Has The Data Revolution Hurt Democracy?

July 12, 2012

There are at least 83 national organizations these days committed to greater transparency in government. Security and defense programs notwithstanding, accurate reviews and assessments of federal, state and local agencies have never been easier to tap. Our progress holding congressional leaders to account, however, has stalled. Despite rampant obstructionism and negligence by lawmakers, little seems to alter it. Are we, the citizens, the problem rather than they? Is it something else? 

In the past decade, consumers, readers and newsmakers have ballooned in cyberspace; political chats have matured with online access; and newsmakers have been chastened by a generation of spirited bloggers. Yet, when asked, 70 percent of internet users say they are overwhelmed with information. Is the digital age complicating our relationship with government? Has the data revolution hurt democracy? This piece embraces the question by applying Kennedy-era political history to highlight the nexus between news and political deal making, and employs rhetoric, statistics and analysis in a mash-up on today's Congress, the Washington press corps and our insatiable desire for news and everything else. The piece also reveals the limits and prospects of social media by employing a brief political experiment to evaluate the issue.

On June 20, 2009, a 26-year-old woman was shot to death in the street in cold-blooded, gruesome fashion in her native Iran. As she bled - the shooting and her death moments later were captured unsparingly on a cellular phone. Grainy video of the incident was posted online. At one time, Neda Agha-Soltan's last breaths would not have been witnessed by millions of people. In this case, however, they were recorded, uploaded to Twitter and circulated. Almost instantaneously, the images spread. To Iranians, they were an ugly reminder of autocratic rule younger citizens had hoped to supplant -expectations which, despite exuberance and creativity mobilizing rallies, activists alone were unable to realize. The incident followed closely on the heels of the country's imperiled national elections, hotly contested at the time -as the outcomes were widely deemed illegitimate. The images of Agha-Soltan's short life enraged people far beyond the Republic of Iran and became a lasting symbol. Her cause was one that would only continue to arrest the world's attention.

Two weeks after the incident, a former US government official 
lamented her death. He suggested Twitter, the free social-messaging software used to disseminate the terrifying images, be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize. 


Does Twitter deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? (Read the pdf version here.

It is true that new technological tools, like Twitter and others, have disrupted the cadence of traditional news media. A democratized media environment spurred by the power and gadgets of the digital age has also stripped us of our time-honored relationships with newspapers and data, re-engineering our ties to them the way it has to books and nearly everything else. So, how do we measure what Twitter begat?

Last year, Bill Maher, host of the popular HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, reviewed an apocalyptic book. He offered it a backhanded, but illuminating compliment.

Luckily for Congress, the White House, and corporate America, no one reads anymore, because if people discover this book, America will become a very different place.

The grinding perception these days, especially among the well-educated, is that Americans do not know enough because they have only a transient interest in 'good' information. What is 'good' information? The kind that informs our conscience or spirit in some way. When it comes to politics and government, this means a healthy interest in really complex stuff - stuff, for example, that tells us what a politician did that he should not have done or how a lobbyist contributed to legislation that, for one reason or another, he should not have. As it turns out, most are well aware of how poorly run government has become. Congress has come to a screeching halt, largely ceasing to do new business entirely this year. But Americans have also expressed their disapproval. Polls reflect that favorability ratings for Congress hover at somewhere between 12 and 17 percent.

Diminishing public attention

Although Bill Maher and others may believe otherwise, reading is hardly the problem. The advent of the internet has meant that many are learning more than ever. Millions are also tracking plenty of dry and soulless data on the web too, and doing so rather relentlessly. According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, as part of the seismic shift humanity has taken to absorb stuff on the internet, people are reading about government -assiduously. A quotation from the Pew website:

Some 40% of adult internet users have gone online for raw data about government spending and activities. This includes anyone who has done at least one of the following: look online to see how federal stimulus money is being spent (23% of internet users have done this); read or download the text of legislation (22%); visit a site such as data.gov that provides access to government data (16%); or look online to see who is contributing to the campaigns of their elected officials (14%).

