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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

Interneting votes and dollars

DID you think the dialogue in the 2004 presidential election campaign was more elevated than in previous years? If so, hail the Internet. If you thought the campaign carved new trails in the swift-boat infested jungle of presidential politics, blame the Internet.

On second thought, though we may be denounced as old fogies for saying it, just blame the Internet. Period.

Were voters better informed in 2004? Not likely. Millions of users read and passed on jokes and often spurious information about both candidates, without any proof as to the assertions made. The traditional gatekeepers of news may have been biased in their own ways, but this was an election in which, to a large extent, the Worldwide Web had neither gates nor gatekeepers.

Old-school journalism has always been a handy target of critics, especially when those old-fashioned media, always denounced as liberal, were the primary sources of information or misinformation about presidential campaigns.

One aspect of traditional media not shared by the faceless bloggers who read the news and then twist it to serve their own purpose is that the credentials of the latter are unknown and generally unchallenged. Internet communicators have not a worry in the world about audiences and advertisers who can cancel their contracts or irate subscribers who may call up to cancel their subscriptions if angered enough by editorial commentary or, as they see it, biased news coverage. There is a difference between truth-seekers and communicators. Josef Goebbels was an able communicator and propagandist for the Nazi regime in Germany.

Local media have addresses and phone numbers. The editor deals directly with praise or dissent from citizens as a matter of course. Journalism entails various codes of fairness, which the 1940 Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press categorized as a "social responsibility" theory of the press. Of course, journalistic practitioners often fall short of the ideal, if that is the ideal.

Social responsibility is not the Web's principal virtue. It can provide alternative sources of information to candidates or causes who do not have money or the political heft to attract mainstream media.

As is evident from the 2004 election, the Internet enables candidates to raise money, exhort the faithful, and stir up interest in politics. Part of the increased vote turnout last year is due to the fact that citizens once again can practice a participatory form of politics.

In years to come the Internet will not seem so revolutionary. It is not good enough to simply throw up one's hands and say, if you can't lick 'em, join 'em, as so many mainline journalists tend to do these days. The Internet at its best simply expands the marketplace of ideas and opinion in which mainline media have always sold their wares.



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