Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The lessons of Bittergate are obvious

"Bittergate" -- the recent incident in which some of Barack Obama's off-the-record comments at a fundraiser were circulated via a blog -- yields lessons that should have been learned much earlier:
But Bittergate does serve as a key reminder of the Macaca Moment’s core communications lesson for 21st century campaigns:

Digital recording devices - video recorders, audio recorders, cell phone recorders -- are everywhere. All the time. They are small, discrete, often invisible – even when they are being used. And video and audio can be sent wirelessly from anywhere to anywhere, anytime – so that a comment made in San Francisco (or rural Virginia) may be instantly shown on national TV.

Combine (1) this rule of Digital Omnipresence with (2) the rules of Off-the-Record/On the Record (i.e. – nothing is ever truly, reliably, off-the-record), then you’ve got Bittergate.
techPresident – Bittergate's Digital Import
Blogged with the Flock Browser


Alan Rudy said...

ahhhhh, Foucault, disciplined by surveillance and intentionally inaccurate and de-situated claims-making rooted in flawed comparisons and overwrought mis-generalization - so very post-modern (no longer, as in modern times, are the private and public spheres usefully distinct) on the one hand and so premodern (it is as if the rules of honesty, transparency and fair play hold no sway in today's politics) on the other

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Alan, you sound bitter. I hope this doesn't make you cling to guns and religion!

Seriously, the point of the article as I understood it -- and the point that I'm endorsing -- is that the Obama campaign fell into this issue because they relied on the candidate's statements being "off-the-record" -- a contract between campaigns and journalism outlets. They even let the campaign contributors videorecord the comments. What they did not understand was that there is no such implied contract and no possible such contract between the campaign and the contributors acting as free agents. They lost control of the campaign narrative because of this misjudgment.

The clear lesson is that campaigns need to understand that everything is "on the record" and can leak from the private to the public sphere. That means much more granular control of the campaign narrative, probably involving more and more scripting of candidates' remarks at every level. The Clinton campaign understands this, which is why Hillary Clinton speaks in platitudes and commonplaces.

Note also that the story was broken by a longtime Obama supporter and contributor. I don't think that the initial reporting was intentionally inaccurate and de-situated, although it might have been an overwrought misgeneralization. Successful political campaigns are meant to pull people of different worldviews and understandings into coalitions -- that's what makes them successful -- and it's always possible to destabilize such coalitions by accidentally pushing a hot button. That's what happened here, I think, but the difference is that the damage could not be contained within the room. Again, the campaign has to work in very complex ways to craft a suitable narrative that can keep the coalition stable. Later reporting exploited that instability and perhaps exaggerated the incident for effect, but at Ground Zero the reporting does not appear to have been intentionally inaccurate.

More controlled campaign narratives probably won't lead to a healthier body politic. But I'm not talking about ideals here, I'm talking about tactics. Tactically, campaigns have to account for omnipresent surveillance -- not Foucauldian centralized surveillance, but distributed mutual surveillance.

Alan Rudy said...

I can't primarily focus on the technology and/or the failure to understand its consequences...

In terms of my initial post, as I read it, the key to the Mill's Panopticon was centralized surveillance... the key to Foucault is self-discipline in the face of the perpetual - distributed is the new term - possibility of surveillance (not all of which would be associated with a single center.)

My concern is not with the implosion of the difference between public and private space - the metacategory for on- and off-the-record - nor with the necessity of platitudinal tactics vs political ideals when it comes to the death of the historical contract between the powerful and power-brokers like the corporate media...

You see, for me-the-sociologist, there is an inordinate amount of empirical data that correlates the rising material insecurity of US workers - from middle management to blue/pink collar employees - and their church attendance - most often over the last 25 years in evangelical and evangelical megachurches, on the one hand, and a return to the isolationist and xenophobic politics of right wing populism - including an individualist interpretation of the second amendment, on the other.

To my mind, Obama made a tactical mistake but not because he was sociologically or empirically accurate - as is shown by Fox News' discovery that many folks in rust belt or rural Pennsylvania agree with Obama's characterization. He did NOT generalize to all believers - as Maureen Dowd wrongly suggests today in her NYT op ed - nor to all folks who believe in an individual right to bear arms, or who are anti-trade, -immigrant, etc.

What concerns me about all this is the mismatch between the ubiquity and horizontal nature of viral information flows within a deeply entrenched political economic and cultural ideological hierarchies. It is this that all but makes the kind of big tent politics you say presidential campaigns are all about effectively impossible. On the one hand you have to watch everything you say and therefore say nothing (or at least nothing that doesn't poll to a certain level of approval).... zzzzzzzzzz. While on the other hand, both the vertically integrated media conglomerates AND the horizontally fractured niche audiences of modern politics are all clamoring for purity, authenticity and other forms of synchretic singularity.

Its the double death of intelligent, reasoned, honest, historical and comparative politics... and, unlike the surely-ironic Michael Stipe, I don't feel fine (maybe if I believed in a church or guns that'd help... ) Weber would say that the only out is some form of charismatic leader... and we've seen how that turns out again and again in the 20th C, no?