Blogged Down: Political Campaign Debate Centers On Web Logs

Will the Web supersede television as politicians' ad medium of choice? Is email tomorrow's direct mail? The impact of the Internet on politics remains a topic of debate, and Monday's Personal Democracy Forum held at New York's New School University provided an outlet for politicians, technology providers, and campaign consultants to hash out the issues.

"The goal of the conference was to continue to explore the ways in which the Internet will influence our political process," explained Andrew Rasiej, executive producer of the inaugural Personal Democracy Forum event that drew 320 attendees.

If there was one term that dominated the conference, it had to be "blog." Although some believe the weblog as a communication medium holds great potential for affecting political change and building online political communities, others are unconvinced. Congresspeople are not technically savvy, contended New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who predicted that politicians will care about blogs only when the medium inspires news coverage of a story that eventually reaches the mainstream consciousness. "I haven't seen it yet," said Weiner, as the blog-evangelists on the panel shook their heads in disagreement.

"That's going be the river to swim in between the political and the technological establishment," opined Rasiej during a post-forum interview with the MediaDailyNews.

In a tangible demonstration of the convergence of politics and technology, a live chat among forum attendees was projected onto a larger-than-life screen behind the forum panelists on stage. The often distracting backdrop added depth to the discussion, and at times, displayed cynical commentary that one chat participant dubbed "e-heckling."

Talk of Internet advertising was interspersed throughout forum panels and addresses, including a morning panel during which moderator Jerry Michalski, former managing editor of Release 1.0, isolated a key benefit of online advertising: urgency. Michalski suggested that Internet ads allow advertisers to respond to the news of the day in a timely manner.

"Use email while you can," cautioned panelist Michael Bassik, VP Internet advertising at Malchow Schlackman Hoppey & Cooper, agency of record for online fund-raising advertising for the John Kerry campaign. Bassik believes that the Can-Spam act will ultimately be extended to cover email communications associated with political campaigns.

Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Dean for America, also touched on email as it relates to a legal loophole allowing members of Congress to send "franked" email during the 90-day pre-election blackout. The blackout currently applies to franked mail of the printed variety, or taxpayer-supported mass communications sent to constituents.

Trippi shared the stage with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon; he also took aim at loopholes that exempt Internet communications. Forecasting that political mudslinging will now be relegated to the Web as a result of the "Stand by Your Ad" provision applying to TV and radio ads, Wyden argued: "It would be a tragedy now that we have people getting excited [about the Internet] to see people get cynical and frustrated about online campaigning." Wyden, along with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has put forth new legislation that would extend the law to require explicit approval of print ads, pre-recorded phone messages, and audio- and video-enhanced Internet ads.

The very introduction of such legislation indicates recognition by public officials of the Internet's influential role in politics. Indeed, former Senator and New School University president Bob Kerrey, predicted during his keynote interview that TV ads will become less important as more people use the Internet to access news and information.

Yet reluctance to accept the Net as a legitimate advertising medium remains, even among such forceful political strategists as Ralph Reed, Southeast regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign and former Christian Coalition leader. According to forum executive producer, Rasiej, Reed noted during his capstone speech that there is no proof that advertising on the Internet brings in any money. A recent online fund-raising effort by the John Kerry campaign that combined telemarketing and direct mail efforts with emails and Web ads to raise $10 million in 10 days represents a different take.

Now that television has diversified beyond the three all-powerful networks, contended Rasiej, "it's natural to return to interpersonal communication and grassroots activism. The Internet is the tool to facilitate that." Added Rasiej: "TV is probably the one arena that is most threatened by this new activity."