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Will Meerkat Change the Game in Campaigning and Reporting?

Fortunately, when I was hired as a political reporter many years ago by United Press International, the venerable news service had already retired its sexist slogan “A UPI Man Is At the Scene” thanks in no small part to the heroic reporting being done by women such as Kate Webb and Helen Thomas.

As misguided as the tagline was, the intended message was important – you could count on UPI (and its arch-rival, The Associated Press) to have a reporter on the scene providing eyewitness accounts for publication or broadcast to even the smallest news outlets in the country. Having a presence on site was considered important. Many larger newspapers and TV stations emulated the wire services by establishing news bureaus in major U.S. cities and even around the world.

Just how quaint that concept is today was brought home by a recent presentation two colleagues made upon their return from SXSW in Austin, Texas. (See related blogs by Mary Hoy and Dennis Brown) By most accounts, the biggest hit at this year’s event was Meerkat, a live video-streaming service that has only existed for weeks but already has hundreds of thousands of users. The launch at SXSW enabled Meerkat’s developers to reportedly raise $12 million in days to fund its growth. And competitors, such as Twitter’s Periscope, will not be far behind.

Of course not all products unveiled at events such as SXSW match the hype, but it certainly appears that these live video-streaming apps have the potential to dramatically impact political campaigns. Each one of us can be “at the scene,” seeing and hearing a candidate’s unfiltered words – observing the crowd’s reaction sans reporter commentary – and instantly reacting ourselves if so desired.

And while it will take months to sort out just how impactful this technology will be, the White House and a couple presidential contenders, including Jeb Bush, have already embraced live video streaming. Among media, early adopters of the Meerkat app included Dan Balz, the veteran Washington Post political reporter, and Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior aide to President Obama.

An initial key learning for “outsiders,” who can now more easily follow every move made by a candidate will be seeing first hand how incredibly boring a day in a campaign can be. The same exact speech delivered five times in the same day is deadly, no matter how great the campaigner. The upside is considerable. In a democracy, there’s no substitute for seeing and hearing for yourself – and forming your own conclusions. These services will not replace veteran reporters whose knowledge of the issues and the candidates will remain valuable, but they will provide additional avenues for information gathering and that has to be a plus.

The irony here could be that a service designed to provide openness and transparency might result in insulating candidates even more. Candidates are already wary of every word, every gesture being captured and broadcast around the world. Just ask Mitt Romney about the impact of his “47 percent” comment made during what was supposed to be a private reception. Knowing that the camera may now always “be on,” may make them even less candid and spontaneous. Let’s hope that’s not the case.


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