POLITICAL REFORM AND THE INTERNET MEDIA
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- In a republic that prides itself on a free press as the defender of democracy, it is remarkable how little the press is willing to expose and oppose candidates who lie, distort, and otherwise sling mud in the end stage of campaigning. Attacks may come in the form of television spots or political mailers timed to arrive in the final hours before an election. In each case, the advantage goes to the candidate who has the money to carry out the attack.
The very same newspapers, television stations and radio stations who pompously editorialize about the pernicious effect of money in politics sit idly by at the very moment they could move to counteract that pernicious effect. All that would be required would be for them to research claims in a timely manner and publicly expose the worst offenders. They wouldn't even have to do the research themselves. All that would be required would be to review claims brought to them by the victims of attacks.
Even at earlier points in a campaign when there is plenty of time to research claims and charges, we see disappointingly little of substance from the mainstream media when it comes to exposing miscreants. It is a fashionable cliché to refer to politics as a "marketplace of ideas," but the current role played by newspapers and television is to function as the shopkeepers who collect payment rather than as the open forum in which opposing views compete on equal footing.
Without going into a detailed analysis of the ideology of the news gathering business, suffice it to say that the mainstream media have tried to avoid the appearance of obvious partisanship. Newspaper owners may be Republicans, Democrats, or socialists, but their news stories are written so as to offend the fewest readers. In principle, the editorial, news and advertising elements that go into the daily newspaper are supposed to be independent of each other. Advertising doesn't tell news what to run and vice versa.
This sounds noble, but in practice it makes for a timid press. Where the press could and should rebut unfair charges made by one candidate against another, it tends more often to sit by. From the standpoint of nonpartisanship this might appear admirable. In reality it is less so because it cedes the battlefield to the candidate with more money. Newspapers, radio and television fulfill their role as the defenders of democracy not by defending truth, but by offering to sell time and ad space for rebuttal.
We need an alternative if democracy is to be healthy again.
We need an alternative that allows for candidates to respond to attacks, for the truth to be told, in short for the people to have access to the kind of information that allows them to vote in an informed way.
Many people have placed their hopes in the Internet as providing that alternative. That the Internet offers attractive possibilities for political action was predicted long ago by deep thinkers such as Esther Dyson. For one thing, it is available to hundreds of millions of people even now, an audience that is competitive with that of newspapers. More importantly, it is available cheaply, not only to those who want to read the story, but to those who want to tell it. In other words, political candidates can get their word out to potential voters, if only the voters can be informed where to look.
We can hope. In the meantime, we can look at a few examples of how the Internet is being used politically. Perhaps the best example of a liberal site at the moment is http://www.salon.com
There are many conservative sites, but one that is particularly interesting is http://www.frontpagemag.com
The sites chosen illustrate something that is different about Internet sites compared to daily newspapers (The American Reporter, founded on April 10, 1995, was the first original daily news site on the Net). Where newspapers work towards (or at least pretend) nonpartisanship, the most effective I Internet sites are unabashedly partisan. FrontPageMag makes no bones about it. David Horowitz, its publisher, is an outspoken political activist who was once a staunch leftist and now seeks to reform the world against what he sees as the dangers of the left.
Salon.com is best described as mainstream liberal. That is, it is strongly opposed to President Bush in most matters, roots for him to fail in his reelection, and reports carefully on issues that are important in current liberal thought.
The idea that partisanship can lead to a fuller and more robust exploration of ideas is nothing new. Actually, it was popularized by John Stuart Mill many years ago, as discussed in On Liberty. The difference is that the modern electronic media allow partisans of all stripes to carry on the debate in realtime. As this is written, the political fallout over the capture of Saddam Hussein is being discussed at http://www.andrewsullivan.com, which represents a libertarian conservative point of view. The interesting point is that Sullivan was able to review and offer rebuttal to leftist responses within hours of their posting. Alternative points of view can be found in the Weblog section of Salon.com.
The rapidity of response and counter response is what is of interest here, because it offers a model for how political campaigns may be waged in the future. True, a mudslinger may send out postcards timed to arrive the day before the election, but his opponent will have the opportunity to answer within minutes, at least to those who are electronically equipped.
Politically, we're going to have an interesting future.