Saturday, January 3, 2009

So Why Doesn't the U.S. Have a Civic Media?

Yeah, why not? Well my buddy Rich insists the U.S. already has a civic media. He's a deep Democrat. He says citizens used civic sites like Daily Kos, Huff Post and to elect Barack Obama. And Republicans used similar sites to support John McCain.

But these sites, I say, are partisan. Civic sites are non-partisan. And where Rich's sites are more about individuals then issues, civic sites focus more on the ISSUES. They get Democrats and Republicans talking with each other for the common good, much as Barack Obama says America must do in order to weather the economic storm we're in. And believe me, they can do this in hundreds of entertaining and instructive ways.

Then I bring out my big guns. I remind Rich that his sites advance the interests of a money-driven two-party system that's degraded American politics since the advent of televised political advertising in the 1960's. This system, I say, has made politics the perquisite of the rich. It's forced political incumbents to spend up to a third of their taxpayer-paid work week raising billions of dollars for the mind-numbing attack ads that keep them in office. It's kept all but a tiny number of America's best and brightest from even considering a career in politics. And it's done all this dirty work systematically, in every city and state, from coast to coast.

It's frustrating. Think about it: the great democracy that gave the world the miracle of modern electronic communications AND the Jeffersonian idea that men can be trusted to govern themselves has given itself a political communications system that most of its founding fathers, could they see it today, would condemn as subversive of democracy.

More frustrating still is that no politician, party, pundit, public interest group or university professor has, to my knowledge, ever called for a modern interactive political communications system, even though all of the technologies needed to implement one have been in place for years. Politicians and public interest groups have instead spun their wheels on campaign finance reform - a red herring of an issue if ever there was one. (Wait - Noam Chomsky endorsed civic media in 1994, telling an audience of 500 in Chicago that civic media offers "some hope for the future, in fact the only hope for the future.")

Why such silence on what is after all the most obvious solution to a political media that suppresses or minimizes citizen input? Truth be told, many and possibly most Americans today are by no means confident that men and women can be trusted to govern themselves. Asked about the prospects for a civic media in 1994, Noam Chomsky said there's no way the powers that be would ever let it happen. But Obama's election last year suggests that there's no way the powers that be can STOP a civic media from happening. (Chomsky himself sounds somewhat more optimistic today.) Still, Americans today harbor all kinds of mistrust for each other. For trust to develop, it will take time for an inclusive political media to undo 30 years of damage caused by media polarization of the American people into sometimes paranoid extremes of red and blue, and of rich and poor. (In 2004, I traced the roots of this polarization back to, of all places, Yale University, where I received my teaching degree and where my father, Richard B. Sewall, taught English for 44 years).

Ironically, America's political media have minimized citizen input despite universal user demand for interactive media experiences. Now you'd think the minds of our media moguls would light up at the thought of an untapped "market of the whole" of 300 million Americans. But no. Not yet. Not even when hardpressed network TV execs, losing market share to the Internet and cable TV, are desperate for what CBS's Leslie Moonves calls a "transformative hit".

Sure, Survivor-producer Mark Burnett and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp were reported in 2007 to be working on Independent, a politically-themed Reality TV show targeting young adults that was to debut in 2008 on YouTube. So the minds of the moguls were slowly switching on, if dimly. But this and this and this is what comes up when I enter "Independent" at YouTube today.

In the 2006 midterm congressional elections, exit polls confirmed voter disgust with political corruption. Soon after, my buddy Rich (my civic media sparring partner since the early 1990's) suggested that the format of voter-driven reality TV might have civic media potential. At first I thought he'd lost it, but this time he was dead right, and I will always be grateful. Within a few months, I had developed America's Choice, a nifty and comprehensive treatment for politically-themed reality TV that enables all Americans to participate INTELLIGENTLY in the great voter-driven game of democracy.

In 2007, I presented America's Choice to half a dozen network TV executives, including a genuine media mogul. No luck. Zero interest.

Why not? One exec said he'd seen similar treatments. Another said that politically-themed reality TV would make the networks look partisan in the public eye. Then there were the unspoken reasons: the fear of rocking the boat of the existing political system and of course the billions of dollars the networks rake in from political ads come election time.

America's TV networks, it seemed, were either blind or indifferent to the mounting instability of the very political system their attack ads were propping up.

Light years ago, in 1988, George Gilder had called network TV a "totalitarian" medium that "squeezes the consciousness of an entire nation through a few score channels." He did so in a wonderful little book entitled Life After Television: the Coming Transformation of Media and American Life. Here Gilder predicted the overthrow of the "alien and corrosive force" of America's top-down, analog TV networks by the grassroots political networks created by the emerging, citizen-empowering medium of the digital "teleputer" (his quaint 1988 term for the PC).

Today, twenty years later, we see not the overthrow of analog TV but the astonishing blink-of-an-eye convergence and integration of all media, print and electronic. The emerging meta-network of interactive networks bids well to dissolve the mindless red/blue polarization of American politics and replacing it with intelligent, problem-solving discourse that puts all Americans, rich and poor, red stat and blue state, on a more even footing with themselves and their elected leaders.

So my buddy Rich is right after all. Well partly . . .

In 2008, America elected a new president whose displeasure with a politics that ignores citizens comes from the same place as the displeasure voiced here. So was the old top-down system actually serving the public interest after all? It must be said that Obama had raised and spent a ton of money on televised ads, with about half of his donations being over $1,000.

Something old, it seemed, was evolving, gradually, into something new.

But this gradual evolution was violently disrupted in 2008 by the volcanic eruption of a financial crisis the likes of which America hadn't seen since the Great Depression. (Yet the crisis, and Obama's statesmanlike response it, likely turned the tide for him.)

As we begin the new year, efforts to recover from the crisis are being managed with little public input or oversight by the same financial community that created it. Americans are angry, and with reason. The old system, embodied in the somewhat credible idea of an Ivy League financial elite, seems to be reasserting itself. Billions of taxpayer dollars seem to be going mainly to failed banks. Americans of sharply differing political views are saying that the only way to prevent this crisis from worsening or recurring is for the American people, as a people, to have a voice in the creation of a new financial system.

That of course is saying an awful lot. But the idea is worth exploring. In coming posts, liberals, conservatives and libertarians are invited to talk about what this system might look like, how it might take shape and what kind of input citizens might have in its creation. (More robust sites than this will be created to advance the discussion as it grows.)

So looking ahead (looking forward if you follow Larry Kudlow), the question isn't WHY America lacks a civic media but WHEN it will get one. Let the press put this question to President Obama in the context of his stirring election-day reaffirmation of the American spirit:
America . . . This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.
And let Americans put this question - this challenge - to their elected leaders and to the nation's public and commercial media as well in order to secure their commitment to giving free and full expression to this American spirit. And to the same end, let yourself, dear reader, feel free (or duty bound) to affirm, correct or refute the ideas advanced here.

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