The Power of the Media, Political Participation and American Democracy

by Peter Bearse




This article, edited for inclusion in THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE, is essentially Chapter 8 of a new book, WE, THE PEOPLE, on needs and ways to revive people’s political participation in the U.S.A. so that the great American majority can take “their” political system back from the political class that has taken it over. The role of the media is key. The chapter is put forth now, in advance of the book’s publication, because recent events  – the controversy over new FCC regulations and the NEW YORK TIMES (“All the news that is fit to…?) – have served to highlight the media as a political issue, which it should continue to be even more so than it recently has been. This article indicates that the political issues surrounding the role of the media are much broader, deeper and more problematic than the recent controversies indicate. Missing here from the original are a number of political cartoons that mainly speak to the negative perception of politics that the media convey. 


References to “chapters” or to “earlier” are to other parts of the 10 chapter book cited above, which the author would be willing to share with readers of THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE upon request to him at:




They say that we live in the Information Age…that "Knowledge is Power" and that information provides a large part of what counts as knowledge. So the media – prime vendors of “information” – are in the catbird seat of politics. They appear to be the source of power. How so? What influence do the media have on political participation and how do they exercise that influence?


One of the most influential students of media, Marshall McLuhan, coined a famous phrase: "The medium is the message." Politicians know this only too well, especially since their ability to win depends quite a lot on how their image appears on TV. They don't stand a chance to get elected if they can't "get their message out." So, here's another slant on media power. Some critics of the media claim, more generally, that the “media problem” is deeply rooted and system-wide, not just a topical, current issue. We caught part of the flavor of such a claim earlier in Chapter 1 with reference to Sennett, Lasch and the “Third Wave,” among others. More recent authors say that the new age we live in is not only an electronic/information age but a “Systems Age” whose complexity calls for more understanding, not less, but whose media generate a “trained incapacity” and a “growing inability” to even face, let alone, handle and resolve complex issues.[1]  


Obviously, we're not just concerned about campaign messages here. What about the "message" people are getting about politics overall? We saw in Chapters 4 and 5 how a number of those interviewed or surveyed for this book remarked on how the media were feeding people's negativity and cynicism about politics. If they're right, this has repercussions and consequences six ways from Sunday -- on campaigns, issues, power, influence and candidacies, including people's willingness to run. Many interviewees thought the impact of the media on the latter -- what we earlier called the "supply side" of politics -- is also negative. So, can we place the brunt of blame on the media for the negatives noted up to this point? Are media responsible for drying up both the grass roots and pools of candidates in our political lives? Let's take a closer look. 


The way this introduction has proceeded provides a prime illustration of one way the media exert political power and influence. It's called "framing." Politicians, political consultants and media studies claim that the media frame issues, articles and media treatments to lead the public to certain conclusions. This introduction has framed this chapter to focus your attention on possible adverse impacts of the media on political participation. The focus primarily comes down to identifying WHAT and HOW -- What impacts; How generated.



What and How: Reinforcing Vicious Circles


Earlier, we identified several "vicious circles" dragging our politics down. These include the:

q       Political Lemons cycle: “Politics is dirty” so “good people” stay away from politics, making it more “dirty.”


q       Fear and lack of confidence cycle: Feeling that one lacks “what it takes” to become involved with others, politically, a person fails to get involved, and so the feeling is compounded as he or she observes the process being taken over by political “pro’s” or others among “the usual suspects.” And so, for lack of being involved, one never gains “what it takes” and the fear factor prevails or is increased.


q       Voting cycle: People don’t vote, on the basis of feelings that “my vote doesn’t count” and/or that “all we have to vote for is the lesser of two evils,” but then they truly don’t “count” and potential candidates who might represent a real difference are deterred from stepping forward for fear there is not a sufficient constituency for their views. Then people are even less likely to vote, etc.


q       Political Inequality cycle: This is the voting cycle with a vengeance adverse to those who can least afford the negative feedback loop: Poor people don’t vote because they rightly feel that nobody in elected office is doing anything for them and, indeed, unless they vote, nobody does anything for them. Along with this goes the well-documented fact that the better off someone is economically, the more like they are, not only to vote but to participate politically in other ways. So to them that has goes the goods and the poor are left with what Rumpy got for Christmas.


q       Public/Private cycle: The rewards of private life are more personal, direct, less costly and less diffuse; thus, people are less likely to participate in public life. The reduced participation translates into a public life where participation is more costly, less direct (less local, more removed), and thus more likely to be dominated by “the usual suspects” with whom there are no personal, familial or community relationships. Thus, others are even less likely to participate.


q       Party cycle: Party politics is seen as fractious, contentious, partisan and serving only “them,” not “us,” so people increasingly stay away from parties as “unenrolled” or “independent;” thus, parties become more of what leads to the negative perceptions of them and even less important to people’s lives.


q       Independence cycle: People develop self-images as private, independent people who can think and act for themselves, even in the political realm. This leads to an atrophy of political parties except as money laundries and an increasing dependence upon interest-advocacy groups among whom the citizen consumer can increasingly “shop” to find avenues for representation of particular views. From the standpoint of political participation, however, this leads to growing political “independence” and the further atrophy of both political parties and of anything that could be called the “public interest.”


To what extent are the media at the core of these cycles or significant sources of their

aggravation? The media as primary producers of images[2] are at the core of the "Lemons

Cycle," as already indicated, because the images that the media present of politics and politicians are predominantly negative. The image of a politician that typically emerges from the media is that of a person who:


Ø      Is ambitious and egotistical;

Ø      Talks out of both sides of his mouth;

Ø      Is beholden to "special interests;" and who…

Ø      Has no special skills or has no career or achievements outside of politics.


The latter point is especially important, as Boulding (1961) indicates that a political system in which the "distribution of images" falls out of line with the "distribution of skills" needed to run it is a system that is or will become unstable.[3] The major skill featured by the media and admired by the public is rhetorical -- public speaking ability -- the "gift of gab." Ironically, many observers and historians say that even this skill, as exhibited by our current crop of politicians, falls far short of the quality of political oratory heard from past generations of our nation's political leaders. As for other "skills," even though we have seen the election of some people to Congress who have built remarkable, prior political careers in fields other than politics, who can name them or their non-political fields? Damn few. There is irony here, too, for the other fields that may be named are most likely centered on the media, like TV acting (e.g., Sen. Fred Thompson) or entertainment (e.g., former Rep.'s Sony Bono or Fred Grandy). How many people other than some Democratic activists in Northern New Jersey know that Rep. Rush Holt is a former physicist? Fortunately, many know that Sen. Bill Frist is a doctor, but it remains to be seen whether his skills will serve him well in the Majority Leader’s position.


The prevailing view of the political process emerging from the media is also unflattering, to say the least. It is a game in which:


Þ    Ethical standards are, at best, grey;

Þ    Truthfulness doesn't count for much;

Þ    One needs a lot of money to play; and…

Þ    Ordinary people have no influence after votes are cast.


Evidence on the other side of the "lemons" coin? -- people are shying away from politics. Look at the increasing numbers of uncontested seats, even positions for which there are no candidates at all, incumbent or otherwise, plus some towns where an election was

declared but nobody came. "In New Ashford, voters: 202; turnout, Zero."[4]


The media are also at the core of the "Party Cycle." This is partly by default, evidenced by decreasing coverage of political party activities. Those of local party committees receive little or no coverage, so most people do not even know that there are such organizations nearby where they can go to get politically involved. Coverage of higher level political party organizations is also lacking and, when it does occur, negative. Coverage of state and national party conventions has been diminishing. Parties are partisan by definition, but partisanship has been put in an increasingly negative light by the media. Party officials are seen as party hacks who receive their appointments as payoffs for otherwise failed or finished political careers or as favors for party loyalty. Party members are viewed as political "activists" or political "junkies;" i.e., people not like "us."


To feed the other side of the Party Cycle, the media increasingly present declarations of independence from parties as intelligent and principled. One never sees such shifts described as stupid and self-defeating, as Ron Mills indicated in his interview for Chapter 4. Thus, the "Independence Cycle" and "Party Cycle" interact. Note, for example, the coverage of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords' shift from Republican to Independent. Not surprisingly, numbers and percentages of voters that are "independent" or "un-enrolled" continue to rise, political parties continue to weaken and the trend towards "independence" is reinforced.


The "Public/Private Cycle" is strongly reinforced by media-generated images even though the roots of this cycle, as noted in Chapter 2, run much deeper than media programming patterns. Question: (A) When was the last time we saw political involvement or even dinner table political conversations featured in TV programs? (B) By contrast, how often do we see private family life extolled, private recreation activities advertised and self-involved behaviors featured? The answers to this quiz are (A) Zero; (B) Innumerable. So, fewer and fewer people even think of participating in politics and there are decreasing numbers of role models that might inspire young people towards such activities. People retreat into private worlds, and the public sector, attracting less talent, is less able to "deliver." So, this cycle reinforces the Lemons Cycle and some of the other negative cycles. The most powerful indictment of the media in this respect was provided by THE PRIVATE FUTURE in 1974, a picture that has largely come to pass 20 years later.


As for the political inequality cycle, Barbara Ehrenreich notes the dismissive attitude and sometimes outright erroneous reporting of the media with respect to people who are poor. She also observed:


“Forty years ago, the hot journalistic topic was “the discovery of the poor” in their inner city and Appalachian “pockets of poverty.” Today you are more likely to find commentary on their “disappearance,” either as a supposed demographic reality or a shortcoming of the middle-class imagination.”[5]


The possibility that the media can play a different role that encourages people to get involved in public life is indicated by claims of a “West Wing flip.” Polling of young viewers indicates that they are more favorably inclined towards careers in government than the public at-large.[6]


Manufacturing Unreality and Undermining Truthfulness


The title of this section borrows from the titles of two books, each of which should be far more widely read than they have been:


v     THE UNREALITY INDUSTRY: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What it is Doing to Our Lives, and

v     TIME FOR TRUTH: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype and Spin.[7]


As already indicated in Chapter 6, these two books, with support from some others,[8] document dangerous long-term trends away from reality and truthfulness. These trends, moreover, amount to an indictment of electronic media. The fact that some readers may react to the use of the words "reality" and "truthfulness" with skepticism speaks to the danger. Guinness shows how the disease of "postmodern" attitudes -- politically correct (PC) relativity without Einstein's devotion to truth-seeking -- has many people disbelieving that there is any reality outside of what they can create in their own small, controllable (they think), self-centered worlds. Mitroff and Bennis directly relate to the "vicious cycles" noted earlier by stating at the outset that the "manufacturing" they point to amounts to a negatively interlocking "combination of mutually reinforcing influences." Just one of the troubling implications of this is that any proposed solution to a public problem usually "consists of intensifying the initial problem." A truly dangerous implication of both books is that we are losing our ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. "The end consequence is a society less and less able to face its true problems directly, honestly and intelligently."[9]


This is a concern of long standing.  Initial symptoms were apparent at least 100 years ago. They were quite visible during the '20's; then they were precisely diagnosed and brought to the attention of wide audiences over 40 years ago. What the two books cited at the outset of this section have served to do is to provide evidence of a long-term trend towards two un's -- untruth and unreality. A pretty complete diagnosis of the problem was provided by Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of the Library of Congress, in a remarkably insightful book that he published in 1961. The more recent books show that the symptoms he identified and analyzed have blossomed into a disease. Mitroff recently reaffirmed the thesis of his 1989 book with Bennis in ways that reinforce the urgency of the far more recent (year 2000) book by Guinness:


"The problem (as indicated by the book's title) is every bit as bad and probably worse now… Politics is a media circus. The next step for us as humans is to become unreal, like Cyborgs. What is human? Have we crossed over? We are not just celebrities going for a makeover. The intrusion of media and technology into our lives is now much deeper." (by telephone to the author, August 9, 2000)


One feature of what Mitroff and Bennis called the "manufacture of unreality" by the media, Boorstin had identified much earlier as the creation of "pseudo events."[10] So, if we are looking at trends of long-standing, what's new, and what's so "dangerous?" Mitroff and Bennis say that “what's new” is the new electronic technology, and what's dangerous is its low cost, broad scope and worldwide applicability. The dangers, however, have long been demonstrated by an electronic technology that is hardly new – television (TV). What is new since the “Unreality Industry” book was released is the introduction and spread of the Internet, whose implications for political participation we will turn to later in this chapter under the heading of “Digital Democracy?”.


What is definitely not new is people’s tendency to fancy myth, illusion, magic, un-truth

and escapism.  This tendency is so ancient, so deeply rooted, that it must be recognized as fundamental to human nature. As we shall see in the next section, part of our problem is that the media play upon this tendency, somewhat as they exploit another even more ancient fundamental, sex. The overriding problem, new relative to “ancient” but already “old” relative to the 21st century, is that tendencies toward self-delusion became collective, involving millions of people, in the 20th century. These now threaten to become more so as 21st century media technology enables the extension of various forms of collective “delusion” ever more widely and deeply into the public domain in ways that undermine our democracy.


