Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Promise of the Digital Age

Matt Yglesias makes some good points on the shifting of power between the political press and politicians in this post:

Bandwidth used to be very thin. If you wanted to communicate to voters, you had to get the attention of one of a very small number of national television newscasts or one or two local newspapers. Now there’s much more bandwidth you can take advantage of. At the same time, budgets have declined. Consequently, campaign coverage now consists largely of reporting what candidates or their representatives said or even just putting two proxies on television and listening to them talk.


This is the promise and the peril of digital media. People can communicate much more directly with their constituents, the media elite have much less power, consumers are much better-informed about the things they want to look up, but there’s less of an authoritative common culture that can force the national conversation down avenues deemed important.

The first part is nothing new. Beltway journalists and major news networks have acted as stenographers to power long before the digital age, but I certainly agree that these negative reporting practices can be magnified by the increase in available outlets. Objectivity is not CNN allowing Newt Gingrich to argue over health care reform with James Carville for a five-minute segment. Journalism should examine the arguments made by each side, point out areas that are not true, and inform the citizenry.

Sarah Palin's comments about "death panels" were largely circulated and embraced by the political right over the summer. It is not enough to simply report that "Sarah Palin has gone on record saying that health care reform will create death panels if passed." That tells us nothing except what Sarah Palin says. You have to give credit to those on reputable Internet blogging sites that broke down the fact that Palin was wrongly characterizing voluntary end-of-life counseling as "panels" that would be putting citizens to death.

This is the promise of the digital age. Responsible blogging and independent media outlets have a real chance to expand their footprint online to try and steer us back to responsible and investigative journalism. This expanded bandwidth that Yglesias references is also the peril of the digital age. The poor tendencies of the corporate media have been so pervasive, that they can easily carry over into digital mediums and percolate through the population that much faster.

The important part about the Internet is that truth and reality have a fighting chance. Organizations like Talking Points Memo are being used as sources of information for some (like Rachel Maddow) in reporting important stories. This is a big step forward in one sense, but as we all know, it is an uphill battle. The tea-party movement demonstrates this perfectly. You have a movement that had a lot of their facts wrong, whipped into a fervor by a "News" organization, and resonating with a lot of very angry people to create an odd "grasstroturf" movement.

The Internet does hold quite a bit of promise (that must be protected), but truth and reality still face a challenge in a culture that has been ingrained into the talking head mindset.

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