Sunday, April 29, 2007

Are we really watching the beginning of a political sea change?

When I read this from Glenn Greenwald, I was rather sucked in and feeling good. It's a very good article, and I feel like there is a lot of truth in it. I also watched the Friday Night Bill Moyer Report on PBS with Jon Stewart followed by Josh Marshall. Stewart is a very bright man with singular insight into current politics. Josh Marshall is another bright, capable person, but he goes back to an older form of journalism. You know, fact-based and carefully sourced. He makes sure he follows leads and finds out where his stories come from, and then follows up. I don’t see much of that these days.

News narratives.

I wasn’t the only person in the blogosphere to believe there was something special in that PBS show. Here is Booman at Booman Tribune. Then someone named "Gator" presented this diary at dKos. The common thread seems to be that with the blogosphere, shows like that of Bill Moyers and Jon Stewart, and Josh Marshall's return to solid journalism we seem to be seeing a new source of “news narrative” in American politics.

The older narratives came from the two political parties mediated by the journalists. Each party presented the narrative as they see it and the journalists are there report those narratives and to give readers a feeling for how closely the reported narratives matched with reality. This is not working as well as we used to think it did.

News organizations, financing and centralization.

Political journalism is a side effect of a healthy, competitive group of well-financed mass news organizations. Those mass news organizations are financed primarily by advertising revenue. News must be collected and then distributed. As more methods of distributing news are developed (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and now the internet) each method of distribution competes with more organizations for the same advertising dollars. As revenue for each organization drops, costs must be cut. But distribution costs are fixed by the technology used, and can’t be reduced significantly for mature distribution technologies. That means that organizations tend to centralize news collection and distribute the news through more outlets. Two reporters at a central location feeding news to half a dozen newspapers can often replace a single reporter at each newspaper. This has reduced the number of outlets that offer different points of view for national and international news.

The technology of both Radio and broadcast TV allows an organization that centralizes production of content over a number of outlets to under price individual outlets that produce their own content. The more outlets any one corporation has, the lower the cost of content for each of them. Since the cost of distribution is already established, the networks have a big cost advantage.

News versus entertainment.

News is not a major factor in this, since entertainment is what draws the big bucks advertising. But for TV, with four broadcast networks and any number of cable networks drawing off low-cost high-audience productions like sports, content production funds are best spent on providing entertainment. For news itself, to become a revenue producer requires that it be both entertaining and cheap. That’s what gives the public news of O. J. Simpson, Lacey Peterson, Brittany Spears and Anna Nicole Smith. Those are cheap. Investigatory stories and foreign news bureaus are expensive luxuries most TV news providers and no radio news can afford.

Newspapers face the same competition for advertising dollars, and ALL they can offer is news and advertisements. Since TV news sets the news agenda, foreign news bureaus are unnecessary for regional newspapers and too expensive to maintain even for cachet. Real news is a loss leader to attract readers to advertisements. Expensive news can be less and less afforded. So the major newspapers also centralize into a few groups that exchange news. The larger groups have a Washington bureau, the rest depend on news services like the Associated Press. National political news produced by experts in politics has become a specialty of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Sun Times, and the Los Angeles Times, with only the first two really having a large effort. Foreign bureaus are primarily for the New York Times and the Washington Post. The LA Times still has some Latin American bureaus (I think) but they are under pressure to close them.

National politics is not a big draw to newspaper audiences. TV presents the headlines, and very few people who read advertisements also look for extensive explanations behind the headlines. Except for extremely unusual news items like the tsunami in the Indian Ocean or the (misnamed) Iraq War there is no demand for foreign news at all. (Consumer Demand is not the same as the NEED for that news. A lot more is needed.) TV does not do in-depth investigations, nor do most newspapers. Investigatory journalism of any kind is being priced out of the market. Name the last big story CNN or FOX has broken based on an in-depth investigation. I don't know of one. Such stories cost too much and don't increase advertising rates.

The political reporting process.

The result of the above competitive pressures is that national political journalism has been reduced to a few overworked reporters each getting a statement from a candidate or incumbent from one party, sometimes (clearly not always) asking for the response from the other party, typing it up and publishing it. Getting additional statements from independent experts has become quite rare. The reporter probably knows when one side is lying and the other is not, but to say so is "unbalanced" and unbalanced is "Unfair." If nothing else, it will cause a conflict the editors don’t want to deal with. So the readers or viewers are given two sides in what may be a multi-sided story (or may be a one sided story contradicted by lies from opponents like the Swift-boaters) with no information that allows the news consumer to determine which side is closer to accurate.

The result is that the major journalism outlets have become little more than channels for the two political parties to use to present their spin. There is no one in journalism with the time, expertise, or independent stature to present a judgment on what each side says.