There is an ancient ordinariness to human behavior in that people in any age feel the need to escape from the ordinariness of their day-to-day existence. This need is paradoxical. It has an undeniably good side insofar as it is a prime root of innovation and creativity. But the bad side, its dangerousness, has been amply exhibited in the 20th century in the banality (ordinariness) of evil and the greater potential of evil over good when the possibilities of escaping the “ordinary” has spread to mass society. Then, via some pretense of “democracy,” the banality of evil can become the order of the day. [11] 


Both the Guinness and Mitroff & Bennis books indicate that the “smoke and mirrors" often attributed to politics now find their true home primarily in the media, to be recycled by the media to give a more professional, highly paid, media consultants’ gloss to political imagery. Indeed, it is in the public (political) arena that the trends they alert us to are most perilous, simply (!) because our ability to solve shared problems at any level of community; indeed, the very integrity of "community" itself, is what is threatened and open to question.


One aspect of fantasy is found among several reputable writers urging us to “get a grip” on the real issues of our public life – reference to the Greeks and their Athenian “polis” or “Agora” as representing a model for democracy via “full engagement with the world at all levels.”[12] For a small, 600 B.C century society of slave owners to be so viewed is hardly an effort to come to grips with 21st century reality! So it’s no surprise to see a citizen’s “op-ed” contribution to a local newspaper titled “Whatever happened to real life?” and commenting: “We have become a nation of voyeurs and exhibitionists. The viewers live out their fantasies…”[13]


From some writers, there is speculation about the applicability in the 21st century here and now of even more ancient, pre-historical models – the “hunter-gatherers” of the Pleistocene age. These were people with no relationship to a place and a lack of boundaries where everyone was involved with everyone else’s business.[14] Such speculations seem harmless except to the degree that they represent a lack of serious effort to grapple with the real problems of real people in real places here in the U.S.of A. As we shall see further on, however, reliance upon old archetypes can become dangerously serious, as when others start to write and talk about a “new Middle Ages.” See Eco’s chapter on “The Return of the Middle Ages,” for example,[15] and note that medieval motifs figured heavily among Nazi icons.


The books referenced provide few answers but they leave us with questions of the

utmost urgency. For example:


v     How can we even begin to face, let alone solve “shared problems” if we spend most our discretionary “leisure” time watching TV?

v     How can we come together as a community – as a great American majority – at any level, from neighborhood to nation, if most of us continue to think that quiet time at home is the be-all and end-all of non-working hours?


Answers? We can’t provide them. TV is addictive, like a drug, so we need to learn to “JUST SAY NO.” It can be done. We did it in our family. We eliminated TV in one house and strictly limited access in the other (summer) house.[16] TV is dangerous to family health. Gee, what do we do if we do away with our TV? We might actually have to do other things, like talk to each other or (God forbid!) read a good book, even one that we can discuss or share! We might even talk about politics!


Another answer to watch for is whether “September 11th”  will turn out to be a “wake-up call for media as well as the rest of America. Initial reactions led one to hope. Some media commentators wondered whether so-called “Reality TV” would still have an audience now that people had found that real life was more dangerous and far more meaningful than the unreality of “Survival” and other such shows. Network news seemed to be somewhat reoriented toward “hard news” and away from news-as-entertainment. Newspapers and TV paid more attention to “the heroes of everyday life” and somewhat less to glitzy “stars.” There seemed to be more investigative reporting, at least on terrorists and Afghanistan, as a backdrop to “America at War.” More Americans were facing the world, not just themselves. Americans were aroused. Unfortunately, it did not take media long to return to “reality” as usual.    


Then, reinforcing as well as responding to a rising wave of patriotism, the media proceeded to leap from public arousal to support for government, especially for national (central) government initiatives. We saw such headlines as “Bashing Government is Over” and “Terrorism is Making Government Look Good.”[17] This shift runs counter to the critical stance toward government “failure” noted in Chapter 6. It also threatens to reinforce the centralization of government and politics, as every war has done, contrary to the decentralization that would reinforce local democracy and promote more grassroots political participation.  


The family is the first and best foundation for enabling our children to face the world, live in it and make a difference to people other than themselves. They can’t do this, however, if their parents are retreating from that world, curling up in their living wombs (sorry; sometimes I lisp) and watching “reality” (read: fantasy) TV. As shown in the next section, TV is dangerous to community and political health. TV has been with us now for half a century, so there has been plenty of time to recognize the dangers of once “new” electronic media. 


Undermining Public Life and Political Participation in Specific Ways


The danger is that, indeed, the past may prove to be prologue – a predictor of what we may see as the newest of the new media continue their spread across our country and among its people. So we should really take a look at the effects of TV and other traditional media before turning to prospects for “digital democracy.”




The impact of TV on politics and public life has been studied to a fare thee well. What have we learned? – that television:


q       Consumes a major portion of people’s free time;

q       Takes people away from involvement with their communities, partly by substituting viewers’ interaction with figures and situations on TV for involvement with real others in real places;

q       “Privatizes” their leisure time activity;

q       Blurs the boundary between “public” and “private”;

q       Drives up the cost of political campaigns;

q       Fosters a politics of personality and spectator sports rather than a politics of issues and participation;

q       Has turned news into entertainment;

q       Still qualifies for that old label “the boob tube;” and

q       Distracts people from attention to important issues and shifts their attention to artificial worlds, so that they are “less and less able to face up to true problems.”[18]


According to Paddy Chayevsky, “TV is democracy at its ugliest.”


Based, as the lawyers like to say, on the “full body of evidence,” the verdict on the impacts of TV is not all negative. We can also see that TV:


§         Helps us to see and to understand the “strangeness and otherness of others…to see what other people are interested in or are doing;”

§         Broadens our acquaintance with the rest of the world; and…

§         Gives the viewer “a sense of connection” with other people in other places.


A more critical view of these positives is that all they amount to is “watching…as a private act…merely observing…dissociating selves from the content” without taking any responsibility.”[19] Or: “By making us aware of every social and personal problem imaginable, television also makes us less likely to do anything about it.”[20] This view is somewhat unfair, however, since we all know of instances where TV news regarding disasters has prompted outpourings of donations and offers of help from viewers. A more common complaint is that TV news, like much of reporting by other media, thrives on “disasters” (i.e., bad news generally) without covering much, if any, good news on what people are doing to help each other or their communities.


Notwithstanding the occasional “outpourings” noted above, the evidence of negative impacts of TV on our politics and public life far outweighs that of positives. Such indictments have been presented over many years by many analysts, yet the evidence presented most recently by Harvard Prof. Robert Putnam amounts to “case closed” for the prosecution.[21] He observes, in light of the Nielson ratings for household viewing hours, that:

 “the average American now watches roughly four hours a day,

  very nearly the highest viewership anywhere in the world.”[22]  


The further observation that “television absorbed almost 40% of the average American’s free time in 1995…” significantly underestimates the importance of the time spent watching TV relative to other activities. “Free time” is hardly “free,” the use of which is discretionary just because it is defined as time spent not working for pay. As any so-called “soccer mom” (and dad) knows, there are a variety of things to be done during non-“working” hours, most of which are subject to real scheduling requirements or constraints. These include cooking, cleaning, home repair, child care, shopping and social events, not to mention chauffeuring kids to soccer games (or wherever). As leading scholars of how and why people spend time as they do, Martha Hill and Tom Juster, write:

            “The notion of constraints must be a basic characteristic of any analysis

             that purports to deal with time allocation, simply because total time itself

             represents a fixed quantity per time period for every individual…”[23]


Recall that we referred earlier to time as “the signature of our mortality.”


Thus, TV watching competes with a variety of other “free time” activities, some of which are higher priority for individuals or families. More time spent watching TV means less time for other things. Is TV watching complementary to any other activities; that is, does more TV watching go hand in hand with more of some other activity? Specifically, what about time devoted to political activities and/or to otherwise taking part in the public life of one’s community?


Prof. Putnam’s analysis of “DDB Needham Life Style Survey” data show that there is only one exception to his overriding observation that TV watching is destructive of participation in politics and public life; that is, for the category of “selective viewers” – “the more time spent watching news, the more active one is in the community.”[24] Otherwise, outstanding evidence demonstrates unequivocally (with page references to Putnam’s book) that:


Ø      “the introduction of television deflated…residents’ participation in community activities” (p.236);

Ø      “Heavy television watching by young people is associated with civic ignorance” (p.237);

Ø      “TV watching comes at the expense of nearly every social activity outside the home…” (p.237);

Ø      “those who said they were spending more time watching TV than in the past were significantly less likely to attend public meetings, to serve in local organizations, to sign petitions and the like…” (p.238);

Ø      “television programs erode social and political capital by concentrating on characters and stories that portray a way of life that weakens group attachments and social/ political commitment…” (p.242);

Ø      “each additional hour of television viewing per day means roughly a 10 percent reduction in most forms of civic activism – fewer public meetings, fewer local committee members, fewer letters to Congress, and so on.” (p.228)

Ø      “Television…is particularly toxic for activities that we do together.” (p.229).


Even the news-watching aspect needs to be qualified, for many observers of the media agree that there has been a marked trend by the TV networks to turn news into entertainment. This trend poses another serious set of problems, affecting not only political participation but the ability of participants to deal with public issues. Major problems arise from the fact that TV trades in visual images that have nothing to do with literacy, whereas the ability to deal with issues rests substantially on one’s ability to read. Visual images may enable each of us, like Bill Clinton, to better “feel your pain,” but not help us to understand your underlying problem, let alone how to effectively address it. TV or other electronic media cannot entirely supplant print media. Meanwhile, there are estimates that 23-72 million American adults are “functionally illiterate.”[25] The Gallup organization reported that, “on average, 75% of adults have not read a book in the previous month.”[26] Dear reader, you don’t appear to be one of them.


This contrast between reading and watching does not imply that TV is unable to help people understand public issues and deal with them. Actually, if the power of this and other electronic media were exploited for the purpose of providing more and better public information rather than more and better entertainment for profit, the media could add considerable value to the information over and above that which one could get from a book on the same subject. Why? Because the electronic media add information in at least two forms that a book cannot directly provide – audio and visual. This is one reason why “multi-media” applications have such promise. But how much influence did MTV’s “Rock the Vote” have on the turnout of young people during the 2000 elections?


The battle between print and non-print media has been going on for decades. Advocates for the electronic media say that print is a “linear” medium that disables us from taking a “holistic” view appropriate to the “new age.” Yet this old printoholic holdover from the Gutenberg era wonders who is the more disabled. It is easier to diagnose “patterns in the sand” when the grains are words on a page than when they are pixels on a screen.[27] One wonders how someone can even see, let alone understand, a pattern of visual images if one cannot identify and analyse the underlying elements.[28] It is easy to use the word “holistic” without being able to recognize what the whole represents. Yet, let’s not get caught up in word games. From the standpoint of people’s role in politics, we may be reflecting two sides of a coin here, not a case of either/or. Combinations of visual images and words can provide a powerful 1-2 punch. They can reinforce each other.


It’s possible for TV to be much more effective than print in calling attention to an issue in ways that excites people’s interest or concern and sparks their involvement with others to deal with the issue. The dean of public opinion research, Daniel Yankelovitch, calls this “consciousness raising.”[29] Once someone is engaged with an issue and trying to do something about it, reliance upon print media may come into play. Print media can be more analytic. Meyrowitz writes: “The logical linking of pieces of information into large, complex and connected treatises and theories is a feature of writing and print.”[30] So, if “holistic” is equated or at least connected with the ability to perceive (the) “complexity” (of the “whole” of something), then we can hardly rely on electronic media alone. TV images and multi-media can convey some overall sense of something but sensation is a long way from understanding.


Even the ability of electronic media to “convey more of all overall sense of something” is open to question. Put the power and nuance of the English language into the hands of a great writer and you get both a richer sense and better understanding of the human condition from one book than one can obtain from a month of Sundays of watching TV. This is the gist of the case for print media made by a distinguished author, Mario Vargas Llosa, as he declared “The premature obituary of the book.”[31]


“The complex sum of contradictory truths…constitute the very substance of the human condition. In today’s world, this totalizing and living knowledge of a human being may be found only in literature…(which) exists only when it is adopted by others and becomes part of social life – when it becomes, thanks to reading, a shared experience.”


Which type of medium is more likely to call upon participatory behavior? Print advocates say that good print treatments of an issue are more likely to engage someone’s active involvement with an issue because well-written words excite a reader’s imagination and thought processes. Both get engaged as a reader tries to grapple with an issue, even while just reading about it. For the sake of this book’s purpose, I hope the print advocates are right. My own experience says that they are. Good writing has me thinking about the topic of the writing as I read. As a result, I have developed the bad habit of marking and jotting on the pages of virtually everything that I read unless a quick scan indicates that it is hardly worth reading. Then I just file the item – in the round file.


More specifically, apart from the evidence already highlighted, what do the differing features of print vs. non-print media imply about the likelihood and nature of people’s political involvement? Literature is subversive:


“This is because all good literature is radical…Literature says that…the world is badly made and that those who pretend to the contrary, the powerful and the lucky, are lying…”


To the contrary, the offerings of non-print media are generally opposite in quality; that is, they are not subversive. They do not promote, as good reading does, “the critical mind” or a “critical and non-conformist attitude towards life.”


Remember “irony” and “paradox,” whose importance we observed earlier? Well, these can be found in abundance in literature. But what’s most ironic in this contrast of media is that both TV and literature rely greatly upon fantasy. Many media critics take TV to task for programming far too much fantasy. But the main point of impact – upon people’s willingness to get involved with others in the real (non-fantasy) world – this seems to have been missed by most.[32] Even Vargas seems to have missed it, with a snide, elitist reference to “illiterate people who have been made into idiots by television’s soap operas.”


