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Howard Dean is not a soap bar

Saturday, February 7, 2004 by Dave Winer.

What happened? Permalink to What happened?

In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, for some reason, people who were against the war didn't speak. There was a lot of shouting from the other side, an assumption that if you were against the war you were un-American. In my private thoughts, maybe yours too, I said "How un-American this is."

Enter Howard Dean saying the war is wrong, it's a mistake, we shouldn't be going, and if he were President we wouldn't. It's one of those things, so stunning, so fresh, so right, that I remember exactly where I was when I heard it.

What didn't happen Permalink to What didn't happen

Howard Dean didn't stand up in March last year and say "Hello my name is Howard Dean and I'm the Internet candidate."

People who have analyzed the Dean story as if their march to the Internet was planned, are mistaken. That's not what happened.

The bloggable candidate Permalink to The bloggable candidate

In fact what happened is that in a virtual sense, the Internet was looking for a candidate, and Howard Dean fit the bill. He was bloggable. He was interesting. And get this, he was interesting if you were for the war, as well as if you were against it.

The man is interesting, like him or not, and that's a rarity in US politics where candidates are as exciting as toothpaste or underarm deodorant, because that's exactly how they want us to view them, as products, not people. Enter Howard Dean, person. Bloggable to the nth degree. But did Howard Dean know what a blog was? No. Does he know what one is today? No! Did he ever have a blog? He didn't. (I don't mean to ask, as some people misunderstand, did he write his own weblog. I mean did his campaign have a weblog.)

He did raise a lot of money on the Internet, and that's interesting, for sure, and he taught us so much, and if he had gone all the way, I believe he would have survived the onslaught of CNN, ABC and NBC, who were his real competitors, not the other candidates for the Democratic nomination. Read that sentence again, please. That's the core premise of this piece, and the point that all the analysis so far has missed. His challenge wasn't to get the most votes, because that would inevitably follow, once he won the battle with the television networks, a battle which he failed to even show up for.

What we learned from the Dean campaign Permalink to What we learned from the Dean campaign

The Dean campaign taught us that you can't use the Internet to launch into a successful television campaign to win primaries. By raising money to run ads you play into the gatekeepers, who for obvious financial reasons, have a lot at stake in the money continuing to flow through their bank accounts. At some point he wouldn't need them. If Dean didn't get it, they did. So they proved that in 2004 at least, they still get a veto on who runs for President.

To Blitzer, Sawyer and Russert, to Viacom, GE, Time-Warner and Disney, Kerry seems safe, but Dean is dangerous, he routes around them, he goes direct. To accept his candidacy would be to accept the end of television-dominated politics. They aren't going to let this happen, any more than the record and movie companies are going to roll over for P2P distribution.

Had Dean fully embraced the Internet the campaign would have helped flow good news and bad about all the candidates. They would have followed Rule 1 for Internet candidates, run a real weblog. Then, when the inevitable smear came from CNN (who protests that the candidate actually had the gall to behave like a human being instead of a soap bar) -- key point -- the voters would have known where to tune to get a variety of viewpoints.

Engineering a variety of viewpoints Permalink to Engineering a variety of viewpoints

In the 20th Century we got our news from an ever-more-uniform monoculture. Maybe the spin is different between NPR and Fox News, but the same basic assumptions are behind their stories. Neither challenged Bush as we went to war. Only the NY Times, among the traditional press, put up the meekest of challenges. Yet the American way is democracy, one man one vote, a republic of the people, by the people and for the people. Only Howard Dean, among the candidates, used that feature effectively.

People laugh when Fox says they're Fair And Balanced, and of course we're meant to laugh, because it's a joke. It's a sign of how totally we are controlled, when our only way of getting information is through television.

Last night, the night before two crucial primaries, Michigan and Washington, I circled through the cable news channels, about five of them, to see what's up. They're talking about the murder of an eleven year old girl. All of them, all the time. There was other news yesterday. The President announced a task force to investigate the claims of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The US government budget for 2005 is fresh news, and the President, who's looking weak against the Democrats, is going on Meet the Press on Sunday. All of this should be fresh fodder for the Capital Gang et al, but they're on vacation, and we're left with the usual fare, news-as-entertainment.

I'm an engineer and a writer, and after years of work on content management, editorial interfaces, syndication and desktop tools, delivering a variety of viewpoints to thinking citizens is something we can now engineer. Technologically we're ready to route around the news channels. Had Dean decided to help develop the human network of citizen journalists, providing coverage not just of his campaign, and not just the good spin of his campaign, he might have been able to survive the onslaught of the television networks.

It will eventually happen. Some day, maybe in 2008, we will elect a President who is not subject to the veto of the television networks. In the meantime, the techniques that the Dean campaign could have used are available to any candidate running for local office because the networks don't reach below the national level. The competition there is with local television and local newspapers, which are shrinking rapidly.

In war it's best to zig to the zag of your enemy. In this case, Dean zigged to their zig, and lost. But in doing so, he showed us clearly how to do the zag. The challenge is to find a candidate with the courage to use the new technology to route around the television networks. We know how to do it, the Dean campaign removed all doubt.

Dave Winer

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