Thursday, September 06, 2007

Power to the People

Control of media is power. There are many candidates for president in both major parties, for example, but Americans don’t know most of them. Why? Because they get little exposure in the media. When people asked me what I did over the summer, I told them I interviewed some presidential candidates. “Really?” they said. “Which ones?” When I went down the list, citing Republican Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo as well as Democrats Senator Chris Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson, most replied: “Never heard of them.” Consequently, those candidates have little chance of getting elected. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on your perspective.

Who controls media? Cogent observers would have to say The New York Times is the single media organ with the most power right now. Why? It has a huge circulation - and not just in New York City, but across the country. Also, the three major networks base their evening news broadcasts on whatever appears on the Times’ front page. The big weekly news magazines are strongly influenced by it too and that gives the Times a lot of clout. Since the Times has a pronounced leftist bias, its power a good thing for liberal Democrats. If you’re a conservative Republican, it’s not so good. The enormous power exercised by the Times for many decades is diminishing rapidly, however. Media is not only changing, it’s decentralizing in every way - from sourcing to dissemination.

Historically, people were influenced by spoken words and by symbols - buildings like temples or shrines, and images drawn or sculpted. People had to be physically present - next to them - to be influenced by them. Writing was invented early and could be passed around to influence people more widely, but only the elite could read. The masses still had to be assembled to look, listen, and be influenced by speeches and symbols. Whoever could speak well had power. The expression “The tongue is mightier than the blade” is attributed to Euripedes in the 5th century B.C. As more people became literate the written word gained power to the point where, twenty centuries later, Shakespeare wrote: “. . . Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.” In 1839, another English playwright named Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The Times’ power derived from this.

In the first half of the twentieth century radio, then television, threatened the primacy of the written word, but the Times retained its power. In the second half, however, came the internet. The Times is still on top in 2007, but its publisher isn’t sure he’ll be publishing a hard copy newspaper in five years. Young people aren’t reading newspapers much and circulation is not only declining, the decline is accelerating rapidly.

Maine Senator Ed Muskie was a shoe-in for the Democrat presidential nomination in 1972 until voters saw and heard him cry during a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire. A tape went around the country and his candidacy was over. Vermont Governor Howard Dean looked unbeatable until his famous scream in Iowa three years ago. That went around even faster and his candidacy was over too. Such things travel still faster over the internet and most Americans access it regularly now. When Red Sox rookie Clay Buchholz pitched a no-hitter last weekend, for example, his parents watched him on instead of television. How will the new media change politics? Hard to say, but there are a few hints out there.

Someone got ahold of a two-minute clip showing John Edwards primping before a TV appearance, dubbed in Julie Andrews singing “I Feel Pretty,” and posted it in YouTube. After hearing about his $1200 haircuts and hearing Laura Ingraham refer to him as the “Silky Pony,” I thought the clip was hilarious. Widespread viewing could kill Edwards’s hopes of commander-in-chief. Anyone can send it out as an email attachment to and friends, who might each send it out again and so forth. It could go around the world in hours. People with digital video cameras record what candidates say in house parties or anywhere else on the stump. They can post videos on YouTube and be viewed around around the world. Students can record teachers in class and out go videos of lessons to whomever in cyberspace. People will be much more accountable for what we say and do in public.

NowPublic is a startup news agency with a different approach. A July 30th article said, “In part of a trend referred to as ‘citizen journalism,’ NowPublic lets anyone with digital cameras or a camera-enable mobile telephones upload images or news snippets for dissemination via the Internet.” They claim to have 120,000 “journalists” around the world.” Will NowPublic fly? Who knows? Will people visit its web site instead of turning on the Today Show or the CBS Evening News? Maybe. Some already do and it claims to be growing by 35% a month while traditional news broadcasts lose viewers. It it one of the little mammals scampering around the feet of the dinosaur media? How will the new media affect the next election, still over a year away? Hard to say, but it’s bound to be interesting.

No comments: