Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
Forget video-streamed speeches, 360-degree cameras, interactive polls, and political chat rooms. It's good old-fashioned information that voters want from the Net as they ponder who should be the next president.
That was the conclusion of a recent telephone poll by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The problem is that major media sites on the Net largely lack the deep information culled from databases that the medium is in the unique position of being able to provide.
Sites such as MSNBC.com and FOXNews.com do not offer a database of campaign contributions, while ABCNews.com buries a link to Federal Election Commission data at the bottom of its "Politics" page. Almost none of the major news sites provides details about the candidates' voting records or personal finances in database form.
"So much is put into stunts vs. more useful database-oriented stuff," observes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Fortunately, nonprofits are picking up where commercial sites are failing. Groups such as Project Vote Smart, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the Center for Public Integrity are leading the way in providing such database-oriented information, some of which is also available on government sites in less friendly formats.
The Center for Public Integrity's site is the only one to offer a searchable database of the presidential candidates' assets. It revealed, for instance, that Vice President Al Gore owned at least $650,000 worth of real estate in 1998, compared with George W. Bush's holdings of between $50,001 and $100,000. It's also the only site with a database of candidates' paid speeches and travel during their tenures in public office.
The Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington, D.C., offers copies of the candidates' financial filings, which also make for interesting reading. The center's database at Opensecrets.org categorizes presidential campaign contributions by geography, top industries, and top contributors.
The nonprofit's campaign-contribution information is one of the most popular political databases accessed by news sites. But that's not saying much. Only three sites—MSNBC.com, CBSNews.com, and Voter.com—are paying the center a monthly fee of $1,000 to $1,500 to use its information, while PBS.org also is using the database. But MSNBC.com doesn't even post the data on its site. Instead, Craig Staats, a politics producer at MSNBC.com, said reporters draw from the database for news stories.
"Our hope had always been that one of the major doorways into our Web sites would be links from media sites," says Maikinson, noting that the center has been in talks with the major newspapers. "It's been a little bit disappointing."
USA Today is among those that chose not to put the information on its site, partly because political page views account for a small portion of the site's total traffic, said Kinsey Wilson, vice president and editor in chief of USAToday.com. "One of [the Web's] great values is to present and manipulate complex information," he acknowledges. But "the information we felt was fairly widely available on the Net is in different forms. So in light of the apparent cost, we chose not [to post it]."
But Steve Schneider, editor of Netelection.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that campaign-finance information is "especially valuable." Schneider is a big fan of Opensecrets' ZIP code search, which allows citizens to see who in a certain ZIP code is contributing to which campaign. "I think for citizens, it helps give them a context of who in their neighborhood is politically active and who they're supporting," Schneider said. "We're better off if we talk about politics, and one way to talk is money."
Meanwhile, Project Vote Smart has carefully crafted a database of candidate voting records that is far easier to use than the government equivalent, the Thomas Guide. Project Vote Smart categorizes votes by candidate and issue, eliminates the political jargon, and reduces the subjects of bills to their essence. The Montana-based nonprofit also offers a database of public statements by candidates (219 for Bush, 370 for Gore) on its site, which is searchable by key words.
But despite that wealth of information, none of the major media sites—MSNBC.com, ABC.com, CBS.com, CNN.com—provides even a link to Project Vote Smart which, unlike the Center for Responsive Politics, offers its information at no charge. Only PBS has a special arrangement with Project Vote Smart to mirror its information on its site, according to Adelaide Elm, a board member of Project Vote Smart.
"Most of the other sites are news and analysis, so they're all sort of copycatting each other," Elm says. "If they have chosen not to link to us, what they're doing is denying their huge audiences access to this enormous library of political information."