People also spend a record number of hours a day online. Three-quarters of folks recently surveyed by the Pew Center said they had used their mobile phones in the bathroom -with 2 in 5 admitting to using that time to initiate calls. The technology industry has already identified the enormous potential, in terms of treasure, of having such web-addicted users; indeed, in the future they hope and anticipate such activity will grow. In a recent state-of-the-industry presentation, venture capitalist Mary Meeker suggested there are 144 million people who spend just 50 minutes a day away from mobile and web devices -noting how it represented a viable opportunity for tech marketers. The news media is not immune from this perspective -though it applies a different lexicon to make the case for greater immersion. Individual journalists are not wedded to profits per se but rather to the notion that better public education means more reports, videos, nuggets and bits of precious, hard-to-come-by new data (and stuff). We have an internet news media that carries with it a fetish for trivia and minutiae. Over 90 percent of Americans surf the internet -which means users online now resemble the profile of the American population as a whole. Most of us also have a growing, rather than declining, interest in what happens in the news. With mobile phone products, the number of things we do on the web will also keep rising. Today, reading news is still only one among fifty categories of activity, according to a recent Pew survey, when it comes to measuring how we spend our time online. We are hooked when it comes to the web. And we have a voracious desire to consume information but fewer ways as voters to impact outcomes or understand how things truly work.

Our appetites for shock, terror, murder and mayhem, on the other hand, are innate, primal, even. With the advent of the digital era they have turned ravenous. Today, we consume information much the way we eat -unhealthily. Nobody understood some of this better perhaps than newspaper reporters, who, for decades before Google and Facebook pierced our computer screens, courted the public three times a day with grisly tales of blood and disaster. "Chroniclers of the greatest chaos," is how lionized New York Times writer Gay Talese described journalists in his 1969 legendary tome, The Kingdom and The Power.

[The newsmen] regarded The Times as one of the few predictable things left in modern America and they accepted this fact with degrees of admiration and cynicism, seeing The Times with a varying vision: it was a daily miracle, it was a formula factory. But no matter. It was The Times. And each day, barring labor strikes or hydrogen bombs, it would appear in 11,464 cities around the nation and in all the capitals of the world, fifty copies going to the White House, thirty-nine copies to Moscow, a few smuggled into Peking, and a thick Sunday edition flown each weekend to a foreign minister in Taiwan, for which he would each time pay $16.40. He would pay this because, with thousands of other isolated men in all corners of the earth, he required The Times as necessary proof of the world's existence, a barometer of its pressure, an assessor of its sanity.

The New York Times is still predictable, but a barometer of world pressure? Twitter wins that round handily. The Twitter website now sees more tweets in a single week than it had in the entire year in the run-up to the 2008 election. Both information and citizen participation have exploded. There is comfort in the certainty and regularity of The Times, the rhythms and gestures that keep the business afloat, but these days there are fewer gods in journalism. Even at The Times.

What the rallies in Iran demonstrated was how what is posted online can get us to mobilize; unfortunately, so far, in many cases, it happens without very much direction. The Agha-Soltan incident, for all its notoriety, brought a sense of global indignation but also: a tightening of economic sanctions by the United States in its dealings with Iran, an escalation of nuclear weapons research by the Iranian government and a slew of crackdowns and arrests subsequent to the 2009 elections -many of Iran's activists were jailed for their efforts. Providing judgment, purpose and direction, even during periods of intense political turmoil, was what a newspaper like The Times excelled at - because (and no coincidence here) it had our undivided attention.

Everything was different, sure. Years ago, the news media had far more credibility. But it also used to be that only news groups did three things especially well. (1) They held our attention. (2) They captured an issue's particular significance and larger mythology. (3) They harnessed public will to influence policymakers. The latter is the most invisible part of old-fashioned business at reputable news organizations (like the New York Times and The Washington Post). It was the modus operandi that has lost much of its luster. Reporters, editors and publishers were once leading figures in Washington, with an independent voice, and they used their power to mold political behavior. Twitter, by contrast, has done the first of the three on the list --plus, it has fed us lots of new data.

In the past, the monopoly newsgroups wielded over information meant that government was compelled to connect deeply with the press. That has changed -rightfully so, and many have welcomed that shift. 


