Full-Court Cyberpress

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LBJ once breezily put it this way: “The press helps me … the press is one of the best servants I have.”

Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison still would like to swear by what Big Brother LBJ preached in Texas. It’s just that they know that the mechanisms they’re using to pursue so-called servitude have changed a bit since 1965. Back then LBJ was happy to manipulate the press with tumblers of scotch or sometimes a clenched fist. Today it’s RSS feeds, Twitter blurts, carefully forwarded e-mails and Facebook leaks used by political operatives in Austin, so many of them with freshly minted public-affairs degrees and multimedia expertise. The tactics are different, but the goal is the same—control the coverage.

Sometimes the dark arts emerge in plain sight: For a good part of 2010, Hutchison’s people have been harrumphing about news accounts of “widely leaked poll results from Perry pollster Mike Baselice.” The poll, wonder of wonders, miraculously showed Perry thumping Hutchison. It has been described in almost every story as the “internal Perry campaign memo circulating on blogs and among political operatives.”

Laptop CompterBy some accounts, the poll began showing up over the holidays as an attachment to forwarded e-mails from the Perry campaign to supporters. Eager bloggers began picking up on the numbers. (One blog introduced the poll results this way: “This was sent today on the letterhead of Baselice & Associates to Texans for Rick Perry.”) Fairly quickly, political reporters with audiences beyond the blogs began publishing the numbers. In what had to be the intended cause and effect, Hutchison was on her heels—crabbing that the race was actually “dead even.”

One thing is clear: The poll numbers—forget whether they are accurate—went viral very, very quickly.

“While the professional reporter could serve as a filter for the public, now everything is out there unfiltered,” says Houston Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe.

“Some in politics would say that’s a good thing, but it makes it more difficult for the occasional political visitor to know what is true, who to trust and how to tell the difference between facts and spin. I’m pretty sure the Baselice poll was intentionally leaked. But I’m not sure that’s really any different from the days when political campaigns produced their own newspapers … . The big difference in the electronic leaks is how fast they spread.”

The Politics 2.0 world, filled with so many anonymous portals, is a perfect host—it’s like seeding news arteries with hungry cancer cells. Twitter is, according to the Austin American-Statesman‘s Jason Embry, a key part of the new methodology in Texas. He points to the Perry campaign tweeting whenever The Wall Street Journal writes yet another positive opinion piece on Perry. “The Perry people are very good at using Twitter,” says Embry.

One veteran Texas reporter recently told me political insiders are also aware of the harsh economic realties in some newsrooms. News outlets can’t afford to commission as many polls as they once did, so they’re hungry for any numbers from the digital transom. They will rush to report the “internal polling” numbers, including the ones “leaked to blogs”—and they even dutifully point out that the numbers were generated by folks on a politician’s payroll. The bottom line is that they have published what the campaigns wanted leaked.

Are Baselice’s numbers bad? He has a reputation for calling races accurately. But is that the bigger issue? Hardly. The bigger consideration is how they change the pace—and direction—of coverage: Releasing poll numbers diverts attention back to horse-race campaign coverage—and away from what the hell candidates are promising to do to help small businesses in Houston’s Fifth Ward, or to bring medical coverage to millions of uninsured Texans.

One reporter, someone supportive of the upside of the new media, told me that the reality in Texas is that there is now this ongoing, gurgling “published rumor mill that we have to pay attention to.” It takes time to follow it all; it takes time to sort out the good things.

Embry, like so many political reporters in Texas, says that he works 24/7 to keep pace. He has decided that reading blogs is useful, but only to a degree—reading them, he says, is “not reporting.”

Through it all, the spin-doctors are still figuring out how to control the new paradigm. It’s no secret that many of the ones doing the figuring are longtime, hardcore Bush operatives. Karl Rove and other soulmates in Austin, like media strategists Mark McKinnon and Dan Bartlett, were among the first to get in on the new zeitgeist. A decade ago, they began dwelling on the obvious: How the hell do you use the new media to sell George W. Bush … to sell Gingrich-meets-Wolfowitz? Rove wasn’t sure where and how to begin, except to resort to the trusty jackboot of shutting down dissent. He began snapping up “scary” domain names—bushsucks.com, bushbites.com–and then getting earnest GOP techies to link them to “friendly” Bush sites.

Today, the number of full-time, day-in, day-out reporters covering state politics is plummeting. Media strategists—disciples and even grudging admirers of Rove’s legacy in Texas—are working from the bottom up, not the top down. They don’t walk to the political news bureaus on Congress Avenue the way they used to—with bags of candy. They don’t have to. Now they send messages in a bottle, sometimes to anonymous bloggers, and assume the news will begin to spin.

Bill Minutaglio is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, most recently Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, co-authored with W. Michael Smith. His column will appear monthly in the Observer.