Tuesday, February 9th, 2010...7:16 pm

It’s the Media, Stupid.

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There’s been a lot of talk lately, what with Scott Brown’s election, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and the inability of the Democrats to pass health care reform, about the rampant incompetency of Congress and voters’ frustration about the legislative process. Larry Lessig, who’s leading the charge of the Change Congress movement, has come out strongly lately arguing that money in the political system is at the root of the corruption that’s compromising the policymaking process. Lessig has inspired me to dig deeper (I’m applying to MPP programs to study this issue), and as I’ve thought about the problem, the more I am convinced that the solution won’t necessarily be found in reforming campaign finance (or, in reforming campaign alone). As Lessig himself has pointed out, it’s very hard to point to specific votes that were clearly bought by campaign donations. And it’s not like congress people are getting rich, taking bribes to go buy BMWs or something (well, I suppose there are exceptions to that rule). In fact the sort of corruption that happens in the US system stems from something much more fundamental–the universal human lust for power and influence, and it’s perpetuated by profit-driven media.

I see profit-driven media influencing the policymaking process in two ways. First, the brutal scrutiny paid to candidates’ private lives and the inability to speak frankly (because everything a candidate says is liable to be turned into some sort of scandal) means that no one in their right mind would want to run for office. In this way, the process self-selects for people who necessarily value power and influence enough that they’re willing to compromise their privacy or integrity in order to achieve it—and to keep it.

Second, the profit-driven media are so obsessed with creating conflict (in order to grab more eyeballs and hence sell more ad space) that politicians know that the more vitriolic they are the more likely they’ll be to get in the news (and, hence, garner more influence and perpetuate their power). As President Obama pointed out during his lecture at the GOP retreat earlier this winter, this polarizing rhetoric paints both sides into a corner from which they’re not able to negotiate in good faith. Once you’ve called the President a Nazi, how can you then turn around and hash out health care reform with him?

This slash and burn tactic to grab headlines was highlighted recently at a speech/Q&A session I sat through with Michael Steele, the Chairman of the RNC. What struck me most was the unapologetic tone he struck when talking about the role of politics in the policymaking process. Maybe it’s because of the position he holds, but he seemed to take for granted that winning elections is the point of American democracy, that policy was just something that happened in odd years (and that it was all subject for use in an attack ad at some point). The takeaway was that what politicians care about is winning, and that doesn’t just mean elections, it also means winning the news cycle, which is utterly overrun with coverage of the horse race.

But what if we changed the rules of the game? What if “winning” meant making good faith efforts at proposing policy, working constructively with the other party, and operating on the assumption of intellectual honesty? Media outlets have the power to frame the debate this way, paying closer attention to the merits of policy proposals, forcing lawmakers to answer tough questions, and not giving weight to stories that distract us from this.

Since we’re all publishers now, there’s no excuse for us not to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Our challenge is to harness this newfound power to create a collective voice that has as much influence on our lawmakers as the big broadcast media outlets do. Our elected officials have to know that winning, losing and maintaining power starts with being answerable to us, that we will judge them based on their support for what’s in the best interest of the public.

There are still a lot of ifs. As profit-driven media outlets find that the Internet has destroyed its business model, can non-profit accountability journalism organizations fill the gap? And how do we train citizens to be responsible, critical consumers—and producers!—of this type of media on a scale that will rival established media outlets? If everything goes according to plan (my knuckles are raw from knocking wood) I’ll be in grad school next fall pursuing answers to these questions on a full-time basis.

1 Comment

  • “and operating on the assumption of intelectual honesty”….LOL.. that is idealism at it’s finest. the reason why the republicans more often than not set the tone for policy debate in my opinion, is that they can dumb down their talking points. it’s even getting to the point now where republicans are telling their constituents the more ignorant you are the more american you are.

    as far as the citizens united decision(and money in politics in general) goes im not as upset with the dedision as I am with the fact that if obama appointed judges had reversed standing precedent all we would we here from republicans is “activist judges”. money is always gonna be a major influence in our political system. the real scandal should be that we have a legal way to bribe our elected officials. and im not talking about from corporations either( see harry reid, mary landrieu, and healthcare).