Democracy on the Cliff’s Edge by Al Sikes

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We are in the center of the bulls-eye. Micro-targeting, shaped by the details we reveal, comes full circle in the offers we receive.

Micro-targeting is also a favored tool of the politicians and advocacy organizations. The National Rifle Association, much in the news these days, can with great specificity push the hot buttons of its members right down to the household level. And, when they decide to target a political candidate they don’t confuse their member with any extraneous information like his/her position on the deficit, or foreign policy or anything other than a hyped emotional expression used to provoke not inform.

Conversely, significant parts of the public are content with broad political narratives that too often drive tribal clustering.

Bernie Sanders said that Hillary Clinton was a captive of Wall Street and even though a Socialist from Vermont might well have beaten her on a level playing field. Imagine the Democratic Party manipulating delegate selection to protect the favorite candidate of Goldman Sachs.

Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” The swamp was made up of, well almost everybody who worked in Washington. So in the swamp category was John McCain and others of independent views and dispositions. And making America great, well who knew what that meant. Trump careened around the issues like a pig on ice except he let everybody know that Mexico would build a wall a few feet from its boundary line and that every trade agreement was a disaster. Our President, sensing emotional vulnerability, speaks only in hyperbole. So while those who sell products and positions construct increasingly specific profiles, we are all too prone to overlook the detail.

America is at great risk if lack of discernment among candidates, issue positions and the like are dealt with at an emotional level while those who sell to us proceed with amoral marketing pitches.
Democracy works when people are well informed and at least intuitively discerning. Otherwise, it doesn’t, and overtime democratic nations that are shaped by message makers using our physical and psychological profiles will be fatally weakened unless we are to assume that the marketing class is patriotically constructive.
We should know as much about the Clintons or Trumps or Sanders or Romneys as they and their marketers know about us. A logical question is how. How can we live our lives successfully and still spend significant time learning about political candidates? The answer is we cannot.

Over the centuries we have had a surrogate—journalists. Our forefathers even gave the journalists a series of protections including freedom of the press to make sure they were able to play that role well.

In recent decades what we call the press (providers of news regardless of its format) has too often failed us. Some are guided by marketing analyses that tell them which markets (points of view) are underserved. What is now called the mainstream press did such a poor job balancing their coverage that it opened up counter-programming opportunities for conservative outlets like Fox and talk show ones like Rush Limbaugh.

Those on the left have tried to repeat those successes but found that many on the left feel well served by the mainstream media. Too bad. America needs true journalistic balance produced by networks that employ superior production values. No longer will boring news coverage, regardless of accuracy and balance, survive.

But true balance is only recognized by the actively curious. If we yield to micro-targeting, while skating through life, we will clearly be on thin ice.

The icons of journalistic expression are celebrated in a Washington-based museum called the Newseum. I was there in its opening week and was quite impressed. But, the Newseum is operating at a serious deficit and is at risk of being closed. Perhaps it is no wonder when polls find confidence in America’s news media disturbingly small and traditional media doesn’t generate enough cash flow to keep its own museum open.

Inevitably industries celebrate the past. What will the news media celebrate in 2050? If they are not celebrating a dramatic turnaround in confidence, our nation itself will not have much to celebrate. We need curious citizens served by balanced journalism; without it, our constitutional guarantee of free speech will be principally used to protect the outrageous.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Carolyn Ewing says:

    The compelling question is how we have constructive conversations when college and universities are filling minds rather than opening them. Before we can change the culture of journalism, we must embrace Robert Hutchins; admonition: “It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts; it is to teach them to think.”or Malcom Forbes’ “education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” Until education embraces that purpose, we will have foolish people shouting sound bites and whipping up emotions that pass for thought, and, yes, we will go the way of previous democracies. We are dangerously close now.
    I agree with Sikes’ observations, but the real question is how do those of us who recognize the danger of our strident, splintering culture change it. How do we encourage thoughtful dialogue among emotional soundbites?

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