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Toward the end of a campaign that sometimes seems to have devolved into a farrago of gotchas, hair-trigger umbrage and pig lipstick, it’s impossible not to wonder whatever became of issue-driven campaigns.

What happened to selecting candidates for their policy positions instead of their personalities? Sorting out issues based on competing logical arguments? With radio and TV clogged with shouting heads, with blogs and e-mail threads dominated by partisan invective, is there room in the media for the reasoned views of ordinary citizens?

These models of high-minded political debate and conversation underlie a variety of public-media websites that have sprung up for the 2008 election cycle. Many are freestanding, not program websites. They draw on various capabilities of digital media: the potential for two-way communication, the ability to store large amounts of material for on-demand access, and the ability to dispense information in non-narrative game-like formats. Some are over-produced; some are under-produced — and better for it.

The sites fall into three rough categories:

  • aggregator sites that gather and curate content and place it at the user’s beck and call, not on a station’s schedule;
  • deliberation sites that offer users frameworks for organizing their ideas; and
  • connector sites meant to put voters in two-way communication with candidates.

Aggregator sites

The NewsHour/NPR Election Map, posted on sites of the PBS show, the radio network and some stations, will appeal to the campaign-junkie set—the sort of people who never miss the weekly Shields-Brooks or Brooks-Dionne political analysis-fests.

The front page is a U.S. map, color-coded to indicate party leanings in the presidential, Senate or House of Representatives races. Clicking on any state drills down to content produced by the NewsHour, NPR or local stations related to the state and its politics, as well as a statistical sketch of the state. Here in D.C., for instance, we have the highest percentage of bachelor’s degrees but the lowest percentage of marriage licenses.

The Election Map offers selections from its cornucopia of campaign content a few hours after they’re broadcast, as well as many months later. A NewsHour segment on Nevada political issues that aired during the primary season, for instance, continued to hold value online as Nevada became a battleground state.

The Takeaway’s Electoral College Prediction Tracker (embedded at right) is all horserace. It’s a colorful grid whose vertical axis lists 15 polling organizations and media poll sponsors, including the Washington Post, NPR, the Rasmussen Reports and the Fox News Channel. On the horizontal axis are the 50 states and the District of Columbia, arrayed left to right from the most Democratic (in shades of blue) to the most Republican (shades of red) and represented by a column proportional to its population. Rolling your cursor over the rectangle at the intersection of California and the Rasmussen Poll tells you that the state has 55 electoral votes, that this poll says it’s “Solid OBAMA” and that, as of Oct. 16, Rasmussen projects a 315-174 Electoral College victory. The grid uses space and color imaginatively, but its interface is not especially intuitive, and, unlike many of these sites, it could offer a bit more explanation to orient the first-time user.

Public Radio Exchange’s BallotVox helps users catch up with the Web’s torrent of information and opinion released by the advent of easy online publishing. Who can go through everything people write about the election? Most of us don’t have time. But the part-time and volunteer curators at BallotVox sift through the oceans of election-related content created by nonprofessionals and offer what they deem the most interesting, along with context-setting notes.

The curators’ tastes include both straight-on commentary — “Obama should schedule a major address on the economy. He should have Buffett and other financiers of his stature with him” — and whimsy. The Obama-Buffett comment is followed, for instance, by a mashup of houses and a Wall Street-type bull superimposed on a wintry-looking grid, created by a Calgary artist who “lives in ‘nonlinear time.’”

Deliberation sites

Vows to create, expand, reduce or end government programs are a staple of every campaign. Realistic estimates of what the promises will cost, and how they will affect the budget, are not. American Public Media’s Budget Hero is not by any means a comprehensive tool for estimating budget impacts of various policies, but it does give users a sense of the magnitude and interconnectedness of the policy promises that get thrown around during campaigns.

Budget Hero’s vividly colored cartoons lead users through federal spending and taxing options in competing areas — defense and diplomacy, education, housing, tax cuts — and tote up the consequences for the federal budget. Tabbed text pages describe the presidential candidates’ positions on budget-related issues and the thinking behind the exercise.

Engage 08’s ambitious Idea Generator, also from APM, offers users a conceptual framework for floating and evaluating ideas that address such issues as income disparities, health care, immigration, taxes and globalization—all clustered under the site’s organizing idea, “Preserving the American Dream.”

