11 July 2007

Lippman-Dewey Blogosphere

Earlier I mentioned the silly season in reference to the early start on the 2008 campaign season. Since then we've had the Iraq war supplemental debate, the immigration debate and are now entering into the Iraq war surge debate (which is really a rehash of the Iraq war supplemental debate).

I'm wondering about the quality of such debates and the role of the blogosphere.

  • Has there been much deliberation or has it been something more akin to partisan political contesting?
  • Have there been "winners" and "losers" because the Iraq war supplemental was vetoed, rewritten without the language forcing a troop withdrawal, and then passed?
  • Have there been "winners" and "losers" because the comprehensive immigration reform bill failed?
  • Do the terms "winners" and "losers" frame the debate in political terms (Republicans vs. Democrats, White House vs. Congress, Pundisphere vs. Politicians, ...) rather than by policy (SASO vs. FID vs. COIN, Security vs. Economy vs. Rights, ...)?
  • Does the frame, winners vs. losers, favor one blogging archetype over another? Wingers and ringers over stringers and fingers?
    • Everybody demands that the media starts to read from the stringers, but they confuse them with the wingers, who are just nonchalantly expressing the values of the singers.
    • More ringers have begun blogging, but [] many of them are out of touch with the singers.
    • It wasn't all bloggers who pushed the media scandals. The wingers had a hand. The fingers got it on the front page of the news.
I agree with the observations in the 2007 State of the News Media:
Blogging is on the brink of a new phase that will probably include scandal, profitability for some, and a splintering into elites and non-elites over standards and ethics. The use of blogs by political campaigns in the mid-term elections of 2006 is already intensifying in the approach to the presidential election of 2008. Corporate public-relations efforts are beginning to use blogs as well, often covertly. What gives blogging its authenticity and momentum — its open access — also makes it vulnerable to being used and manipulated. At the same time, some of the most popular bloggers are already becoming businesses or being assimilated by establishment media. All this is likely to cause blogging to lose some of its patina as citizen media. To protect themselves, some of the best-known bloggers are already forming associations, with ethics codes, standards of conduct and more. The paradox of professionalizing the medium to preserve its integrity as an independent citizen platform is the start of a complicated new era in the evolution of the blogosphere.
IOW, the wingers and ringers need to be distinguished from the stringers, fingers and singers. We should also expect that the wingers and ringers will be more "successful" than the stringers, fingers and singers. By success, I mean a measure of links, comments, advertising and those blogs watched by the mainstream media for story lines. This is a well-worn path in mass media communications, but the increased speed and globalization of modern media has also had unique effects on our society. One of those effects is the permanent political campaign. For example, some quotes from The Permanent Campaign and Its Future, Campaigning and Governing: A Conspectus, Hugh Heclo, 2000.
For both politicians and advocacy groups, communication with the public bypassed intermediaries in the traditional three-tiered "federal" structure of party and interest-group organizations, where local, state, and national commitments complemented each other. In place of the traditional structure could grow something like a millipede model—direct communication between a central body and mass membership legs. Of course, the story did not stop with broadcast television but went on to include cable TV, talk radio, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, "narrowcasting" to target audiences, and the Internet. Explosive growth in the electronic media’s role in Americans’ lives provided unfathomed opportunities to crossbreed would-be campaigners and governors.
The pundisphere's wingers and ringers are part of the political millipede model. They form the legs and operate between the central body and the public.
Quite apart from its use by politicians and interest groups, the new communications technology had its own powerful reasons to present its expanding audiences with the picture of governing as little more than a continuous process of campaigning. Openness offered ever more information to report, and the expanding market of media consumers intensified competition for public exposure. Given the media’s need to attract and hold the attention of a largely passive audience, communication of just any kind would not do. As Walter Lippmann saw in analyzing the popular print media in the early twentieth century, communication must be of a kind that translates into audience shares and advertising dollars. That has meant playing up story lines that possess qualities of dramatic conflict, human interest, immediacy, and strong emotional value. The easiest way for the media to meet such needs has been to frame the realities of governing in terms of political contests. The political contest story about government makes complex policy issues more understandable, even if the “understanding” is false. It grabs attention with short and punchy dramas of human conflict. It has the immediacy of a horse race and a satisfying resolution of uncertainty by naming winners and losers. In addition, of course, it does much to blur any sense of distinction between campaigning and governing.
It's that false "understanding" that I think bloggers, blog commenters and lurkers alike should be aware of, on guard for and concerned about. It's also that false "understanding" that comes from political contest narratives which makes the pundisphere's ringers and wingers popular. Political contest narratives are easy to write (you don't need to understand the policy issues) and easy to read (you don't need to learn anything about the policy issues, their complexities or ambiguities). By removing the complexity and ambiguity of an issue and framing the debate as a political contest, both the writer and reader enter into a contract and can be confident that they "understand" the process and significance of a policy outcome. It's this appearance of political sophistication on the part of the writer and the sense of political sophistication on the part of the reader that makes the political contest narrative so "successful" and ubiquitous in the media.
Even if the participants themselves do not frame their activities as a political contest, media figures—the new intermediaries in politics—can show that they are too savvy to be taken in. Unmasking the "real" meaning of events, reporters reveal the attempts of one side or another to gain political advantage over its rivals in the governing process. Translating the campaign "spin" and finding the "hidden agenda" can be Everyman’s badge of political sophistication in the modern media culture.

