Informing Ourselves (not to Death)

Call me a pollyanna, but I’m hopeful. Hopeful that the Web may actually have been a force that’s raising the level of political discourse in America, making us smarter and better at understanding what’s going on. I’m hopeful because before the election I heard people talking, sometimes in Red states (the “real” America, not my beloved Manhattan’s Upper West Side) picking through divisive and unintelligent arguments being made by politicians and the political campaigns.

I do think the American public ultimately gets it right, but that often it’s frighteningly slow to do so (think how long it took for a majority to decide the Iraq war is horribly mismanaged). But I heard an intelligent skepticism from voters this time, examining arguments, asking whether the things being said in political ads were right, wondering whether one candidate’s policies are better for the economy. I also saw a lot of discussion and uptake throughout the Web shooting down personal attacks (William Ayers, Muslim terrorism, etc.). I note that the attempts to Swift Boat the now president elect didn't take hold.

It was a real, intelligent level of discourse that makes me happy to hear. Sure, the economy is in crisis, and the mainstream media is telling us what’s wrong in Iraq and elsewhere. But the more intricate unweaving is going on online, not only in blog discourse but in the ability, for example, of many people who wouldn’t have seen Palin or Biden or McCain or Obama speeches and interviews to see them, rewind, look at them at their leisure, to observe charts and graphs comparing policies and opinions, expert and not, to watch The Daily Show and Colbert Report at our leisure and decide what to or not to laugh about or examine further. To, crucially, watch the Katie Couric, Sarah Palin interview segments and compare them with the Tina Fey impressions. We didn’t have to rely on reports of what Palin said, but instead after hearing about it (perhaps in the mainstream) could go see it and decide for ourselves as never before.

From the Business Week story linked above:

The Daily Show is also tapping into a more fundamental shift in how people follow news. Thanks to the power of the Internet, people are no longer merely consuming news in a passive way (as in, "tell me a story"), but going out and looking for it proactively ("answer my question"), explains Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released in mid-June, about 40% of Americans have gone online to get political news, up from 31% in 2004, and 16% in 2000. They're reading more news and blogs and watching more videos, too. About 35% of Americans have watched political videos, compared with 13% in 2004. But they're not simply swallowing pundits' take on events. They're actively doing their own fact-checking and searching out the direct sources of information. About 39% have gone online to read or watch unfiltered campaign material, such as debates, speeches, and position papers.

Neil Postman might have thought we were prone to nothing but amusing ourselves to death with our media, but maybe the kind of media we have now (and that the new White House might help us employ) is helping us to think about whether we want change and what that change really means.

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