Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can I make a recommendation?

I think I've mentioned to people before that if I ever went back to school to get my PhD, I would like to teach a class on the media. Primarily so I could tear it apart. I think the media experiment in this country has been a massive failure and, overall, the media has done as much to misinform the general populace as it has done to actually inform the general populace. In fact, with corporatization of the media, I don't think "informing the public" is even part of the mission statement anymore. And that's too bad. We can't have an informed democratic population when businesses are financially rewarded for misinformation. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it". 

My criticism of the media aside, I think there is a massive communal advantage to daily or occasional reading of local newspapers/websites. I just started reading some of the Patch sites (for work reasons mostly) and I have to say, I think they do an excellent job of building a connection to the "community" that in many senses is lacking in these hyper-individualized times we are living in. Is there a lot of hard-hitting journalism on these sites? No, not really. Are a lot of the stories fluffy? Absolutely. But they are fluffy stories about your friends and neighbors. They are fluffy stories about fundraising and charitable drives. They contain information about town zoning board meetings and legislative discussions that are frequently unattended. They notify you about local concerts and children friendly events that normally go unnoticed. In short, they do a good job of covering the activities of volunteers, teachers, and politicians that normally go uncovered. While this type of media coverage may confer some incumbency advantages for local politicians, it also does a lot of good undermining the absurd notion that politicians and community activists are corrupt scoundrels out to line their own pockets. Because, for 95% of the local politicians I know, this is absolutely not the case.

What an outfit like Patch does is remind us that we belong to a community of neighbors, not just Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I am not one to bemoan technological advances. I think Facebook and Twitter have been a massive force for good, and my social capital is infinitely larger thanks to my enduring relationships with old work and grad school friends. But enduring friendships with old friends, technologically-based or otherwise, can get in the way of connecting with our immediate neighbors. I know I am guilty of this myself. As Robert Putnam would note in Bowling Alone, American levels of social capital are at all-time lows. And these low levels of social-capital have already doomed progress in places as advanced as Italy (see Making Democracy Work, also by Putnam). I dare say they are doing the same in the U.S. We need to take active steps to reverse these trends and unite our communities.

While I think Putnam overstated the beneficial advantages of social and fraternal clubs like the Elks Lodge, I think his overall point is well-taken. We need to foster means to create social and political capital if we want Americans to trust and believe in government again. And I think one strong way to do so is to read your hyper-local news outlets. I'm not just talking about Newsday and News 12 (which, honestly, I could take'em or leave'em). I'm talking about your Patch sites as well as your East Hampton Stars, your Suffolk Times, your Long Island Herald, etc. [The LI Press is an excellent investigative newspaper actually, but it hardly fits into my "building social capital model". I like the LI Press, but it does a better job of tearing our politicians down, rather than building them up. Which is fine! There is a need for that!]

But I really do think you can do yourself and your community a lot of good just by checking in with these outlets from time-to-time. I'm not saying you'll learn anything ground-breaking or life-altering, but it's an important reminder that you have neighbors that want to improve your local community. And who knows? Maybe you can take a moment to help those people? It's always nice to come across people who can help curb our own cynicism, even if it's temporary. God knows I need to from time to time...


  1. Watching Lincoln, I was pondering whether the portrait of the shady dealings to get the 13th Amendment passed would be more likely to feed cynicism ("even Lincoln was a corrupt bastard") or make people realize that a certain amount of what is dismissed as dirty or corrupt is just the reasonable nature of politics and perhaps be a bit more forgiving of the modern equivalent. Probably neither.

    It feels weird to say but I feel like we need to trust politicians, even if they don't deserve it, because the result of a lack of trust is even worse. The horserace media coverage about gotcha moments certainly works against it more than if the media coverage focused on mundane committee hearings and the like or whatever places politicians might be able to exist out of the immediate spotlight of media and electoral attention.

    1. The "criminalization of politics" is something I have evolved on with time as both a graduate student and then working in government. I used to rail, RAIL against stuff like pork, and earmarks, and horse-trading, and log-rolling. But it's pretty standard political practice and its EXTREMELY valuable. EXTREMELY. It's the lifeblood of democracy. At work, I talk about buying off interest groups all the time, in a non-judgmental, non-ironic manner. It's how we build the coalitions needed to pass good public policy. Does that limit the number of good clean bills? Sure. But in a democracy, there is no such thing as a good clean bill. I'm sure fascists occasionally pass good clean bills, but that's not exactly the ideal system of governance. (Though put me in the camp of the benevolent dictatorship - as long as I am the dictator!). I am an ends over means kinda guy. I think a part of the democratic learning process is not only understanding the sausage-making process, but also the mature understanding that the process isn't even that ugly. Is there corruption? Of course. But stuff like constituency services and cutting red tape is not corruption. It's evidence of a politician paying attention.

  2. And sometimes they put nice folk like this on their pages as well!



    The Massapequa Patch follows me on Twitter and it's actually terrifying. I feel way too up to date on crime happenings in the town I live in.

    1. Yeah, crime blotters. That's a tough one. Even before I started my previous job I wasn't a big fan. They just might be a necessary evil in the media landscape. The reality of the situation is that crime in the United States is massively down. As in, really, really, historically low. DC is on pace to have less than 100 homicides this year. That's fucking crazy. But Americans are always convinced that crime is on the rise. Always. And that is 100% a function of media priming. The media wants you to believe that crime is running rampant. They are not interested in the alternative (and correct) story that crime per capita has never been lower in America's history. Not even in those halcyon 50's that everyone pines for when we all left our doors unlocked. The media sells papers when they hype criminal stories. There is no way around it. People love buying that shit. So I don't really know what to do about it. I'm not comfortable with the alternative (suppressing information about crimes). I mean, my God, the SCPD is amazing at suppressing information about criminal activity but it doesn't seem to make the Suffolk County population feel any safer (though they should). And then when the public IS willing to acknowledge that Suffolk County is safer, they just use it to argue for smaller police departments, budgets, and salaries. So really there is no winning strategy. People are the worst.

      Those are cool pictures though!