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Lions Roar : January 2005
58 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 after time the guy who was most negative won. If people voted for the candidate who did the least negative campaigning, they could change it, but the attitude is, “I’ll show them, I won’t vote.” Therefore, the ones who really love the red meat are driv- ing the process. Also, we can’t say enough about the effect of money. We have got the best government money can buy. So much is at stake that people are willing to pay and say anything, and that becomes the new game plan. It’s very hard to defend yourself and your ideas in the kind of environment where there are no rules. And where powerful media outlets have an explicit partisan agenda. SCHROEDER: I don’t even know that they have a partisan agenda. I worry that a lot of them just have no agenda. They treat everything like a street fight—Y hits X, X hits Y. They never fact-check anything. You can feed them stuff, and the more outrageous it is the more they want to print it. That’s because it’s more about selling newspapers than verifying the accuracy. I think that’s one of the things that the Internet has done. People think that the newspapers look pretty tame and boring compared to the Drudge Report. So then the newspa- pers try to be more like the Drudge Report, and then where do you go to find out the truth? I notice that ABC news is doing some fact-checking on polit- ical commercials and I think that’s a good thing. That could help stop some of this, that you can go out and call anybody anything and if you get the most noise and buy the most airtime, you win. Surely the low state of public discussion is not all the responsibility of the press or political leaders. Surely the citizens, the consumers of information, are contributing by either not demanding better discourse or not being capable of it. K I N G W E L L : It’s interesting that you used the words “citizen” and “consumer” so closely together in that statement. I think all of us gathered here would agree that citizenship has been trun- cated to a consumption model. The robust idea of the citizen as an active participant in his or her own self-determination has been attenuated, if not eliminated. So I think it’s not a surprise that groups who can self-organize are talking off the grid of the standard media manipulation, or even the money-controlled elections. The question I have for them is: The policies are still being made by people in Washington and your state capital, and they affect our lives. So what can we do about that? I think changing from the inside—reinvigorating citizenship on a personal level—is absolutely essential, but I don’t think we should abandon the larger political discourse in the process. SCHROEDER: I would concur with that. I think all of us do have the ideal of the town hall meeting, and how I wish there were more of them. But in a way, the citizen as consumer could be very powerful if citizens really said, “Instead of screaming and hollering, we want something that’s more profound, more in-depth, and more civilized.” Part of what concerns me is that instead of looking for more mature citizens, the driving force for the mainstream media seems to be, “How do we attract 18- to 35-year-olds?” And somebody thinks that all-out verbal combat is the only way to attract 18 to 35 year olds—especially males—to talk radio and TV. So we have all of these strange reality shows, all of these strange new ways of communicating, and more and more people my age turning to the BBC. Someday the media is going to figure out that people my age also have money to buy the products they’re advertising. K I N G W E L L : Absolutely right. All of us are suffering under this demographic tyranny. Why should this group of 18- to 35-year- olds, this perpetually renewed group, have such a sway over the kinds of movies we get to see or the kinds of television shows we get to watch, let alone the kinds of governments we live under. The notion of the market as the determinant of success is deeply ingrained, but this is a fundamental idea that needs itself to be challenged. DVORKIN: I think one of the positive developments is that more and more American newspapers are adopting the ombudsman role, and a lot of media organizations also have proclaimed ethics guidelines. I think there is an increasing trend among media organizations to think about what our listeners, viewers and readers need as citizens first, and consumers of information second. And when a news organization thinks of the needs of its viewers and readers and listeners as citizens, they make different kinds of editorial choices than if they are simply delivering eyeballs to advertisers. I think there is a necessity for public accountability in the media. The media must turn to their listeners, readers and view- ers and ask, What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What do you want? How can we use our role as broadcasters and communicators in an educated way? And in turn the media has to raise the level of media literacy and public discourse. That’s the balancing act: public accountability in the media and media literacy in the public, so that people know when they are being manipulated and when they are being fooled. A great change in the public discourse took place in the sixties, when previous boundaries of courtesy and decorum were thrown off in what was seen as a crusade against hypocrisy, elitism and lack of pub- lic accountability. And although that was seen as a left-wing move- ment at the time, it’s interesting that some of today’s most vituperative voices on the right are also products of that 1960’s environment. My question is, did that search for more open and honest discourse in fact contribute to the unrestrained political speech we have today?