Beyond the election news cycle

A public radio producer called me the other day to discuss his idea for a story on the Internet's role in the recent US midterm election. The hook? He'd heard that Internet use on election day reached levels not seen since 9/11. That didn't ring true for me, though I did find one report that Internet Broadcasting, a publisher of TV-station websites, had its biggest day ever. As it turned out, the producer had based his idea on that same report.

Well, if the total amount of Internet use wouldn't be the story hook, I counter-proposed, perhaps the evolution in styles of Net use could be. Internet Broadcasting's banner day, for example, was Wolf Blitzer's Waterloo. The poor guy looked pathetic on CNN, pointing to computer-generated graphics and reading out the numbers. Who wouldn't want interactive graphics, more numbers, and above all on-demand access to our own state and local results? For years, it's true, people have been going online for that experience. But this election may have nailed TV's coffin in terms of data delivery.

Then there was the dizzying interplay among mainstream media, blogs, and online video on such issues as poll-watcher intimidation and e-voting glitches. In one case, amateur video flowed "upstream" when the New York Times mentioned a item about a YouTube video that claimed to document intimidation of poll watchers in Philadelphia. In another case, pro video flowed "downstream" when BradBlog posted a segment from Lou Dobbs Tonight on e-voting problems.

In the end there was no "upstream" or "downstream", just a swirl of currents. Let's hop in the kayak and take a tour.

The Wall Street Journal sounded this theme:

When Americans go to vote tomorrow, a new breed of activist will be on guard, monitoring polling stations for everything from voting-machine glitches to long lines to registration snafus. []

Michelle Malkin spun it thusly:

Behind the civic-minded facade are far Left radicals whose main concern is not in ensuring a fair election process--but in preemptively undermining and delegitimizing it.
Like I said yesterday, bring a camera if you can. [Michelle Malkin]

To help us answer questions about the use of cameras in polling places, she usefully cited the Center for Citizen Media's Election Day FAQ. In a followup, the Center noted:

When we asked for your questions, we never expected that 80% would be about taking photographs or videos at the polls. [Center for Citizen Media]

What did the followup guidance say about the Pennsylvania rules that applied to the poll-watching video-blogger in Philadelphia? Unfortunately, nothing conclusive.

The New York Times, meanwhile, twice mentioned the fact that text-blogged the Philly video-blogger. First on Wednesday:

Erick Erickson, RedState's chief blogger, also included a report of poll watcher intimidation in Philadelphia, along with a link to a video on YouTube that appeared to show a certified poll observer (armed with a video camera) being blocked from a polling station. [New York Times]

(Oddly, the Times devoted almost as much space to its coverage of as did to either of its brief items on the incident. Even more oddly, neither of those seems to include the link to the video.)

Then today:

Right-leaning reports alleged intimidation of poll-watchers in Philadelphia... [New York Times]

The comment thread attached to one of those items included this exchange:

Q: What is your source for this? is not reporting anything like this.

A: []

And here is the story cited by the commenter:

Officials said approximately a dozen claims were filed stating they were being interfered with as they entered the D and Clearfield polling place in Kensington.

In the 19th Ward, several complaints were filed regarding voters being told who to vote for.

The District Attorney's office and Philadelphia Police are looking into the accusations.

"We sent our District Attorney's detectives, the police department was also called and Federal, F.B.I. agents were called out as well to make sure that whatever was going on in East Division stop and that no voter was intimidated," said Philadelphia District Attorney Lynn Abraham. [CBS 3]

Whew. We really have stepped through the looking glass. It is strange (and disheartening) to see that the New York Times didn't particularly care whether there actually was poll-watcher (or voter) intimidation in Philly, but was fascinated that a "right-leaning" blog reported "alleged" intimidation, and that the allegation took the form of a YouTube video.

It is strange (and exhilarating) to realize that, with a bit of web search and navigation, we can so easily triangulate on that intimidation flap from a dozen different perspectives. We don't need to depend on the Times to deliver that story any more than we need to depend on Wolf Blitzer to recite our congressional results.

It may take another election or two before the strangeness wears off, and all this seems familiar and unremarkable. The sooner the better because, while it's true that we enjoy powerful new access to information about our political system, it's also true that we've barely scratched the surface.

Here's a crazy idea. I checked to see what Philadelphia District Attorney Lynn Abraham's team concluded about alleged intimidation. Of course I found nothing there about that investigation, or indeed any investigation. But why not? Why should we depend on reporters and bloggers to dredge up this information? It's public information; we fund the activities that produce it; we should expect to get it through the web and directly from the source.

Last summer I wrote about Washington DC's extraordinary experiment in digital democracy and transparent government. So far as I can tell, that story is still a sleeper, both inside and outside the Beltway, for the old media and the new. I'm waiting for everyone to wake up and notice. After that, I'll be waiting for everyone to stop noticing and take it for granted. That'll be a great non-story.

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