Narrative without credibility: A 21st century affliction 

The mainstream press has always defined itself by its national responsibility to inform. The idea of newsmakers producing history's "first draft" probably came from the 1940s. Some credit Phillip Graham for coining the phase most closely associated with it, but the provenance is not entirely clear. Graham, the erstwhile publisher of The Washington Post, made it his credo to readers in a lengthy note he wrote to them on June 13, 1948. It was a page long missive in the newspaper outlining the goals of such an organization and its duty to the public that time. "News is a first rough-draft of history," is what a phrase from another author directly pasted below Graham's letter read. The idea was that journalists create rough, singular narratives that steer the questions, policies and reports that follow. The phrase also speaks to the importance of news to the public, and the role of journalists as reliable interlocutors. The mythology of journalists as actors in the pursuit of truth has been knitted together by generations of reporters and newsgroups ever since, and helped unify people to understand world events and digest them.

One of the more revealing analyses of the power an independent press once had is now elegized in communications scholar Todd Gitlin's early book, The Whole World Is Watching. He showed how the era's news media contained the leftist persuasions of Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) -a vast, politically subversive, wildly popular, national, student-led group, thousands strong, which lasted nearly a decade, between 1960 and 1969. The press largely covered the group in the way that it did because reporters saw themselves performing a service in the public interest. Gitlin, a leader of SDS, did not see it this way. He was profoundly skeptical of the media's reach. Indeed, he was resentful of the manner the group was covered -and describes his disillusionment in the book. Gitlin is bewildered by how the news media construed the movement; his frustration is palpable in the book's first chapter.

[A]s a researcher reading through the old clippings and screening the old film-clips, I was sometimes astounded to see what the New York Times or CBS News had been saying about SDS in 1965. A few times I was impressed by accuracy or sensitivity, but more often by derogation. If my own sense of what the media had been doing in 1965 needed a series of confrontations with documented fact, I reasoned, my readers might also find the recollection illuminating.

Media coverage also drove a new brand of activist to the SDS movement. Without mainstream public attention, the group was ideologically more coherent. But new focus attracted a new sort of SDS member. Gitlin describes it, thus:

The media helped recruit into SDS new members and backers who expected to find there what they saw on television or read in the papers. The flood of new members tended to be different from the first SDS generation -less intellectual, more activist, more deeply estranged from the dominant institutions. Politically, many of them cared more about antiwar activity than about the broad-gauged, long-haul, multi-issued politics of the earlier SDS...They were only partially assimilated into the existing organization...The fragile person-to-person net of organizational continuity was torn.

SDS dealt with themes that resonate in our politics today, if only because it focused largely on the failure of political bureaucracies. In 1962, SDS members were a tiny coalition of idea wonks who highlighted, at a convention they held, a few highly particular, nonpartisan themes such as, for instance: "the failure of corporate liberalism, the bankruptcy of both the Old Left and the New Deal, the inadequacy of the welfare state, the destructiveness...of the Cold War...and the promise of the civil rights movement," among others. To spread its message, the movement appealed to the potential students had to deliver on some of these goals. Ideologically speaking, they identified themselves as radicals, rather than socialists or Marxists. Because of this, the breadth of the group's message helped its members address participants in cross-cutting movements. One SDS member, Richard Flacks, considered this in an interview with Gitlin:

We could go to the peace movement or the civil rights movement and get a hearing from those groups and influence the way they looked at the issues.

As SDS grew, aided largely by the spotlight afforded them by establishment press, Gitlin finds that reporters deliberately omitted facts, underreported its sway and tried to balance the movement's objectives with coverage of ultra-Right and neo-Nazi groups, playing up leftist elements and instead highlighting an increasing polarization, overall, of the entire electorate. These days, many consider such editorializing as somewhat unfair, given that at its peak SDS was really no more than an organized group of about five thousand.

In Gitlin's view, media attention that played up the narrative that SDS was devious contributed to its marginalization. Gitlin has, in fact, argued that the news media might have killed the SDS movement. It may have. But the media wanted (and managed) to heighten public enthusiasm for the ideas that fueled SDS; and in the eyes of reporters who covered it their articles limited the movement's chaotic tendencies. By comparison, some of the issues SDS sought to highlight are quaint in the parlance of our era. One goal, for example, that SDS had was to fuel corporate divestitures in the apartheid regime. Across the globe, corporations are more invested in human rights violations today in many more countries than one can count on both hands. In the 1960s, however, political action toward just one foreign government was threatening to many in power and the news media, whose reporters and executives belonged to an elite class, and who sought to stem the tide. Indeed, in the end, economic boycotts in the United States and elsewhere unraveled the South African political experiment with stunning efficacy. Such purposeful action and response mechanisms, even if coupled with an adept political organization, would never work now. Gitlin himself saw the power of the news media and the sort of editorializing conducted by media hands as hurting social imperatives. And he criticized editors at newspapers such as the New York Times and CBS News for being heavy-handed and impolitic in skewing coverage toward the political center.  But SDS was a reaction to the Vietnam War -which was being covered in the trenches by fearless and candid reporters.

