News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The MSM, The Conservative Right, and the Blogosphere

Friday, June 16, 2006

The MSM, The Conservative Right, and the Blogosphere

In talking about the press and mainstream media (MSM), in its relationship to the so-called blogosphere, there are some major assumptions that bear discussion. ...

  • What motivates the MSM to pass on stories? The answer might seem to relate to who has authroity to speak about issues of interest. Since the MSM finds itself incapable of answering these questions in and by themselves, they have to resort to stories about character, which by itself indicates that the a person is telling the truth.
  • How the news is packaged. The press makes itself useful by purveying news in neatly discrete packages that appeal to the limited information-seeking time of the electorate. It's much easier to dwell on personal, feel-good stories than it is on the difficult questions of global warming, etc.
  • The power of the blogosphere is not as ubiquitous or influential as many here assume. The internet--for most people--is still the arena of pedophiles, oceans of garbage-data, and people out to steal personal information. Until the blogosphere can attain some form of influence beyond the stereotypes, any information emanating from it will remain suspect.

In classical rhetoric, you assume that people are, at heart, disposed by human nature to discerning "the truth," most notably when presnted with an inductive argument that is credible.

One thing that the classisists assumed, however, is that the ones listening to the argument share certain educational and cultural assumptions.

With the advent of "the public"--during the Enlightenment, the appeal to reason became a supposedly universal appeal. Yet, as some commentators have rightly noted, those who hear the appeal are in a position to do something once they "see" the truth of the reasoned argument.

Some current theorists base their arguments on the Enlightenment notion of the public. In this regard, what stops people from coming to the rational, democratic solution is the corruption of the means of communication by diverse personal and socio-economic factors--capitalism in particular. The effort, therefore, is to clear away those obstructions to democratic and clear debate.

Others who oppose this view ask a very simple question. How can we ever hope to achieve this "perfect" communication ideal? That is, the model assumes that for the democratic situation to occur, these changes must have already come about. People must change--socially and subjectively--before that ideal itself can be realized. Yet, the socio-economic and subjective factors at work in modern society may be so great that the perfect communication situation will never happen. It's always an ideal-in-waiting, so to speak.

One solution might be to get rid of the rationalistic model presupposed by the ideal communication model althogether. This solution jettisons any notion of "truth" and insists instead on smaller truths. In the best interpretation of this approach, the use of irony and localized, acerbic tricksterism works in ana anarchic way to undermine the prevailing false ethos. This practice opens up the possibility for alternative and creative solutions to injustice and non-democratic structures.

The gist of the preceding is that "the solution" to your question is not simply either psychological or social. It's a combination of both terms. Any solution must, it seems, work at subjective and social levels to bring about a situation in which anything approaching a just and democratic society can exist.
Now, you can go back to classical rhetroic to find the idea that a good debated is someone who can argue the other side's position just as well if not better than him/her. Of course, it's exactly this idea od being able to argue both sides of an issue that's given rhetoric and lawyers a bad name in popular usage.

Yet the point, I think is a valid one. But instead of doing it simply froma desire to beat your opponent, the effort to understand the other side should be motivated by the desire to find what's really motivating them. Based on this, it is perhaps possible to find revelational issues that can serve as the basis for further discussion. A basis that forms a bond of trust that I'm not just jettisoning his/her actual concern for the truth just as much as I have.

No one is completely wrong. There's always a mixture of truth, fiction, misperception, etc. Only the insane are completely wrong. And it's hyperbole and mean-spiritedness to accuse the other side of such. They may be really wrong, even mostly wrong, but there's always that substrate of whatever you want to call it--human nature, innate human sensibility for the ethical, etc.--that we can seek to overcome these differences.

And then the question becomes who benefits from such polarization. I think there's something to the idea that insiders/outsiders on all sides are perhaps captive to a socio-economic system that benefits those at the top of that system.

The so-called culture war is really a class war, and the underlying forces at work are an economics that produces and thrives on antagonism between people with the same interests in an effort to consolidate its hold on power.

The answers to some of these questions originate in remembering the bogus framework that informs all political debate. The Right has been successful in "framing" political dialog for the last 20 years or so.

They have divided the world between left and right and tagged the extreme left with being socialists/communists. This division itself goes back to the 50s, with the successful fear campaign run by politicians in the country to fight a perceived Red Menace.

How many people actually understand political differences of this kind is, of course, up in the air. Whether your normal Jane Doe would know what particular stances a socialist or communist holds is debatable.

Yet, that does not matter; what does is the perception that the press has of these political philosophies. Educated with a smattering of political and historical understanding, journalists and others in the media simply rely on those who supposedly know the threats that face us--the think tanks and inside sources.

The Right has created a convenient filtering system which parses out reality and political questions so that they can then be fed in easily digestible bits to an information-hungry public.

The conventional wisdom among political scientists and campaign consultants is that voters tend toward the center--however that is defined. But the question is, who gets to define the extremes? and what are their agendas? And would voters always vote for the so-called "center" if the issues were really debated?

As many know, the tools of modern political consulting include polling, focus groups, and grassroots networking from the top (also called "astroturfing"). These tools enable political operatives to form their campaigns around simple wedge issues that are then packaged into visually stimulating and provocative bits of "real" information. In this way, a voter decides their vote not on a reasoned understanding of issues but merely a visceral, gut reaction to artfully constructed stimuli devised by politicos adept at manipulating emotions.

The blogosphere--if it's to gain any influence in the political world--has several options open to it. It can 1) serve as a forum for free and open discussion that undermines the think-tank hegemony, 2) freely and honestly debate issues without the prevailing filtering system consstructed by the prevailing political interests, 3) act as a conduit for information that bypasses the filtering processes imposed by the MSM.

Whether the blogosphere can successfully change politics will depend on how well it gains influence within 1) the political establishment and 2) the general public.

The political establishment is wary of the blogosphere because there's some question about the linkage between it and real voters. Does the blogosphere represent or reach into the motivating factors that get people to the polls? Does it represent public opinion? Unfortunately, the politicos will decide this question as they always do: with polls and focus groups.

Gaining influence with the public is questionable itself. While more and more people are gaining access to the Internet, the informational diet has been even more restricted by the way that people filter information.

Much of this seems to offer the hope of a technical adjustment to fix the problems. I suggest that this is just one more superficial fix. The problem is much more fundamental. It gets into the "vocabulary" and "grammar" of the concepts and meanings that inform the political landscape.

This is commonly known as culture; obviously, the Right has been more adept at controlling and manipulating the culural values and imagery than has the Left. By doing so, it can then gain ground on the much more practical field of political operations and electioneering.

All in all, then, those who wish to change the political landscape must begin to address the most fundamental questions that humans face as human beings. Until an alternative cultural vocabulary and grammar can find its way into the hearts and minds of everyday voters, the Right's filtering system will continue to amass votes and structure politics in this country.

Journalists are limited by time concerns. They do not have the time to do the research that's necessary to confirm or disaffirm stories. In this regard, they must rely on sources, many of whom--obviously--have their own agendas with regard to any particular story.

Sure, you might get sickened by the obsequiousness with which journalists go about this, but that's just a matter of taste, perhaps. In fact, objectivity--the key criterion in our culture for laying the basis for truth--is provided by sources with inside information. The closer to the source, the more objective the information is. This accords with a definition of objectivity that correlates it with influence.

William Beeman writes:
The media bears a great deal of responsibility in this matter. Lazy, news-cycle driven and subject to the pressure of ideology and publicity flackers, it is so much easier to just call the think tank down the street, or a PR firm like Benador Associates where someone is on call and already in suit and tie, or skirted suit to get to the studio within the next 20 minutes, than to spend the extra half-hour trying to locate an ISDN feed in . . . Minneapolis or Austin to get the best possible expertise on a subject at hand. For the print media a quote--any quote--is often good enough to anchor a story. No time to wait for someone to call back after a seminar! If the reporter can't get the quotable phrase on the first phone call, its on to the next, or once again, to the on-call quotables [sic] at the think-tank around the corner.

