Democracy in the age of narrowcasting

Russell Sadler

We are living through an historic transition in our state and federal politics.

The early onset of a presidential race that will not be decided until November 2008 reflects a fervent desire to move past the Bush regime and its mounting baggage of blunders.

The large number of candidates in each party -- with front runners like Hillary Clinton challenged by a younger generation and veterans like John McCain fading -- creates a fluid situation that has some voters nostalgic for successful politicians of the recent past.

Some Oregonians say they long for the next Tom McCall. Nationally, some Republicans long for the next Ronald Reagan.

That is unlikely to happen. McCall and Reagan were men of their own time and that time has passed. McCall and Reagan were creatures of a mass media culture created largely by three television networks that replaced mass circulation magazines by the 1960s.

Both men were successful because they knew how to appeal to the mass audience television created. It is not a coincidence that both McCall and Reagan began their careers as broadcasters.

In the last few decades, however, the advent of cable and satellite transmission of news and the Internet has reduced broadcasting to narrowcasting, with smaller audiences and content deliberately designed to attract a specific, narrow demographic audience to be sold to very specific advertisers -- just the opposite of the mass market audience that McCall and Reagan appealed to with such skill.

The effect of this permanent fragmentation of mass market media is on display during every “debate” held by the presidential candidates of the two major parties. Not only are the audiences much smaller, the candidates appear to come from two different worlds.

The Democrats debate ways to end the war in Iraq and how to finance domestic policy like universal health care, while the Republicans debate the use of torture and ways to be “successful” in Iraq. Democrats want to create a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants encouraged to enter this country illegally by a deliberate policy of not enforcing immigration laws over the past 20 years. Republican candidates want to frog-march the “illegals” to the border regardless of the economic or social consequences of such mass expulsion.

These candidates are trying to appeal to voters in at least two distinct political worlds while the crossover voters look in on the debate like voyeurs.

How did this happen?

Narrowcasting has created a climate in which anyone can find a “news” program that tells him what he wants to hear without listening to anything that contradicts his preconceived notions. That is Roger Ailes’ model for Rupert Murdock’s Fox “News” Channel. It is the model of talk show “hosts” from Rush Limbaugh to Lars Larson.

The late sociologist and U.S. Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously said, “Every man is entitled to his own opinions. He is not entitled to his own facts.”

Narrowcasting allows commercial outlets to create their own reality -- their own facts -- for their true believers. This is not news, of course. It is sheer propaganda designed by publicists masquerading as newscasters who have learned to divide the nation in order to conquer public opinion.

I first wrote a column on the fragmentation of the mass media and the consequences of narrowcasting in the late 1990s.

Former congressman Les AuCoin read it and asked me, “So how are we going to govern the country if everyone is operating on different facts?”

I responded, “I don’t know.” A decade later, one answer is obvious. We are not governing the country. We have two sets of leaders from at least two different worlds. They talk past one another. They appear incapable of communicating with each other and exhibit little respect for those who differ. It is more acute among Republicans than Democrats. Nonaffiliated voters are usually ignored.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain are practicing mass media politics in a world of narrowcasting. McCain is fading. If Clinton is nominated, she might become our last mass media president.

Barrack Obama may have something to offer. He is appealing to a diverse group -- younger and broader politically -- that seems to defy the deliberately circumscribed demographic categories of narrowcasting. We’ll see.

Of one thing I am sure. We will not see another Tom McCall or Ronald Reagan. The conditions that allowed these men to communicate so successfully with the voters no longer exist.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    In the 1960s when I was a student in Poly Sci at the U. of O, (And you, Russ, were student rep to the legislature if I'm not mistaken) my professor said that we were moving from a pluralistic society to a mass society. The intervening structures of political affiliation were breaking down and governing elites were confronted with the broad and largely alienated elements of a mass society. That movement has surely taken place.

