Media Responsibility & a Democratic Republic
February 7, 2010 4 Comments
About a year ago I had the opportunity to speak with one of our nation’s Senators. I suggested that a responsibly engaged electorate must be a well-informed electorate. My question to him was about how any of us who aren’t part of the “inner ring” can be assured of being well-informed. He agreed that this is a real difficulty.
There’s nothing new about this worry. In 1969, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew gave a speech on “The Importance of Television.” He noted the “profound influence” of television news “over public opinion.”
Television’s influence is disproportionately great because:
- There are “fewer checks on its vast power” in comparison with any other medium.
- It enjoys influence over an audience of millions of Americans spread out across the nation.
- It influences events as well as opinions, first, because it edits and comments on the news according to its own standards, and second, because it is naturally lured into coverage of what it deems worthy, thereby ensuring that opportunists will play on their instincts and manipulate them to advantage.
- Its representatives are free to posture as authorities as they “read the news” off teleprompters or moderate “expert opinion” following some critical event or development in our national life.
- It consists of only a handful of men and women who actually determine what will be treated as news and how it will be reported; this is an inordinate concentration of political power in the hands of a few.
- These men and women live in the bubble of elitists concentrated in Washington, DC, and New York, with little connection with ordinary Americans. (Maybe this is why they are always talking about us in the third person as “the American people,” as if they aren’t Americans themselves.)
- These men and women have packaged themselves as trustworthy and objective and in the know; they are poised, often handsome or beautiful, well-connected, and otherwise “better” than most of the rest of us.
- These men and women are free to pontificate and insinuate their prejudices without any accountability to reasonable people.
- They are able to exploit the impressive power of video and audio as a backdrop to their reporting and commentary.
- They have instant access to the public and can pronounce solemnly on whatever they will, shaping initial impressions insofar as they are able.
- They produce a steady stream of nuance, innuendo, and direct statement along predetermined lines, so that their influence is compounded through clever repetition over long periods of time.
- Their authority outlasts that of the more diluted influence of individual members or sub-committees in Congress, who eventually grow old and retire or can be retired by an unhappy constituency, and even of a president who can serve for eight years at most.
- For fifty years (until very recently) they have had no serious competition as opinion-makers, so that many are simply resigned to the fact that the news people are the acknowledged champions of public opinion and cannot be toppled.
This is quite a list. While I’ve embellished some, many of the items here were recited by Agnew in his own speech. He challenged his contemporaries to “press for responsible news presentations.” He suggested ways that the people could let those in control of the news know that they expect “fair and balanced treatment.” He hoped for a grass-roots movement, and explicitly resisted the notion of government censorship.
Agnew could not have imagined how things would develop during the next half century. Today, “television news,” as it was called, has been threatened by alternative news media, most significantly through the internet. More have gotten into the game of playing expert and disseminating a dissenting point of view.
The Old Media have not been able to preserve their earlier monolithic influence under these new and welcome conditions. Despite all that is bizarre, “ineloquent,” and logically dubious across the spectrum of web participation, it is at least participatory. Even if its breaking the hegemony salaciously and greedily enjoyed by traditional media was all that could be said for it, this would be a value of real significance. “The American people” have been learning not to pay attention to those who are so obviously determined to manipulate public opinion and subvert whatever stands in their way.
The spectacular explosion of direct and immediate social and political discussion among the nation’s citizens is boosted by old media formats that have gained greater market share over the so-called “mainstream media.” I refer to “out-of-the-mainstream” cable stations and what is, for the most part, conservative talk radio.
My impression is that traditional media, represented by The New York Times and traditional television news, now including “mainstream” cable news, has been so seriously threatened that they now feel compelled to do something about it. But I also suspect that they don’t quite understand what’s happening, and have not calculated correctly what needs to be done.
The threat comes from new opportunities for greater democratic participation. The cohort of traditional media may be hearing for the first time what average Americans think and care about. This cohort may finally be coming to grips with the extraordinary numbers of average Americans that surround the elite. And it may be newly conscious that average Americans feel empowered because they have been freshly empowered by unprecedented opportunity for democratic participation.
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Narcissism, I hear, is a hard habit to break.
I encountered Spiro T. Agnew’s speech while reading selections from A Documentary History of the United States, edited by Richard D. Heffner, with Alexander Heffner. This is an excellent collection of momentous documents and speeches, available here.