Even when someone with real expertise can be located, the media vitiates the message by making a fetish of "balance"--an odd feature of American public discourse, documented by my colleague Deborah Tannen in her classic book, The Argument Culture. This means that whatever the subject, a pro and con side must be represented--even if one of the positions is absurd, or representative of an extreme fringe opinion. This results in match-ups like Paul Krugman debating Bill O'Reilly on economic matters and other such ludicrous pairings. This situation has created careers for people like Anne Coulter, David Frum and Jonah Goldberg, who otherwise know very little--but they are reliable as "cons" (pun intended) on virtually any topic that requires an expansion of intellect. No wonder the public doesn't know which way is up.
As something of a commentary to this, consider sociologist Leon Mayhew's (in The New Public: Professional communication and the means of social influence) comments:
This generalization derives from studies of how workers in the news industry decide who should be granted the status of a source. There are two categories of sources: routine sources that provide press releases and similar forms of packaged information and enterprise sources that are generated by reporters' independent efforts to find people who can supply or corroborate stories (Epstein 1973). Epstein's study of 2,850 news stories publicized in the New York Times and Washington Post over a fourteen-year period documented that only about a quarter of these stories were based on enterprise sources. The rest were based on ready made sources. More than half were supplied by officials of the federal government, including the legislative branch (Epstein 1973, 119-30). ... Choosing sources as principal sources flows directly from the two main criteria for choosing sources: credible knowledge and capacity to represent constituencies. Officials are presumed responsible and close to the scenes of action, which makes them what Fishman (1980) has called "people entitled to know what they say" and thus "authorized knowers." Networks of authorized knowers upon whom journalists routinely depend constitute a "web of facticity" (Tuchman 1978, 82-103) that bestows credibility on news workers. [emphasis in original] (Mayhew, p. 252)
It is gaining the type of influence that the sources described by Mayhew have that the blogosphere must garner. Until the blogosphere can gain that influence, its attempts to keep the MSM honest will fall on deaf ears.

What Mayhew describes is only one facet of a much larger picture, of course. The larger question relates to discussion of the issues--a rational and open debate about whether the claims made by a candidate or a policy are true, feasible, or prudent.

It is that debate that the blogosphere promises to provide, yet because it is limited in its coverage, the debate never reaches the ears of those who must make the decisions--ie, the voters, policy-makers, and so on.

Mojo Magazine's blog gives a good example of how the media--under the aegis of "balance"--creates controversy where none exists.

According to MoJo:
Pam Spaulding spots a great example of one of journalism's most annoying tics: the need to put fake "balance" into stories. The other day the Houston Chronicle ran a profile of Sgt. Jack Oliver, the first officer in the Houston Police Department to undergo a sex change while on active duty. Interesting stuff. But the reporter then feels compelled to gin up controversy where none exists and quotes some pastor or other who gets all squirmy at the thought of transsexuals: "That would raise issues of competency in the line of duty in my mind."

The point of Beeman's remarks can be seen in the context of the campaign to discredit and undermine the authority of the intelligentsia and the academy. Perhpas none has been so forceful in this effort than David Horowitz. He's beacked by very powerful friends who have lots of money, yet as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, in front of a Pennsylvania legislative committee, Horowitz had to detract a large amount of his claims:
This broad-based and even global acclaim for higher education in the United States is strangely at odds with the concentrated political attacks that Cole warns us about and that the academy is currently experiencing. It is particularly out of step with the dark and dysfunctional picture of the academy painted by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. If Horowitz were simply a disaffected political crank, as many have hitherto regarded him, then his views on the academy could be easily dismissed. Such dismissal would seem to be all the more in order following his disastrous testimony before the legislative subcommittee in Pennsylvania in which he was forced to recant as unsubstantiated several of the cases that he had been widely circulating as documentation of alleged malfeasance in the academy.

Oddly, however, his campaign goes on. Horowitz, with assistance from Karl Rove and the former House majority whip, Tom DeLay, has briefed Republican members of Congress on his Academic Bill of Rights campaign and DeLay has even distributed copies of Horowitz’s political primer The Art of Political Warfare: How Republicans Can Fight to Win to all Republican members of Congress. Rove refers to Horowitz’s pamphlet as “a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield.”

Update 1 Karl Rove attacks the Internet:
Additionally, Rove answered the attacks from the left-wing blogosphere:

"The Internet for the Left of the Democratic Party has served as a way to mobilize hate and anger -- hate and anger, first and foremost, at this President and Conservatives, but then also at people within their own party whom they consider to be less than completely loyal to this very narrow, very out-of-the-mainstream, very far Left-wing ideology that they tend to represent."

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