What would the Iran-Contra scandal have looked like in a social media driven world? How about the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Would it have changed anything?
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were two of the most gifted politicians of the modern era. The two, working with similar gifts of charisma and folksiness, were able to look into a camera and make people feel like they were being spoken to directly. Both presided over our country at a time when print newspapers and network news provided the bulk of the news coverage.
Reagan benefited more than Clinton from the limited variety of media coverage. At the time of Reagan’s presidency, the only 24 hour news channel that existed was CNN. After all, the 1980′s was a time when people were just getting cable television. Al Gore’s Internet was still in its infancy. Despite a hostile mainstream press, the “bully pulpit” was real, and when Reagan was on television or giving a speech, it was powerful, and it didn’t matter what the NY Times or the evening shows reported. People only saw what was on television or in newspapers (and to a small degree, talk radio).
Bill Clinton was in office on the cusp of the cable news media evolution. MSNBC (July) and Fox News (October) both launched in 1996, just as Clinton was wrapping up his re-election. While Fox News figured prominently in coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was still a new outlet. As for the Internet, 1998 most Americans were still utilizing dial-up AOL accounts for their access. The Drudge Report, which actually broke the Lewinsky story, was a precursor to the larger Internet revolution that would explode in just a few short years.
It wasn’t all that long ago that blogs were the only form of social media that people used regularly. People tend to think Twitter and Facebook have been around forever, but look at the launch dates of some prominent social media outlets:
- Facebook – 2007
- Twitter – 2006
- YouTube – 2005
Social media has changed the political landscape forever.
The question of whether that is a positive or a negative, is largely subjective.
In many ways, social media has created a greater sense of community with many of our elected officials (assuming they are not just using it as another means of making announcements), as they will often respond directly and invite the interaction.
Politicians have also witnessed the wrath of how fast news spreads as the result of social media and the transparency it creates. Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” were made during an interview with a local television station. The reporter barely reacted to what Akin said. If this were 1994 or 1985, Akin’s comments would have barely registered with the general public. Thanks largely to Twitter and YouTube, it became national news within hours, and Akin, who had a great chance to beat a very unpopular Claire McCaskill was instead, soundly defeated.
Politicians have found their ability to sneak pork requests, matters unrelated to a particular bill and other items into legislation without scrutiny nearly impossible. The Hurricane Sandy relief package was loaded with pork. Despite the extra spending, the measure passed intact largely due to Chris Christie’s efforts at berating his own party for not passing the bill as it was originally presented. Christie found out how powerful social media could be when he attempted to rewrite history over the sequence of those events, including the bizarre claim that all of the pork was stripped from the bill before Obama signed it.
If there has been a downside to the rise of social media, it could be argued that the presence of “instant news” has forced many politicians into a state in which they are far too conscientious of everything they say or do.
This has created a climate of heavily scripted remarks, campaign events and appearances. Politicians are so afraid to say something that would be considered a “gaffe” by the media, they choose to stick to very standard remarks and answer questions with the same canned responses. This creates a dilemma however, in that when a pol actually does say something that’s not in the notes, it comes under intense scrutiny from not only the mainstream media, but social media as well.
It has also created in large part, the idiotic “If you do not condemn, you condone” atmosphere. Politicians are always going to have supporters who will make outrageous comments or claims. The problem, is many organizations and rabble-rouser take these outrageous statements, project them on to the politician they support, spending days calling on the pol in question to condemn the words of another person. It’s absurd to think a politician should be held accountable for every stupid thing a supporter says, but it’s the climate that has been created and social media helps to move such narratives along.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were Presidents in what is now a bygone era. Politicians should do their best to learn how to effectively utilize social media and use it to their advantage instead of allowing it to define them.