PBS: By the People, Election 2004
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Deciding Votes: Perspectives on Choosing a President

How the 2004 Election Changed Political Communication

by Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

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Money has always mattered in politics. So, too, have messages. In 2004 citizens became ad producers, the Web came into its own as a broker of political messages, and partisan books and films drew likeminded audiences who paid to have their convictions sharpened. In other words, the sources of political messages and the means by which they were financed shifted.

The Citizen as Content Producer

We don't ordinarily think of individuals with minicams as ad producers because individuals can't afford airtime to bring content to a mass audience. By raising the funds and using the Internet to generate entries, MoveOn.org flipped the traditional assumption about who produces political content for the masses on its head.

MoveOn.org's early-primary-season contest to find and air the best citizen-produced anti-Bush ad illustrates a new relationship between citizens and the media. The contest, which elicited over 1,500 entries, asked entrants to create a 20-second ad that "told the truth about the president and his policies." Online, viewers cast about 2.9 million votes to identify the "best" ad. The winner, which showed children working in low-wage jobs, asked, "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?" The top-rated ad was given $15 million in airplay by Move.On.org in mid-January 2004.

Web Ads

By creating inexpensive Web ads, the campaigns of 2004 reduced the cost of reaching audiences when news reports, Sunday morning interview programs such as "Meet the Press" and cable talk shows, played the Web ads for their audiences, even though they had never aired in paid time. By e-mailing the link to the candidates' followers, Web-ad content also secured cheap distribution as followers relayed the Web-ad page to their friends. In mid-February the Kerry and Bush campaigns exchanged Internet ads, gaining free news time on "Meet the Press," "Hardball" and "Hannity and Colmes," among other outlets. The Bush-Cheney ad multiplied its impact when the campaign e-mailed it to 6 million supporters.

After being burned badly when cable talk shows aired the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, without a rebuttal ad from the Kerry camp because none had been produced, the Democrats in October 2004 began responding to Republican attack ads that might draw them off their ad plan with ads offered to the networks and posted on Web sites but not aired. An emotionally evocative pro-Bush ad by a group independent of the Bush campaign featuring Ashley, a young woman who had lost a parent in the attacks of 9/11, did air extensively. In its early days of airing, it was paired in news and cable discussion with a pro-Kerry ad featuring a 9/11 widow who fought for creation of the 9/11 commission. That Kerry ad did not air in paid time. In the pro-Bush ad, Ashley reported that President Bush made her feel safe. The 9/11 widow in the pro-Kerry ad, however, indicated that she did not feel safe and that we are not in fact safer. By putting out the unaired ad, the Democrats ensured that the pro-Bush message would be balanced by their own.

The Web as Fundraiser

Those concerned about money in politics worry about the influence that fat cats expect in return for the cash that pays for the airtime for ads. But what if ordinary citizens could finance ads for $10 and $20 a shot? In 2004 campaigns found that they could use the Internet to raise funds exactly this way.

The anti-Kerry SwiftVets.com and MoveOn.org sites both used the Internet to increase funding for their ads. SwiftVets ran an estimated $11 million in ads claiming Kerry didn't deserve his Vietnam medals and characterizing his antiwar testimony as a "betrayal" of veterans. Moveon.org ran more than $20 million worth of ads indicting the Bush administration.

Paying to See Politics: The Political Documentary

Scholars have known for more than half a century that people seek out information that reinforces what they believe. Most of those purchasing Michael Moore's Stupid White Men: And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation, the nonfiction best-seller of 2002 with sales over 4 million, were probably Democrats. Those lining up to buy How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter or Delivering Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, were probably Bush supporters. Rush Limbaugh's audience, like the audience for Fox News, has more conservatives than liberals. And the chairman of Barnes and Noble reports that "books from the left tend to sell better in blue states; books from the right in red states."

The 30-second spots and 7-second sound bites in news do little to satisfy partisans' hunger for red meat, but 2004 added the political film to the partisan's menu. Pioneering this form was Michael Moore, who won an academy award for best documentary for "Bowling for Columbine" in 2002. Where that film earned $21.6 million domestically, "Fahrenheit 9/11" broke box-office records for a documentary by taking in $21.8 million on its first weekend alone.

Did it convert the undecided, or simply attract true believers? It's difficult to know with certainty. Our National Annenberg Election survey found that 41 percent of the Moore moviegoers said the picture made them think worse of George W. Bush, an instance of classic reinforcement since three-fifths of those who said the film made them think less of Bush were Democrats. Moore's film spawned a rebuttal from the right called "Fahrenhype 9/11" whose audience to date has been too small to study.

Moore's film was not the only one trying to shape voters' attitudes. In 2004 George Butler's "Going Upriver" sympathetically recounted John Kerry's service in Vietnam and his antiwar protest. It was Butler who introduced bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to the nation in "Pumping Iron." The counterpart of "Going Upriver," produced by Carlton Sherwood, was "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," a film that reinforced the claims of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads by indicting Kerry's conduct in the war and his postwar protests.

Self-financing Political Content

Where campaigns traditionally pay media outlets for time in which to air ads, in 2004 ordinary folks paid to see political content not only in theatres but on the Internet and in video stores. Want to see "Stolen Honor"? For $4.99, it's available on the Internet. Want to see "Going Upriver"? For $3 you can rent it at your local video store. Also on the video display rack at my local video rental store are the following: "Horns and Halos: Fortunate Son," "Bush Family Fortunes: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" and a video adaptation of the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater titled "Bush's Brain." Want to replay your favorite political film? No problem. In time for the election, most of the major ones were released for sale on DVD. (Not all media companies want to be associated with partisan films, however. In late October 2004, Warner Brothers refused to release the DVD of David O. Russell's anti-Iraq war film "Soldier's Pay," and Michael Moore had some well-publicized problems finding a distributor for "Fahrenheit 9/11.")

The level of fear, anger and anxiety in the electorate was high this year. So, too, was public interest in the campaigns and their outcome. Whether as a result of these factors or because the Internet was poised to change politics regardless of the tenor of the times or both, the informational landscape and the ways in which political communication was produced, consumed and funded changed in 2004. Our new model of this process needs to understand how small contributions matter, how audiences are shaped by reading and watching extended political communication that they have funded and how citizen-produced content differs from the messages of professional consultants.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and professor of communication at the Annenberg School.

Essay QuestionsJoin the Discussion
  • How did you use the Web this election season?
  • Did a political documentary have an impact on your vote for president?

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