Serious Puff

The Web sites of the 2008 presidential hopefuls are a rich vein of information.

In presidential politics, the computer screen is now the communications tool of choice, and reporters have responded to this development rather jadedly.

"Internet video is the new baby-kissing, a cheap and easy formula for connecting with voters," said NPR's Robert Smith in a report this week, after Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., both used their Web sites and streaming video to announce the formation of exploratory committees.

On the presidential beat, this kind of skepticism is common and, in a way, healthy. Political reporters are supposed to view the campaigns they cover as the sales-and-marketing efforts they are, flackery to be doubted and punctured.

But to dismiss the campaigns' digital efforts as mere puffballs is to ignore a rich vein of information. Journalists are literal creatures: To the news-driven mind, what matters is what the candidates said, the positions and policies they advocated. Where they said it, and how exactly they came across as they said it, are mere scenery, worth a decorative adjective or paragraph, no more.

Strangely, this was true even in the age of television, a visual medium through which candidates send all kinds of nonliteral cues. Think of the folksy tilt of Ronald Reagan's head or Bill Clinton's empathetic lip-biting. Both tics became famous, but a million other aspects of late-20th-century political performance didn't.

These things play as crucial a role in forming voter impressions as any policy announcement. When choosing a president, Americans tend to vote for "the person." Yet throughout the television age, day-to-day media coverage of politicians on TV has been largely about text, and thus deeply inadequate. With a few exceptions—particularly Washington Post critic Tom Shales—the media have given short shrift to the performance aspect of electronic politics.

The computer screen delivers more useful information about candidates than television ever could. Both are visual media, but by removing the intermediary news outlets with their built-in constraints of time and space, the Web gives candidates an infinite canvas on which to define themselves as they wish to be seen. Which is not the same as who they really are, but telling nonetheless.

For instance, the Obama and Clinton exploratory announcements, as viewed on their Web sites, are dramatically different in style and tone. Obama's site ( is so simple that Shakers could have designed it. Earlier this week, it featured a photo of the smiling candidate in shirtsleeves interacting outdoors with a small group. There were no slogans, no headlines (other than "From Barack," "Message From Barack," and "About Barack"), and no links to outside media.

Simplicity telegraphs centeredness, and an implicit confidence permeates the Obama Web production. Click on his recent announcement video, and the senator speaks with an easy, low-key intimacy that recalls, more than anyone else, the master of visual media, Ronald Reagan.

Clinton's Web site ( is a relatively busy, effortful affair. One day this week, the slogan "Make History!" appeared on the upper right. A bit lower, the phrase "Just The Beginning" appeared over a passage about video Web chats the senator hosted. Next to this was a photo of Clinton seated with an older man in a room with closed venetian blinds. She is not smiling, but listening intently. Important Policy Is Being Made Here, it seemed to say. At the lower right were headlines from "featured" news stories and writings about Clinton, including "Hillary Is the Democrats' Best Shot," a campaign memo by strategist Mark Penn.

In her announcement video, Clinton tries to be easygoing and conversational, but she's not a natural and you can feel the strain. Most striking is the lavishness of the production. The Post's Ann Hornaday noted smartly that while Obama's video "might have been produced by a guy with a cellphone camera," Clinton's was "a veritable showpiece of Hollywood-style set design, lighting, and cinematography." And that tells you something, too, doesn't it?

Most journalists are serious people, and serious people are supposed to discuss politics as ideas, not entertainment. But if the devices of entertainment are delivering the ideas, maybe news outlets everywhere should be helping us better understand how it all works, and who exactly are these people who are working so hard, night and day, to seduce us.