Both types of media rely substantially on fantasy, but one type promotes active engagement and the other does not. Why? Because one is an active medium and the other is passive. In order to read a book, one must make a conscious decision to acquire it, open it up and read it. Then, as indicated earlier, if it’s a good book, it’s more likely to foster an actively open mind and critical attitude towards what’s happening in the world. It may be literature that helps you “to understand the impotent feeling of the isolated individual.”  By contrast, watching TV is a very easy, low-cost, no-brainer.[33] Just press a button or flip a switch to find yourself in transported into other worlds. So fantasy generation is not the issue.


Unfortunately, for the most part, these “other worlds” are those which value “conformism and the universal submission of humankind to power.” Sure, it often seems otherwise; but the brand of individualism most featured is that characterized by differences in personal appearance that can be gotten off the rack or out of a jar or exhibited in terms of personal behavior quirks with no socially redeeming value. Such “seems,” such appearances veiling the true nature and distribution of power in society, suggest what is at stake in one’s choice of participation or lack of participation in public life. As Bill Kibben, a prominent author and former staff writer for the NEW YORKER said as a 2001 commencement speaker: “We weren’t born to live on the couch with the remote control.”[34]


Putnam noted that: “If TV steals time, it also seems to encourage lethargy and passivity.” In one medium, “fantasy” reminds us of idealism, the tragic nature of human life and “acts of defiance;” in the other, we are entertained and then put gently to sleep. Perhaps this is part of the privilege of being an American. In other cultures, TV may be a technology of liberation. In the old Afghanistan, for example, watching TV was “truly scary,” subject to punishment; for the ruling Taliban, a group of Islamic fundamentalists, are (were) watching the watchers.[35]      


Yet, the early days of TV were like the early days of the Internet now: Pundits carried on about the wonderful potential of the new medium for reinvigorating American democracy. Then it became “mass media” under the control of major, nationwide networks. Marshall McLuhan, at one time the seminal guru of electronic media, wrote:


“Today, the mass audience…can be used as a creative, participating force. It is, instead, merely given packages of passive entertainment. Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.”


The potential for TV to do more returned through the development of cable TV on both national and local scales. Nationally, Brian Lamb led the initiation and development of C-SPAN. Local cable channels were required, by law, to enable public access via local channels and training of local activists who wanted to mount their own programs. The primary competition for network TV, however, is turning out to be the Internet rather than cable, especially with respect to people’s involvement with public issues via electronic media. That is why, later in this chapter, we turn to “Digital Democracy?” Nevertheless, the great importance of the cable options as an antidote to the negative influences of network TV should be noted. C-SPAN, especially, continues to be a dynamic, growing influence with a devoted, participatory set of viewers.


Why do about nine of every ten people who call into C-SPAN with their views, comments and opinions say: “Thank you for C-SPAN”? Because C-SPAN programming is both genuinely and continuously informative as well as somewhat interactive. On C-SPAN1, viewers see live feed of the U.S. House of Representatives in session, unvarnished by interruptions of media commentators trying to put their own “spin” on what is happening. On C-SPAN2, viewers receive a similarly direct view of the U.S. Senate in session. Before the sessions begin, they can tune into “Washington Journal,” a review of the news of the day with a call in feature, often focused on some topical issue. Other programs include: Book TV (a nice integration of TV and print media), “American Presidents,”“American Writers,” “C-SPAN in the classroom” and many special programs too numerous to mention. The C-SPAN story – the devoted leadership and staff, the many struggles to get it going and its continuing efforts to address emerging challenges – this story has been well told by a Professor at the Naval Academy, Steve Frantzich, whose books make good reading.[36] Some quotes from callers into C-SPAN help to flavor parts of this book. The C-SPAN web page ( is another rich resource that invites people’s participation. A third channel, C-SPAN3, was begun early in 2001 to provide additional public service coverage.


C-SPAN is also a good antidote to, or at least a good provider of, perspectives on the print news media that, too often, provide biased perspectives on the news. Part of the Washington Journal program cited earlier features news stories from a variety of newspapers around the country and enables people of all political persuasions nationwide to call in with others. Here again, we have a program that demonstrates how electronic and print media can be mixed and matched with people’s participation to take advantage  of their potential complementarity. Another good example of this type is Public Radio International (PRI). Besides maximizing information and minimizing editorializing, they mix in reader feedback and music.


Print Media


Why and how do print media often provide “biased perspectives”? It is important to recognize the ways, especially since most local media markets now lack competitive newspapers. These ways have been set in high relief by a counterpoint movement called “Public Journalism,” which has arisen from the core problem that animates this book – the erosion of citizenship. We already began to confront one source of possible bias at the outset of this chapter – “framing.” You know what it means to select a frame for a picture. It helps to focus the viewer’s attention. Some artists now embellish the frame so that it becomes a part of the picture itself. Starting with the Renaissance introduction of perspective, it became possible to view the individual in context through paintings that presented both foreground and background components. This still provides the best model of “framing,” because the frame is not leaving out something essential. The individual is not isolated or out of context. Remember: there are two ways for someone to lie: by commission (deliberately) or by omission (leaving out something that may be important).


Cappella and Jamieson, in their landmark study of how the media have served to promote political cynicism, identified two major ways of framing -- “strategic” and “issue.”[37] “Strategic” refers to a tendency of journalists and others to frame stories to focus the reader’s attention primarily upon the machinations, personal characteristics and clashes of politicians and their campaigns that may influence winning or losing a political race. “Issue” framing refers to setting a story or feature so as to maximize its information value on issues to the reader. The studies reported and analysed in the book, properly titled “Spiral of Cynicism” show how the proportion of journalistic coverage employing the “strategic” frame has increased relative to “issue” coverage and how this shift correlates with increases of people reporting increasing alienation towards politics and government. During 2000, we saw predominantly “strategic” coverage of the presidential race and election aftermath. See the next, “Y2K,” chapter.  


Another source of bias is a marked tendency of journalists to slant their stories so that they are, implicitly, editorializing in the guise of reporting. There are many ways to do this. One is via selection. A reporter can select certain things to report and not others. Such selection can highlight positives or negative features of a candidate, for example, depending on whether publishers or editors favor the candidate or a certain ideology.


A second method is the organization of paragraphs and points. Editors and reporters know that most readers don’t get beyond the first page except for gossip, sports, weather or obituaries. So, they will put points they favor up front and relegate the rest to the inside pages. Further selection bias may determine whether the inside story continues on page 2 or 15.


We have been noting the more implicit ways of editorializing. One should pay some attention to explicit methods, too, via editorials labeled as such that usually appear on editorial pages. The history of the media in America began with newspapers that were established by publishers with axes to grind. They made no bones about the fact that they were investing their money to promote their point of view.[38] Most of today’s publishers and newspapers are not so intellectually honest. Many (most?) editors have little shame and less humility. They have no compunction whatsoever about using their pages to lecture the rest of us on virtually anything, as if their opinion should somehow count more than ours. Truth or untruth is selective – whatever facts suit their purposes will do; let’s not quibble about the rest or even bother to mention them.


Whatever the quality of editorials may be, serious questions need to be addressed to both their editor-authors and their readers: Why should we tolerate publishers’ policies that allow or require editors to endorse candidates for office on their editorial pages? Is one of the major roles of a newspaper to be an arbiter of power in a community? Should not that role be reserved for the voters, based not on journalists’ opinions but on information that the newspaper provides, so that voters can make up their own minds?


As someone who has done a lot of statistical work over the years, I am well aware that one case proves nothing. Yet, perhaps some reflection on my own experience with a local newspaper will provide some perspective. As several times a candidate for local office in my hometown, elected at-large, I felt that whenever I ran I faced at least two opponents – whoever happened to be competing with me on the ballot plus the local paper. The only reason that I could figure for this is that I was a declared Republican and the opinions of the newspapers’ publisher and editor(s) were those of a liberal rag owned by a non-local conglomerate. I could write a separate book on my experience but a couple of vignettes will have to suffice here and now.


During one of my campaigns for Mayor, a young reporter from another place[39] couldn’t resist editorializing in the guise of reporting. While reviewing the report of my campaign committee to the State Office of Campaign Finance, he thought he found a violation – that I had wrongfully accepted a contribution from a corporation! The lawn signs in question were (1) paid for and (2) innovative – the first plastic, indestructible political signs ever seen in Gloucester. They were produced by a small, minority owned business in Chicago that my wife and I had assisted pro bono, so we were able to get the signs at a discount. I found it curious that a liberal paper presumably in favor of helping minorities would try to hang me for buying signs from a minority enterprise on the pretext that the discount provided was equivalent to accepting illegal contributions from a big, bad corporation. Besides the questionable reporting, what we saw in this case was a small local instance of a much larger media problem that has helped to turn people off politics. It’s called “gotcha” journalism.   


A second type of treatment I experienced locally has come to be observed nationwide as an unfortunate trend towards “personality politics” or, more generally, the confusion of public and private, often leading to the invasion of politicians’ privacy. More than any other candidate had done in a long time, I put out position papers and press releases on issues, including a handbook showing how I would govern as Mayor. It was very frustrating to me that these were not covered by the local newspaper; rather, the paper tried to focus people’s attention on my personality and “style.” I would joke that the paper couldn’t tell the difference between my private parts and its public parts.


In retrospect, however, this was one feature of journalism that I came to respect. The values I try to honor in both my private and public life are fundamentally public values. A man is either all of a piece in these terms or he is not. If he is, then the word “integrity” means something. So, I have learned this much from my “personal” experience with the media – that a candidate should be willing to subject him- or her-self to detailed scrutiny of all aspects of one’s life, career and personality. The problem that this raises with the media is more fundamental than one of “privacy;” it is one of truthfulness. There is no incentive in politics to be truthful; rather the opposite, given the way the media cover politicians and campaigns.[40] Reveal something on which they can put a negative spin and they “gotcha.”


There were other instances that I also found more troubling than being attacked as a candidate, because they revealed another basic form of hypocrisy These were instances where the newspaper would pontificate editorially about the need for people to step forward to run for local office, so that the electorate would face competitive races, only then to undercut a serious candidate who came forward if he or she didn’t fit the paper’s ideology. This kind of newspaper behavior is troubling because it affects what earlier chapters have referred to as the “supply side” of politics, resting on people’s willingness to step forward to run for office and expose themselves to media scrutiny. Local editors also have to recognize that their tendency to exhume negatives from the more personal sides of candidates lives serves to dry up the pool of potential candidates. Only a very, very small proportion of people are tough, committed and/or masochistic enough, like me, to be willing to expose themselves to such treatment.


This brief treatment far from exhausts the identification of media techniques that can bias or color media treatments of public issues, politicians and political campaigns. The point here is not to be exhaustive but simply to heighten your sensitivity to how you, the American citizen, can be led or misled, informed or misinformed. Watch, but watch out. Be skeptical. Question everything from the media and everyone in the media. Rely on those who see their business as informing rather than influencing. Watch C-SPAN, listen to PRI, subscribe to the UTNE READER, use most newspapers to line litter boxes and rely more on your own native American common sense than the mouthings of the media “commentariat.”


There is a movement in progress to overcome the journalistic faults noted in this section plus some others. It is called “public journalism. We will turn to it under “Options for Change” in the concluding section of this chapter. 


The Media as a Powerful “4th Estate”


The fundamental issue here is the locus of power, the most basic concern of politics. The media constitute a 4th estate with enormous political power. In a democracy, we are all in trouble when power and responsibility are significantly out of sync. The media has become a dominant sector whose power far exceeds its responsibility. 


The basic problems have been documented by others,[41] so let’s just highlight here.


¨      Conglomeration of the media – buy outs, mergers and acquisitions, cross-ownerships of media across media types and locations; growing large corporate domination of media ownership and control.

¨      Mounting financial conflicts between journalism in the public interest and media owners’ pressure for profitability[42]

¨      Increasing reliance of political campaigns on electronic media – This was referred to earlier as an “incestuous mix of money and media,” amply in evidence during Senate testimony on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

¨      Increasing media power in the political process – as illustrated by:


·        Increasing reliance upon polls and polling by both elected officials’ and the media;

·        The media increasingly seeing their role as primarily that of “opinion management” which “amounts to manipulation of a mass” via polls and other techniques;[43]  

·        Politicians’ increasingly looking for media exposure and “playing to the (media) galleries”; and…

·        Decreasing factual media news treatments of politics, politicians, campaigns and political parties.


An underlying factor is the need for both media and politicians to capture both people’s attention and their money. So, as the media decrease political coverage in order to make more money, politicians need to raise more money to buy media time – yet another vicious cycle. One observer of the media’s role in politics wrote:


 “Journalists interceded more than ever between candidates and voters as they consumed 71 percent of campaign coverage on evening newscasts and left only 12 percent for candidates…The proportion of total election news devoted to issues continued to decline…while the proportion dedicated to “horse race” coverage…rose from 25 percent…to 35 percent…”[44]


The media and politics as fabled “marketplace(s) of ideas” are both endangered by media conglomeration. It’s surprising that anti-trust monitors haven’t paid more aggressive attention to what’s been going on in the media. The America on Line/Time Warner merger received a great deal of attention but it was ultimately approved. The erosion of competition in media markets has been going on progressively for a long time. With some justification, reformers on the left regard this trend with apprehension as a threat to progressive politics. Across a broader ideological spectrum, it’s hard to imagine how the public journalism movement will succeed in achieving much broader impact in a media world dominated by large corporations whose overriding concern is increasing profitability and company stock prices.


