February 08, 2010
Media and Democracy: Hopes and Cautions
(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
My fundamental interest politics is what it says about the state of democracy and not the fake politics that the media wants us to pay attention to. As should be obvious to any observer, political power in this country has been completely hijacked and now resides in the hands of the oligarchy consisting of big business interests, especially in the financial and military sectors, who determine the policies and control the elected leadership. The fundamental problem that we now face is how create an informed and active general public that will seize control of political life and decision-making in this country away from this oligarchy.
Enabling this subversion of democracy is a relatively small coterie of people, labeled the 'Villagers', consisting of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people informally arrive at a rough consensus of what news we should hear, what range of opinions are acceptable in public discourse, and who is 'worthy' of being elected to high office.
The Villagers may really believe that they are the 'voice of the people'. It is easy to delude yourself that it is so if everyone around you hails you as a sage, and the Villagers are unstinting in their praise of each other. It is also important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily discredited. The secret of the Villagers' success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles. People living in an echo chamber do not realize that the voices they hear are not that of the people at large but merely their own.
But there is hope. The anarchic nature of the internet threatens to undermine the power of the Villagers. There will still be a place for traditional, trained journalists who go out into the field and have the resources and some standing to find out answers to important questions on issues of concern to the public. But the more important development is that the mainstream media are rapidly losing their gate-keeping privilege when it comes to deciding what becomes news and what kind of analyses people can access. This is a very good thing, in my opinion.
The web now provides an easy access point to many people to become public intellectuals. In the past, this privilege was reserved for a few highly eminent people who achieved notable distinction in their fields (like Albert Einstein) or those who spent considerable time and effort to cultivate a public persona, by writing popular books and articles. Now almost anyone with something interesting to say has a platform with which to reach the whole world easily and, most importantly, cheaply. Over time they can build up a large audience. Some good examples are Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Markos Moulitsas, and Duncan Black.
I predict that one important component of the Villager network, the syndicated newspaper columnist will be extinct within a few years, and I will shed no tears. They are already rapidly becoming irrelevant as one can find far better analyses on the web than on the op-ed pages of your newspaper. I have stopped reading them because I simply cannot take anymore Maureen Dowd's speculations on the Clintons' marriage written in the tone of a high-school cheerleader, David Broder's drearily predictable conventional wisdom and calls for bipartism, David Brooks' absurd conceit that he knows what Americans want and think, Richard Cohen's smug self-assuredness even though he is almost always wrong, and Charles Krauthammer advocating torture and the killing of more Arabs and Muslims. Who needs that?
The other thing that has changed is the relationship of the journalist to their audience. No longer is the audience impotent at the choices that journalists make on what news to cover. Now journalists and the media get rapid feedback from informed critics.
We are fortunate to be living in time in which the web gives us the ability to create a combination of best of two worlds that existed in the past: the timeliness of the pamphleteering that existed at the time of the American revolution and which proved so valuable to revolutionaries like Tom Paine, and the relatively low cost of gaining access to a large audience that was the early days of radio.
Of course the Villagers would like to protect their role as gatekeepers and limit free and open discussion. The best way to do that is not to directly suppress alternative views but to make the cost of access so high that only the Villagers can pay the admission price, as was done in the past with newspapers and radio. It costs a huge amount now to start a newspaper or a radio and TV station. The latter two options, although they use the public airwaves, have been effectively given over to the multinational corporations, rather than to promote more media egalitarianism.
This is why net neutrality is such an important issue worth fighting to preserve. This is why free and easy community broadband access, of the kind promoted in the Cleveland area by Lev Gonick at Case Western Reserve University and OneCleveland, is so important to spread. If everyone has equal access to broadband access that is free (or at least at minimal cost), there is hope of wresting at least some of the power away from the oligarchy and salvaging democracy.
The danger is that the media monopolies will try to prevent both those things and will succeed unless we fight to preserve them.
POST SCRIPT: The TV 'news' formula
Have you noticed how the TV news segments have a certain similarity? Well, Charlie Brooker reveals the formula that they use. (Language advisory)
(Thanks to onegoodmove.)