On April 18, 1965, the New York Times ran a front-page story about 15,000 students, some of them SDS members, picketing the White House. There was a ballet between the students of the movement and the journalists who may have partially sympathized with them. The dance between them contributed to national disenchantment with the Vietnam War (even if SDS members did not see it this way). The Times itself battled the prospect of being charged by right wing zealots with abetting communism. All social movements declare they deserve greater say in the mainstream press. Gitlin's analysis is one meticulous account of one such example.

But what role exactly does press coverage, and the narrative it helps to create, really play in developing and realizing political goals? The era Gitlin highlighted marked a golden age of change, like ours, one many remember that has been religiously documented. It unfurled a rush of new beginnings: a tempestuous civil rights movement, a gory, decade-long, ideologically wrought civil war in faraway Vietnam, and the election of the country's first Catholic president -mythology that heretofore has lasted.

These days, newspapers are losing staffs and shutting down. On the whole, much of television news is fading in import as many clamor to the web for blogs, tweets and other new data.  The outcome is that despite plenty of reporting, as citizens, we don't all carry the same interpretations of political concerns. Coupled with declining attentiveness, a pattern has emerged; public opinion has hardened across the political spectrum. The irony is we have more information. The result is nobody reads the same news anymore.

So, how are we forming opinions? A study early this year conducted by David Craig, a corporate strategist at Reuters highlighted the issue. Craig suggests we are simply unable to digest endless reams of new data, although we yearn for more of it. His analysis also shows that by-and-large we are surrendering to gut instinct. This has little to do with ignorance. Information in a crowded data climate is less of a marvel and more of an obstacle. We are taxed intellectually and emotionally by more data. Even Gitlin, who once critiqued the immense power of the press, worried instead in a 2007 book about citizen inattentiveness and public indifference to democracy.

In October 2009, in an article titled, "Against Transparency," in The New Republic a law professor at Harvard deliberated on the perils of having to navigate dizzying troves of new information. He demonstrated it using revealing hypotheticals. In one, Lawrence Lessig suggested that publishing the daily schedules of members of Congress could be counterproductive. Regardless of what we might like to believe, decisions politicians make are only partially linked to the lobbyists who meet with them, or to the funders who patronize their political campaigns. Clearly, donors and special interest groups heavily court members of Congress to exercise their influence. But there are other factors after all -a member's intelligence or judgment, for instance, that are also relevant. Pinning decisions on those who support congressional campaigns may not reveal as much as we might want to believe.

Since he wrote the essay, things have changed. Today, Lessig might reconsider parts of his argument. In fact, his focus these days, in terms of politics, has shifted and he is concerned presently with the failure of our current system to deliver fair and productive outcomes. He believes more deeply in the power of amateurs to alter the wedged political climate rather than those who work the revolving doors between congressional offices and lobbying agencies in the beltway, for instance, or even those who populate the ranks of the news media. But when Lessig wrote the essay, even he could not have predicted the gridlock that would ensue once the Tea Party, a fresh crop of Republican obstructionists, joined government, sweeping the House, a year after his article was published, with unexpected tenacity. 

Freshman Tea Party congressmen aren't simply beholden to their funders and lobbyists, but have succeeded in realizing the aims of their supporters to shut down government business entirely. Indeed, their voters have managed to impress enormous influence over how Tea Party lawmakers govern. Whenever a vote comes up on the House floor, Tea Party politicos filibuster and make sure no action is taken -then blatantly flaunt congressional paralysis on national television subsequently causing an enormous flurry of response in the news media and over the internet. Freshman Tea Party congressmen are utilizing their influence in the press, in such cases, to connect directly with voters who sent them to Washington.