New Dimensions Radio’s Michael Toms stated that “The biggest theft in American history has been the theft of the airwaves by corporate interests.”[45] He then went on to remark, however, that:


“the technologies for electronic media are no longer controllable by big money interests. The Internet is an example…We started Webcasting three and a half years ago and it was like having a worldwide radio station without a license.”


Nichols and McChesney would agree with Toms’ first statement but not his second. Their review of the actual and likely impacts of the media on our politics and public life documents “an extraordinary degree of economic and social power located in very few hands” due to a trend of consolidation and increasing domination of media markets by mega-corporate conglomerates that has been aggravated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.[46] They report that, in 2000:


“the U.S. media system is dominated by fewer than ten transnational conglomerates:  Disney, AOL-Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Seagram [Universal], Sony, Liberty [AT&T], Bertelsman, and General Electric [NBC]…These firms tend to have holdings in numerous media sectors.”


An important question that arises here is: With the “4th Estate” dominated by such corporations, to what extent can we rely on the media to police themselves and/or: To what extent is new law and regulation needed, perhaps raising thorny First Amendment issues? During Congressional debates on campaign finance reform, only a few Members advocated provision of free time for candidates for federal offices to “get their message out.” The allocation of spectrum to enable the establishment of up to 1000 small, community-oriented FM broadcast outlets is a proposition that brought forth such strong corporate media opposition that licensing of such outlets will be limited to less than 100 stations. Even NPR added its voice in opposition as a large established entity with something to lose.[47]


What is to be the future of public media? Of cable in a new era of telecommunications that will be increasingly wireless? Will changes in federal elections’ coverage initiated by the networks in response to the debacle in Florida prove sufficient as a part of overall elections’ reform? Wilhelm’s major study “on the whole show(s) that (media) techologies as currently used largely unravel the democratic character of the public sphere…” and so calls for “substantial media reform.”[48] His call has more recently been trumpeted by others. Nichols and McChesney, for example, say that it’s past time for “making media an issue in American politics” – as the linchpin of a broader political reform movement that can “free the political imagination” so that “the supposed apathy of the electorate can be replaced with a level of engagement that suggests that the promise of American democracy might yet be made real.”[49] One of those already engaged, a participant in a recent “e-democracy” forum on campaign reform stated:


“The media, having completely abandoned any responsibility to the public or the democracy thanks to…”deregulation,” is the worse offender and the biggest roadblock to reform…the airwaves are not a privately owned resource, they are publicly owned…”[50]


To a large extent, the future of American democracy hinges on the media. The above indictment and other observations up to this halfway point of our “media” chapter indicate that they are a large part of the problem. Moving forward, we will see that they  could be the major, underlying contributor to a solution.


Destroyer of Community?


The question mark in this heading needs to be there because it is too easy to place blame for the decline of “community” at the foot of the media while failing to recognize that the media are just another sector of a market economy that has been undermining the apochryphal American community for at least 150 years. It is too easy to romanticize “community” while failing to acknowledge that small town life can be “cabined, cramped and confined,” sustaining a local politics that can be petty, inbred, resistant to change, corrupt, gossipy, hidebound, oligarchic and more focused on personalities than issues. Here, as elsewhere, we need to face facts as they are and not as we may want them to be. This is especially the case as we lead up to a later section in which we will confront the advocates of “digital democracy,” who believe that there can be such a thing as a “virtual” political community. Thus, we need to look at how electronic media may be undermining, even if not substantially destroying, the face-to-face, person-to-person interactions and the “sense of place” which are among the keys to a political community.


Unless our parents are itinerant farmers, employed by the military or corporate nomads, most of us have obtained some sense of place during our childhood. That place is usually the community represented by our hometown. So, our sense of place is colored by childhood memories and dreams. I know. I returned to my hometown after two dozen years away, served on its City Council and hoped to become the City’s mayor. A real place, however, is not a projection of childhood memories and dreams. The political community just beneath the surface of the place is something else again. The only way that one obtains a true “sense of place” is by working and living in a community for some years and getting involved with the public life of that community. Again, one should not romanticize “community,” even one’s hometown.


A real community is a set of real people rooted in a real place – people with struggles, hopes, ambitions, rivalries and the rest, in a community with customs, traditions, power centers, structure, hierarchy, problems and possibilities.[51] The ability to serve a community in a public office depends on much more than willingness even though willingness depends on ability. Many people are reluctant to get involved because they think they lack ability, but they lack ability because they have not been involved. This is a Catch 22. The way to break it is to act like a swimmer facing the North Atlantic in June – jump in! Start dog paddling with other amateurs. Next season you might be able to swim with the sharks.


We have seen how too much or unselectively watching TV takes significant time and energy away from participation in the political life of a community. Given the connection between “willing” and “able,” therefore, TV also detracts from peoples’ ability to serve. You can’t develop adequate political skills without being involved in politics, even though some political skills can be picked up on the job or as an active member of a church or other community-based organizations.[52] But TV watching is a source of distraction and displacement from being actively enough involved to acquire political skills through any sort of organization. TV watchers are consumers of images of the lives of others. They can indulge their consumption at no direct cost to themselves as they are subjected to advertisements from corporations trying to sell them other ways to indulge their consumption desires. Even selective viewers are consumers. Rather than be even a micro-maker of history, you can be a consumer of history on the History Channel. Rather than making discoveries of your own powers to change things together with others by participating in public life, you can be a consumer of discoveries – on the Discovery Channel.


But it is not consumers but producers who build community. Displacement and distraction from community serve to undermine community. With some notable exceptions, electronic media tend to diminish people’s ability to relate to the place where they live as part of a community of shared problems and possibilities.[53] This is also a problem for TV producers as well as viewers. Keith Connors, News Director of WCNC, Charlotte, NC, observed: “As much as I’ve moved in this business, nothing seems like home anymore…It all seems like an assignment.”[54]


One might risk generalizing here a bit by also referring to communities of character and truth.[55] The “greatest generation” was raised in place-based communities of character that were not infected by TV. Will the younger generation escape the media’s influence enough to try to rebuild such communities? We adults tend to lavish hopes on the younger generation, praying that they will pick up a torch that we have dropped and run with it. And so, Bill McKibben, quoted earlier, also…


“urged students to find pleasure as members of a community, not consumers, adding that no one on their deathbed wishes they had watched more television or made more trips to the mall.”[56]


Even the “sense of place” is further diminished by media technologies that have no place reference or significance at all (more on this when we turn to the medium of the Internet). Electronic media news coverage focuses on state and national events. Even local papers are increasingly filled with “AP” (Associated Press) or other distant feeds, relative to the amount of local news. There have been some fine examples of investigative journalism nationally, as seen on “60 Minutes,” for example, but fewer and fewer produced by local or even state-level media. If our “sense of” is to mean something more than nostalgia or fond hopes; if, in fact, people living in a place are to learn something of how a community works, then more rather than less local investigative journalism is needed – plus, one might add, more participation in the politics of the place.


There also needs to be greater sensitivity on the part of local boards and commissions as to how developments that they can influence have been undermining community by diminishing the supply of public space that democracy needs to function, as well as in other ways. The most obvious example is the development of a shopping mall that can legitimately be viewed as a “public place” because that is where large numbers of people congregate. Private owners, however, have succeeded in preventing the distribution of leaflets or other political activities on mall premises. Local planning and zoning boards need to attend to such detrimental impacts on public life in their community as well as to their likely negative impact on local shops.[57]


More of what is called “public journalism” is needed, too. For a community is more than a set of shared feelings. It is also a matter of public information and, based on this, of shared understandings of how public things (res publica, the latin root of republic) work or don’t work in a community. A more public journalism is based upon the truthful, forthright recognition of the fact of media power in any community, and the implications of that power – not the dishonest use of media outlets as expressions of the private political preferences of editors and publishers while pretending to operate in the public interest.


Public journalistic media intervene in communities in order to help rebuild a civic culture. They not only provide valuable informational reporting on issues of major concern in communities; they sponsor public forums on the issues and urge people to participate in a process of confronting, debating and resolving differences over issues and thereby “coming to public judgement.”[58] Public journalism recognizes that the task of rebuilding the American political community is a two-way street, perhaps even a partnership, between citizens and the media. The foundation for this relationship is “a common interest in common affairs.” It “depends on the people’s willingness to attend to current (and longer-term) issues, (to) take responsibility for public things…” Then the media can:


“fortify the public trust that comes with the special privileges granted by the First Amendment…to strengthen…America’s civic culture, by which we mean the forces that bind people to their communities, draw them into politics…and cause them to see “the system” as theirs…”[59]


Can these great goals be achieved? Some good local examples show that they can. These examples include newspapers and communities in Wichita, Charlotte, Portland and Minneapolis.        


The importance of people’s re-engagement at the community level in ways that include direct, face-to-face, person-to-person (“P2P”) interactions over “res publica” is highlighted by an awareness of how political power, increasingly, is being generated and exercised. Ironically, this is occurring at the “community” level even while the virtues of the traditional American community are being undermined by the media except through the “unreality” of nostalgia, fantasy or myth.[60] Political power is increasingly gestated and applied in and through “communities” whose only effective place referent is Washington, D.C. or a state capitol. Consider the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate or state legislatures. These become effective communities in basically the same ways that other communities are created – through the face-to-face, P2P interactions of people in proximity with some shared concerns. The fact that voters often refer to these groupings as “clubs” is a grudging recognition of their effectiveness as communities. You may hear someone say, for example, something like: ‘that Congressman Jones, we elected him to represent us and then he got to Washington and joined the club.’


Now turn to the much maligned “interest group.” This is a type of community, too, but one that is even less place-based and more divided into parts than legislatures. Nevertheless, it is an increasingly powerful type of “community.” The power of the group is increasingly exercised by a small, close-knit set of activists and professionals (the group’s core, who may be co-located in a place) who are supported by members and/or financial contributors who share the groups “interest,” whatever that may be. Of one thing you can be sure, no matter how worthy the group’s interest (goal, issue, belief, etc.) may be, it is not the public interest but, at best, a part of that broad category referred to as “private interest(s).”


You may question the use of “community” to denote “interest group,” but few would question the observation that interest groups wield increasing power along with the legislative “clubs” that the groups lobby. Their power derives from their organization as a community of individuals determined to make a difference in a certain direction. By themselves, the individuals involved would be powerless except in very rare (“Erin Brockovich”) instances.[61] Yet, the exercise of the groups’ power in Congressional committee hearings,, occurs on a small group basis. Congressional power itself is exercised substantially on a small group basis in committees.


The antidote to the growing influence of interest groups is not more interest groups but groups of citizens actively involved in the politics of place-based communities where citizen participation in public affairs provides some real sense, not only of the value of “community” and “place” but of what “public interest” can really mean -- because people have worked to recognize what “it” is or can be by “coming to public judgement.” Following the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt, Dan Kemmis directly connects “place” and “public” via the metaphor of a table at which people are sitting:


“To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it…”[62]


 The root of our political problem, Kemmis writes, is the “vanishing table,” the “res” in “res publica.”[63] The sense of place is the thing (res) that has been diminishing to the point that “the public” (publica: public interest, public things, &c) has been diminishing, too. To be a public, we need a place for which we care and to which we can repair, to talk, debate, deliberate and reach “public judgement.” Instead, as Kemmis remarks as if commenting on fast food indigestion:


“Public life as we all too often experience it now is very much like a Big Mac – it can be replicated in exactly the same form, anywhere…placeless “food” consumed under placeless yellow “landmarks,” weakens both our sense of food and of place, so too does the general placelessness of our political thought…”[64]


Kemmis’ aim resonates with that of this book. He writes of rebuilding a “political culture” that is unmistakably grassroots – grounded in locality and community. He refers to the preamble to Montana’s state constitution as indicating “that the political culture of a place is not something apart from the place itself.” What is a place that counts as a community? Here, he justifiably turns to the eloquence of another author, Wendell Berry. It is where “all who are living as neighbors…are part of one another, and so cannot possible flourish alone…”[65]


There is a paradox here that should be confronted along with others. It is a paradox along several overlapping dimensions, such as:


1.      Place…non-place

2.      Close…distant

3.      Organization…non-organization

4.      Voters…citizens

5.      Consumer…producer

6.      Affective…effective       


An effective political community has features that:


1.      place it, strategically, somewhere along the line of each of these paradoxical dimensions and that…

2.      its defining strategy is designed to “make a difference” to and for the community by acquiring and applying power through a political process.


The first placement is that of “place.” Any community needs a place where political activity, power and influence can be exercised and where participants can see, close up and meaningfully, how they can “make a difference.” This is why we pointed to the “diminishing…supply of public space,” earlier. BUT, there also need to be non-place features, even in places where several generations have grown up. A small town with a tight network of community relationships can generate conflict as well as consensus. The late, great city planner Lewis Mumford once wrote: “When people share the same environment, they often see more differences among themselves.” Meyrowitz notes that the introduction of print media 500 years ago served to “distance people from sound, touch and direct response (and give them a) break from total reliance on oral communication.”[66]


These days, people say they need “space.” Sometimes, they have to ask others to “get out of my face.” Indeed, everyone needs some effective distance as well as closeness to others. This is the second placement. How close or distant we choose to be from others will vary, person by person. Among these will be people who we will want to count among our strategic allies, not necessarily among friends or relations. Some of these will be “non-place,” living or working in locations other than “our place,” or otherwise located some effective distance from us (social, financial, political, 


To be effective, politically, we need both organization and non-organization in our community. The lack of organization on behalf of “community” is one reason why this feature of our national life is disappearing except for its honorable mention in commencement speeches. What voice does the community of Merrimac, Massachusetts, have in the state legislature, for example? None qua community, even though the Chairman of the Board of Selectman may be able to get the State Representative representing Merrimac (among others) to introduce a “home rule” petition regarding some specific issue. Merrimac is better organized administratively to manage its self-governing polity internally.