Again, if we pause to take stock, what we are watching is not simply the development of a technological marvel of mass communication over the past half-century. We are watching a media system that shapes a public mind that is primed to be ministered to by the permanent campaign. Of course, most of us have a significantly limited attention span and an inclination to prefer dramatic entertainment over complex matters of substance. Modern communication technology allows those individual proclivities to be recast into patterns of public thinking at a mass social level.
The permanent campaign is a loser in the long run for everyone. Over the past two decades that the political contest narrative has dominated the media, media credibility and believability have eroded along with politicians' credibility. What matters isn't who "wins" or "loses" but the quality of deliberation among governors and between governors and the governed. This is where the political contest narrative breaks down. Where politics stops being about campaigns and focuses on governance. This is the dark matter in modern mass media, the lost art of journalism, press politics as it should be, and where republicans and Deweyan democrats among the governors and governed meet to deliberate unnoticed and in defiance of the "patterns of public thinking at a mass social level" (Deliberative Democracy Defended: A Response To Posner’s Political Realism, Robert B. Talisse, 2005):
The Deweyan democrat does not countenance a direct democracy of omnicompetent citizen-statesmen/women who perpetually deliberate about the complex problems facing the nation–state. As a decentered deliberativism, Deweyan democracy recognizes different spheres of democratic politics, running from more local forms of association in civil society to state and national levels of governance. The expectation is that the more local levels of association will be more directly democratic; however, Deweyan democracy is fully consistent with representative institutions at the levels of state and national governance.

Of course, not every citizen can be expected to keep abreast of the latest data relevant to complex questions of national policy. Insofar as Deweyan democracy is epistemic and pragmatist it does not, as Posner alleges, see representation as ‘a second-best solution to the problem of governance’.22 Rather, it sees representation as an epistemic necessity. That is, Deweyan democrats recognize a division of epistemic labour between citizens, representatives and other holders of public office. What is denied is that these divisions represent differences of epistemic kind. The link between the various levels of political decision is the idea of proper inquiry; that is, representatives in the highest levels of national government are to deliberate in roughly the same way as citizens in local civil associations. In fact, as Cass Sunstein has argued, the United States Constitution is designed to create a ‘republic of reasons’ 23 in which citizens, representatives, electors and government officials engage in deliberation with regard to the various decision functions they serve.
The "Lippmann-Dewey Debate" and the Invention of Walter Lippmann as an Anti-Democrat 1986-1996
Rush Limbaugh is a Deweyan Democrat!
Fournier's "Accountability Journalism"
Doing the same thing ... and expecting different results?

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