Users submit ideas that can be accessed through a list, a map that shows where the participants live, or an almost unfathomable “tag view” that plots idea categories in animated “clumps” — business, energy, unions, population bubble, culture, sustainability and at least 50 more. For no apparent reason, the labels for the ideas are animated — roiling around the screen like worms in a fisherman’s bait box. Ideas can be listed in the order of suggestion or ranked by feasibility — although it’s not clear how feasibility was determined. Pie-in-the-sky nostrums such as “Realign American values” and “Make industry more responsible to its workers” rank near the top, while a viable idea such as making charitable contributions tax-deductible for non-itemizers ranks near the bottom.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Select a Candidate seeks to help users pick candidates for Congress and the presidency whose views align most closely with the user’s. The site poses a series of broad–brush-strokes questions about major issues — a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq vs. staying “as long as it takes for Iraqi forces to take over,” for example — and questions about how important each issue is to the respondent — very, somewhat or not at all. Select a Candidate tallies up the answers and ranks Barack Obama, John McCain, Bob Barr and Ralph Nader according to how well they match the respondent’s views.

Another feature tells users how their responses compare to those given by others of comparable residency status, ZIP code, birth year, gender, income level, political affiliation and the “personal experiences [that] are shaping your political choices”—all based on information the site elicits.

You Decide, a creation of KQED, tests how thoroughly you’ve considered your views by posing a series of questions that challenge the opinion you begin with. If, for example, you indicate that you support offshore oil drilling, You Decide asks whether you have considered “that many experts think that offshore drilling in protected waters will have a negligible effect on gas prices over the long term.”

If you indicate opposition to offshore drilling, You Decide asks whether you have considered “that drilling in the OCS could lower oil prices and generate billions in state revenue.” (Full disclosure: As a program officer in one of CPB’s digital content creation initiatives, I recommended You Decide for one of its first grants.)

Connector sites

One of the most frustrating things about the political process is the disconnect between candidates and ordinary people. Candidates spend campaigns in bubbles where they hear only the views of media commentators and campaign aides. Do they have any idea of what ordinary people think beyond the cut-and-dried responses to polls? Two sites in this group take aim at that disconnect.

Ask Your Lawmaker (widget version at right), a production of Capitol News Connection, takes a direct approach. Users post or endorse questions they’d like politicians to answer, and Capitol News Connection reporters try to get members of Congress to respond. The resulting grab bag would benefit if someone served the function of moderator, elevating the best questions and burying the least pertinent.

Though some questions focus on recognizable public-policy issues such as Social Security, abortion and immigration, many seem merely idiosyncratic: “An employer in N.Y.C. owes me $610.00. Can I stand in front of their shop on the sidewalk and hand out flyers to let the public know what they did to me, without being arrested?”

On the basis of the site’s statistics, Ask Your Lawmaker seems lightly used. One hundred questions have been asked, 112 answers received from lawmakers, and 1,722 votes cast for questions to be asked.

NPR’s Get My Vote takes a more thoughtful approach that demands more from both the questioners and from NPR. How can we tell candidates what really matters to us and what would persuade us to vote for them? Get My Vote hosts video, audio and text expressions of the issues users would like candidates to address. Site visitors can scan submissions ranked as most-viewed and top-rated or grouped by issue area or the medium used for commentary. You can browse through issues in a tag cloud that displays issue tags in font sizes more or less proportional to other users’ levels of interest.

Nothing indicates that candidates or campaigns have consulted the site to learn what matters most to voters, but it has attracted thousands to express their views and read what others say. The most frequently viewed submission had been watched almost 2,000 times by late September, and many posts have attracted numbers of visitors in the middle hundreds and low thousands.

Many of these sites, such as You Decide, have an alternative life as “widgets” — chunks of code embedded elsewhere on the Web that function as the sites’ branch offices, distributing its special capabilities and information. PBS and NPR are using the same principle to syndicate national programming to their players embedded on other websites, particularly those of their member stations.

These players structurally reinstate the distributor/exhibitor relationship between networks and stations that has been disrupted by the Web’s tendency to centralize. Because you can watch almost any segment from the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer at or hear any part of All Things Considered or Morning Edition at, the Web has made local PBS and NPR member stations less useful.

