Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biden My Time

I have had a lifelong obsession to be the first to know new information. It is why I became a broadcast journalist. I am constantly on guard, with antennas fully deployed, scanning the Internet, radio and television for the latest news development. It doesn't matter if it's from Atlanta, Georgia, or Tbilisi, Georgia.

This seems to be the best explanation for what happened to me these past couple days. I actually went to the Obama web site and registered to receive his vice presidential announcement. I have always avoided anything that would give even the slightest appearance of a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, I was motivated by my interest in how an Internet mass mailing would look, whether the campaign would be scooped by the media and by my overwhelming desire to be among the first to know.

The anticipation was high on Friday. Cable news channels were filling their airwaves with newzak, repeating predictions and exhaustive analysis of all the alternatives. It had turned into a high stakes game of competitive repetition. The challenge for producers and commentators was how to remain fresh, interesting and edgy while making the same points over and over again.

Live camera crews that were staking out the homes of the three frontrunners provided visuals. Every movement came under intense scrutiny; a normally routine trip to the store, a flower truck delivery, a family gathering. And every word said by a prospective nominee was dissected and bisected by commentators and political consultants for even the most trifling nuanced news nugget. Was it a calculated hint or pettifoggery?

I had been hooked for two days. I carried my Blackberry with me wherever I went. I even set it down next to me on my bedstand at night. I am embarrassed to say I found myself quickly checking the Blackberry every time it vibrated. Perhaps bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase, "what's the buzz?"

Not to my surprise, I did receive several solicitations from Obama supporters in the New York area and policy statements from national officials. All of them provided a link to the Obama site and a request for donations. Using the imminent vice presidential announcement, the Obama camp had cleverly enriched its email list with potential donors and supporters. It had also dominated the political news coverage for several news cycles.

The notion of a mass emailing to "millions" of supporters made me think of how things used to be. For many years I lived in Washington D.C., just around the corner from what had been Senator John F. Kennedy's residence. The three story federal row house, at 3307 N Street NW, straddled a ten foot wide red brick sidewalk. Fifty years ago presidential nominee Kennedy would make important personnel and policy announcements to a gaggle of reporters gathered on this very sidewalk in front of his home. The reporters would then race across the street and take turns filing their reports on the neighbor's one rotary dial phone. A plaque from reporters still hangs on the outside wall of this house today expressing gratitude for use of the phone.

Friday night I could not sleep, even though a cable network commentator reported that campaign officials said the announcement would come on Saturday morning. I was convinced the Obama campaign would try to make the Saturday morning papers.

"Buzz, buzz." An announcement that the USA had won a gold medal. (Oh, I forgot, Olympics.)

"Buzz, buzz." A question from a friend.

"Buzz, buzz." Something from work.

Finally, at one in the morning, it seemed safe for me to fall asleep. And, as I closed my eyes, sure enough, my Blackberry buzzed. "Obama picks Biden," reported the New York Times in an email bulletin. The Obama campaign had been scooped! When I awakened five hours later I found an email from Obama, sent two hours earlier, announcing his selection of Biden.

The cable news channels had veered seamlessly into a frenzy of exhaustive coverage of Biden, his Senatorial record, his compelling personal background and his gaffs. It was all hands on deck, the big guns of political commentary were cued up to provide pithy insights (and spin). One cable news network was particularly focused on Biden's verbal gaffs, while the others focused extensively on his record and personal story.

While competitive repetition filled the airwaves leading up to the afternoon "joint appearance" in Springfield, Illinois, McCain was on the attack. His campaign began airing a political ad using Biden's own words to undermine Obama. Later, Biden would show he too can throw a punch. In his acceptance speech, he would mention that McCain's big worry was "which one of his seven kitchen tables to sit at."

As I unsubscribed from the Obama website, I found myself reflecting on our political process. It is truly sad that spin and perception dominate political campaigns and the comments of pundits. There are so many important issues, and this election is far too critical.

But it has come to this because this is all that Americans demand of their political process.

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