Skip to content

Hey, techer leave those kids alone!…..We dont need no education……we dont need no thought control….

2010/01/29

An informed electorate has long been considered to be essential to a functioning democracy. Yet, we no longer seem to know the source of our information, hence no longer recognize how our opinions on important public questions arise. In recent years pollsters find that people can be advocating positions — for example on tax breaks or health care — that may not be in their own self-interest. Is this because they are just ideologues? Well, it appears not. When pollsters have then shown the specifics of some legislative proposal to a sample of respondents, the subsequent poll results are often very different. They had an opinion, but lacked information on why they held that opinion.

In an era when we are surrounded by more information than ever, we seem often to be less well-informed. In my view, three forces are at play:

1. Technology
2. Market forces and
3. Media

Together they are leading to a “dumbing-down” of the electorate in this country.

New Technology

New (or new-ish) technology makes more information available to us from more sources 24/7. By “new” I mean the internet of course, but also social media, blogs, and specific tools like Google and Wikipedia. Taken together, we have more information more of the time than ever before.

By contrast to prior generations, we also have few filters on any of this information. Do you really know the professional qualifications of those whose blogs you read to comment on the issues you read? By comparison to the old Encyclopedia Britannica, how valid are Wikipedia entries no matter how many contributors have corrected an entry? Fortunately, the web also gives rise to new sources of presumably neutral validation like FactCheck.org, but our ideas may be shaped long before we know the “facts.”

Finally, technology has also allowed for an unconscious “Balkanization” of information. Through our networks and our searches, we are exposed to what may be an ever more narrow range of information and opinion without ever realizing it. More traditional media often provided both editorial comment and “OP Ed” pages, but now we may not even hear/read contrary points of view.

Market Forces

There has been a well-publicized decline in traditional vehicles for professional journalism. Newspapers and news magazines once provided at least the potential for thoughtful reporting and analysis on key national (international) and local issues. Once we had various “newspapers of record” seen as authoritative, quotable, sources. Some of these sources were clearly either more or “right” or “left” in their views, but editorial content was largely separate from the news. This is no longer the case, and the Wall Street Journal is a sad, recent example.

The other market force affecting the quality of information available to the electorate is the increased use of special interest group money to shape opinion and push positions. We may not know who is behind these groups, but only that we are continuously exposed to their message (and sooner or later, the message begins to shape our opinion). This situation is about to get much worse with the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations can be considered as “individuals” in donating funds and promoting a cause. As someone once said, “Whoever has the gold makes all the rules.” Maybe now it is: “Whoever has the most gold shapes all the opinions.”

Senator McCain told reporters that he was troubled by the “extreme naïveté” some of the justices showed about the role of special-interest money in Congressional decision-making. And many commentators including Justice Stevens have noted that this ruling contradicts over 100 years of laws designed to protect a free and open electorate from undue corporate influence.

Media

Finally, I want to look at one force shaping media messages in general today, whether those media are new or old. Somehow over the last few decades, we have come to pay more attention to extreme positions than more moderate positions. Where once we might have valued leaders and commentators who considered both sides of an issue openly before reaching a conclusion, today we seem to value those who take one side of an issue and argue their point to the exclusion of other views.

In the marketplace of ideas, winning is all that counts. Reasoned discourse does not seem to be entertaining or compelling enough to attract eyeballs. Extreme positions on issues get better coverage/make better stories. (Perhaps the one exception to this trend is the coverage of National Public Radio’s All Thing’s Considered/Morning Edition, and PBS’s News Hour, but these reach only a small portion of the electorate.)

Once we expected networks to provide equal time for different candidates or points of view. Once we expected editorial content to be separate from news coverage (particularly if the coverage purported to be “fair and balanced”). But rational discourse and truly consideration for both sides of some issue don’t seem to attract an audience. It is always better theater, if not better reporting, if the commentator is “fired up.”

A Few Modest Proposals

If an informed electorate is essential to a working democracy, and if we seem to have less and less understanding/control of the sources and forces that shape our information, then we may need to take new steps to protect our democracy. Some possibilities include:
• Making a new form of civics class a requirement for high school graduation. This class would focus not just on government, but on the sources and uses of information that shape our opinions as voters. And it would be designed to create more reflective and critical thinking about the opinions we hold.
• Creating a “tax” on the internet that is used to fund professional journalism and new media “of record.”
• A fee on media devices like the one in the UK (on televisions) to fund broadcast journalism so that NPR and PBS can operate without being under constant threat from a decline in donations.

These proposals may seem far fetched, but I believe that we need to take drastic steps or some Orwellian future faces our democracy. Or maybe its not the future. If not thought police, then certainly thought control is already here. Pink Floyd sang it differently, but the question for us all is; It’s 11pm: Do You Know Who Shaped Your Thinking Today?”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: