Campaigns, News Cycles and Attention Spans

This morning’s Washington Post leads with a front page, above the fold story that focuses not only on whom Barack Obama will select as his running mate but the manner in which the announcement will be made. It is a fascinating look at how much campaigns have changed in their tactics in only four short years.

The sentence that jumped off the page was this: "An announcement late in the week suggests that the Obama campaign believes that, in an era of 24/7 coverage and increasingly shortened news cycles, sustaining interest in a vice presidential rollout has become increasingly difficult." This is the first "presidential-level decision" Obama will make. It will tell us what he values most. Does he put greater emphasis on his own storyline and approach to politics and choose someone personally simpatico like Gov. Tim Kaine. Or does Obama have an appreciation of his own limits and sees the need to balance his deficiencies by selecting someone with greater foreign policy experience, like Sen. Joe Biden. Either way, we are going to learn a lot about Obama by this choice, yet the news organizations and campaigns believe that they cannot sustain interest in the story for more than a couple of days.

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America’s attention span has grown shockingly low. You see this most easily in the faces of young people who simply do not know how to entertain themselves any longer. They need outside stimuli. They crave ever more outrageous television and movie thrills. They live vicariously through the lives of those in the very inaccurately named "reality tv" shows or in the pages of celebrity magazines. The degree of planning that now goes into "play dates" astounds. My mother used to tell me to "go outside and play" and that was that.

Evidently, we adults are not much better and the campaigns are learning to adjust. At the same time as we are lowering our attention spans, we are more "plugged in" than ever. We have e-mail and cell phones and blackberries and text messaging and iphones and ipods and Lord knows what else. Campaigns are trying to figure out how to harness these technologies. A week ago, anyone on the Obama campaign’s email list received a notice that they would make the veep announcement first by text message. To sign up, you had to provide your cell phone number. If you signed up to receive the "news" you can bet you will also receive a reminder to vote on election day. This is smart politics.

This is the second time the Obama campaign has been ahead of the curve on using modern technologies. During the primaries, tickets to campaign events were free but to get a ticket, you had to give your email address. This allowed the campaign to put together their massive email list to which they turn again and again for campaign donations, resulting in over two million donors and the most well funded campaign in history.

Will such technological proficiency make a difference? In a close election it might. The bigger question is whether or not the world of text messaging and iphones will allow the kind of sustained national effort we will need to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, solve the health care crisis or fix failing schools. Those problems require more than technology. They require us. And we are often too busy flipping channels.

Michael Sean Winters

 

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