Tuesday, June 01, 2004

New Politics vs Old media

A lengthy article by Christopher Lydon analyses the 2004 American presidential campaigns.

I took some relevant quotes:

For those of us who like the sound of "Internet democracy," who yearn for political and cultural renewal and "transformation," the entrenched obstacle is not the old politics. It's the old media.

The Howard Dean campaign (much more than Howard Dean himself) has come to stand for the possibility of an Internet democracy. From the beginning there was no separating the "political" and "media" tracks of the campaign's offensive.
His first contribution was simply to sound an anti-war alarm that institutional media had muffled. Millions of people knew intuitively that his warning was wise; millions more know it now. He began with a bold exercise in definition--a job of critical journalism that our big media don't perform these days. In large dimensions and small (like his chippy defiance of Tim Russert), Dean's campaign was a critique of the somnolent self-satisfaction that runs through our housecat press. And people loved him for it.

My two-track verdict on the Dean campaign to this point is this. The politics of it is powerful, in a real sense triumphant. But the media strategy in it has proved dangerous, maybe terminal in this 2004 campaign. The political machine surrendered to Dean before Christmas. But an ugly media machine has risen up in January and very nearly destroyed him.

The Dean campaign has recharged our limping democracy for a generation, with vivid fresh examples of what citizenship can mean: all that self-starting civic energy, the MeetUp mobilizations, the decentralized consensus, the articulate idealism, the viral activism.

An assault by commercial media on the very idea of a self-willed, self-defining citizenry. Howard Dean scares the institutional media out of their wits--not because of who he is or what he might do as president, but because of what he and "Internet democracy" say about them.

In September, 2002, right about the moment Howard Dean was deciding to run, the nonpareil media critic Jon Katz was writing prophetically on the New York University web page: "The flight of the young has become central for our understanding of what journalism is or needs to be. The young drive our new information culture. They invented and understand new forms of media--especially the Net he Web... They understand, too, the extraordinary power and meaning of interactivity, and how it is redefining narrative and story-telling... But journalism doesn't get it, and has resisted the idea fiercely. Newspapers, newsmagazines and TV networks haven't radically changed form or content in half a century, despite their aging audiences, and growing competition from new media sources. They are allergic to interactivity. Increasingly, it appears they are incapable of it."

The Dean campaign is everything that contemporary journalism is not. If you believe he is their worst nightmare, it's small wonder they tried to crush him like a bug. Almost every touch from Big Media has been to cheapen the Dean cause, to miss the point, to find some personal excuse not to notice the Dean movement. "Who is the Real Howard Dean?" Time magazine asked. A week later Newsweek, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, put "Doubts About Dean" on the cover. Tom Brokaw testified on NBC that he hadn't been able to discover any Internet effect on the voting in Iowa. On the night of the caucuses, Bob Novak averred on CNN that there never was any such thing as a Dean movement. These are famous last words from dinosaurs.

Then came the infamous scream on caucus night in Des Moines. (...) Yet there it was on a ridiculous clip of party tape--a lot less embarrassing than, say, George H. W. Bush upchucking in Japan--but in a few thousand repetititons a new character had been launched, the "red-faced ranter" surrounded by somber doubts that he could be "presidential."

It's a dismal moment in American media, and just the right time to be developing a real conversation on the Web. The revolution will not be televised, but maybe it will be blogged.

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