Most of this is because of the inherent economics journalism, primarily broadcast TV journalism, together with the ability of the executives who control the TV and radio networks to get government to let a few of them centralize and shut out the competition from independent stations and smaller potential network groups. The Republican Party, with its "Free Market" ideology and objection to government regulation is the natural place for the executives of the TV and radio networks to go to get what they want.

Control of centralized news organizations.

There is a good argument that the pressures forcing centralization of control of the news allows too few people to determine what everyone can read or see. If the current economic market remains, then the results will be a small number of generalist reporters acting as stenographers for the two major parties. Their results will dominate all the news outlets. This will give the cheapest, lowest quality news to the widest possible audiences.

The Democrats have generally bought into the misplaced free market rhetoric and let them get away with it. The last time they did this was with banks in the 1920's. Banks create the majority of the money supply. The Great Depression was a result, in part, of unregulated and unprotected banks going bust, taking many of their customers with them, and causing a sharp contraction in the money supply, which led to even more banks and businesses going bust. (Or so Milton Friedman rather convincingly wrote.)

For the banks this has required the government to change market conditions so that banks do not independently manipulate the overall money supply. This has become the job of the Federal Reserve and is accomplished by control of the fractional banking system. To shrink the money supply the Fed will increase the amount of bank assets required to support each dollar of loans they make. But the key is that the government modified the market so that banks competed in areas where their expertise provide the best results for the overall economy.

A change in the market for news could be mandated to create a market for competing organizations that provide National news, political news and foreign news. One way to do this would be to limit the amount of allowable news organization centralization, and require each local news outlet to buy its national, political and foreign news from specialized news producers. Long-term contracts for this kind of news would be prohibited. This would create a new market for these types of news. The Associated Press and UPI used to fill this market. The Washington Post and New York Times news services would have to be set up as independent news services to compete with AP and a newly independent UPI.

Then reestablish the Fairness Doctrine together with the idea that radio and TV stations used the public airwaves and needed to return public benefits for the right to do so have been effectively eliminated.

The blogosphere provides a new look at all this, but it will not eliminate the need for decentralization of news organizations.

The blogosphere is a new factor.

The blogosphere is an additional way for those of us who feel left out by the executives running the Democratic and Republican Parties and the excessively centralized news organizations to get the additional information they don't want us to have. The blogosphere is not going to replace the mass media. But it will sharply effect how many of us react to it. It is becoming a major source of “truth-squadding” the news. It is far from perfect, but it is still in an infant stage.

The mass media depends on customers who want other things, like being entertained, to tune in and as a side effect, get some news. The mass media assumes that we are all alike, and that as customers our news needs can be predetermined and packaged for a few large groups. Those groups are then sold to advertisers who want to sell something to them.

The political effects of this kind of news distribution.

Since the media operates that way, the two American political parties operate that way. That is a requirement of using the top-down media system. Polls are a method of getting some idea of what the market wants, but even the polls are designed as top-down systems. They present the questions and the customers respond. Anything else is too expensive to be efficient.

Centralized political organization.

The Republican Party is also a very centralized organization. This is in part because of the psychological needs for certainty of many of the people who currently vote Republican, and in part because such an organization works better with centralized media organizations, large centralized businesses, and centralized religious organizations.

Centralized and tightly controlled organizations have a real advantage when getting large numbers of people to quickly work for the same goal is important. Centralized and tightly controlled organizations are also quicker to react to existential threats to their being. That's why a major rule of war is unity of command. Such organizations are frankly more efficient, especially when a fast response is required.

Decentralized political organization.

The Democratic Party is a coalition of many groups with different goals and needs. As such it does not have a strong central hierarchy to control it.

(I'm going to speculate here.) Once upon a time the Democratic Party had its own internal sources of information, but when America became a nation that was essentially run by the Democratic Party those sources were no longer needed. The national news media was enough. As long as the news organizations reported what was really happening, an internal news organization for Democrats was redundant. So it disappeared.

The Republicans did not have the luxury of depending on the public news media. Its assumptions, procedures and traditions frequently conflicted with conservative beliefs, particularly since the news organizations saw themselves as reporting the independent truth. So the Republicans began to develop their own news channels.

This news channel development took two routes. The first was the Fundamentalist Christian route. They operated through their churches, bookstores, and more recently their specialized radio and TV stations. These were both self-financing and were a way to cut the true believers off from the rest of the media world.

The second route is newer. It is the takeover and control of what were previously normal news distribution outlets. It includes the establishment of the Washington Times, its takeover of United Press International, and the creation of the FOX TV channels. These were more purely political. But with these sources as a base, the conservatives have moved on to try to take over the rest of the media - or at least to force it to act more conservative.

