followed this logic and argued that because Senator Reid’s comments made observations about the current political landscape and did not specifically endorse those racist attitudes that he did not deserve to become a victim of conditions that forced him to resign his leadership position.

A flaw with this perspective comes from the fact that Senator Reid used the word “negro.” There exists a certain taboo Caucasians use this word. It often carries implications of a time before the Civil Rights Movement when segregation was rampant. Especially when the widely accepted politically correct way of referring to people who Senator Reid called "negro" today and at the time Senator Reid said it is African-American. Senator Reid did not even choose something more intermediate such as “black.” Because of this word choice, his comment had the power to incite the same kind of outrage that caused Senator Lott to resign.

In the aftermath of the traditional media attention given to Senator Reid’s comments, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, stated that Democrats in the Senate and the liberal media do not give the same harsh criticism to someone who they agree with politically. Senator McConnell argued that because of Senator Lott’s republican affiliation and other conservative beliefs, that the media and democrats exploited the opportunity to take down an elected official who they did not agree with.

However, at the time of Senator Lott’s debacle, Republican support was very limited. According to a CNN.com article "Lott Apologizes for Thurmond Comment", Senator McConnell actually spent more time attempting to muster republican support for Senator Lott than Senator Lott did himself. His attempts were not successful. Senator Lott suffered from a lack of support within his own party as well as opposition from the other side of the aisle.

Bearing in mind the analysis of these two explanations for the difference in the treatment and response to the racist comments creates an environment in which the media used to propel the story becomes a more important factor. The case studies of Senator Trent Lott and Senator Harry Reid shows that models political communications professionals use in the context of traditional media such as books, television, and newspapers do not translate to the new media style journalism. This new style makes it impossible to control stories with responses that work within the realm of stories generated and propelled by traditional media. The significance of this change is that political communications professionals need to adapt their response models in order to accommodate a new power structure.

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