Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Examining the media/public disconnect

The news-ish site Texas Tribune and liberal political scientist Dr. Jim Henson have inadvertently ran into something.

Inside out: Insiders and voters don't see eye-to-eye. Dr. Jim Henson, Texas Tribune
Most insiders are political professionals working in the halls of government. In The Texas Tribune's latest Inside Intelligence, they seem concerned with the kinds of problems that have been the province of government: above all, public education, but also infrastructure issues, like the water supply and transportation.
Texas voters, on the other hand, have recently demonstrated both in elections and polls that they are at best skeptical of and at worst downright hostile to what happens in those hallways. The problems that most worry voters lie outside areas of proactive government initiatives. They appear more focused on broad policy areas that are either outside such initiatives or point to perceived failure: the economy, jobs, immigration, border security. Public education is growing as a concern, but only among a small group.

My apologies to the Tribune for the larg-ish block quote. However, I believe the two paragraphs above to be telling.

If you ever wonder where news (and news-ish) organizations receive their story ideas you need look no further than political 'insiders' from various parties.  This is not the fault of a liberal (or conservative) media. Instead it's the result of familiarity.

Political reporters and political insiders spend a lot of time associating with one another.  At government hearings, functions, press conferences, super-secret Wednesday evening confabs at local watering holes etc.  The fact is a political reporter for almost any media outlet is going to spend more time with politicians and insiders than the general public, by a long shot.  The same effect can be seen with new-ish agencies, news agencies, party-affiliated political bloggers, and political bloggers who put a lot of stock into Netroots Nation or Right Online.  It doesn't matter your political leanings, or (to be honest) how good/influential you are as a writer.  I'm not sure if it's genetic or what, but political writers seem to be drawn to groups like moths to a flame.

Maybe it's because political writers don't actually produce anything of value?  (And yes, I'm including all of the writing on this blog -and any of my past blogs- in that category)

Where this becomes a problem is in story selection, and the importance of issues in hard news stories.  This is why Perry's "oops" became a bigger issue than did the fact that he was actually laying out a specific plan to cut the size and scope of government.  It's why Romney's dog on top of the car, and Obama's dog in the belly, overshadowed the fact that the economy is struggling along and people really want jobs.  It also explains why the bulk of Texas political coverage is education-centric while a majority of Texans are more concerned about work, the oil & gas industry and other things that might help them feed their children.

If you want to know where the stories are going, look to what the political insiders are fretting over.

The thing is, as the newspaper business model continues to implode and more and more political writing is ceded to bloggers and partisan online sites this trend is only going to get worse.  The idea of a citizen blogger banging out "I'm mad too Eddie" copy from their home offices, leading a political revolution from their living rooms and becoming the "Netroots" of the political parties have gone the way of the dial-up modem.

Today's political blogger is more likely to get their talking points from either major party than they are to flesh out a fully developed independent opinion, and those who do manage to stay apart from the fray are so lightly regarded as to not matter.  Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are funding groups to ensure that their bloggy messages are portrayed in the approved manner and won't come back to bite their candidates in their political behinds.  The fact is, bloggers who want the attention are likely going to get the attention, provided they play the game by the rules.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 'professional' newspaper reporters and opinion-makers are currently viewed as so out of touch by the general populace it is probable that their reputation cannot be restored.  It does not help them that the editorial direction was decided for them at an Austin cocktail party by editors in suits and hip-eyewear hob-knobbing with staffers and analysts who, for the most part, rely on government for their income.  You think the sand-lizard is endangered in Texas? How about the main-stream media POV that the government is not the solution to almost every problem?

Looking at all of this it's not surprising that cities such as New Orleans have made the market decision that a daily newspaper is not in their best interest.  Old scandals like the Houston Chron rail memo are leading Houston down the same path.  Sadly, given the editorial content of their stories, it won't be the public that misses out on anything meaningful. The real effect will be felt by campaign ad designers and think-tank marketing departments who won't be able to use newspaper "copy" in their campaign ads and sales pitches.  This brings about the sad reality that campaigns will start to tell naive, desperate for acceptance political bloggers what to say and then use those clippings in their campaign ads, pitches to make more ads etc.

That's hardly the premise on which citizen journalism was founded.  It's high time we bring it back, before it's all we're left with that is.  The alternative is a media that returns to it's roots of advocating for the people instead of shilling for its government paid friends and insiders. What the world needs now is a good, old-fashioned return to public-interest, watchdog and advocacy reporting.  I'm afraid it is probably too late however.  FutureMedia is not shaping up to be a pretty sight.

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