Mother Jones: Can you give a quick review of the “media chaos” scenario that you’ve been writing about?
Bob Garfield: Well, “chaos” envisions that the old media structure basically collapses because they are no longer economically viable due to fragmentation, technology, and so forth. Eventually, most media are distributed online and probably that we’re a long way from having the infrastructure online to support all media and all marketing and so forth, and that there is a period of chaos in which content has no place to live and marketers have nothing to underwrite because there just isn’t enough out there. That is chaos in a nutshell.
At the same time, obviously the Internet is expanding dramatically, and Web 2.0 has combined applications to make the web far more robust than it used to be. And politicians are obviously taking advantage of it. At least for this cycle, it’s certainly not going to displace television, because television happens to be one of the few remaining things that’s perfect for political advertising clustered around elections.
MJ: So you’re not predicting the death of the 30-second attack ad, at least not in the next two years?
BG: No, absolutely not. Unfortunately. It’s a blight on our democracy and our media environment, but no.
MJ: But is there any reason to believe that YouTube attack ads are going to be any better? Are we trading one blight for another?
BG: YouTube’s not a captive audience, obviously. You have to opt in, and people are not going to opt in with the same kind of slimeball attack. The Hillary thing, through the Obama aide, was very clever. I clicked on it to see it, because I wanted to see how well it was done. And the George Allen thing [“macaca”] was good because it was a smoking-gun video. Those are going to flourish on the Internet. But nobody is going to opt in to see somebody’s legislative votes misrepresented in an attack ad—because why would you?
MJ: So in the same way that you think that TV and advertising executives are freaking out about the shift from TV to the Internet, do you sense a similar mood among political consultants and the guys who make the attack ads?
BG: I think the guys who make the attacks ads are so busy making money that they haven’t given a whole lot of thought to their future. I certainly don’t care what happens to them. I hope they starve, to tell you the truth. If they think it through, they will see that they don’t have a future.
MJ: The future of political advertising is more decentralized and has more average people involved in making these videos or getting information out there. What does that mean for the future of campaigns?
BG: Political campaigns, like every other organization that dictates a message from the top down, will discover that the world will no longer accommodate them because we are now in a bottom-up world. Everything percolates to the top in the digital world. And while they may wish to finely craft and hone messages in order to distribute them to the masses, they’re going to discover that the masses are not paying much attention because they are too busy sending their own messages up.
Campaigns are all about delivering information, and now the sources of information are so many and varied and so better trusted on the Internet that the fundamental raison d’etre for political campaigns is on the verge of being irrelevant.
MJ: We’ve talked to other people who have said that they think that will happen and see that as a positive development in that candidates will no longer be marketed as products but will get to be real people and people will appreciate that, and are getting the sense that the average American really wants to see politicians as real people.
BG: Well, you have to understand that we are still talking about a narrow slice of the public here. The average American is only dimly aware of their politicians. About half of them have completely opted out of the political process whatsoever.
They are living in ignorance that is leveled slightly by vague notions which may or may not be accurate. And Americans, when they vote, vote more by feel than by issues and actual data. If you went to the polls and asked them what they knew about candidates’ legislative record or positions on certain issues, I think you would be appalled.
MJ: So does this really change anything if it’s still just the same elite who can spend all day online digesting this stuff going out and voting every couple of years?
BG: Yes, because the elite is the fuel that runs the engine. They are the ones who give the money, they are the ones who vote, and the ones who determine the nature of the debate. So maybe only 10 percent of the public is truly engaged, but that 10 percent really dominates and controls the discussion. And to the extent that the Internet becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, the 10 percent will grow somewhat, and their power and influence will grow, too.
MJ: Do you think there is any trickle down to people outside that 10 percent?
BG: As the Internet becomes second nature in everyone’s life, the power of information will prevail, and people with easy access to information will find themselves availing themselves. The Internet is all about information, and I just don’t see how the net of this could be anything other than a public that is more informed.
MJ: Are there any downsides to this shift?
BG: There’s hardly any downside, really. There is the risk of people putting abstract, filthy lies like the Swift Boat campaign on the Internet and just torpedoing campaigns with something invented from whole cloth. But that’s pretty much the status quo on TV. It’s not as though it can get a whole lot worse.
MJ: What do you think the most exciting use of new technologies in politics is?
BG: The upside-down nature of the Internet. Politicians in the future will have to listen carefully. And not to the stupid focus groups that help them do what is most politically expedient five minutes before an election. That’s over. Now they can actually find out what people are thinking in a very granular way. It’s going to reverse the power flow.
The coolest application to me is still the fact that if I’ve got a cell phone, and a little bit of patience, I can catch somebody doing something that proves he’s a liar or a hypocrite or just a bad guy. We’ll see a rise in people getting totally caught being politicians, which will be fun, and probably pretty enlightening. Maybe politicians will realize that since they cannot control every word, thought, and action, they might actually have to be honest with themselves and everyone else.