An Oct. 6 article incorrectly said that a 2005 dinner in Miami Beach was held to introduce Internet publisher Matt Drudge to Republican National Committee research director Tim Griffin. The dinner was held to introduce Drudge to Matt Rhoades, who was moving into the research position. Griffin, who was also at the dinner, preceded Rhoades in the job.
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New Media A Weapon in New World Of Politics
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), fighting for his career amid allegations that he did not respond properly when told of Foley's e-mails, has gone to conservative media outlets to make his case. On Rush Limbaugh's radio show, Hastert agreed when the host said the Foley story was driven by Democrats "in some sort of cooperation with some in the media" to suppress turnout of conservative voters before the Nov. 7 elections.
Limbaugh offered no evidence. But the same accusation was leveled in Hastert's interview with Hugh Hewitt, another prominent conservative radio host and blogger, who said the speaker is a "target right now of the left-wing media machine."
Those comments are a reminder that a changed media culture that creates new perils for politicians also provides new forms of refuge. For a full generation on the conservative side, and more recently among liberals, ideologues have created a menu of new media alternatives, including talk radio and Web sites. New media have also elevated flamboyant political entrepreneurs such as Ann Coulter on the right and Michael Moore on the left to prominent places in the political dialogue. New media platforms make criticism of traditional "mainstream media" part of their stock in trade.
This development usually ensures that any politician in trouble can count on some sympathetic forums to make his or her case. It often ensures that any controversy is marked by intense disagreement over the basic facts or relevance of the story, and obscured by clouds of accusation over the opposition's motives.
Clinton benefited from this phenomenon during his recent showdown with Fox News. Appearing on a network that many liberals regard as enemy terrain, he said interviewer Chris Wallace and his bosses were distorting his terrorism record to carry water for conservatives.
Kerry advisers think the most important factor in his loss was the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked his war record. The group initially received scant attention in old media outlets, but its accusations were fanned by the Drudge Report, Fox News and other new media platforms. By the end, the accusations dominated coverage in both old and new media.
Each time a similar episode occurs, it is often covered as an isolated and even eccentric event. But Clinton, in an earlier interview, said his party should understand that the ideological and financial incentives among politicians and media organizations mean that every election cycle will feature such episodes -- and it should plan accordingly.
But he said Democrats of his generation tend to be naive about new media realities. There is an expectation among Democrats that establishment old media organizations are de facto allies -- and will rebut political accusations and serve as referees on new-media excesses.
"We're all that way, and I think a part of it is we grew up in the '60s and the press led us against the war and the press led us on civil rights and the press led us on Watergate," Clinton said. "Those of us of a certain age grew up with this almost unrealistic set of expectations."
Few conservatives would make a similar miscalculation. Many of the first generation of new media platforms, including Limbaugh's show and Drudge's Web site, first flourished because of a conviction among conservatives that old media were unfair.
All this has given Republicans a comfort and skill at using new media to political advantage that most Democrats have not matched. At the Republican National Committee, leaking items to the Drudge Report is an official part of communications strategy.
During the 2004 campaign, current and former RNC staff members said, opposition research nuggets on Kerry were almost always leaked first to the Web site. Sometimes they were trivial -- such as the fact that Kerry got expensive haircuts at the Christophe salon -- other times they were controversial quotes from his days as a Vietnam War protester. All together, these and other items contributed to Kerry losing control of his public image.
Ken Mehlman, the RNC chairman and head of Bush's reelection campaign, said his operatives leaked to Drudge because it inevitably drove wider coverage, including to old media organizations: "He puts something up and they have to follow it."
Last year, a delegation of RNC officials flew to Miami Beach, where Drudge lives, for a dinner at the Forge steakhouse to introduce the Internet maven to Matt Rhodes, the party's new opposition research director.
One of those who salutes the changing landscape -- with as much passion as Clinton deplores it -- is Cheney, who said he considers the breakdown of what he called an old media "monopoly" as among the most favorable trends of his years in politics. He said the change requires politicians to grow a thicker skin. Once while shaving, he heard Imus referring to someone as "Pork Chop." Only after a few minutes did he realize the host "was talking about me. I'm Pork Chop. And I laughed like hell."
"Sometimes it's pretty trashy," he said of new media's rise. "But I guess I'd put the proposition that there's more time and opportunity for policy discussions and debate than there used to be."
The next several weeks -- in which Republicans will bear the heat of an intense media-driven scandal in the Foley case -- may test Cheney's faith in that proposition.