Can New Media Check Campaign Spin?

September 30, 2008 | Insights

By Paul C. Watler

There is a big issue at play in the election that won’t be decided when the voters select our next president. The issue is whether an Internet-based news media can effectively check and balance the spin dished out by partisan campaigns.

The presidential candidates know that the First Amendment means almost all is fair in the heat of election season. But a guarantee of free speech to candidates is not the only aspect of the First Amendment at work in our electoral system. In the midst of attack/counter-attack, it’s good to remember that the First Amendment plays another important part in American elections. The law provides the news media the same protection in reporting on the candidates as the candidates enjoy in speaking about one another.

The Founders built checks and balances into our constitutional structure with the three branches of government. The free and independent press was the capstone. Today, a key challenge for a decentralized news media is to maintain that constitutional balance. It is a role made more difficult by the Internet.

In the recent past, we had fewer outlets for political journalism but their stature was enormous. Today, there has been a leveling of the field through the Web. At the same time, candidates flush with campaign cash have multiplied their ability to communicate their messages. This threatens to deprive us of an institutional structure capable of fact checking the campaigns.

Today’s Internet-based news media … must vigorously carry on the institutional tradition of counter-balancing American election campaigns.

During the post-World War II era, and especially after Watergate, the American press emerged as an institution to correct and counterbalance the marketplace of campaign ideas. Major metropolitan newspapers and television network news divisions had the resources and heft to set the record straight. At least, over time, they made a credible effort at doing it.

Now the former institutional press has been atomized. Independent journalism is scattered across an Internet galaxy of messages competing for attention. The campaigns — especially their cable network and talk radio surrogates — applaud the news media’s loss of stature and openly aim to exploit it.

Thus arises a fundamental challenge for today’s Internet-based news media. It must vigorously carry on the institutional tradition of counter-balancing American election campaigns. The Internet is the greatest free speech invention known to man. The modern news media must harness it to effectively check and balance the giants of political debate.

— Paul Watler is a partner at Jackson Walker. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.