Conclusions About the News Media
To be fair, there are many journalists and many news organizations that have produced impressive news that does a good job of serving the public and our democracy. But overall, the effectiveness of the news media in fulfilling its role can be considered spotty at best, and downright anti-democratic at worst.
The “news” being produced is high on sensation and low on information. It has become a mass-produced consumer product designed simply for mass appeal. Coverage and analysis has been eclipsed by infotainment that is so watered down that many people are choosing to tune out. Those who remain often do so simply to enjoy the spectacle of politics.
As a watchdog, Lance Bennett has said, “instead of careful and continuous scrutiny, the press shows moments of critical independence within an overall pattern of dependence on government for the raw materials of news and the legitimization of ‘acceptable’ viewpoints [as articulated by the government].” The news environment, as political scientist Robert McChesney described in his book The Problem With the Media, “is becoming a scoundrel’s paradise in which officials can lie with virtually impunity; and officials’ opponents, not journalists, must establish the truth, and such opponents can always be dismissed as partisan.” What little scrutiny exists is almost entirely focused on the government, with little or none given to non-governmental organizations. Corporate scrutiny is limited to simply reporting on the damage after it has been done.
Perhaps most disturbing is that news media companies are hiding behind the First Amendment while engaging in actions that are exactly what the First Amendment was intended to protect us from. Rather than alerting the public to threats from special interests, some news media companies have become a platform for manipulation of the public by special interests or for their own self-interest. They have used the First Amendment as an excuse to further their own business interests to the detriment of the public interest and they have used their privileged power to vilify those who disagree with them. Some in the news media even go so far as discrediting the democratic government that we the people put in place to protect our freedom from self-interested individuals and groups.
In a world where politicians are disconnected from the public and are forced to communicate through an unaccountable news media, politicians can’t help but lose sight of the public interest. They resort to playing power games and competing to control the conversation that the public hears. Elections are reduced to struggles to present a good image and trash the opponent’s image. Policy becomes a competition of framing issues and spinning the debate. Success depends on the ability to influence and manipulate, rather than on objectivity, truth, and the public interest. The field is left wide open to whoever wants to take part in shaping the illusion. Special interest front groups with names such as Americans for Prosperity, Public Interest Watch, and Regular Folks United are free to join the fray. Special interest-funded think-tanks provide research that supports special interest points of view. AstroTurf groups provide the illusion of grassroots support. Meanwhile, the public is told that “democracy is an inherently messy form of government,” and that all this participation is a sign of a “healthy democracy.”
We should not fool ourselves into thinking that there was once a golden age during which the press was democracy’s servant and citizens were well informed. Newspapers were once very profitable and did perform a valuable public service, but there is no indication that democracy in America could be considered anywhere close to ideal during those times. In fact, after enduring the realities of a free press as President for a few years, Thomas Jefferson observed that “the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Authoritarianism & Freedom
In authoritarian governments, such as present-day China and Iran, or Nazi Germany, the government controls the news media. This is because the media enables those in power to control the population by framing the government’s agenda in a way that fosters support by the people—or by simply lying to them. Nazi propagandist Herman Goering once said “Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?… It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
The reason these governments exploit and abuse their people for their own selfish agenda is because they are unaccountable to the people, and unaccountable power corrupts. The most effective way of controlling the people is by controlling the news and thereby dictating the reality of the people. Therefore, the ultimate power in a society is the ability to control the news, and the biggest threat to the people is being stuck with only news from unaccountable sources.
We know instinctively that government propaganda is a threat to our freedom, and we see the First Amendment as protection from this. But the First Amendment does not create an accountable news media, it only insures that a diversity of voices will be allowed to exist. The theory is that by having diverse voices, no single group will be able to dominate and exploit the public. And it is by listening to a diversity of voices that we can learn the truth and hold government accountable, thereby preserving our freedom.
In America today, we are in a situation where large segments of the public (80%-90%) are partisans, and many tend to gravitate to partisan “news” sources that advocate a “conservative” or “liberal” view of the world. And studies have shown that partisans have a tendency to accept partisan candidates and partisan messages from the side they favor, and reject those of the opposing side. We are in effect voluntarily filtering out diverse voices as we give our loyalty and trust to a single party and single point of view. Could it be that each of us is voluntarily subverting our own freedom and allowing our reality to be dictated to us by having such loyalties?
“Liberals” will point to “conservatives” and say they are allowing themselves to be indoctrinated by “right-wing” media, and “conservatives” will say the same about “liberals” and the “liberal media.” The problem is that we are all dependent on an unaccountable news media. We are only free to the degree that we have an accurate and objective understanding of what our representatives, our government, and sources of unaccountable power are doing in our society. But since we have both an unaccountable news media and unaccountable government representatives, what does that say about our situation? Our freedom is being taken from us with such finesse that we don’t even comprehend how it is being compromised. We are even being entertained in the process.
It can be tempting to think that an entertainment-oriented news media is necessary in order to get people interested in government so they will participate in democracy, but that would be a huge mistake. If we need our government to be portrayed as entertainment in order to hold our interest, this is simply a symptom of our disconnect from our government.
It would be easy to blame the commercial news media for this state of affairs, since our news comes from them. But owners and managers of these companies are simply behaving the same way owners and managers of all industries do—trying to build a business and turn a profit. The needs of businesses simply don’t align with the public’s need to govern ourselves in a sane and democratic fashion. It is unrealistic to expect businesses to fill in as a branch of government—the news media have been given an impossible task. It makes no sense for something so important to be dependent on market forces. And it is frightening that we allow our freedom to be dependent on news organizations that are not accountable to the people.
