When Yahoo fired Washington bureau chief David Chalian on Wednesday, after a right-wing website caught him mocking Mitt and Ann Romney during an ABC News/Yahoo News webcast of the Republican convention, a fracas erupted on Twitter and Facebook.
The tempest served to illustrate changes in the character of campaign coverage in the 2012 election. Voters are forming impressions from droves of disparate sources of information—like Yahoo, Twitter, and Facebook—which they process quite differently than before, when television and the legacy news media largely dictated the tenor of the moment.
President Obama offered his own example on Wednesday, when his “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) on the social forum reddit drew 200,000 visitors at a time, overwhelming the site. According to the trade journals, Cisco estimates that it will carry a terabyte (1000 gigabytes) of streaming video, tweets, and other digital data from Tampa, and from the Democratic convention in Charlotte
It’s likely that more than 10 million viewers watched Paul Ryan accept the vice presidential nomination on Wednesday night just like voters from the last half-century: seated before a television during prime time, passively accepting what the three great networks offered. But they were a diminished and relative few. The 2.3 million who turned to ABC to watch the convention on Tuesday, for example, were equal to a typical audience for Snooki and JWOWW on MTV.
Millions more chose a cable network—Fox, MSNBC, or CNN—that fit their ideological predilections. “The kind of people who watch conventions are the kind who self-select,” said Jonathan Ladd, a Georgetown University expert on media. That makes it difficult for the campaigns to lure and persuade uncommitted voters, and it limits the size of any post-convention “bump” in popularity.
Others watched on a laptop, desktop, or tablet computer—many with a split screen, on which they offered commentary, bickered on Twitter or “liked” on Facebook—aghast or delighted by what Sean or Rachel and the other cable commentators said. “If you watch on a device,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the coauthor of the Pew Research Center’s 2012 study of the media, the experience is active, not passive. “You see the stimulus and the response,” and the staged tableaux become again, like the political conventions of an older day, forums for conflict, passion, and the exchange of ideas. At one point during Ryan’s speech on Wednesday, tweets were firing at a rate of 6,500 per minute, shattering the record set ... the evening before, during Ann Romney’s address. And that one will likely will be broken on Thursday.
For many Americans, the digestion of Ryan’s remarks is ongoing. They’ll catch a snippet on Yahoo, laugh at a clip on The Daily Show, or be steered by a friend to YouTube. Mitt Romney’s address on Thursday night will still be “appointment television” for Americans, said Rosenstiel. “But it may not be an appointment you keep in real time.”
Since the 2008 presidential election, Pew’s research shows, Americans have increasingly turned to the Internet for news; it ranks only behind television as our most important source.
Chalian, a former political director for ABC News, exemplifies the change. He was in Tampa to supervise the Yahoo-ABC collaboration—no small job. Yahoo is the top news site on the Web, with 39 million visitors a month—more than double the size of The New York Times online. The site is one of dozens that carried, or linked to, a streaming version of Ryan’s remarks.
Chalian joked that a guest should “feel free” to say the Romneys were “happy to have a party with black people drowning,” as they watched a clip of a smiling Mitt and Ann Romney. It was during a break in the webcast and Chalian didn’t realize his microphone was hot.
Chalian apologized, but Yahoo cut him loose. Once, and not too long ago, a gaffe on a website was no big thing. Not anymore.