I read the article Bad News by Richard Posner in the New York Times this weekend, and am troubled by it. There are some assumptions hidden in it that I think are problemmatic. For example, see this paragraph:
Being profit-driven, the media respond to the actual demands of their audience rather than to the idealized ''thirst for knowledge'' demand posited by public intellectuals and deans of journalism schools. They serve up what the consumer wants, and the more intense the competitive pressure, the better they do it. We see this in the media's coverage of political campaigns. Relatively little attention is paid to issues. Fundamental questions, like the actual difference in policies that might result if one candidate rather than the other won, get little play. The focus instead is on who's ahead, viewed as a function of campaign tactics, which are meticulously reported. Candidates' statements are evaluated not for their truth but for their adroitness; it is assumed, without a hint of embarrassment, that a political candidate who levels with voters disqualifies himself from being taken seriously, like a racehorse that tries to hug the outside of the track. News coverage of a political campaign is oriented to a public that enjoys competitive sports, not to one that is civic-minded.
What bothers me is the tendency towards universalism that underlies both arguments (give them what they want vs. thirst for knowledge), which leaves out another way of thinking about mainstream media and blogs.
Here's how I see it (I know I am not linking to the research that is
behind my descriptions here, but am working on that for a more
1) Mainstream media, especially mainstream news channels (CNN, The New York Times, ABC)
represent the zeitgeist of its audience. MSM both reflects what the
audience wants and, simultaneously, creates what it wants. If you want
a general sense of a society, read and watch its mainstream media. It
is therefore, rather general in scope.
2) It is ridiculous to think of a "thirst for knowledge" as a search for ALL knowledge. It is a conceit that you have to be well-informed about everything in order to be a good citizen. Of course, that is impossible; who has the time? Rather, we citizens are informed about what we are interested in. And all we self-interested individuals still somehow manage to hang together as a democratic society. The MSM zeitgeist helps this along.
3) There is a denigration of the general public that underlies both #1 and #2: That we are complacent, uneducated, passive, and any activity we take (in terms of informing ourselves) tends to reinforce our own opinions. And this same denigration also underlies the barriers put up against interested individuals and groups educating themselves (for instance, science blocking participation due to a perceived lack of expertise, lack of specific credentials, etc.), a nice self-fulfilling prophecy. [This tendency and how to break it down is well documented in a variety of STS literature, see for example, Impure Science).]
4) As I see it, Posner makes the same universalist error in his analysis of the blogosphere:
In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise - not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It's as if The Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.
No, it isn't one enterprise. Sure, you can figure out the zeitgeist of 12 million people, but that isn't really the interesting point. I suspect that the aggregated interests of 12 million bloggers and the 12 milllion people watching CNN (or however many watch it) probably look pretty much the same. What is interesting about the blogosphere is that it allows people like never before to both create and be created by their specific interests.
People are only passive consumers of information until it is something they deeply care about. At that point, they participate in many different forums in order to educate themselves and generate change. It is this second point that is important. In order to generate change, you have to persuade people, you have to listen, and you have to compromise. Sticking to your own dogmatic opinion and refusing to engage in debate gets you nowhere if you are truly trying to make change happen, at least in a democracy.
Today, people have channels for engaging in that participation like never before. From public meetings, to online forums, and now blogs, people all over the world are linking together to form interest networks, often with the goal of producing change. This participation, by people from all types of backgrounds and education levels disappears in the aggregate, reinforcing the stererotype of dumb, passive consumer.
With participatory communications, consumers [we need a new word here] are doing the hard work of democracy. Sure it is messy, uneven and often ridiculous. But I believe it is absolutely critical to the future of our societies. As passive consumers, with relatively rare opportunities to participate [reflected in the Bowling Alone phenomenon], our skills at democracy atrophied. I, for one, am heartened by how many people are exercising them again.