During each election season, most days, each campaign runs a daily conference call with the media. These calls are the candidates’ equivalent of the White House “presser” — not real press conferences with the candidates or the president himself, but rather check-ins between the campaigns’ (or the White House’s) press handlers and the reporters.
I don’t know exactly when this practice started, but it’s been standard for a while. The calls are “on the record”; the campaigns are trying to get their messages out, to push and shove coverage in the direction they wish to see it go. But they’re not exactly public, or at least they haven’t been. If you were an everyday citizen — or, for that matter, say, a blogger — you mostly didn’t have a chance to listen in. You couldn’t actually hear what the campaigns were saying; you had to hear the reporters’ takes on what the campaigns said, and maybe a snippet of recorded material.
In the old days this might have been tenable. Today we’ve got this Internet thing that forces a nice clean line between the private and the public. Today, something is either truly private — limited to a very few — or it’s fully and irrevocably public. The grey zone is gone.
Dave Winer recently started trying to rustle up each day’s calls from each campaign and post them as MP3s. He argues, persuasively to me, that voters have the right to hear these on-the-record events first-hand if they want to — just as the White House pressers are now televised, online and transcribed. Sure, you could argue that most people have neither the time nor the interest to tune in to this stuff every day. And you’d be right. But that’s still no argument to keep them out of the hands of anyone who does want them. They are the primary source material, and it’s always good to have a chance to check what we read in the paper and see on the screen against the original.
From what I can tell, the trouble Winer has had in getting access to the material each day hasn’t been a matter of anyone trying to keep a big lid on the calls — some of them get posted already. It’s more a case of old-school journalistic professionalism, of a lingering “this is backstage stuff, no need for the public to listen in” attitude, and of a cave-in to convenience. The campaigns can’t invite a million bloggers on the call, so they draw the line that’s familiar and easy: they say, if you want to get on our e-mail list with the daily call info, you need credentials. And apparently no one with the credentials has yet stepped forward to provide the calls to Winer or the wider Web. Too bad.
There’s a parallel here to the institution of corporate earnings calls: they used to be accessible only to handpicked analysts and reporters; today, it’s still mostly those folks asking the questions, but the calls get posted online for all to hear.
I think it’s inevitable that the campaign calls will, too. It would be nice for that to happen before this critical election passes too many more milestones.
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