This new brand of lawmakers is exploiting the furious emphasis that news media and bloggers have developed to make superficial, fleeting appeals to the American public. They have found they can utilize quick-and-dirty camera ops to parade claims for wider government transparency. In a manner Lessig never imagined, the highly peculiar nature of the news media's emphasis has produced the sort of dystopic circumstance Lessig outlined. He was far more prescient in realizing the limits of transparency than he predicted. There is no way to deny the new Republican Party tremendous credit for the political transformation they have brought to American political life. The Tea Party is a virile movement, a counter-reaction to hyperbole; and one critically defined by semantics. An example of the point is best reflected in these two posts from the Twitter news feed of one heated Republican internet user.

Person 1: "You ought to discover some day that words have an exact meaning." #atlasshrugged

Person 2: Exactly.

The first tweet is a quotation, one that embodies a mission impossible to accomplish. Indeed, regardless of purpose or need, words never have or will have an exact meaning. As much as it is an ideal, most know and realize it is one that can never be met.

But the writers are young conservatives, and their posts beckon a frightening development across the political spectrum. Our abstruse obsession over the exactness of things, of words spoken in perfect resonance; both by politicians, and ourselves, is what websites like Twitter really, truly begat. In our need to be über specific, our communication has evolved. 

The web has thrust us into larger, insatiable, neurotic quests for language trails and documents. It pledges transparency, everywhere, in all forms and sorts, and in ways that politicians know is a mirage; with the capacity to enrage but which rarely yields answers in legislative terms.

Nonetheless, the new gods of news are being anointed -they are no longer backbiting journalists or pitiless government officials -instead, they are the cold, ugly letters on a page that fuel our hopeless odysseys for absolute knowledge and perfect information. The next thing that amplifies our stuff, and each stupid e-mail, blog or Facebook post, is now our crutch and the weakest link in our political discourse. Words on a page are proxy for motive, the tools of political argument, the drivers of worthless new bills and legislation. If I were a French intellectual, this is the point in my argument where I would screech and declare: Zee internet is fascist! We're all going mad!

I digress. True, the web is sanitizing our policy making and crippling our politicians -the transparency disease has afflicted a sphere of influence that by its very nature has always been filthy, and best performed in hazy coalitions that retain their inarticulate form. After all, the strength of the SDS movement was its breadth and fervor, its capacity to inspire and the blurring of its ideological edges. These days, the internet is producing a climate that has turned civic virtues such as truth, justice and liberty entirely upside down. Justice is now a staid utopian ideal that lives in a tweet or blog post, rather than in the messy imprecision most brave activism entails. A movement like SDS would have no prayer being the one it was in the 1960s -because the pace of the internet, combined with the rage of its users, would quickly sap and distill it, swiftly, keenly, far before it matured; and retire it into an early, unseemly obsolescence.

Lessig highlighted this corrosive aspect of transparent politics in his essay. "Naked transparency," he noted, does not always produce better outcomes. He drew attention to the manner in which data flows to knowledge consumers as being far more valuable than whether or not it was simply available (emphasis added).

[P]eople may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it. Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension, action, and response.

There is a new movement much like SDS today, except that it lives not in the annals of a preachy, feckless political left wing but rather on the raucous and morally thorny political right. It is incoherent, loosely defined and, for those journalists employed in the daily business of grabbing headlines, highly inarticulate. In these terms, it is rather unlike the rigid, closely crafted messaging of Students for a Democratic Society. But in ways that mirror SDS, the movement is concerned with similar principles: liberty, individual participation and anti-war ideology. The new movement is a re-imagining of sorts of a forty-year-old tiny nonpartisan political faction, which bears little resemblance to its progenitors. It has survived media spin, as well as the waves and troughs of a turbulent news industry. Having said that, the movement is one built on ideals that emulate SDS and is now capitalizing on the fall from grace of corporate titans, who reaped the windfalls of a corrupt, ambitious financially deregulated era. It holds the only promise for democratic reform for many of its followers. This awakening is gaining its ground within a polarized and racially fraught Republican Party. It is made up largely of civil libertarians, and is led by GOP Texas House Congressman Ron Paul.

The flood of influence the Tea Partiers have mustered, however, is devouring it.