    The time when network news was the kitchen table conversation place of America is gone. There are no longer any Walter Cronkites who can explain to us the meaning of the events of the day as a uniting force. American politics is "Balkanized" and the result is divisiveness and distrust. It is difficult to see how an authentic national conversation can take place. The potential is there for the internet to serve as a conduit for communication and articulation of interests between electorate and the governing class. And the global nature of the internet means that a global political consciousness becomes increasingly possible. So there are hopeful signs afoot. Forums like this make conversations possible.

  • (Show?)

    this article is one of the best i've read in laying out this problem; thanks Russell!

    we saw the beginnings of how to corret this situation 4 years ago with the Dean for America campaign. the answer, of course, is that "we the people" ultimately have to create our own facts, and we have to do so in union with other people. in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Americans did just that, and they propelled Dean from nowheresville to the front of the pack. in 2007, it is Obama who has captured the support of much of those same people. that's why he's getting the widespread, below-the-radar support that has brought in so much money from so many supporters and why he does best of all the Dems in head-to-head polling against every Republican.

    with the 3-network paradigm gone, we also have to recognize that the national party paradigm is just as useless. Howard Dean understands this, i think, which is why he is spreading so many resources to the states. the DNC is trying less to run the show as to facilitate the madness. the Beltway Dems don't like that, hence their sniping at Dean. but it makes sense, and Nov 2006 showed it works.

    the more each individual takes the time (and it doesn't take much; registering online to win prizes from a frikkin Coke bottle cap is much more work) to become informed, the less they need anyone else's decision-making process. the people who've discovered this over the past 4 years are the ones, i think, who will lead change. the blogs, the meetups, the various narrowcasts that are provided by activists, all will create a new version of politics that is going to leave us discombobulated for a time but will evolve into something a lot better than we've known before.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I am one always looking for underlying meaning, and in this article by Russell, we find such "truth".

    I take issue with one point from the opening, "The early onset of a presidential race that will not be decided until November 2008 reflects a fervent desire to move past the Bush regime and its mounting baggage of blunders."

    Again and again in the media we are now hearing that what is wrong with the Bush administration is that it blunders, that it is incompetent. This simply is not true. This is a talking point, a spin. The Bush Administration is extremely competent in acting upon their beliefs, which are strongly held by the people that elected them. The problem isn't that the Bush administration is incompetent, the problem is that what they believe is just plain wrong, not based on facts. (And it is upon this one hope, the the public will buy into the theory of incompetence, and not look at the Bush administration doing exactly what they were elected to do, that the Republicans hang their hope for a win in the 2008 election.)

    Which gets back to the point of Russell's article.

    I believe we are on the edge of a point in history where either things will get a whole lot better, or a whole lot worse. Either the zeitgeist will form in rejection of polarization and a search for truth based upon facts, or the world will descend into a chaos based upon, as the Daily Shows' Jon Stewart once observed, "My God is better than your God." Frankly, I see this as a 50/50 moment.

    This then is my measuring stick for all candidates. Not whether they stick to the dogma of Party, but whether they are grounded in a more broad world view - do they see the big picture? So far, the only (and I truly mean ONLY) candidate I see that comes close to this standard is Obama. -- Again I agree with Russell.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    I agree and disagree with this article on so many levels and the comments as well. Russ has written a good article, one that should provoke real thought.

    The Republican icon Ronnie R never existed, he was a publicity machine and media construct. The new paradigm is probably less conducive to that behavior. But the slander possibilities are also greater.

    The final word on a politician is often so long after the election that what is available is a historical reference and the ability to reason from there when accounting for a current candidate. I don't want promises of the moon, I want hard nosed reality coupled with founding principles of this nation. I want to be told something that resembles the truth. I want an understanding that there are 300 million of us and most of that number don't ascribe to one Party, so a President has to lead all of us.

    Perhaps Obama's charm can unite a nation, or Edwards', or... I don't advocate a candidate at this point, each has their resume and policies and these need to measured against reality and their performances.

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