Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Versatility of the American Press Serves Democracy

The press is the fourth branch of government which America’s founding fathers didn’t consecrate in the Constitution; nevertheless, they knew its existence was inevitable and necessary in a republican democracy. Thus, George, James, Alexander, Benjamin and a few other fine gentlemen proclaimed in the immortal document, that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech or the press. Americans heeded the call and throughout the nation’s history the press has been a key player in shaping America’s political history. The American press has kept alive an objective discourse about the meaning of democracy, the press has been a partisan to particular political causes, the press has been a watchdog of corrupt politicians, the press has pandered to populist political causes, the press has made public the intimacy of politics and political officials. In short, the press is versatile and has adapted to the ever-changing political expressions of American democracy and government. In 2009, although the basic aforementioned characteristics of the press remain intact, the making and presenting of political news is now more democratic. As a result, modern political news-making is designed to capture and fulfill the political views of very specific audiences.

The past is prologue. The press helped give shape to the federal government during Washington’s administration, by giving intellectual breadth to the notion of federalism. Federalists and Antifederalist fought a tenacious intellectual battle, courtesy of pen names, Publius and Cato.

The press also served as an agitator, by helping the American nation rally behind President Mckinley with the famous rallying cry, “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain”! A cry which ignited the Spanish-American War of 1898, courtesy of William Randolph Hearst.

The press served democracy by bringing down the corrupt Nixon administration. Courtesy of the press, Nixon failed to win the hearts and minds of the American people. Nixon’s political base the “silent majority,” remained silent, and thus he was forced to resign in the name of peace with honor, courtesy of Bob Woodward and Deep Throat.

Finally, the press brought to the living room of every American, President Bill Clinton’s sexual intimacy. President Clinton gracefully, and only through the cadence of a good old boy, was forced to explain to American people his intimate moments inside the White House, courtesy of cable television and Kenneth Starr.

In 2009 the freedom of the press is as vibrant as ever. CNN, the Drudge Report, Twitter, the Washington Post, You Tube, Politico.com, this is the twenty-first century’s landscape of the American press; a motley collection of political news media outlets consisting of cable television, web blogs, traditional newspapers, websites and smart phone communication platforms. In essence, the diverse media outlets reflect the newsmaker’s urge to find a niche audience.

In a political landscape where every footstep, every utterance and every breath of politicians are recorded, analyzed and debated on a real time never-ending news feed, America’s national elected officials have adapted to the change by using political news media outlets to fight back the scrutiny, clarify to misinformation and most importantly present their own account of civic matters. Internet based political news media outlet, Politico.com, reported on 9/23/09 in an article titled “ For GOP, revenge is tweet,” that 101 Republicans and 57 Democrats use the social networking platform, Twitter, for communication about politics through short messages which are sent to computers and cell phones. As cited by Politico, David All a Republican internet strategist said, “ every effective communications professional or major association needs a real strategy for utilizing Twitter at all times, especially where real-time responses is crucial.” Elected officials now have the ability to shape news directly by circumventing journalists and presenting their “news” of politics through personally crafted words, rather than relying on the words of interpretation.

The press has recast itself from its past role as a crude agitator, to a more sophisticated and deliberate orchestrator of political spin, primarily targeted at niche audiences of particular political persuasions. This form of the press is particularly evident on cable television. On the CNBC show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” newscaster Keith Olbermann presented a nightly, unwavering, diatribe against President Bush for nearly eight years, where he ended each show by reminding his constituents how many days Bush had left in office. In this case Mr. Olbermman served an audience, mainly those paying for cable news and those who were unequivocally anti-Bush or of an anti-conservative ideology.

The presentation of political news is also personality driven. Journalists often become celebrities in their own right and shepherd their loyal followers from the corporate owned cable news show or newspaper, to the personal an independent world of the blogosphere. Such is the status of Lou Dobbs, who contributes to America’s political discourse through his bread and butter issue, immigration. In his show on CNN, Lou often blames many of America’s social ills on undocumented immigrants. Mr. Dobbs has used his celebrity on CNN to build a loyal audience and draw it to his talk radio show and his blog. In essence, Mr. Dobb’s brand of journalism is characterized by his accessibility to his followers across various media platforms.

New to the political news media scene is video sharing website You Tube, a democratically controlled video sharing media website. During the 2008 presidential primaries,You Tube was the platform through which political opponents to Barack Obama’s candidacy for president of the U.S. voiced their opposition. Mr. Obama’s opponents posted videos of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, giving a sermon which was described to be wholly anti-American. The infamous “God Damn America” sermon served as an anti-Obama ad, that although not directly connected to Obama’s official opponent the Republican Party, it served to advertise the view of the GOP that Obama was unfit to be president. Finally, political news is also broadcasted via the “chain email” blast. Such chain emails and their respective website launching pads, whose authors are often dubious, have made the bogus claims that President Bush was a conspirator in the 9/11 tragedy and that President Obama is Muslim and not a native born American. Although You Tube and the chain-email serve other purposes other than presenting disreputable and suspicious political news reporting, they are in essence also used to inform an audience interested by political news delivered in hysterical and unfounded snippets.

In hindsight, every transformation of the press has added a new strand to its fiber of versatility which has allowed it to be resilient while under the strain of democracy. In its newest phase the press is more democratic, that is, the press is no more solely the work and province of the professional journalist. By the same token, biased media has been part of America’s democracy since the first shots were fired over the fields of Lexington and Concord. Democracy is a difficult and complex form of civic organization. There is no such thing as objectivity, every news story has a slant and a political angle. However, the press must be valued for what it is. The press is simply an inextricable part of America’s democracy.

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