Paul has maintained his hold over the libertarian vote because he has chosen not to confront the Tea Party directly. Though from a bird's-eye view, they appear to share goals, in fact, Paul supporters are not Tea Partiers. They do not have the same ideological agenda. The Tea Party believes in unencumbered military power, for instance, while Ron Paul libertarians argue against foreign wars. So what could they have in common? With few media outlets to help each faction define its position, the GOP establishment has had no incentive to flesh out either narrative too closely.

The result: the rush of technology has fueled a blend of conflicting narratives which, along with a blind spot on the part of the mainstream media, may have scuttled the Paul agenda. This election season, the movement peaked too late. Its leader, Ron Paul, after a forty-year campaign speaking broadly on the virtues of libertarian principles, became a formidable contender this election round; however, after a good run, the congressman is now finally set to retire. The Paul movement is learning what Gitlin did about SDS in the 1960s: that, once again, against a distinct news climate (compared with the one Gitlin experienced), media is still entirely capable of killing a complex message. Kelefa Sanneh of the New Yorker wrote of the candidate in a profile in February 2012:

Paul hasn't changed his principles, but he has changed his emphasis -or maybe he has come to realize that, in politics, emphasis can be nearly as important as principles.

Sanneh does not acknowledge, however, that the media environment, too, hardly leans in the candidate's favor. Ubiquitous television news coupled with real-time internet activity has meant that these days political narratives are far more disparate within each political party. The voters in each party are less forgiving. Within the Republican Party, the rancor toward the precious few Ron Paul delegates who unexpectedly won seats has not been subtle. In fact, the party has sought to oust them. In June, Republicans disqualified 17 who earned their right to show up to the party's convention in Tampa. One writer at the Boston Herald described the incident on June 27th in these terms:

Yes, the Ron Paul activists come to the political process with more than their fair share of kookery and oddball ideas. But think about the passion and energy it took these 17 people -- mostly political amateurs -- to learn the arcane party rules, get organized, and win their votes. These are people whose flavor of Republicanism -- small government, fiscally responsible, indifferent on social issues -- is a natural fit in New England.

The Republican Party has been marginalized in Massachusetts for several years, and the rise of the Paul movement has revitalized conservative politics in the state. Rachel Maddow has been reporting the story extensively. But multi-dimensional policies, generally, are rarely afforded a fair hearing. Is the Ron Paul movement despite having two million supporters, now sinking a premature death, just like SDS, aided by new media? It seems to be so. SDS had only a few thousand followers who hit the airwaves because their enthusiasm touched a handful of journalists. Now, we have an environment where a similar ideological group, larger in scale, by an order several times more significant, has a hard time gaining traction. What is it about old and new media that prevents such voices from having their reach? The anti-war message, after all, has been resilient since the Iraq War started in 2003.


On June 28, 2012, at 10: 16 AM CBS News announced that the Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress two years ago. The law compels Americans to buy health insurance or face the penalty of a tax. 

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) could end up providing health care coverage to a good chunk of middle and working class Americans who need it. Public opinion, however, hardly reflects that. CBS News, on the day the Supreme Court judgment on the ACA was passed, highlighted a recent poll suggesting 48 percent disapprove of it altogether. Paradoxically, many already find their health care to be a problem. According to the article, on specific topics, their support for greater coverage by insurance providers is apparent:

A March CBS News/New York Times Poll found 85 percent favor the requirement that insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions, nearly seven in 10 support allowing children under 26 to say on their parents' health plan, and 77 percent back the part of the law that offers discounts to reduce the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap, commonly known as the donut hole.

Considering, in politically moderate or conservative terms, whether such a plan is feasible would weigh: first, what our lives are like today in simple terms, without it; and second, how they would be altered were it to be implemented -in other words, consider what health care providers charge the government now while such a system is not in place; and then compare that squarely with rising costs. This, however, is a perspective that, for the most part, goes underreported.

Lisa is a senior administrator at one of New York's most elite hospitals. She went to Harvard where, as an undergraduate, she majored in government. Then she joined the university's business school and is a Republican. The Affordable Care Act perplexes her because it affects her hospital as well as many others across the country directly. We had an off-the-record conversation a day after the Court's judgment. Her name has been changed to withhold her identity.

Pia: Are you a supporter of the individual mandate [under the Affordable Care Act]? 

