13 January 2007

Neutral Press = Neutered Politicians

Blogging is merely the tip of the iceberg in a process of media fragmentation. The effect of this new model of journalism is going to significantly change politics. I'm less interested in web 2.0 than media 2.0 and what it will mean for politics.

In the old model, news pretended to be neutral. One of the flaws with operating under this guise of neutrality is that it makes the press biased towards certain stories. Scandal is a story for everyone, regardless of political persuasion, and can be reported freely without fear of seeming to have an agenda other than morality in politics. The result has a variety of consequences but the two main consequences have to do with the focus of politicians and the issues that are allowed into the national debate.

The issues allowed into the national debate are very meager. The press largely pretends to cover issues that are factual - our deficit went up, crime went down, GDP grew by 2.3%. The press does cover more controversial issues like climate change, globalization, and corporate governance but the coverage is typically about political votes and support (e.g., "Democrats oppose the president's new proposal ...") rather than engaging in reporting that takes a stance about what kind of world we'd live in with or without this legislation. The result of this is that politicians and experts find it nearly impossible to attract the attention of the press on issues that haven't already reached crisis proportions. Islamic extremism is of little import - or rarely reported - - until a tragedy like 9-11. Climate change is little reported until buildings in Alaska begin to sink as what was previously permafrost begins to thaw.

Given that the media hasn't bothered to report on issues for fear of being perceived as biased, politicians have been largely unable to push for actual policy. In lieu of policy they run focus groups to learn what sorts of key words they should use in speeches and debate. And most importantly, they run scared: scarred that their flaws should be revealed -whether through embarrassing gaps in their knowledge or zippers.

A neutral press and neutered politicians are tied together and there is a very real difference between a person focused on avoiding errors and a person focused on doing what is right. Of course, "what is right" is value-laden and we will rarely have complete agreement about its definition. But as long as the media refuses to take a stand on what is right, the media finds itself focused on libido more than policy.

One of the things so alluring about the blogosphere is that it promises an alternative to this. Bloggers focused on politics insist that their issues be taken seriously. Wherever there are people there will be interest in stories of personal flaws, but flawed people are all we ever get in politics. The real stories are not those of the inevitable peccadilloes but the stories of policy. Do you really care whether your china cabinet was made by a cheating Baptist or a faithful Buddhist? Why should something even more important than your furniture – as important as policy – be ignored because of the “facts” about the scandalous or virtuous life of its creator?

The best thing about the blogosphere and media 2.0 is that it will once again focus us on issues, values, and topics that are both sure to divide groups but, perhaps paradoxically, move them forward. A neutral press has neutered politicians and disabled the ability of communities to grapple with real issues, much less develop real strategies.

Call me an optimist, but I think that we'll look back at the politics of the period past as the equivalent of political elevator music - politics that is designed to offend no one that finally annoys everyone while avoiding any issue of substance or importance. Media 2.0 could result in politics 2.0.

The mantra for this new period? Let your soap operas be soap operas and your politics be politics.

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