It is well known that there are problems with the news media, and there are several organizations that are advocating changes—www.freepress.net is one notable example. These organizations are doing important work, and they have come up with some interesting solutions. Many of these solutions have to do with a robust government-funded news media, which are common in many other democratic-ish countries. The problem with this solution is that a news media that is accountable to the public cannot be created by a government that is itself unaccountable to the public. The very idea of a watchdog press is based on the premise that the people themselves are unable to hold their government accountable. In fact, much of the reasoning behind the need for a news media in order for democracy to work is based on the assumption of a disconnected public.
Our problem lies not with the news media, but rather with the fact that the public has no first-hand knowledge of politics. Everyone—the public and politicians—are all forced to rely on news media companies because we are disconnected. We need news media companies to fill the gap, and since they are unaccountable to the public, we inevitably end up with a horrific mess. The logical solution is to connect the public with our government so that we have access to first-hand knowledge in the form of someone we know and trust—a Local Elector.
Local Electors and The New Public News Media
In a system of Local Electors, the Local Electors themselves would be the primary source of information connecting citizens with their government. Citizens could hear first-hand from their Local Elector what government is doing. Community meetings would be the forum where the public would make their needs and concerns known to the government via their Local Elector. This would also include concerns citizens have about non-governmental organizations. Citizens would mobilize support for their needs and concerns in their communities, and Local Electors would mobilize support beyond their communities in an effort to get the issues on the government agenda. This would enable citizens to truly participate in government. It would be real two-way communication.
But it would be impractical for Local Electors to adequately communicate all of what government is doing on their own. The volume of news is simply too great. In addition, Local Electors themselves would need access to timely and objective news from an accountable source about what their elected representatives are doing, what the government in general is doing, and about important things going on in society. Such news would be useful to everyone in government, as it could serve as a single source of information that would enable everyone in government to know what is going on and to communicate with one another effectively. The public would also benefit from such news, although presented in a more public friendly manner. The government would therefore provide this in two new news sources—a professional-oriented public news (PPN), and a citizen-oriented public news (CPN).
The PPN would be geared specifically to Local Electors and other government officials. It would be designed to give Local Electors and government officials the information they need in order to do their job. The general public would of course have access to the PPN, but it would not be geared toward them. The CPN would be geared specifically toward the public. The CPN would provide higher level news, primarily covering major issues and developments, but would give citizens access to more detailed information.
One of the primary goals of the CPN would be to foster public participation by connecting them with the processes of government. News would be presented in a continuous on-going narrative that would enable citizens to see a link between what they are doing in their community meetings and the actions of government. For example, as an issue that originates in a community works its way through the process of becoming law, the CPN would follow the issue and credit the community and individual who originated it.
This would enable Local Electors to discuss what the government is doing in community meetings and get reactions from their community. It would foster the connection between citizens and government, and it would encourage citizens to feel ownership of the government and to be active participants. Compared with how things are now, it would be like the difference between being a player on a sports team versus occasionally seeing a few highlights of the team’s games on television. Citizens would not only be connected, we would be engaged.
The organization that would produce this news would be would be overseen by elected officials and would be independent of the other three branches of government. It would be a new branch of government. Elected offices would be created at the local, state, and national levels. Higher level office holders would be elected by lower level office holders, who would in turn be elected by Local Electors so that small ratios could be maintained. (See “Electing Office Holders” for a discussion about this.) This would make the public news accountable to the people who need it and enable Local Electors to ensure that the news they and the public needs is produced.
Ultimately, no single organization is capable of producing all the news the public needs. This is a job that requires many diverse organizations. The existing commercial news media would be responsible for providing the rest of the coverage. If the public or members of the government determine that the commercial news media are falling short, the government could fund additional news organizations that would be charged with providing the needed coverage and that would be accountable to the government.
Would the commercial news media continue to have the same derisive effect that it does today? The lack of accountability and the need to sell enough influence to produce a profit will always exist. The difference would be that government representatives would be connected to the public and would have a strong platform in the public news from which to make their case. If members of the commercial news media continue to promote conflict, elected representatives would not be beholden to them, and could ignore them or hold them accountable by stating their case directly to the public via Local Electors and the public news. If members of the commercial news media engage in demagoguery, government representatives could call them out and set the record straight. By being connected, citizens would trust their government officials more than personalities in the news media, which would reduce their power to influence.
These are a few thoughts about what news would be like under a system of Local Electors. Much additional input from the public is needed.
Will Americans continue to accept a situation where our political reality is dictated to us by an unaccountable news media? Will we continue to stand on the sidelines while unregulated market forces wreak havoc on our government and our country? Will we continue to allow self-interested special interests to manipulate us and turn us against each other?
In a country where slogans such as “Give me liberty or give me death” and “Live free or die” ring down through the ages and inspire us, the clear and present danger posed by an unaccountable government and an unaccountable news media should be of grave concern. Our government is not controlled by the people. If we can’t control it—if it is out of control—then we are at great risk. We must not forget that our democratic government was created to allow us to protect our freedoms.
Democracy assumes that the people themselves will maintain their own freedom and control their own destiny. Our system of government can only weakly be considered a democracy, but democratic mechanisms do still exist that will allow the people to change our government if we want to—if we have the courage to.
It is important for you to realize that “the people” is not “them”—someone else—“the people” is you. If you wait for someone else, it may never happen. You must take responsibility yourself! Learn about Local Electors so you can talk about it, tell everyone you know about Local Electors, and encourage them to do the same. The first step it to create widespread awareness, once we have achieved that we can take it to the next step and work on making it a reality. Please also contribute to our organization. Nothing happens in democracy without organization, and we can only be as strong and organized as our financial resources allow us to.
“Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.” – John Quincy Adams
Continue Reading: What Size Should Local Elector Communities Be?