James Henson is a lecturer in the Department of Government and directs the Texas Politics Project, which seeks to educate students and Texans about state government, politics and history through a dynamic Web site and speaker series. It also conducts regular statewide issues and political polls.
A Sign of the Erosion of Traditional Media Practices in Campaigns
This Friday, the Texas Tribune, KUT and KLRU will collaborate to stage and webcast separate live interviews with Rick Perry and Bill White from The University of Texas at Austin campus. The creativity and openness evident in the approach to distributing the content being created here is a positive development for politics. It is also a response to changes in the interplay of politics and media that, for all their inevitability, are much more ambiguous.
These interviews come in response to an impasse between the Perry and White campaigns. (Warning: If you’re frustrated by politics, what follows isn’t going to help.)
The governor has conditioned his participation in a direct debate on White’s release of tax returns from 1993, 1994 and 1995, when White was serving as deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration. White has released several other years of tax returns, but has declined to release the 1993-95 returns, and Perry has refused to debate. White’s reluctance to simply release the tax information has puzzled many observers and led to inevitable speculation about what might be found in the unreleased forms. Perry placing this seemingly unrelated condition on agreeing to debate White seems a clear signal that, as is traditional for incumbents, (tax returns or no tax returns) Perry would like to minimize the risks associated with public debates, which are unscripted and always riskier for front runners than the usual stump speech or staged event.
Friday’s workaround of the debate impasse should be considered in conjunction with the Perry campaign’s decision to forego meetings with newspaper editorial boards in the state, by implication thumbing his nose at the convention of seeking newspaper endorsements. The Perry campaign’s tactics have disrupted two of the traditional media rituals of campaigns: televised debates and the role of newspapers endorsements.
Put in a broader context, the adoption of these tactics in 2010 may eventually be seen as an inflection point in the roles that media outlets play in providing information and generating interest among voters.
The Perry campaign will not singlehandedly end debates and endorsements — both practices have had their detractors and have backslid some. The quality of the major candidate debates has always been uneven, subject to the wants of the broadcast media and to vicissitudes of candidates and their advisers.
Over a long period of time, newspapers have been steadily pushed from the center of the political process, having been crowded out by television news, contraction and mergers in print media, and then sucker-punched by the Internet. When we asked Texans what percent of information about politics and elections they got from various media in the October 2008 statewide University of Texas at Austin poll, newspapers came in second to last, with an average score of only six percent.
So the Perry campaign’s tactics are reactive to change already in progress. The campaign seems to be betting that the penalty for defying lingering traditions is outweighed by the benefits of avoiding an unpredictable debate and openly defying newspapers that fewer and fewer people are reading — or trusting (especially core conservative voters). To the extent that there is lingering support for debates, using White’s failure to release tax forms from a decade and half ago to frame Perry’s avoidance of debates provides partisans with a rationale for accepting Perry’s refusal, or simply clouds the issue for those not paying close attention. In either instance, the linkage changes the subject.
Should the trajectory of the current election continue, and Perry win reelection in November, this success will inevitably validate this approach among political professionals. Success will breed imitation. Avoiding debates and ignoring editorial boards can be expected to become attractive options in the political playbook in the future, especially for incumbents.
About the Perry-White Interviews
The interviews will be conducted by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO of The Texas Tribune, in the KLRU studios in the Jesse Jones Communications Building, and will include some questions chosen from submissions from the public. Each interview will be webcast live in front of an audience on the Web sites of KUT, KLRU and The Texas Tribune. White will be interviewed from 1-2 p.m., and Perry from 3-4 p.m. Smith writes in the Tribune that “we’re happy to share those files with any media organization that wants them, and with any reporter, blogger, etc.”
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