Even in this respect, however, it’s not well organized politically. Local political party committees in the town are in limbo. The Town has trouble getting quorums for Town Meeting(s) because there’s hardly anyone out “beating the bushes” for people to come, and most voters don’t recognize that attendance at Town Meeting is their responsibility as citizens.[67] By contrast, some municipalities are over-organized. Town or city politics may be dominated by one party, one interest group, one industry or one local newspaper. Any community needs some degree of dis-organization to make room for effective dissent, innovation, “new blood” and the like.


So we’ve already reached dimension #4: “Voters…Citizens.” Citizens of a federal republic have a responsibility to do more than just vote. That doesn’t mean that we all have to be “activists” or “political junkies” or heavily “involved” or “participating” most of the time or even frequently – just that we all recognize that we have some (shared) responsibility that we fulfill when, if and as we can. Voting and other activities of citizenship go together. It’s hard to make your vote count if you don’t have good choices and it’s even harder to get good choices to vote for if there aren’t more than the “usual suspects” involved in the process that determines what those choices might be. Every adult American needs to ask where he or she stands along the “Voter…Citizen” dimension and then, like a politician, ask not only “where” but “when”, “how” and (with) “who(m)”? Unfortunately, the local media as they typically operate will not help you in this.


In terms of the fifth dimension, most of us may have to say “beam me up, Scotty,” because, politically, we are consumers, not producers. But, as the public journalists say, if we want to “take our (political) system back” or “make it ours,” we will have to start acting as “producers,” not just as consumers of whatever the media and the political class throw out at us. We will also have to be more selective as consumers of media offerings and political fare. Unless you are in one of the cities already tuned into public journalism, your local media will not help you here, either. You will not be informed as to where to go or whom to call to get involved, politically.


Now we can be more specific as to what the question mark denotes in the title of this sector. Whether or not the media are partly responsible for “destroying community” as some have claimed, we can recognize the ways that they are undermining community directly or indirectly, by design or default. More specifically, we have seen how the media undermine politics at all levels, but especially at the local or community level, while doing nothing to promote or assist the building of a political community at any level. Those media that have adopted the philosophy of public journalism provide some exceptions, but they are few and their numbers are unlikely to increase without considerable public pressure.  


Digital Democracy


“The Internet will save democracy. Or so the early 1990’s technohype led many to believe. With each new communications medium comes a wide-eyed view of its potential. I’d like to suggest that, just as television saved democracy, so will the Internet.”[68]



I first got acquainted with the wonderful potential of the new electronic media based upon fast, broad bandwidth technology through my subscription to WIRED magazine and a round of correspondence with one of its writers, Jon Katz. Jon thought he had seen the emergence of a “new political sensibility” in “Cyberspace.” The magazine referred to the bearers of this sensibility as “netizens.” Then WIRED teamed up with the Merrill Lynch Forum to sponsor a survey in 1997. The December, 1997, issue featuring the survey results showed Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom of Speech” on the cover. The central figure in the painting is that of an American workman standing up to speak his piece at a town meeting.[69] If there is a single motif for American democracy this is it. But does the figure of then -- one of the “greatest generation” participating in a public meeting – bear any resemblance to the figure of now, a “netizen”?


The WIRED survey data, viewed in light of the more complete and trend-wise data compiled and analyzed by Putnam, suggest that the answer to the above question is NO. The American workingman is highly unlikely to be seen in the foreground of such a scene today. Also, the typical “netizen” is not a workingman but a “super-connected” or well-“connected” upper middle class professional. Here, “Connected” is akin to “wired.”[70]  Less than half of those connected through the “Net thought that “who you know” is more important to getting ahead than “what you know.”  Perhaps they took their better connections for granted. The “connected” set closely overlaps those who are better educated, with better jobs and higher incomes than the “unconnected.” These are the ones more likely to vote, to be “participatory” (though neither the survey nor Katz specify what this involves), to know the name of their Congressman, etc. It is not surprising they are more likely to own a PC and otherwise be tuned in, technologically.


The WIRED crowd reacted as if this group of wired clientele had just been discovered and, moreover, as if the same crowd was thought to  be “alienated” from the political system. Of course, as the Verba, study, could have told them if they had crawled out of their techno-bubble long enough to look before commissioning their own survey:

·                     “Digital Citizens are not alienated…”

·                     “the online world encompasses many of the most informed and participatory (?!) citizens…” 


Unfortunately, the WIRED survey did nothing to negate the gnawing anxiety that Putnam’s BOWLING ALONE thesis might be right – that both the connected and the unconnected might be equally “alienated” from direct political involvement with others.[71] The question of whether the new digital media enabled such participation or rather presaged a “participatory” oxymoron -- of being involved by “surfing” alone at one’s PC keyboard – this question was not addressed. Being involved as a political volunteer with others was not included among the “participatory” options in the survey questionnaire.


Swept along by the wave of an “electronic outpouring” over the WIRED survey results, Katz asked: “Can we build a new kind of politics?…Or are we nothing more than a great, wired babble pissing into the digital wind.”[72] Five years later, it appears that the answers to these key questions are, respectively, NO (at least not thusfar) and SOMEWHAT. (there’s a lot of babble and some pissing). The high tech political enthusiasm that Jon and many others felt at the dawn of the digital age now seems naïve and exaggerated. Little of the promise has been realized.


Is there more democratic promise to be fulfilled in our wired society? The TV news media seem to think so, as they solicit viewer e-mails in response to questions they broadcast in response to the news of the day. This is a variation on “instant polling.” Those few whose e-mails are broadcast may feel empowered. What about the rest of us?; or even the chosen few. Does their brief moment in the TV sun amount to citizens’ influence on decisions being made by few others far away? Or is it more like a lesser version of the brief moment of glory felt by those exposing themselves on “reality TV” that has little to do with reality? 


Another term in the new digital technology dictionary that is a contradiction in terms when used in conjunction with “citizen” is “dis-intermediation.” This term connotes one of the most profound impacts of the Internet – the ability of people to use the World Wide Web (WWW) to go right to the source – of products, services, information…you name it – and bypass the usual intermediaries, such as travel agents, banks, retail stores or, in the case of  public life – political parties. But in political terms, dis-intermediation means dis-organize and thereby, dis-empower -- unless, of course, as an article of faith, one believes, as many “digital democracy” advocates apparently do, that the new technologies will enable a libertarian electronic fulfillment of Jeffersonian democracy (more on this further on). We have nothing to lose but our high tech toys! The individual American, “superconnected” via his keyboard, cell phone or Palm pilot, will have as much power to shape our collective future as the K Street lobbyist backed by an industry trade association!




Technology is a tool; indeed, it helps to think about digital technology as providing a set of power tools like those some of us have in our basement workshops, kitchens and garages. We use our tools to do things that we want to do or that need doing – to develop, make or create; communicate, inform, influence, repair or renovate, sell or trade, travel, improve our health, etc. Digital technology is like a small power tool, only with potential far greater than “small.” Our purchase of it is the result of an individual choice but our ability to use it depends on affordable access to a network whose existence, affordability and capacity is far from being the result of individual choice. We overlook the latter because we now take access to electrical power for granted. People in the U.S. did not always do so.[73] The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) during the New Deal was a big deal. So was Lyndon Johnson’s stint as REA Director, long before he became a U.S. Senator and President. Ask old Texans and others who grew up in rural counties what difference electrification made to them. 


The power tool analogy is a good one because it helps us to make some basic distinctions as well as to focus on “power.” Digital technology is not the same as TV. A power tool is an active technology; i.e., it requires at least some amount of continuous, active concentration and skill by its user. As we noted earlier, TV is a relatively passive medium. Until interactive television becomes a widespread reality, TV cannot be properly viewed as a “tool” even though, for some how-to programs, there may be some tool-like acquisition features in the viewing. Other analogous features? – speed, selection (choice of technology) and individuality in  use as well as choice. You may have a ¼” or 1/3”power drill but there is no question that you can get the drilling job done at a higher speed than with a hand drill. Analogous digital technology speed has already led to similarly obvious contrasts; e.g., e-mail relative to “snail mail.”


Perhaps the single most important feature from both business and political standpoints, however, is that of individualism or individuality in the selection and use of the new digital technology. The use we make of the new tools is up to us. There are no prescribed adoptions, roles or functions to follow. Keep this point in mind, for the prophesiers, pundits, futurists and other salesmen among us are putting out all kinds of nostrums that may suggest otherwise. Some seem positively Lincolnesque – that the new technologies may provide “a new birth of freedom.” Perhaps, but not necessarily if used as AoL/Time Warner, NBC or CBS would have you use them. The choice is yours.


 The choice and use of technology always involves pros and cons. The main “pro” is that some important tasks can be done much faster,[74] although this is a mixed blessing. Some chalk it up as a “con,” especially with regard to the political impact of the media. Intense media competition during the Y2K election – the need to “call it” first, for example, contributed to the Florida election mess, whose consequences have been amply examined elsewhere. The most important adverse impact, however, arises from the other side of the new technologies “individualistic” coin. Narrowly private decisions about the use of a new technology that has wider, public impacts may carry consequences adverse to a democratic republic. Some even label this, following colleagues in the environmental movement, “the tragedy of the (digital) commons.” This is such a serious concern, let’s return to it later in this chapter when we can pay it more attention.


Uses, Users and Utilization


We all more or less familiar with the uses of digital technology but it may help to classify and lay them all together for easier review. From the standpoint of prospects for “digital democracy,” it’s also important to see how the technology is being used by various types of users. Will the uses enhance the already dominant political powers of the “powers that be” or give the rest of us chances to play more effective roles in public life?


There are two major uses of the Internet -- to:


1.                  Get information, and to

2.                  Send and receive e-mail.


They overlap, as anyone who has received files attached to an e-mail can attest. The files add to the information value of what’s in the e-mail itself. Why is information important? -- mainly to find out what’s happening in some larger world. This is one reason why web pages set up by major news channels have become increasingly popular sites on the Internet. But what’s the point of knowing more than we did before we opened a web page, e-mail, newspaper, book or magazine? Does the information have a use? Is information power, or is it a stretch to go from information to knowledge to action?


Questions of “why” and “what for” may seem obvious, even trite, but they become increasingly important as we move to assess the real potential of “digital democracy.” Moving from information to knowledge is indeed “a stretch.” The challenge starts with a choice of a “search engine.” You enter a word or phrase, click on “go” and the typical general purpose, pre-packaged search engine like that built into systems by Microsoft or AoL will spit out a minimum of dozens of references, sometimes hundreds or thousands. You thought finding needles in haystacks was an old problem?


Let’s say you narrow down the list to a dozen items. So you print them out. Anyone got time to read? What about analyze? Digest? Notate? Synthesize? Draw conclusions? Then to do what? Write a letter to the editor of your local paper? Good idea, as long as your thinking doesn’t run against the grain of the paper’s bias. Write to your Congressman. Try it but don’t hold your breath for any but a form response, maybe not even that. So let’s ask again: What’s the point? Just to sound well-informed in a group of others indulging in cocktail party chatter? The two problems we’ve identified thusfar seem curiously similar to those that afflict political participation: time and efficacy. Who has the time to run a gauntlet with an uncertain result at the end of the line? How effective might any investment of time prove to be? Remember Mike Lynch’s remarks in Chapter 4?


Those promoting a more “deliberative” democracy need to ask: If democracy can’t be deliberative without more knowledge of public issues among more people, and the Internet doesn’t make it any easier for people to be knowledgeable, what are the consequences? One dire forecast makes “digital divide” look like a dividend – that our society could break up into two cultures, one a group of wired “netizens” like those touted by Katz; another, a group of couch potatoes that will be satisfied with political pablum fed by major networks that dominate both TV and ‘Net channels under conglomerate ownerships. Guess who’s left out of the political picture in this scenario? Most likely; you are and, as a “cyber-citizen,” perhaps even more so. Note that using the ‘Net as a consumer to buy things wasn’t highlighted earlier as a “major use,” because it hadn’t yet become so. But now it’s become so, and the commercial/advertising/ purchasing functions of the medium may come to crowd out its still undeveloped potential as a people’s political tool.


