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Never Mind the News Media: Politicians Test Direct-to-Voter Messaging
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Photo: photo: nytimes.com

Never Mind the News Media: Politicians Test Direct-to-Voter Messaging

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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/us/politics/bernie-sanders-town-hall.html

WASHINGTON — May 31, 2018

Senator Bernie Sanders seemed nervous. In just two hours, he would conduct a live-streamed town hall event on the Iran nuclear deal, and he still hadn’t nailed his opening.

“Did you mention to somebody doing a history of U.S.-Iranian relations?” he asked aides who had gathered in his Senate office to help him prepare. “What do you think about starting with that?” Then he wanted to say something about Saudi Arabia. Then Israel.

In another room, staff members rushed to finalize last-minute details. “We convert into a small production company,” one aide joked.

The town hall meeting in mid-May came off seamlessly, before a modest live audience at the Capitol Visitor Center. Mr. Sanders scripted the evening’s event, interviewed panelists and directed the conversation. There were no nettlesome questions from television or newspaper reporters. And over the next two weeks the real target audience — online viewers — would show up in droves, with some 800,000 people watching it.

The event provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the grass-roots efforts Mr. Sanders has become known for, as his team revved up its campaign engine: A week later, Mr. Sanders would announce his bid for re-election to the Senate. The democratic socialist from Vermont is also widely believed to be considering another run for president in 2020.

But the Iran discussion also reflected the kind of direct-to-voter messaging strategy that has become increasingly common among politicians — both as a way to shape information about their goals and to avoid difficult questions from the news media, particularly in the midst of scandal or controversy. From Washington to Texas to California, politicians are road-testing their political messaging strategies, searching for the best way to reach voters in ways that often bypass the traditional media gatekeepers.

The Iran town hall event would be the third Mr. Sanders has held this year; more than one million people viewed the first, on health care, and roughly 2.5 million watched the second, on inequality, according to Mr. Sanders’s team.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, both running this year, have started podcasts, with humanizing names like “Canarycast” and “Plaidcast.” Representative Devin Nunes of California has his own local news site, The California Republican, which is paid for by his campaign committee. Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat making a long-shot bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is streaming his entire campaign live on Facebook. And many other politicians are now routinely Instagramming and Facebooking, tweeting and Snapchatting.

These media methods have obvious appeal: Politicians can appear accessible but remain insulated from the press. They are also not altogether new. President Trump eschewed traditional television advertising during the 2016 campaign and can now overshadow even his own party’s message at the drop of a tweet. And many politicians have long made a practice of ducking reporters.

Yet several factors have converged to elevate the practice: Fake news and false information about politics have proliferated; the public’s trust in the mainstream media is low; and social media platforms make unfiltered messaging easier than ever. As a result, there is a new urgency among politicians to deliver talking points directly. Some two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

“Bernie and others are trying to find other ways that they can more directly connect with people,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic “super PAC.”

Many politicians blame the news media for the shift, claiming dishonest coverage has left them no other choice.

“For those of you who want to truly see what is happening, follow along through social media,” Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a Republican and a prolific purveyor of Facebook videos, told voters during his state of the commonwealth address last year. “With all due respect to what now passes for traditional media, it’s dying for a reason.”

Last month, after Mr. Bevin suggested to reporters that teachers joining walkout protests were leaving children vulnerable to sexual assault, he issued an apology not in a press statement or at a news conference, but in a video that he posted on Facebook and Twitter. “A tremendous number of people did not fully appreciate what it was that I was communicating,” he said.

The tactic has vexed many of the state’s journalists, who say they have been largely shut out. “He doesn’t like to be questioned,” Al Cross, who teaches journalism at the University of Kentucky and is a columnist and former chief political reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal, said in an interview.

Author: The New York Times