It’s Thursday in the City of Brotherly Love, and if Doug Bailey is figuratively standing at the intersection of democracy and the Internet, he’s literally standing there as well. Bailey’s operation, FreedomChannel.com, is in Media Tent Four, one of four mammoth big tops outside the Republican National Convention. Philadelphia, the location of the first televised political convention, in 1948, is now hosting the first substantial Internet-media contingent to cover a national election.
Media Tent Four is experiencing dotcom fever in a serious way. Around the corner from “radio row,” where Ollie North chats on the air with Ted Nugent, and Matt Drudge opines into a microphone, 35 different news outlets have appropriated 10,000 square feet of floor space, their folding tables loaded with equipment. Here, in Internet Alley, Tom Brokaw offers daily observations from the set of MSNBC.com. Nearby, in the warm glow of ABCNews.com’s klieg lights, Sam Donaldson reports on the convention.
Bailey, 68, a tall, soft-spoken man with fine features, is in the business of asking what the avalanche of new media means for the political process. A former Republican political consultant and cocreator of the Hotline, the first inside-the-beltway online political-news briefing, Bailey recently cofounded three political-information Web sites — FreedomChannel.com, Web White & Blue 2000, and Youth-e-Vote 2000 — that bring the capabilities of technology and media convergence to bear on civic dialogue. His favorite of the three, Youth-e-Vote 2000, will host the first-ever national online student vote, and, by extension, America’s first online election. Bailey expects the project to draw up to 10 million participants from grammar schools and secondary schools across the country. The results will be announced five days before Election Day.
During the Republican National Convention, Bailey makes his home at FreedomChannel.com, in Media Tent Four’s Internet Alley. FreedomChannel.com’s operation consists of a large banner, several whiteboards, four folding tables, piles of computer gear, and a digital video camera pointed at a chair in front of a gray backdrop. Every half hour or so, someone like Newt Gingrich comes along, plants himself in the folding chair, and speaks into the digital camera.
FreedomChannel.com is a nonpartisan, nonprofit Web site that uses streaming video to give voters direct access to candidates’ statements. The site provides every presidential, senatorial, congressional, and gubernatorial candidate with “Net time” of up to 90 seconds per topic on a drop-down menu of issues ranging from world-trade policy, to race relations, to education, to Medicare. At press time, there were roughly 1,500 such video clips available to voters, and the site expects to have more than 2,500 come Election Day.
“When television was invented,” says Bailey, “nobody thought much about how it was going to change politics, or if we could use it to improve the process. So we’re asking ourselves those questions, trying to figure out how to use the new technology to reach people, because the medium has the power to change politics.”
Truth be known, Bailey is not so much standing at the intersection of old and new media as he is sitting there — among several tables belonging to CNN, just a few feet away from FreedomChannel.com. And he can’t sit there long without being greeted by one roving honcho or another.
“Hi Doug,” says Brian Hartman, politics editor at ABCNews.com, happening by. “You being interviewed?”
“I am,” says Bailey. “How do you like our new digs? We’ve taken over CNN.” “A FreedomChannel-CNN merger?”
“Yeah. Pretty good, huh? And we’re coming after you next.”
Hartman laughs. Actually, what Bailey has in mind isn’t so much a takeover of the major-media world as a coalition with it. Last spring, Bailey, together with former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry, helped bring together various Internet outlets for Web White & Blue 2000, a nonpartisan project initiated by the Markle Foundation.
Continuing through Election Day, Web White & Blue 2000 is hosting a daily online issues-oriented exchange among the presidential campaigns. The unedited Rolling Cyber Debate is carried simultaneously on the 17 Web White & Blue charter sites — high-traffic sites that together reach 85% of America’s Internet audience. ABCNews. com is one of those sites, as are America Online, CNN.com’s allpolitics.com, Excite, MSNBC.com, MTV.com’s ChooseorLose.com, and so on. Web White & Blue 2000’s front page provides links to political-news stories at these top outlets.
“Web White & Blue gives campaigns the ability to present the same material, the same way, and reach 85% of the online audience,” says Bailey. “And just think of what it means for you, as a voter, to be able to push a button and watch the candidates talk about issues that you’re interested in. You’ll be able to make informed judgments. And we both — hey, Ann?” Bailey interrupts himself. “Who are you looking for?”
