Monday, February 13, 2012

Democracy and the Press

Many people in democratic countries have this quaint notion in the back of our mind of how democracy works. Politicians give speeches and the press reports on them, and the voters decide whose policies they support and elect the best politician for the job.  How naive that view seems today.  The flow of money in US politics is not new, but the amounts today are staggering.  An article in New York Magazine by Joe Hagan (who was interviewed on Fresh Air on 31 Jan.) describes the effects of Super-Pacs and other "independent" money on the current presidential campaigns, and it is disturbing. Most interesting are how this fits with the decline in journalism: as new media decline, the few remaining journalists have no time for investigation and come to rely more and more on "information" from campaign operatives, who of course have their own agendas.

An Obama ally working for a super-PAC told me that NBC News’s Chuck Todd “doesn’t necessarily have time to sit there and Lexis-Nexis Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital personnel records. In some ways, reporters become traffic cops for information.”
“Research from campaigns has essentially replaced investigative reporting,” says Devorah Adler, a former research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The free press is where people are going to get their information from, so that becomes your missile-delivery system.”
As we learn more and more how to influence (deceive? manipulate?) the public, the idea that democracy is based on the selection of an informed public becomes ever more tenuous.  The article does have some interesting observations on the limits of sleaze, noting that Bush senior had to be careful in running against Clinton in 1992 because his Willie Horton ad that helped him get elected in 1988 (against Dukakis) had become notorious for its half-truths, leaving Bush unable to run strong, negative ads against Clinton.  But the overall lesson of the article is how important negative advertizing is going to be in the coming election.

It makes me think of some Chinese I meet who are not convinced that "Western democracy" (as they call it) is really all it's cracked up to be.  They say their way of selecting leaders is more reliable, and delivers better, more talented leaders.  Problem is, of course, that they've only had one peaceful transfer of power so far, that from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao.  This year, we're to have the second. It is not clear if this is really an institutionalized mechanism for choosing leaders. But how can we disagree with the woman how asked re Sarah Palin, "How is it possible that the US would nominate a woman like that to be Vice-President?!" And the role of money now seems to fit the old Marxist saw that it is all about money, and that the rich control everything. The "Citizens United" decision is increasingly looking like not just a bad legal decision, but like a decision that will seriously undermine the legitimacy of politics, politicians, and even the government in the US.

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