Forget MTV: New media killed the democratic star. It was prophesied long ago.
It was the late ’80s, and cable TV was beginning to poke through the airwaves, nudge the network TV titans, upset the natural order of things. Political information bled off the pages of newsprint and cascaded into living rooms over the air. Surely this would pique the tepid political interests of Americans. Surely.
Not so fast, said Lane Jennings in a review of “The Electronic Commonwealth: The Impact of New Media Technologies on Democratic Politics,” published in late 1988 by Jeffrey B. Abramson, F. Christopher Arterton and Gary R. Orren. The authors doubted, rather summarily, that the dawn of new media “will ever induce a broad spectrum of the American population to take an active interest in politics” (Jennings 49).
“In short,” the triumvirate concluded, “new and improved machines can never make America more democratic” (49).
Daniel Kreiss concurs. Twenty-four years after the dire predictions of Abramson, Arterton and Orren, Kreiss offered his own skepticism about the democratizing powers of new media. Kreiss cautions in “Innovation, Infrastructure, and Organization in New Media Campaigning” that new media — while transformative in the realm of campaigning — “are not designed for the ends of psychological growth, the development of civic skills, discovery of the public interest, achieving democratic legitimacy, or community building — claims historically made for increased participation in civic life” (Kreiss 22). In other words, laud new media for campaigning advances, but don’t tout it as the new lifeblood of democracy.
Forget lifeblood: think assailant. That’s the assertion of Michael Serazio, who takes Kreiss’s trepidation toward new media and turns it into an affront to democratic ideals. Serazio asserts that new media, led by the insidious force of strategic communications that political campaigns have used to manipulate messaging, will “endanger the common culture and factual objectivity that undergirds the public sphere ideal” (Serazio 758).
Somewhere, Habermas has indigestion.
Serazio, an assistant professor of communication at Fairfield University in Connecticut, derives his argument from nearly 40 in-depth interviews with elite political operatives in charge of campaign communications. Like Kreiss, he sees this new wave of political communication not as an outgrowth of new media, but rather a deliberate producer of it, creating “strategically crafted artifacts that reflect the cultural-historical context” (746).
The subversion of traditional media and attendant profusion of nontraditional outlets, Serazio writes, has widened the window of dissemination from a tide pool to an ocean (749). No longer must a communications director rely on the whims of newspaper editors: Scores of blogs and online sources await an agenda-pushing narrative. To this end, campaigns have harnessed the explosion of online and mobile media as vehicles of content creation. They’re no longer beholden to the gatekeepers of media: Campagins have thrown away the keys and twisted the metal beyond repair.
Take the popular strategy on search engine optimization: Campaigns now inundate search engines with voluminous flotsam to blot out any unflattering press, thereby allowing more favorable coverage to rise to the top. “What you do,” a presidential candidate’s press secretary told Serazio, “is put a million things online, so that there’s so many things out there that you overwhelm with good sh-t and the bad sh-t moves down” (749). It’s waste management of a more calculated kind.
The paradigm in media now is more circular than hierarchical, Serazio writes, with gatekeeping thrown to the wayside by strategic communicators. “They’re no longer the gatekeeper of what gets into a story,” a researcher said of traditional media. “They now are responding as much to what’s going on as controlling it” (750). This amorphous realm has left a chasm that political communication strategists have eagerly filled with their own spin. Political communications now encompasses a $7 billion industry and more than 7,000 professionals, dwarfing the dwindling manpower and anemic revenues of print media (755). In the place of investigative reporting, an indispensable but costly pursuit often victimized by newsroom budget cuts, strategists have handed features to inexperienced reporters that assail the character or policy proposals of a candidate’s opponent with scant verification (751). And in 2012, a Romney campaign pollster said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” a symbolic death knell driven into old media and the safeguard it once provided (756).
Campaigns, then, are not adrift in fragmentation and simply riding the rave. Rather, they’re stoking fragmentation, shifting the tectonic plates of communication and spurring a tsunami of slanted, biased and prepackaged content. They are now driving, in a “spatial” sense, stories and narratives from the periphery into the center, eroding the once impenetrable fortress of traditional media. In its stead, campaigns have erected a guise of grassroots coverage — championed by detractors of the “liberal media” and those who harbor great mistrust toward all media — under which they shape the conversation, using bloggers and prominent social media commenters to propagate their message (758-759). As one U.S. Senate campaign manager bemoaned to Serazio, “We don’t have a common canon of facts anymore. We don’t have a common canon of like, ‘This is what’s going on'” (759). All that’s left is the social construction of new media.
And herein lies the threat to democracy. Consultants don’t aspire to an expansion of political participation: They aspire to election victories. Victory requires finding votes, which behooves targeting and segmentation of the population, which inevitably shuts out nonvoters who don’t factor into the neat electoral algorithm of campaign managers. And that, Serazio writes, assails Habermas’s cherished ideal of informed deliberation, and such targeting will likely perpetuate efforts to scale back outreach efforts aimed at the apolitical (759). It’s not worth the trouble, campaign operatives assert. But for the health of democracy, Habermas would argue, it most certainly is.
“The consequences of those efforts,” Serazio writes in summarizing new media, “include a direct assault on many of the ideals of the public sphere. These may well lead to campaign wins for individual candidates, but they could also portend eventual losses for the machinery of democracy” (760).
New media is a parasite, and democracy is a carcass, Serazio asserts. It is to democracy what video was to radio. MTV, of course, also atrophied. Could new media meet the same fate?
Perhaps. But for now, it’s the end of democracy as Habermas and Serazio know it. And new media feel fine*.
* * *
*Apologies for an obscure music reference.
Jennings, Lane. “New Media, New Politics?” The Futurist, November-December 1988: 33,49.
Kreiss, Daniel. “Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama.” Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012.
Serazio, Michael. “The New Media Designs of Political Consultants: Campaign Production in a Fragmented Era.” Journal of Communication 64 (2014): 743-763.