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As Long as We Remember...

October 19, 2006

Media Transformation Changing America

Tony Soltero

In a recent Frederick News-Post Political Notes piece, County Commissioner Mike Cady bemoaned the existence of the Frederick News Post forums, calling them a "tremendous disservice to everybody."

He made this comment after a forum regular unearthed the video clip of his famous "hat incident" of a year or so ago and posted it on YouTube for the world to see - again. On the heels of negative publicity following his odd predilection for sock puppets to make political points, it is not hard to understand Mr. Cady's frustration with citizen media.

But his complaints are misguided. Mr. Cady's just had the misfortune of being caught in the middle of a massive media transformation - a sweeping, long-term change in the way Americans obtain and process their news. And while this media paradigm shift might produce unpleasant results for a handful of local and national political figures - Virginia Sen. George Allen being the most notorious example - it is ultimately an extraordinarily exciting and healthy development for our democracy; and not a moment too soon.

As long as America has been a nation, the voice of the ordinary, average citizen has always been limited and stifled in our national political discourse. We've always been free to speak out, of course, but we seldom have the opportunity to be heard by more than a few people.

As H. L. Mencken accurately put it: "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one." Our ability to be heard, our ability to propagate our own ideas, has always been dependent upon the "gatekeepers" that make up the institutional media. And the range of viewpoints represented in old, established media by no means reflects the range of viewpoints held by the general population.

If you wanted to criticize a public official, or advocate a particular position, you could always write a letter to the editor; but the dissemination of your message was firmly within the control of the publication.

If you wanted to bring a public official's abuses to light, and your local newspaper or TV/radio station was in cahoots with said public official, your chances of getting your message out were roughly equal to your chances of getting a date with Eva Longoria.

Well, you could always set up your own newspaper or magazine or TV/radio station - if you were financially able to come up with the capital. Hardly a level playing field.

Until now! The advent of broadband has completely altered the equation - in favor of the citizen.

Broadband has given us the ability to hold our political figures accountable like never before. It is much more difficult now for a public figure to get away with misrepresenting his record or his positions; the power of the friendly established media to protect such a political figure has been heavily diluted by the rise of the blogosphere and facilities like YouTube. We can keep tabs on our leaders much more closely now - and what better example of participatory democracy is there?

Needless to say, many politicians feel threatened by this new accountability, as evidenced by Mike Cady's outburst. But to quote the cliché: if you're not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

Nobody held a gun to George Allen's head and forced him to utter a racial slur. Nobody compelled Montana Sen. Conrad Burns to belittle firefighters in public. The old media would have glossed over these and other episodes, but citizen media is much less indulgent.

Some politicians have done the smart thing and embraced the new citizen media. Several Frederick-area officeholders and candidates, like Kip Koontz, Kai Hagen, Rick Weldon, and Charles Jenkins, among others, have established a presence on Internet forums and directly engaged voters and constituents in conversations. And that's what blogs and online forums really are - ongoing conversations.

The end result is that we wind up with a government that is more directly accountable to the citizenry, and ultimately a government that is more effective and less corrupt. There is a reason totalitarian countries like China and Saudi Arabia heavily censor the Internet; their leadership is deathly afraid of common people talking to each other and holding them accountable.

Luckily, in America, most of us still value our freedom of speech. And now we've got our best opportunity to actually use it. Because - to paraphrase Mr. Mencken - we all own a press now.

If Mike Cady and others who share his attitude think this through, they'll begin to see the new media as an opportunity, not as an obstacle. Of course, that's assuming they wish to govern, not rule.

I guess we'll find out, over the next few months or years, where our public officials stand on the idea of citizen engagement. Those who don't accept it won't be long in their offices.

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