The late, great Christopher Lasch had it right here as well as on “narcissism” and “elites:” “Information” and “deliberation” have little practical value in the absence of political debate. “What democracy requires is public debate, not information,” he wrote, just before he died in 1994. Why? Because of the old maxim: “If you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll never find the right answers.” Lasch continued: “we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our ideas…to the test of public controversy.” In other words, “information” of real value to real people dealing with real issues in the real world is partly the result of debate, not some abstraction of academic value prior to or apart from debate. And what kind of “debate”? – P2P or face-to-face, where people face each other across aisles, tables or rooms. Not faceless, often anonymous interchanges over the Internet. Lasch lamented the loss of political debate starting about 100 years ago – healthy, vigorous debate aided and abetted by journalists. He noted:


“It’s no accident that journalism of this kind flourished during the period from 1830 to 1900, when popular participation in politics was at its height. Eighty percent (80%!) of the eligible voters typically went to the polls in presidential elections. After 1900, the percentage declined sharply…”[75]


What about e-mail? Here’s something we can all do in small doses. As a way of communicating with friends, relatives, colleagues, anyone, it’s a lot more quick and convenient than “snail mail.” It’s tit for tat, send and receive. No response? Not to worry; there’s always Aunt Helen. And if you get additional information, attached, it’s probably something you requested or something that somebody has some reason to believe you might want.[76] The beauty of e-mail is that it’s something that each of us can do, enjoyably, in the limited time that we have at odd hours, to sign on, send and receive. It’s also a much more effective political tool than “information,” as we’ll see.


The Internet and Political Organization


After all, “organization” is key to politics in a variety of forms – political party committees, campaign organizations, government, Information is a product of organization rather than vice-versa. E-mail is more likely to be a tool of organization than a conveyor of substantial information. The Internet, therefore, is potentially more important as a facilitator of political organization than as a provider of information. This potential is already apparent. Recall Ingrid Reed’s remark (in Chapter 4) on how the ‘Net served as an organizing tool to those in the Princeton (NJ) area who were concerned about the imposition of state highway plans. Scan the Appendix on political ‘net resources and notice how the organization of many political groups around all kinds of causes and concerns has coalesced through the Internet. Much of this organization has begun by way of an e-mail two-step:


(1)   identification of a core group of people with shared concerns through searches of political web sites and early e-mail exchanges; and…

(2)   construction of a group e-mail list, perhaps followed by use of a “list-server,” to enable intra-group communications and continued organizing around issues, events, ideas and political positions.    


Steve Clift, founder of the single best digital e-democracy website on the Internet, confirms the effectiveness of e-mail:


“Almost by accident, we discovered that the most valuable thing Minnesota E-Democracy created in 1994 was the MN-POLITICS….e-mail discussion forum – our online public commons (which) quickly became a part of real politics in Minnesota.”[77]


In 2001, Clift noted: “This is pretty amazing. The new Prime Minister of Japan, <>, recently launched an e-mail newsletter and it already has 1,000,000 members.”[78] 


The downside of the Internet as a tool of “organization” is also apparent, perhaps even above. It has been the subject of increasing attention, especially since the publication of Cass Sunstein’s book It’s interesting to note, in fact, how the attempts of “ordinary” individual Americans to empower themselves even a little bit through the Internet should earn critical comments in major media outlets. The danger of the downside was apparent long before Sunstein’s book was released in the early Spring of 2001. The danger is that of fragmentation – a citizenry increasingly divided into a multiplicity of non-interacting, uncompromising groups as individuals identify like-minded others via the ‘Net. Anyone using the ‘Net for political purposes has seen this happening. Whether via “UseNet,” Yahoo “e-groups,” AoL groups or whomever, group-wise citizen “organization” has multiplied over the Internet, but there’s very little interaction among the various groups. It’s become like a paraphrase of an old Kingston Trio song: ‘The English hate the Irish and the Irish hate the Dutch, and I only like those who sing my song’ (originally: “I don’t like anybody very much,” which is largely still true if we insert “politicians” for “body”).


The word “hate” here may be too strong, but it does suggest the kind of coverage that the media have given to people’s attempts to come together over shared concerns via the ‘Net outside of established channels. These attempts are viewed as catalysts for extremism. A recent headline is illustrative: “Adding Up the Costs of Cyberdemocracy: Experts Worry That the Web Encourages Extremism.”[79] There is no question that many hate groups have found the Internet to provide convenient, low-cost ways to identify hateful others. But to play on this feature? One wonders what the so-called “experts” have to lose.


The real danger is the continuing loss, aggravated by the Internet, of the sort of genuine “public” that is so crucial to the health of American democracy – citizens who pay attention to public issues, debate them in order to arrive at informed compromises or common ground and then find ways to act together on the issues that most concern them. Media leaders would do well to consider how they can counter this danger rather than contributing to it – by promoting cross-group Internet interaction rather than casting a negative pall over citizens’ self-organizing efforts to come together over shared concerns. As one commentator noted: “The point is not which party is more extreme, but how the media characterizes the parties’ respective positions.”[80]  


There’s damn little “cross-group Internet interaction,” as Sunstein lamented at length.[81]

That is one major reason that Steven Clift has been fostering “a simple concept” that he calls the “Public Internet.” In his own words:


“the private sector, government, non-profits, educational institutions, and others need to work together to develop and apply the Internet in public interest ways that none of them can do on their own. Unfortunately, we are constrained by our notion of public broadcasting as an alternative channel or that government alone is responsible to solve public problems. We have a hard time seeing that a new model – only possible because of the Internet – is emerging.”[82]


The organizational arrangement implied here is hardly “simple.” Thus, it is no surprise that it has not yet emerged front and center through the unadulterated dynamics of the Internet. If the ‘Net is to facilitate political participation, especially at the local level, a good deal of public-spirited leadership, including political and governmental, will be required to effect new, creative public/private collaborations. Instead of citizens’ leadership to foster e-democracy, however, we see “e-government” being promoted by private, for-profit Internet software and systems’ vendors. This enables you to “participate” in public hearings without showing up at city hall or a legislative chamber. It doesn’t help you to organize others so that, altogether, you can make a far more significant difference. 


A simpler “e-“model, albeit one that requires substantial volunteer effort to get underway and work well, has been demonstrated by another fellow from Minnesota, Tim Erickson, via e-mail “Politalk” issue forums that facilitate one essential element of a democratic process – deliberation.[83] These have taken place on a variety of issues, both state and national, via “e-groups” that are now accessible through Yahoo. The issues thereby debated have all been important, including campaign finance reform, globalization, transportation and war with Iraq. What’s most important to note here, however, in light of Sunstein’s criticisms, is that the forums have enabled a diverse set of opinions to be represented. They have avoided the “flaming,” ideological fixations and personality colorings that have afflicted other e-mail interchanges.


What have been key features of Politalk that have enabled the forums to work well? –


q       Recruitment of a cross section of resource people who initially post background information on the issue at hand, including government officials, experts and legislators. These “resource people” also participate in e-mail exchanges as the forum proceeds.[84]


q       The care and attention of a good moderator who sets ground rules, distills debate interactions daily and archives the proceedings for retrieval later by a wide variety of others, including elected officials.


Two questions remain, however, that need to be addressed by any evaluation of this “model”:


1.      Among those participating, how many minds have been changed to any degree as a result of interactions with others with different points of view on the issue(s)?


2.      Have the forums influenced anyone in a position to act on the issue(s); i.e., have any influences on government policy, program or legislation been apparent as a result?


As we have seen, expectations of the latter influence the likelihood of people participating in political forums of any sort.


The possibility that the Internet could empower us has inspired “e-democracy” guide- books to help citizens realize the possibility. These include:


Ø      CYBERCITIZEN: How to Use Your Computer to Fight for All the Issues You Care About; and

Ø      MODEM NATION: The Handbook of Grassroots Activism Online.[85]


Both of these are marked by their orientation to issues activism and to enabling readers to use the Internet to communicate with the “powers that be,“ including established media  (“e-government”), rather than to enabling Internet users to politically self-organize or participate in partisan, electoral politics in order to help make a difference across a set of issues (“e-democracy).


Political Campaigns


Candidates’ campaigns are another form of political organization that, increasingly, is finding form and expression over the Internet. Website designers have entered the stable of political consultants as other consultants have told candidates that having their own campaign website is a sine qua non of a political campaign in this “high tech” day and age. There is even now, as in other areas of media accomplishment, a set of annual awards for the best political websites. What are they called? “Webby” awards, of course.


The McCain and Bradley Y2K campaigns for President did a lot to establish campaign website development as a trend. McCain raised over two million dollars via the Internet during the salad days of his primary campaign in New Hampshire (NH). Bradley raised thousands of volunteers through the ‘Net from all over the country. I can speak to this from experience since I was a volunteer working for Bradley in NH. In one city, I was teamed with a volunteer from Virginia to go door-to-door during a cold February weekend. He had found the Bradley campaign through the Internet, and he questioned whether he and other volunteers from out of state would have been located and induced to volunteer in NH without ‘Internet interactions via campaign websites.[86] A good feature of both the McCain and Bradley campaign websites was also their self-organizing features – encouraging people who signed on and decided they liked the candidate to help identify and organize others, friends and neighbors, via e-mail. 


For the sake of the perspective that can only be provided by a real person, a non-digital, non-virtual sidelight on my volunteer partner in NH should be inserted here. He was Bob Smith, from Alexandria, Virginia. He had been involved in local politics. He had led a fight to keep his kids’ high school open. So he ran for School Board. Neighbors didn’t talk to him for months afterwards. He agrees with what we found in Chapter 4 – that local political party committees have atrophied -- so it’s unlikely that he would have gotten involved in the Bradley campaign via that route. He also observed that people don’t understand or appreciate what it takes to be a “public servant.”


Political Parties


Political parties have found homes in the Internet, too, at all levels from ward to national. It’s interesting to note that, as between the two major parties, the Republicans have most aggressively exploited the ‘Web and ‘Net at all levels. We saw this earlier at the local level in the survey results reviewed in Chapter 5. The power of the Internet in helping to communicate, inform and mobilize citizens with shared concerns has been amply demonstrated by all parties, including the Green and Libertarian parties among the non-majors. From the standpoint of “place” and “community,” it’s important to recognize that the power of the tool can be as great at the local level as at higher levels. Some good model local websites are cited in the political website resources’ Appendix.


The dependence on other media also needs to be noted. Websites cannot be viewed as stand-alone entities. Their viability depends on two factors – their linkages and how many people know to go there. The last is first. Websites need to be advertised widely in other, “old economy” media for people to know that they even exist. McCain knew that. Every one of his campaign posters, signs, palm cards, brochures and letters; that is, all the traditional campaign items, included his campaign’s web address.[87] Why did commercial websites spend millions of dollars on advertising during Super Bowl 2000? The post-mortem cynics would say: so that they could use up their financing and go out of business. The fact of the matter is that if you don’t advertise or otherwise “get the word out” that your site exists, very few will know to visit it.


The main “otherwise” is linkages. Other, related political sites need to include references to yours to bring people to your site who are likely to share your concerns. So, for example, state political party committee websites like those referenced in the Appendix directory to Internet political sites usually contain references to local political committee websites, other politically relevant sites, or relevant e-mail addresses. Linkages are so important that internet services’ providers (ISP’s), website designers and search engine managers are charging extra in order to place customers’ websites near the top of lists that search engines would generate for those searching for sites with certain qualities.


Electronic Government


A third major organizational form implicated by the notion of digital democracy is “e-Gov” – electronic government. This is the topic of frequent articles in the business press as digital “systems integrators” and a flock of e-business others seek to sell their products and services to governments at all levels.[88] What does this have to do with political participation? Perhaps something. The negativity of people’s attitudes towards government – a factor in their non-participation – is partly attributed to the shortcomings of government as well as those of politics and politicians. These include lack of government responsiveness, inadequacies of various government services, poor channels for citizens’ input into governmental decisions and other factors that advocates of e-Gov say that their systems would remedy.


So, for example, some local governments have set up public information kiosks with keyboards and screens to enable citizens readily to find information and services from government agencies without having to go to City Hall to get them. Others are taking steps to electronically enhance local democracy by enabling e-mail interactions among and between citizens and government officials, including on-line, real-time debates over issues. As e-Gov initiatives take root and systems are improved, however, researchers would need to address two key questions:


1.      Will improved government access, enhanced citizen input and better services help to offset people’s political apathy and cynicism?, or…


2.      Might e-Gov further reduce political participation to the extent that it enhances government’s ability to “do its job” without increased citizens’ participation, as if government had been put on automatic pilot via new technology?


One student of e-gov titled an article “E-Government vs. E-Democracy (emphasis mine), observing that: “Encouraging e-democracy is less desirable to elected officials (because) E-democracy uses information technology to make (them) more accountable to the public.”[89] Thus, which one is going to be encouraged and the other, discouraged?


Direct Democracy / Digital?


The major use that the advocates of digital democracy see for the new technology is realization of the Jeffersonian dream of “direct democracy.” Ironically, this dream is closely related to the use of polling, which has been the target of complaints from many of those most concerned with the health of American democracy. Superficially, the dream of an electronic direct democracy seems attractive, including:


·        Issues to be decided by citizens directly through electronic voting and instant tallies (polling), and so there would be…

·        Internet “disintermediation” – no need for political parties, pundits, editorialists, representative or other intermediaries standing between citizens and the making of decisions that affect their lives.


Instant polls seem to provide a starting model. We now see them frequently on the Internet, via AoL, CNN, Yahoo, interest groups and others. Some of these provide input so interest groups can deluge legislators with messages such as “Two-thirds of people polled say they favor ‘x’ or oppose ‘y’.” For example, on May 8, 2000, CNN put forth two questions to poll those tapping into its media:[90]


1.      “Do you think that India can succeed in reducing its population growth?”

2.      “Can a computer virus spread accidentally?”