Ann Klenk, who hosted MSNBC.com’s hourly convention Webcasts, is striding through Internet Alley. She stops when she sees Bailey: “Governor Gilmore. He’s supposed to be on our show now. I’m going to do a couple of more laps around the tent, and if I don’t find him, I’m going to come and grab you to take his place.”
“I’m ready for you,” Bailey says.
Bailey and Klenk have a long history as colleagues. Klenk works for the Hotline, which is producing MSNBC.com’s hourly Web broadcasts. Bailey founded the Hotline in 1987 with Roger Craver, a Democratic political consultant, as a daily faxed political briefing. The Hotline demonstrated the power of instant information, later transmogrifying into the first Web-based Washington newsletter. Bailey and Craver sold the Hotline to the National Journal Group Inc. in 1996, but they still keep a hand or two in the goings-on there.
“When I started selling people subscriptions to the Hotline,” says Bailey, “the first question that I got was, ‘You want to sell me what?’ The second question was, ‘You want me to pay what?’ And the third question was, ‘What’s a fax?’ Well, you see how far we’ve come in just 13 years.”
Bailey has come a long way himself. He cofounded a highly influential Republican consulting firm, Bailey/Deardourff, at a landmark moment in the annals of media and politics: 1968, the first year that television advertising played a decisive role in the presidential election. Over the course of his firm’s 20-year existence, Bailey was involved in 75 successful statewide elections, including those of Lamar Alexander and Richard Lugar. “In the early days of our consulting,” Bailey says, “you could buy five minutes of airtime, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to tell a story and to get people into the flow of things a little bit. As it became clearer and clearer that the networks and the stations were going to limit you to 30 seconds, the political dialogue dumbed down.”
The real problem, Bailey says, is that the short sound bites and the decreased TV airtime led to negative advertising. “If I’m running against an opponent, and I only have 30 seconds, it’s easier for me to give you one reason not to vote for my opponent than to list 10 reasons why you should vote for me,” Bailey says. “Negative advertising works. The campaigns don’t pay the price — the public does. If all that an audience ever sees are negative attacks, why should we be surprised that the public is turned off by politics?”
If FreedomChannel.com and Web White & Blue 2000 are Bailey’s answer to negative advertising, Youth-e-Vote 2000 is his way of addressing the problem of an increasingly disinterested populace. Youth-e-Vote 2000 is a full-fledged national online voting system and a Net-based curriculum for the nation’s youth. Students register through their schools and vote online in presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial elections during the two weeks preceding Election Day. Bailey expects that the campaigns will become involved with the site in a meaningful way. After all, he says, who wants to lose the “kids’ vote” one week before Election Day?
For Bailey, Youth-e-Vote 2000 is the most important of his endeavors. “The other ones serve people who are already interested in the political world,” he says. “Youth-e-Vote is designed to bring people into the political process for the first time — people who aren’t there now, who are turned off by it.”
That’s a big audience. The overall percentage of people who vote is declining, but nowhere is the falloff greater than among 18- to 24-year-olds. In the 1996 election, only 32% of people in that age group voted. In fact, since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1971, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds actually voting has fallen steadily. There are plenty of reasons for this, Bailey says. But one reason is obvious: Many children in the United States live in homes where there is no voting parent.Youth-e-Vote 2000 is an attempt to take what Bailey calls “a young people’s medium” and use it to facilitate the teaching of civics. “Youth-e-Vote is a way of trying to pull people into the political process — people who might otherwise tune out,” he says. “It’s also a way to provide a risk-free test of national online voting and maybe even to end up with more parents voting on Election Day.”
The National Association of Secondary School Principals has endorsed the project, as have a litany of other organizations. Election.com, which produced Arizona’s online Democratic primary, will handle the actual vote.
“Online voting is going to happen,” says Bailey. “I don’t care when, and I don’t care about the technology behind it. I do care a lot about how we can change politics through the use of broadband technology. Whoever is bright enough to figure out how to make effective use of the technology has the power to make a real difference. They have the power to change our politics for the worse, and they also have the power to change our politics for the better.”
Jill Rosenfeld (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Doug Bailey by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) , or learn more about his initiatives on the Web (www.freedomchannel.com ; www.youthevote.net; www.webwhiteblue.org) .