The syndicated player is a gesture toward reasserting stations’ connections with their viewers, listeners and users. It is, however, only a gesture. The Web is, after all, worldwide, and users can access the home sites of all these features from anywhere in the world. To retain local users, stations will need to give users additional benefits, such as local content, that global providers won’t supply.

The Logic Zone

Developers of these election sites tend to have an urge to explain. Like the exotic securities that brought Wall Street low, some of them need all the explanation that can be mustered. But others explain too much.

The Idea Generator’s “how to play” feature, for instance, includes 26 explanatory tags. One suggests using the site’s standard top-of-page search feature to “Search for words used in an idea, or a poster’s last name or state of residence to quickly find ideas.” Would anyone using a site such as Idea Generator need “Search” explained to them?

Budget Hero, to cite another example, is fairly easy to navigate but deploys 4,279 words to explain the thinking that went into designing the game, compared with only 373 words to summarize the candidates’ budget views.

Many of the election sites have a high ratio of posts to comments. I didn’t see an idea in the Idea Generator’s list that had attracted more than eight responses — pros, cons and variations combined. More ideas attracted no responses at all. That is not necessarily bad. But it points to an intriguing and counterintuitive fact about the self-expression sites. Despite the Web’s immense capacity to enable and stimulate conversation, many of these sites seem to function more as blank slates that stimulate users to set down and think through their own views rather than communication hubs where people respond to others’ opinions.

The sites share an almost unvarying rationality and moderation of thought and expression. Not only are the users’ contributions mercifully free of the anger and bile that characterize so much online political discourse, but the site developers are modeling an almost seamlessly rational approach to making political decisions — an approach that parallels the tone of public broadcasting’s on-air content.

The Election Map provides an exhaustive supply of policy and political information. You Decide models a process by which citizens’ convictions flow directly from conscientious consideration of opposing views. Select a Candidate envisions voters choosing candidates by toting up their own policy views and finding the candidate whose positions correlate most closely. Get My Vote imagines candidates scanning a marketplace of citizens’ views and adopting positions that will elicit the greatest support.

This is not, of course, the way most people make up their minds. People acknowledge that they base their decisions at least as much on candidates’ traits and personalities as on their position papers. We vote our own perceived interests. We tend to accept or reject pertinent information for its congruence to already-held views rather than because a website — or even a thousand websites — declare it to be true. And that’s apart from people whose choices are influenced by candidates’ races, genders or ages.

These public-media sites do not inspire strong views, except possibly within Common Cause or the League of Women Voters. They are goo-goo sites, to use the dismissive term that politicians used to use to describe good-government activists. The site producers are in fact proud not to inspire strong feelings.

At the real ballot box, however, voters with a personal stake in issues are persuaded by the possibility that free trade might cost them their jobs, for example, and not by the Mr. Spock-like logic of You Decide. There is a reason why Captain Kirk, who mixes passion with logic, is the hero of Star Trek instead of the relentlessly logical Spock.

Are these sites and the kind of decision-making they model too high-minded for the political world we occupy? Are they trying to improve their audience? Are they trying, in the words of a Slate review of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, to “gently guide us to make better choices, the sorts of choices Albert Einstein or Star Trek’s Mr. Spock might make”?

Perhaps the site-builders, in other words, seek to elevate political decision-making by modeling not the way we make our decisions but the way we ought to make them—and “nudging” us in the right direction.

If the site builders are trying to improve us, they may be a bit unrealistic and more than a bit idealistic. But then, that’s a long tradition in public broadcasting.

Louis Barbash is a Current contributing editor and a former public TV producer and CPB program officer. He writes the political blog Connecting the Dot.


Public Media Election Collaboration, the view from January.

Site to offer stations interactive web tools for election.

For election \’08, voters invited onto the stage.

NewsHour dispatches Twickers and more to the front lines of conventions, August 2008.


For comparison, check out the offerings of the New York Times: electoral college map, animated map of candidate travels (click on PLAY), diverging polls on the popular vote, states that gave the most to candidates, debate video and transcripts.

Web page posted Oct. 27, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

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