Are such questions the prelude to making government policy on the basis of direct/digital democracy? Is this really imaginable, even in a “dream”? The factors inducing population growth in any country are many and their interrelations are complex. Would my uninformed YES or NO answer to question #1 mean anything at all? Or even to #2? The questions quoted above are only two examples but they are not untypical of many others. What’s the sense of asking such questions to get only yes or no answers?[91]


A company named “21st Century Faxes” also conducts such polls via fax, the results of which are posted at These polls also ask questions requiring only a “YES” or “NO” answer. This is OK for questions like: “Do you still want to receive your mail on Saturdays?,” the answers to which will be forwarded to the Postal Workers Union, General Accounting Office and Congress; but other questions, such as those mentioned above?[92]


So we again face a question that we confronted earlier with a high tech twist: Except for decisions that can be made on the basis of simple yes or no answers, can electronically mediated direct democracy replace representative government? The answer, again, is clearly: NO. The digital direct democracy dream is an illusion. We can’t get most voters to come out for Town Meeting or to cast an unspoiled ballot for President, and yet we expect them to take the time and effort to think about the U.S. stance towards population policy in India?[93] Some matters are properly left to representatives for final decision.


The most important digital democracy question is whether our representatives will use the new media technologies to enhance their ability to provide both representation and leadership for “constituents” -- a.k.a. concerned public citizens with an ability to play a greater role than that of just “customers” of whatever “representatives” care to provide. Will they use digital technologies to better effect more and better outreach to people, to engage them in the political process? -- Or to tap into both individual and collective intelligence residing in the public at-large in a process of co-deliberation and co-determination on issues?[94]  In other words, will elected “representatives” work to make our democracy more “direct” by reducing the effective distance that people feel from both the political process and the people elected to advance it? Who would lay odds on a ‘yes’ answer to any of these questions?


So the key factor affecting the political process that the new technologies can alter is “distance,” a factor that we touched in the section on “community.” And the corollary key question is: Alter for the better? Our earlier focus on “place” was not misguided, for it is at the community level in a real (i.e., not a digital-virtual) place that people can “make a difference,” see the fruits and realize appreciations for their efforts. So, in addressing the “corollary key question,” we need to confront the fact that the digital tools provided to us by the new technologies are double-edged swords. On the one hand, they can help us to be more politically effective wherever we are, in any real place. On the other hand, they know not “place;”they are place-less. In fact, as many students of the media have pointed out, they blur, undermine or erase boundaries; they consummate people’s leaning towards the “non-place urban realm.”[95]


The dangers of this trend are suggested by the following quotes:


§         “Nothing can be further from the new technology than “a place for everything and everything in its place.”” (Marshall McLuhan)

§         “Our world may seem suddenly senseless to many people because…it is relatively placeless.”[96] 

§         “As place and information access become disconnected (via the new information technologies), place-specific behaviors and activities begin to fade…so now do many live relationships take on an ephemeral and sporadic quality.” (Meyrowitz, op.cit., p.148)

§         “direct physical presence and mutual monitoring are still primary experiential modes.” (Meyrowitz, op.cit., p.312)        


It’s important here to recognize that “distance” means more than mileage; i.e., distance has more dimensions than just geographic ones. So we need a broader notion of distance; call it “effective distance.” There’s social distance – if someone’s not part of your social, cultural, ethnic or other group, they may as well be on the dark side of the moon. There’s psychological distance. If you’ve had a falling out with a former friend, then the effective distance between you and that person is infinite, even he or she lives next door. There’s intra-family closeness (the inverse of “distance”), as in the old saying “blood is thicker than water.” So, from now on, when you see the word “distance,” realize that we’re looking at something with more than one dimension.


Digital media are a plus from the standpoint of effective distance because they reduce it – between people, places, groups and otherwise. The “non-place” aspect of digital democracy is hardly all bad. Even TV. We see, or we can interact with, all kinds of people reflecting situations, interests or concerns that we would not otherwise encounter. We are brought into visual, informational or e-mail contact with people in vastly different places all over the world, so our horizons are broadened, virtually on a daily basis. TV, for example, has told us the story of the “Lost Boys of the Sudan” and how they have adapted to life in communities very foreign to them (as they are to us), like some in North Dakota. “60 Minutes” has brought to our attention the plight of abandoned children in Romania. We can then follow up at websites to see whether there’s anything we can do in response to these situations.


There are countless other examples of how digital media break down boundaries between here and there, public and private, leaders and led, and our place in the world and that of others.  This digital process of “breakdown” is not an unmixed blessing, but it is necessary and OK. There are still many more artificial walls to be taken down between people, groups and places.[97] Meyrowitz has pointed out that “to merge information worlds” (via digital media) is to “encourage egalitarian forms of interaction,” [98]a definite plus for digital democracy.


Guinness remarks how difficult it is to have a more truthful politics in the face of the fragmentation brought about by the “partitioning” and “compartmentalizing” of people and information. Ironically (since much of his book is critical of the media), he credits media coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. The media role in blurring the boundary between “public” and “private” in this case may have the salutary effect of raising the moral standard of public life. His remark that “there can be no liberty for a community that lacks the means to detect lies” implies a challenge to the media to play a greater, more positive, investigative, informational role in the future.


Like so much in this book, the role of the media is paradoxical. The digital media are simultaneously serving two opposing tendencies: to break down walls and link people up while creating new nodes of fragmentation. Again, the new technologies can serve to build community, including a larger, more inclusive sense of what “community” can mean, or it can help to destroy it as groups and individuals in cyberspace “do their own thing,” virtually and sometimes with virtuosity, but with little public virtue. The response to the negative tendencies is partly one of attitude: Treat the new technologies as tools that you can (or should) control and use (or be able to use) in ways that can improve your private, public and public/private lives. The only new walls that should be built are those “fire walls” that guarantee privacy under the Constitution. All others should be warped, blurred, broken down or eliminated. “The opening of closed situations is the reversal of a trend several hundred years old.” Thus the media’s influence could prove to be quite revolutionary.[99]




An old saying left over from the ‘60’s is that “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.” As someone who is, in part, a child of the ‘60’s, I have continued to swear by this saying even as others of my vintage would just as soon forget it. Anyway, a reference borrowed from that period is not out of place in a chapter on the media for, at one and the same time, the media are both a prime source of the problem of declining political participation our country and a prime source of any solution. Another reason reference to the period is not out of place is that the ‘60’s generation, as the first whose politics were largely shaped by and played to the media, is another source of our problem; i.e., a generation that we have to move beyond. Media/consumer politics needs to be supplanted by grassroots/producer politics.


Changing attitudes and behaviors is the key. Those derived from the ‘60’s are destructive of American democracy. Those demonstrated by “the greatest generation” are otherwise, and it is from these that we can derive and adapt attitudes and behaviors sufficient to the challenges of our own. Influencing attitudes and behaviors is something the media are good at. Observations of what was called the “West Wing flip,” noted earlier, reveal the media’s potential as an instrument of change with respect to attitudes towards government and politics. As media leaders become more aware of the adverse political consequences of their programming decisions, along with their public power and corollary responsibility, they can modify their decisions accordingly. Whether they will do so depends, in part, upon concerned Americans and their representatives in Congress – whether we and they have the balls to make media power a political issue. It also depends on the extent to which we are willing and able to make use of the new, digital media technologies in ways that assert and effect some significant degree of independence from established media. During Y2K, a survey conducted by the University of Connecticut found that “51 percent of Americans believe the press has too much freedom.”[100] This should have been a wake-up call for all the media. The issue is not one of freedom but of political power.


The sometimes paradoxical combination of problems and opportunities created by the media in the political arena can best be addressed by keeping some basic guidelines in mind:


§         Openness: A more open system is better than one that is relatively closed.

§         Truth-seeking: Providing information based on in-depth investigation and fact-gathering is better than attempts at "spin,” opinion-shaping and punditry.

§         Competition: Opening up opportunities for increasing media competition and new, more localized media outlets is better than allowing continued media conglomeration.

§         Linkages: Promoting cross-fertilization among websites on the Internet is better than smirking at their fragmentation, or behaving as if the Internet is naturally an archipelago; i.e., as long as we have discovered our island of co-believers in Cyberspace, we don’t have to bother with others who may disagree with us.

§         Public space: Creating more public or public/private media channels would give American citizens much more “space” to discover common ground (i.e., to become a “public” with an “interest” broader than “private”) than if we allow media to be pre-empted or dominated by the private-market and advertising. If the latter trend continues, then “I believe we’re going to see something like the Microsoft Grand Canyon National Park…”[101]

§         Coverage: Competitive media will cover more of what Americans want if both they and the officials they have elected indicate what they want and find ways to exert pressure on media outlets to supply more of it. The “it” needed to help revive American grassroots political activity is a two-sided coin: (1) more coverage of politics that treats more of issues and less of personalities; (2) coverage of the political involvement of ordinary Americans.

§         Public journalism: The guidelines represented by this approach.


Let’s reflect on these before we try to draw up an agenda for action that we think would remedy media failings identified in this chapter. Per the paradoxical nature of these, note that nearly every weakness of current media could be turned into a strength. “Coverage

of the political involvement of ordinary Americans,” for example, could employ media techniques now used to turn news into entertainment or sell issues of PEOPLE magazine to tell some really engaging stories of  “ordinary” Americans who are political “heroes of everyday life.”[102] The popularity of ERIN BROCKOVICH suggests the media potential of such stories without the media having to embellish the tales or find some latter-day Joan of Arc.  



[1] The quotes here are drawn from Mitroff and Bennis (1989) but their views as to the systemic nature of the problems we face are shared by many others who will be referenced elsewhere in this chapter.

[2] The view put forth by Nobel Laureate Kenneth Boulding in his book THE IMAGE.

[3] Ibid., p.106 of Chapter VII: “The Image in the Political Process.”

[4] DAILY NEWS, Newburyport, MA (October 2, 2000), originating as an Associated Press story out of Boston.

[5] Ehrenreich, Barbara (2002), NICKELED and DIMED: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt & Co., LLC, Owl Books, p.216.

[6] As reported by Public Radio International’s “Marketplace” program of June 13, 2001.

[7] Respectively, see Mitroff and Bennis (1989) and Guinness (2000) among the References for full citations.

[8] Others include Cappella and Jamieson (1997), Putnam (2000), Wilhelm (2000) and  Guinness (2001).

[9] Mitroff and Bennis, op.cit., p.6.

[10] Boorstin, Daniel (1961), THE IMAGE: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America. Reprinted in 1987 with an "Afterword" by George Will. It's remarkable that Boulding's book was published in the same year with the same main title and some overlapping, supporting observations. They were written independently. There is no reference to Boulding in Boorstin's extensive bibliography or index, even in the later edition.

[11] The potential pointed to here did not end with Y2K’s millennial celebrations. Recent coverage of the crime of  Timothy McVeigh have recognized the “banality of (his) evil.” We also need to recall that Hitler was brought into power through the abortive democracy of the Weimar Republic.

[12] Ironically, the quote is from Mitroff and Bennis’ book, page 161. Another, more recent example is provided by Jonathan Wallace ( in his article “Minority Rule,” in THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE (, November, 2002 (?).

[13] Lee Heffner writing in THE DAILY NEWS, Newburyport, MA (May 1, 2002, p.A8).

[14] Note, for example, articles by ………. The sentence paraphrases Meyrowitz (1985, p.316).

[15] Eco, Umberto (1986), FAITH IN FAKES: Essays.

[16] As further noted by “Throw those TV’s out with the trash”, a letter to the editor of the GLOUCESTER DAILY TIMES published February 7, 1997, which seconded an earlier, similar letter from Peg Sibley, a member of the City’s School Board. 

[17] The latter was seen in “The Arts” section of the NEW YORK TIMES, covering many media, on October 10, 2001, p.F1.

[18] Mitroff and Bennis, op.cit., p.xi.

[19] The three quotes here are from Meyrowitz (1985), pp.85 and 89.

[20] Putnam(2000), p. 242.

[21] The highlights presented here are drawn from Chapter 13 of Putnam’s book BOWLING ALONE, cited earlier.

[22] Although Putnam qualifies this to say that the average could be as low as three, other studies indicate that it could be as high as 6 and 2/3 hours per day across virtually all income groups in our society. See Meyrowitz’ (2000), footnote on page 79, for example. The higher estimates are per household. Families are watching instead of talking, least of all talking about politics or public issues.

[23] Hill, Martha S. and F. Thomas Juster (1979), “Constraints and Complementarities in Time Use.” Ann Arbor, Michigan: Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

[24] Putnam (2000), p.243.

[25] Reported in Meyrowitz (1985), footnote on p.75.

[26] Reported in Meyrowitz (1985), footnote on p.80. This is not to imply that one must read in order to participate in public life. Forums on public issues sponsored by the Kettering Foundation and Public Agenda have demonstrated that diverse cross sections of citizens participate enthusiastically and effectively once they are convinced that their involvement is meaningful  -- that their views will be taken seriously.

[27] The quoted phrase is the title of a neat little book by Terry Bossomaier and David Green, the subtitle of which is “Computers, Complexity and Everyday Life.”

[28] People are easily fooled by optical illusions such as the the Ouchi pattern [which can be found on www.], and the ability of TV to convey other illusions is even more sophisticated.

[29] See his insightful book: COMING TO PUBLIC JUDGEMENT: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World. “Consciousness raising,” however, is only the first step in moving from “public opinion” to the kind of “public judgement” needed in a healthy democracy.

