Thursday, June 02, 2005

National Influence

When it comes to influence at our National level, practically nothing is as it should be. Elected leaders should be in the business of persuasion, but they are not. Reporters should be in the business of collecting, organizing, and relaying the facts, but they are not. Commentators should be in the business of exposing the flaws in our system, but they are not.

Politicians like to give the impression that they are actively trying to change the minds of others and that they are open to new ideas. However, politicians aren’t really interested in new ideas or even any ideas; they are mostly interested in the influence that is derived from power. Political speeches today are about positioning, not persuasion. It is much easier, much more effective for getting votes, and much better for the campaign bank account for a politician to speak about what his constituents want to hear than it is for the politician to make an effort and risk loosing voters by trying to persuade voters or fellow politicians to change their mind. Power in Washington comes from riding the right wave, and collecting the money associated with the wave, at the right time.

Reporters try to give the impression that they are just reporting the facts, but every story has an angle and every story has a purpose whether or not it is acknowledged by the reporter. The stories that get told, the way they are told, the facts that get included, the facts that get omitted, the quotes that get included or not included, and the insinuations all make a story influential. For many years now, the National media has supported the more liberal causes and challenged the more conservative causes with their stories, but with the development of internet, the liberal monopoly has been broken. However, it has not been replaced with neutral story tellers; it has been replaced with even more partisan story tellers on both sides. Thankfully, more and more people are learning to read between the lines. Sadly, fewer and fewer people are willing to consider views that conflict with their own.

Commentators write and talk like they are making an effort to persuade. However, persuasion is the secondary concern for the national commentator. Face time and print space are the primary concerns of the successful national commentator. The successful commentator needs to develop an audience and maintain that audience. Just like the politician, it is much easier and much more effective for a commentator to appeal to his or her audience by advocating the causes of the audience than it is for the commentator to try to change the minds of the audience they’ve got. People listen to Rush Limbaugh to find out if he agrees with them, they don’t listen to him for his insight.

I can’t name a single elected official who is persuasive. I can’t name a single reporter who is neutral. Chris Wallace comes close. However, I can name a commentator who I think is somewhat different, and therefore effective at changing minds in a good way. Dennis Prager is persuasive because he doesn’t make much of an effort to persuade any of his callers to change their mind. He interviews his callers in order to bring clarity to an issue. He puts all of his effort into clarifying the areas of agreement and disagreement and the reasons for differences of opinion. There are commentators I agree with more than Dennis, but there is no one who has taught me more because he respects others by letting them make up their own mind.


Mark said...

While I agree with most of what you said, more or less*, you should be careful not to fall into the "any more" trap. You didn't actually use that phrase, but the tone implies you were thinking it. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) The fact is it has always been that way, nobody is perfect and everyone has a bias and personal ambitions, that is no more true today than ever. The reason the system works is openness, criticism and the chorus of thousands of disagreeing voices battling it out.

The bad guys are the ones being secretive, the ones who lash out at all criticism and try the hardest to make decisions in the dark. Our system can handle huge quantities of bias and ambition but it breaks down when secrecy prevails.

*The liberal bias is really just cultural, not political. Look at the build up to the war to see the real bias: sensationalism. That's not new, remember "American Hostage Crises, Day ###"? Ted Kopel had as big a role bringing down Carter and electing Reagan as anyone. Next to sensationalism reporters making themselves the most important part of the story -- gotta play the game to get the fame and fortune -- would be the next biggest bias, I believe. Cultural liberalism in the media is probably somewhere down around #4 or #5 on the list of biases.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. When describing reporters, I didn’t mean to imply the only thing reporters care about is a political agenda. Like you, I think the political agenda of reporters is not at the top of their list. The top of the list for most reporters is the career of most reporters, period. However, reporters do have personal opinions that can’t help but affect the stories they write or tell.

Like you, I also believe there never was a golden age when reporting was pure. It always was and always will be effected by the opinions of the reporters. However, I do think that 35 years ago the country was moving in a more liberal, (“liberal” seems like an inadequate word) direction and the reporters were leading the way. Today, the country is trending conservative, (I hate those two words) but the national media is following, not leading, because they still have liberal tendencies.

As someone who leans conservative, I am glad the national media is loosing influence. However, I have not been encouraged by the replacements. I do hope for a day when the National media can tell both sides of a story fairly. Maybe multiple perspectives from multiple reporters would be better.

Mark said...

Despite most of the talk I'm not convinced people trended liberal 35 years ago or that they are trending conservative today. The ratio of self described conservatives versus liberals hasn't really changed in all this time, it remains steady at almost 2:1 conservative. (See here.)

As you say, those two words don't really work all that well. In fact, one could argue that the reason people seem more conservative now is because the liberals won all the arguments. Who still believes bathrooms should be segregated or women shouldn't play sports? Even most conservatives are environmentalists today, just not the wacky Greenpeace kind. (The corporate honchos setting the current agendas may not be, but that's about the corrupt guys in power right now, not public opinion.)

While reality may be objective, no human is. The closest you can get is to listen to multiple views. I bet those that listen to NPR/PBS and watch Fox get the best news, if such a person exists.

But when neutral sources try to play that dichotomy, they often force an artificial he said/she said atmosphere. That tends to imply reality itself is not objective and it is all spin. Not good. You'll see this all the time in news programs today.