Previously in Web Citations:
Live from the sky box at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia.
Nothing to Fear
Sage Stossel looks at befearless.com, Oxygen Media's not-so-courageous venture into online politics.
On the Inside Looking In
Who are these people? And why would anyone pay $19.95 to read about them? Jane Rosenzweig on the strange logic of Inside.com.
A Channel Called "You"
Joanna Smith Rakoff looks at the latest in TV-Web convergence.
David A. Taylor reports on the Mountain Forum, a boon to hill people around the globe.
Is politics on the Web a bust? Nicholas Confessore investigates the new wave of for-profit "politics portals."
Alec Appelbaum on why the Web should do better than one-click charity.
Get a Life
Katie Bacon on Cyberguy, DotComGuy, and other intrepid trailblazers on the e-commerce frontier.
Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.
More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.
(Some) Americans Hate the Internet|
September 13, 2000
Is the Internet changing our political culture? It depends on what the meaning of "change" is.
On September 1, as the presidential race entered Labor Day weekend and the proverbial last leg, the Republican National Committee -- with the blessing of a suddenly faltering George W. Bush campaign -- launched a television ad personally attacking Al Gore in a sarcastic (or, as George W. himself put it, a "tongue-in-cheekish") tone.
Aside from Bush's departure from the "high road" we've heard him talk so much about, there was nothing terribly shocking or noteworthy about seeing a TV attack ad at this point in an election year. What caught my eye was the URL flashing across the screen toward the end of the 30-second spot: "gorewillsayanything.com."
So, at the next opportunity, I typed "gorewillsayanything.com" into my browser, and up came ...
"The system cannot find the file specified."Remind me never to hire a Republican to run a Web server. Figuring that the site had to exist (after all, they'd broadcasted the address to millions of TV viewers across sixteen states), I tried typing "www." at the beginning of the URL, even though it wasn't exactly what the ad had specified on screen. Sure enough, that did it, and soon I was feasting on more tasty Gore facts (or, at least, what pass for facts in the political arena) than you'd find at a West Texas church barbecue. And if gorewillsayanything.com didn't satiate me, all I had to do was click on the link in the upper-left corner of the home page that leads to "The Gore Files: Anything to Get Elected," another RNC site chock full of information showing that Al Gore is a bad, dishonest person.
I was impressed. Not only was the RNC slinging mud on TV -- they were pointing voters to a Web site where they could wade neck-deep into the virtual muck (if they were Web-savvy enough to figure out the full URL). On further investigation, I discovered that the Democratic National Committee is not to be outdone in this area and has been using the Web to "enhance" its television ads in the same way. At the end of DNC ads attacking George W. Bush on a variety of issues (hey, they may be negative, but at least they stick to The Issues), the URL "1800thefacts.com" appears on screen. (You can also dial 1-800-THEFACTS to hear essentially the same content from a menu of recorded voice messages.) The DNC site follows almost exactly the same format as gorewillsayanything.com: the transcript of each TV ad is accompanied by a link to "watch the ad" (in high-bandwidth-only streaming video) and to "learn more about this issue" (or to read "background," as the GOP prefers to call it). In the latter section, each assertion in the ad is backed up with "documentation" in the form of quotes from the media.
Both parties have launched other sites devoted purely to negative campaign spin. The Republicans have their GoreReinventionConvention.com, Goreline.com, and Gorepollution.com. The Democrats have their Millionaire$forBu$h.com and Bush-Cheney.net, plus IknowwhatyoudidinTexas.com, an attempted parody of a horror-movie site with a section called "Scary Record." All of the above run considerable deficits in the humor department. Apparently, you can only hold your tongue in cheek for so long before the smirk becomes a grimace, and then a scowl. (The only 2000 election site I've seen that has been known to induce genuine bellylaughs is gwbush.com, the famously independent parody site that made headlines last year when the Bush campaign tried to have it shut down.)
Web sites that heap personal abuse on politicians are nothing new -- thanks to Bill Clinton and his legions of haters, the genre has been thriving for some time now (see "Clintonalia," our Web Citation from February 4, 1998). But in this election year, mightn't we have hoped for something a bit more, well, high-minded? The promise of the Internet to engage, educate, and mobilize voters -- and to raise the level of political discourse by breaking free of television's tyranny of the soundbite -- has been touted for so long and by so many that, yes, expectations have been raised. No doubt, somewhere out there are citizens who have been engaged, educated, and mobilized by access to the wealth of free, nonpartisan information available online about candidates and issues. We should have known, however, that sooner or later the people who brought us Willie Horton and Harry & Louise would figure out how to combine TV's ability to reach (and frighten and outrage) a mass audience and the Web's ability to provide mountains of information, factual and otherwise. If anything has changed in our cynical political culture, it may be that we now have new reasons to hate the media.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Election 2000 conference of Post & Riposte.
More on politics in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound. His essay "The Rest Is Silence," on Hamlet in the digital age, appeared in Atlantic Unbound last month.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.