[30] Meyrowitz, op.cit., p.79.

[31] Vargas Llosa, Mario (2001), “Why Literature”? THE NEW REPUBLIC (May 14). It’s interesting to note that he doesn’t treat the distractions of electronic media as the reason for why people are reading less; rather, he opens by attacking people’s excuses for lack of time to read – that “literature…can be sacrificed without scruple when one “prioritizes” the tasks and the duties that are indispensible in the struggle of life.” There is a curious parallel here with political participation. The same excuses for non-involvement are trotted out for an activity that is similarly “indispensable.” Several quotes following are also from Vargas’ article unless otherwise indicated. Vargas is Professor of Ibero-American Literature and Culture at Georgetown University.

[32] It was not missed by Putnam. His evidence showed that people who read are more likely to be involved, but he did not go into the contrast of TV with literature.

[33] The low-cost feature has been highlighted by Meyrowitz(?); however, this is only the direct, private cost. The indirect cost of being such a “free rider” is immeasurable – the social cost of the erosion of our democracy.

[34] Ingraham, Jeson (2001), “GDA grads told to strive for community, not consumption.” Newburyport, MA:  DAILY NEWS (June 3).

[35] See Bearak, Barry (2001), “This Job Is Truly Scary: The Taliban are Watching.” NEW YORK TIMES (June 1). The ‘job” referred to is that of TV repairman.

[36] See Frantzich, Stephen, and J. Sullivan (1996), THE C-SPAN REVOLUTION. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press; and Frantzich, Stephen (1999), CITIZEN DEMOCRACY: Political Activists in a Cynical Age. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

[37] Cappella, Joseph N., and K.H. Jamieson (1997), SPIRAL OF CYNICISM: The Press and the Public Good. New York: Oxford University Press.

[38] Tebbell, John (1974), THE MEDIA IN AMERICA. New York: New American Library.

[39] Two features here are apparently characteristic of many local papers along with a third mentioned earlier, lack of an alternative or competitive paper. One is a tendency to recruit and employ reporters that arrive from someplace else, work a couple of years locally and then leave by the time they undergo enough on-the-job training to get acquainted with the community they are covering. Julie Salamon, a reporter for the NEW YORK TIMES, wrote: “Increasingly, local news isn’t reported by home-grown reporters with an indigenous passion for the place they live” (October 10, 2001, p.E8). Another feature is non-local ownership, increasingly conglomerate in form. Neither of these is conducive to community-building, let alone a community-based politics. My hometown newspaper, for example, is owned by Essex County Newspapers which, in turn, is owned by Dow Jones.

[40] This point was elaborated in an “op ed” piece entitled “Truth Isn’t a Political Priority,” published by the GLOUCESTER DAILY TIMES (April 24, 1987).

[41] For example: Nichols, John, and Robert W. McChesney (2000), IT’S THE MEDIA, STUPID’. 

[42] See Barringer, Felicity (2001), “Unresolved Clash of Cultures: At Knight Ridder, Good Journalism vs. the Bottom Line.” NEW YORK TIMES (June 1). Note also the PBS series on “Local News: One Station Fights the Odds.” Julie Salmon’s review of this five-part profile of WCNC (Charlotte, NC) included this sketch of Keith Connors, the new director: “a decent and compelling soul, trying to cheer his staff and encourage good reporting while answering to the corporate bosses. It’s a tough job” (NEW YORK TIMES, October 9, 2001, p.E8).

[43] Thelen, David (1996), BECOMING CITIZENS IN THE AGE OF TELEVISION (p.195).

[44] Thelen, op.cit. His stat’s are from 1988-92 but the trends he reports have continued. “Horse race” coverage was amply apparent during Y2K.

[45] As stated during an interview with Karen Olson, Assistant Editor of the UTNE READER (March-April, 2001, pp.84-86). New Dimensions is “the longest running independently produced program on National Public Radio” (NPR).

[46] Nichols and McChesney (2000), op.cit., p.29.

[47] Michael Toms also claimed that “Low-power FM would recreate democracy, which we have never really tried successfully.” UTNE READER (March-April, 2001), p.85. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress backed “big broadcasters” and “sought to block a Federal Communications Commission program to license hundreds of new, low-power radio stations.” (NEW YORK TIMES, (?), p.1).

[48] Wilhelm, Anthony (2000), DEMOCRACY IN THE DIGITAL AGE. New York: Routledge (p.10).

[49] Nichols and McChesney, op.cit., p.92.

[50] Remark of Vivian Tenney via e-mail to “Politalk-US1” forum on campaign finance reform (3/4/2001).

[51] What is “real”? – not a creature of the media.

[52] See Verba, (1995), whose study reveals to what degree “willing” is dependent on “able,” and vice-versa.

[53] The notable exceptions include: 

[54] Quoted by Julie Salamon in “A Station Pursues Both the News and the Audience,” NEW YORK TIMES (October 9, 2001, p.E8).

[55] As with the reference to “character” in President George W. Bush’s Inaugural Address and Stanley Hauerwas’ reference to “truthful communities” in his book A COMMUNITY OF CHARACTER.

[56] McKibben, op.cit. (see footnote 26).

[57] For more on this, see Kohn, Margaret (2001), “The Mauling of Public Space,” DISSENT (Spring).

[58] The quoted phrase is the main title of the book by Daniel Yankelovitch (1991), cited earlier, on how the media should do more than use polls to reflect the opinions of the moment, or as fodder for the evening news. See also Kay, Alan (1998), LOCATING CONSENSUS FOR DEMOCRACY. St.Augustine, FL: Americans Talk Issues, on “public interest polling.”

[59] Quotations here and preceeding, as well as the following examples, are drawn from Rosen, Jay, and D. Merritt, Jr. (1994), “Public Journalism: Theory and Practice.” Dayton, OH: the Kettering Foundation.

[60] As in TV renderings of “Little House on the Prairie” or Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” monologues on “Prairie Home Companion.” A much longer list of examples could be compiled.

[61] The movie is an inspiration and the reception that it received was heartening, but the word “rare” is important. The movie also misleads. You don’t have to be like the heroine – you don’t have to sacrifice your all on the altar of political activism – to be able to make a positive difference to the quality of life in your community. 

[62] Kemmis, Daniel (1990), COMMUNITY and the POLITICS OF PLACE. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Dan is a former state legislator, Speaker of  the House in the Montana Legislature and Mayor of Missoula. He is quoting from Arendt’s book THE HUMAN CONDITION.

[63] “vanishing table” also refers to the lack of conversations on politics and the issues of the day around family dinner tables which have nurtured both public and private leaders. Anne M. Mulcahey, Chief Executive, the Xerox Corporation, for example, recalled from her childhood that “dinner was a time to be provocative, to discuss politics, religion, current events, anything that was contentious. You had to participate…” See “Shaped by Family Debates,” NEW YORK TIMES (October 10, 2001). Many more such recollections have been seen or heard from political leaders as well. Thus, both public and private-sector leadership may spring from the same (diminishing) family “table” source.

[64] Kemmis, op.cit., p.7.

[65] Kemmis, op.cit., p.7. The quote is from Berry’s book THE UNSETTLING OF AMERICA.

[66] Meyrowitz, op.cit., p.17. He continues, wondering whether “electronic sensors will return us to village-like encounters but on a global scale.” (p.18) Others wonder whether they will “return” us to “1984.”

[67] For instance, during the winter of 2002-03, Town Meeting had to be convened three times before a quorum was present, even though tax bills and other town business had been held up.

[68] Clift, Steven (2000), “Democracy is Online,” OnTheInternet magazine. Internet Society (March/April 1998, p.1). Did you sense the sarcasm in the final line of this quote? If you did, good for you. I didn’t. Via e-mail, I questioned Clift about his reference to TV and, of course, he set me straight. Boy, did I feel dumb when I received his response!

[69] You can tell that the central figure is a “workman” by looking at his hands even though there is also a contrast of dress. The figures on either side of him are wearing suits.

[70] A “superconnected” person exchanges e-mail at least three times a week and uses four technologies: cell-phone, beeper, PC and laptop. A connected” person uses three of the four technologies. A”semi-connected” person uses some of the technologies but not e-mail; “unconnected,” none of the technologies.

[71] Long before either his book came out or the survey was done, Putnam had put forth his thesis in an article with the same title that, like the book, received a good deal of attention and generated a great deal of controversy.  

[72] Katz, Jon (1997), “The Digital Citizen.” WIRED magazine, no. 5.12 (December).

[73] But in 2002, because of massive screw-ups by their elected representatives, people in California found that they couldn’t take electric power for granted.

[74] Two books highlight this aspect: Gleick (2000), FASTER and Davis (2001), SPEED IS LIFE.

[75] Quotes from Lasch here and just prior are drawn from his article “Journalism, Publicity, and the Lost Art of Argument,” KETTERING REVIEW (Spring, 1995, pp.44-50).

[76] A problem we’re running into here, however, is a possible “privacy” issue. Advertisers are trying to reach you with customized ads but they can’t customize without knowing a lot more about you.

[77] Quoted from Chapter 7, “Building Civic Life Online”, of Clift’s (2000) opus: DEMOCRACY IS ONLINE 2.0, the closest thing to a “bible” for e-democracy that I have yet found. As of this writing, it is still available only online via; that is, via Clift’s excellent DO-WIRE – Democracies Online Newswire. The MN-POLITICS site is at

[78] DO-WIRE of 06/14/2001 (from clift@PUBLICUS.NET - click here to send an e-mail to Steve).

[79] NEW YORK TIMES, “Arts and Ideas” section front page article by Alexander Stille (June 2, 2001).

[80] Limbaugh, David (2001), “Moderation in all things? Not quite.” JEWISH WORLD REVIEW (June 6).

[81] Sunstein, Cass (2001), op.cit.

[82] Clift, Steven (2000), op.cit., p.2 of Chapter 7, Draft 3.1.

[83] Is there something in the water of the state of Minnesota that has given rise to models of democratic process that can inspire those of us in other states? – not only “e-democracy” and “Politalk” but the three- way gubernatorial debates that led to Jesse Ventura being elected?

[84] I was both a resource person and a participant in the forum on campaign finance reform, for example.

[85] Respectively, cited in the Bibliography as Kush, Christopher (2000) and Bowen, Charles(1996).

[86] McCain also “raised” a great number of volunteers for his campaign, too, but I can’t relate to that from my own experience. One of the big questions of the Y2K political season is what became of the McCain and Bradley volunteers after their candidates dropped out. Are they still involved or did they drop out, too?

[87] This is truly a “footnote” to the McCain campaign. One of his Internet addresses has been for sale on the Internet. Anyone want to spend several thousands of dollars so that Americans can continue to channel on  “straight talk” via the ‘Net?

[88] See, for example, the publication WASHINGTON TECHNOLOGY.

[89] Snider, J.H. (2001), in GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY (August 1).

[90] CNN has a website as well as a TV channel, as watchers are frequently reminded.

[91] The answer, according to Alan Kay, is ‘not much,’ which is why he has devoted so much of his valuable time and creative talent to designing and advocating an approach to what he calls “public interest polling.” See Kay (1998), op.cit.

[92] 21st Century Faxes, Ltd., 331 W. 57th St., PMB 504, New York, NY 10019. A response fax to 1-900-370-3200 (YES) or 1-900-370-9400 (NO) costs $2.95 per minute.

[93] This is hardly an academic concern since President Bush cancelled Clinton’s rule allowing the use of federal funds to support population planning initiatives that include counseling on abortion in such countries as India.

[94] The key potential here, enabled by the new technology, is “distributed intelligence.” See “Mining the Minds of the Masses: Researchers Muster Online Volunteers for Collective Brainpower.” NEW YORK TIMES (March 3, 2001).

[95] This designation was coined by urban planner Melvin Webber  (1964), in EXPLORATIONS IN URBAN STRUCTURE, and employed more recently by Sharpe and Wallach (1987), “From the Great Town to the Non-Place Urban Realm,” in VISIONS OF THE MODERN CITY.

[96] Meyrowitz, op.cit., p.308.

[97] At this point, if this were an electronic, multi-media book, you would hear a passage from Pink Floyd’s THE WALL: “Take down the wall! Take down the wall!” (EMI Records, Ltd., United Kingdom, 1994). Recall that one of the greatest boundary-busting events in history was the destruction of the Berlin Wall not long after Ronald Reagan, with an only slightly different combination of words, said “Take down the wall” to Mikhail Gorbachev.

[98] Meyrowitz (1985), op.cit., p.64.

[99] The quote is from Meyrowitz, p.310, but it is based upon work by the French sociologist Foucault which  documented the “trend.” More recent work by James C. Scott (1998), SEEING LIKE A STATE, is also illuminating in this regard. 

[100] Quoted in an editorial in the THE EAGLE-TRIBUNE (Lawrence, MA, Tuesday, July 4, 2000, p.6).

[101] Bill Carter’s remark in “Survival of the Pushiest,” THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE (January 28, 2001).

[102] Similar to stories our fathers and grandfathers read in school nearly 100 years ago, as in: Coe, Fanny E. (1911), HEROES OF EVERYDAY LIFE: A Reader for the Upper Grades. Boston: Ginn and Company. The preface to this delightful old book observes that: “A rarer quality than military valor in the citizens of our own land or of any land is that form of moral bravery known as civic courage.” (page v). We saw such courage exhibited most recently on September 11th, 2001.