Monday, March 26, 2007

Internet Politics and the “MSM”

Posted: 3/26/07

Complaint about the mainstream media is a staple of the blogosphere and, in the world of campaign finance, the clash became more legal, less rhetorical, when editorial pages urged the FEC to be wary of according full, protected “press” status to blogs. Advocates for blogs wanted just this recognition, in part to make the point that their legal protections should not be less than that provided to the establishment press. Internet outlets were prepared to submit to regulation, to some extent, as long as they were treated just like the established, institutional media. In the end, the FEC granted this wish.

The MSM can’t overcome their reservations about this new world. In the last week, well respected commentators have jumped on the opportunity presented by the “l984” ad flap to warn of the rough times ahead for politics and for political campaigns in the age of the New Media.

For Howard Kurtz and Jose Antonio Vargas, the danger is “skullduggery.” Operatives or activists can disguise themselves as ordinary citizens and post material, for all the world to see or read, that is uncharitable to candidates. This is solid cause for worry, we are told; but we are assured also that the same technology that enables the skulduggery can also be used to expose it.

Howard Fineman notes that candidates cannot hope to control their campaigns as before, in part because any one person with a laptop, commitment and aptitude can shape the political dialogue of the moment. Hence, as his title indicates, campaigns are “out of control.” Fineman writes: “The candidates don’t really control [campaigning] anymore. It is not something they do; it is something that is done to them.”

Done “to” them? This is the suggestion of a pundit and reporter, made about the anxieties of a campaign deprived of “control”; and yet candidates for years have believed that control was imperiled more by the established press than by any other independent force “doing” something “to” them. Campaigns have devoted much effort and ingenuity to the task of preserving control from the daily efforts of reporters to wrest it from them. Not much sympathy came the candidates’ way: their attempts to control message or keep secrets were treated as maneuvers to deprive the public of what it was entitled to know.

Now the MSM is losing control—by no means entirely but to some significant degree—and a larger community of critics, prognosticators and pundits has sprung up to include virtually anyone with the wish to become a member. Now, and only now, has “control” become an issue for the MSM. Critique of Internet political speech breaks out roughly in the ways illustrated by the Kurtz-Vargas/Fineman pieces.

The case against “skullduggery”: it holds that cyberpolitics presents special dangers that candidates will escape responsibility for their behavior. In some way, actively or by the “wink or nod,” campaigns will have the benefit of negative, irresponsible speech without accountability for it. Another term for this is “dirty tricks,” which is the all-purpose category that includes any behavior by one candidate that another candidate, or critic, finds objectionable.

Of course, the MSM has been a standard avenue for “skullduggery” by candidates eager to maintain some cover for their claims and accusations. News media are the repository and outlets for information that candidates will not put out themselves but are happy to entrust to reporters for public dissemination. This route is in a class by itself: an attack becomes “news” or “news commentary”: the nasty stuff is made entirely respectable, the very sustenance of an informed public. At the extremes, if main section news treatment would go too far, there are more gossipy, “soft” parts where the blow can be landed.

The main difference between this “skullduggery” and another is that media organizations decide which to countenance. They want, in a word, “control,” and their justification is the exercise of editorial or news judgment in the public interest. Some, but not everyone, may be impressed that this makes all the difference in the world.

The case against loss of "control" puts less emphasis on wrongful or questionable behavior, and more on how campaigns can’t control their message—that orderly political competition will degenerate into chaos. Here again, candidates have long had this to fear from the MSM. Reporters and editorialists imagine, however, that this was in the right and natural order of things, because a vibrant and sometimes disruptive press helped to police the dialogue and forced campaigns to an honest accounting of their positions and problems.

In other words, just as the critics of skullduggery make an exception for the kind they turn into news coverage, so alarmists on the subject of “control” over campaigns are arguing, really, that it should be exercised only by the MSM.

These arguments about “control” can’t change much anymore. There was a time when they might have: when the FEC might have been persuaded, as it was not, that Internet political speech should be closely regulated. With the passing of that moment, MSM critics have only their criticism to offer and their warnings to issue but these should be evaluated like any other political speech—skeptically, with close attention to the unmistakable evidence of self-interest. And of self-regard.

Bob Bauer

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