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Gotcha politics gone wild

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Democrats have set up website for posting of videos to show opponents making mistakes
  • Julian E. Zelizer: The new site is another step toward gotcha politics that obscures real issues
  • The web has made everyone a potential writer and publisher
  • Zelizer says the old media system of checking information before airing it is gone

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," a book on the presidency of George W. Bush and a book on former President Carter, to be published next fall by Times Books.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- The Democratic National Committee has launched a new website where anyone can upload videos. Call this the political YouTube.

The "accountability project," as the DNC has named it, is an effort systematically to capture the kind of "Macaca" moment that brought down Republican Sen. George Allen in 2006 when he made racially tinged remarks at a rally. A more recent example is the video clip from a private fundraiser last week that captured Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele questioning the war in Afghanistan, comments that have prompted calls for Steele's resignation.

Democrats have gone a step further by institutionalizing the power of YouTube politics with the hope of finding clips that will damage Republicans.

This is a terrible idea. Without question, the website will escalate the partisan arms race that exists to dominate the arena of gotcha politics. Republicans surely will replicate the site. While some video clips can certainly be useful and they can expose the egregious behavior of politicians, YouTube clips too often provide short visuals that lack context and are skewed for political purposes.

Partisan politics have been on a downward slope for decades. The media have often made things worse as editorial control over the dissemination of information has eroded to a point that is beyond repair.

While nostalgia is always a dangerous thing, during the dominance of major newspapers and network news in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a virtue to the fact that editors and producers retained much tighter control over information before it reached the public. Although the system was far from perfect, there was some kind of check against spreading unsubstantiated information or releasing stories without placing them in their proper context.

The production of the network news was indicative of how slow and controlled the news cycle was. Until the 1980s, the television news cycle revolved around half-hour broadcasts in the evening at 7. In the morning, the news division met to discuss stories in the major newspapers. Executives, anchors and producers debated which stories should be highlighted. The executive producer (with the tacit permission of the anchor) would contact the bureaus to develop the pieces that he had decided to run.

By 3:30 p.m. the producers were informed about how the segments were developing, and the executive producer released a list at 4 p.m. that included the stories for the evening. The anchor had to approve the final decision. The deadline for final changes was 5:30 p.m. The networks used the remaining 90 minutes for editing and preparation. Late-breaking stories could be inserted but only for a major event.

During the show, the anchor read the stories with related images appearing on screen. Several times the show cut to taped stories, and toward the end of the 1960s the networks introduced short commentary sections.

That world has virtually disappeared. While the networks still produce their nightly news shows, most Americans turn to other sources throughout the day to obtain their information.

First, the advent of cable news, which really got under way with the launch of CNN in 1980, intensified the competition within the media to get out stories immediately. The networks and cable news stations scrambled to capture narrowing markets of viewers by being the first to report on big stories.

With the 24 hours allotted to cable stations, news was disseminated all day long so that the incentives were to get out information right away. It was no longer possible to wait, as in the heyday of network news, or someone else would beat you to the story.

The Internet only accelerated this news cycle. The publication of news grew faster and faster. At the same time, the Internet allowed anyone, regardless of their credentials, to publish information that was instantly visible internationally. With the increasing sophistication of hyperlinks and social-media sites, stories put out by the most unknown writer can quickly circulate through the blogosphere and be picked up by mainstream news organizations.

While there is more news today, studies have shown that the press has reduced the actual time and space allotted to politicians in favor of sound bites.

This environment creates a dangerous atmosphere and fuels feeding frenzies. Politicians, or even military officials, can be brought down within hours regardless of the accuracy of the information or the context in which particular statements were delivered. The blogger David Weigel learned of the dangers of this medium when leaked private conversations from a listserv were published by conservative websites and resulted in his resignation from The Washington Post (although MSNBC's "Countdown" soon hired him as a contributor).

To be sure, there are many virtues to the new media. More voices can be heard as there are fewer gatekeepers in control of the media, many of whom were influenced by biases of their own. In its quest for neutral objectivity, the old press was often used by the politicians such as when Sen. Joseph McCarthy constantly made accusations about alleged communist spies, knowing that reporters would publish his story -- as straight fact -- without analyzing and evaluating the claims.

But like the old media, the new media has many flaws. The new Democratic website reveals that the parties are now fully embracing the more dangerous aspects of the new technology rather than trying to contain them.

The growing use of these videos will severely damage the ways in which we choose and evaluate our politicians, pushing citizens to focus more on gaffes and gotcha moments than on the issues and policies that don't lend themselves to this format, but which are really the critical questions of our time.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.