The growth of these conservative channels was accompanied by the massive attack on the rest of the media for its' liberal bias. Since there is no liberal hierarchical organization to feel threatened and respond, this pincer movement on the mainstream media was not responded to. Since the mainstream media was also under massive economic pressure, they caved in to much of the political pressure. They were already losing audience/readers anyway. Perhaps the conservatives could replace the ones they were losing.

My reaction to these things.

Enter the blogosphere, stage left. No one else was responding to the rather massive attack on the media from the political and religious right. The right-wing top-down hierarchical corporate anti-democratic anti-Union anti-woman and anti-minority views do not represent me, nor do they represent what I think the Anglo-Saxon history, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the (small “d”) democratic history of America have given us. The Right-wingers want to take democracy, Human Rights, freedom and opportunity away from those of us who are not heads of corporations or their equivalent. Today it is my opinion that American politics and the American media are becoming less American and more authoritarian. After Reagan and Bush 41, Clinton was a Godsend. AL Gore was the logical savior of the American Dream.

Then Bush 43, Jeb Bush and the U.S. Supreme Court stole the election in Florida in 2000. There were enough news stories to show that the most likely outcome of any real recount statewide was a decision for Gore. But there were no real news follow-ups.

I did not know anyone - or even know of very many people who I trusted who agreed with me. But no one ever disproved the reports from Greg Palast or even discussed them. It was an effective tie, the Florida courts went for a recount, and the Federal Supreme Count decided, by a five to four decision on very weak grounds, to shut down any recount. Then they did it with a decision in which they specifically stated in their decision could not be used as a precedent for any future Supreme Court decisions. No law. No precedent. Just an arbitrary decision in which they were not willing to say it was a precedent for future decisions. That was a decision outside the Constitution and the law if there ever was one. That one incident told America what to expect from the Bush 43 administration and the movement conservatives. The major news organizations effectively ignored all this. They might have started some digging, but 9/11 shut that down.

The news I got from the newspapers, TV news and the newsweekly magazines let these issues drop. But something was really missing. I started searching the Internet for better news and analysis to explain what had happened.

I quickly found Talking Points Memo, Digby's Hullabaloo, daily KOS, Kevin Drum and Billmon. They all pointed me towards the smaller news items that reflected the really important events. Each time I found something that was interesting I would file it away or go Google for similar news reports. What I was doing (but didn't realize it then) was establishing some new narratives for myself, narratives not supported by the mainstream media or the two main political parties. I'm still doing that.

The sites I went back to provided analysis and sources rather than insults and politically inspired rhetoric. The analysis I found on the Internet let me work on the narratives that the mainstream media was glossing over. To my surprise, those sources have also been feeding back into the mainstream media and letting them know that important stories were being overlooked.

I think that is going to be the future of the blogosphere. It will not replace the major news media, even as that news media continues its economic decline. But the Blogosphere is going to play much the same role of evaluating the reporting of the major media and truth-squadding the rhetoric put out by the two major parties.

Most people won't bother with the blogosphere. It's too much work and takes too much time. But for the people who want that level of information and analysis, it has no real competition. There is no effective barrier to entry for any contributor. No paycheck, so you can't be fired. No editor to hold up publication of your best work. Blogger lets anyone establish a blog for publishing. Getting attention means having something (hopefully worthwhile) to say on subjects that other people want to know about, and getting on the search engines. Traffic and referrals provide an indication of when something is worth looking at. With all of that providing date, most of my time has been trying to learn enough to judge what is and is not reasonable.

To recycle the excellent quotation from Glenn Greenwald's article:

I have to say that a remarkably intimate, yet expansive, community of thought seems to be forming across television, film, and the Internet. There's a rather quiet, yet intense, movement of thought and expression building. It focuses not so much on any particular ideology ("right" or "left"), but on a common, critical-mass thirst to dispel the deception, irrationality, and utter hubris that has been corroding our proud country for what seems like an eternity.

An undeniable intellectual and social confluence is rapidly gaining momentum and solidarity. This solidarity is amazingly organic, not hierarchical -- its only guide is the sixth sense of skepticism, outrage, and, yes, reason. It transcends party. It is oceanic, atmospheric. An intellectual, moral, societal, and psychological gestalt as ancient as humanity itself, kept underfoot by a long winter, but indelibly germinating once again with the thaw.

It is literally everywhere now. The voices of blindness and rage cannot shake me anymore. I haven't felt such hope in a very long time.

I think there is something to that. I'm not sure what it is yet, but is seems quite positive compared to the way information is currently being shut down or drowned out.

The near future should be quite interesting.

[Note: Article revised significantly for clarity and organization - April 30, 2007 9:50PM.]

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