Lisa: I understand what the point of the mandate is but I know it means that my hospital and many others may suffer because we will have to find ways to be more efficient. The way the law is structured means that we will have to cut costs [and raise revenue] -which will mean that there will be a push to perform more surgeries, for instance. We will need - 

Pia: geniuses to figure out. 

Lisa: Not geniuses. Not geniuses. People with common sense. I know at my hospital it will not affect the quality of our service but it will be hard to accommodate the new law for us. Everyone will have to work harder, we will have to help people leave quicker, rotate out beds more often. We will not compromise our quality but it will be a challenge. But one [good] thing the act will do is shut down bad [poorly-run] hospitals. 

Pia: Do you think premiums under the new plan will rise? 

Lisa: The larger problem with health care is end-of-life care...It raises bills across the board and nobody is working to address the problem. 

Pia: So premiums then will go up? 

Lisa: Yes, of course. Insurance companies have already thought through the math. They are ten years ahead of the government. They will simply pass the costs down to us [if the government does not pay them for it]. 

Pia: So hospitals unlike yours- 

Lisa: Many hospitals receive much of their funding through Medicare reimbursements, for instance, and just can't adhere to the quality requirements of the act [and so] will no longer be able to operate. In rural areas, for instance, this will be a significant problem. 

Pia: Do you think that poor states would turn away funding if they find that hospitals are too poor in their state to accommodate a rise in standards [mandated by the federal government]. What if say, Mississippi, for instance, has a [economically distressed] poor hospital that receives a majority of its funding from Medicare? 

Lisa: Hospitals will never turn down federal funding and neither will states. But states will have to pour more money in from state budgets to keep those hospitals open. If they cannot afford that, say in Mississippi, then they will simply allow those hospitals to close and this will negatively impact residents. Imagine those in rural areas, for instance. Add to that many more people that will be joining the health care rolls -how will states retain their quality of care? States like New York will not be affected [because they will shell out extra funding to run their hospitals.] But government does few things well. There is just too much bureaucracy in Washington [to fix what is wrong].

I spoke to Lisa before a slew of state governors announced they would reject funding from the federal government for health care under the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps they will, or perhaps these officials are bluffing. Who knows.

But Fareed Zakaria, a prominent journalist and CNN news anchor who writes also for The Washington Post, acknowledged many of the concerns Lisa has in a column he penned soon after the health care decision was reported. Zakaria considers the costs associated with the new plan, and highlights how the Republican leadership, if given the chance, might simply pass on these costs to the consumer much the way Lisa thinks that they inevitably would. This, he considers, is far less efficient than what happens when government shoulders the lion's share of the cost. In other countries, such action by governments drives down the price tag. At home, he considers how this is not the case. He cites the effects of smoking in France and diabetes in Britain to make his point (emphasis added).

For example: Smoking rates are higher in France than in the United States, so the French population has higher rates of lung disease. Yet the French system is able to treat the disease far more effectively than happens in the United States, with levels of severity and fatality three times lower than those in this country. And yet France spends eight times less on treatments per person than the U.S. system. Or consider Britain, which handles diabetes far more effectively than the United States, while spending less than half of what we spend per person. The study concludes that the British system is five times more productive in managing diabetes than is the United States.

Speaking to Lisa makes it apparent that although partisanship is characterized as the more relevant, glaring aspect of the health debate; for most, the matter is, in fact, more along the lines of common sense. With a federal government reshaping health policy, will states comply to uphold the quality of care imagined under the act? Will states be able to shoulder the burden of doing so? Will citizens of each state all reap the same rewards of a measure such as the Affordable Care Act that aspires to raise the quality of health care nationally? 

The answer is obvious. Of course not. It also reveals why a great many conservatives oppose the act. But if the bureaucracy is as troubled as Lisa and many others believe it is what, after all, is lacking in this debate? There is no shortage of data. A bias in media coverage on the issue that leans toward the residents of rich states like New York and away from poor states, like Mississippi explains some of what is happening. Much of the press coverage on the morning the act was passed was largely positive. On Facebook, minutes before the President planned to speak on the topic, this poster spread widely.

Many others like it circulated among furious Ron Paul supporters, Tea Partiers and many others disgruntled in the Republican Party, who denounced the decision as government overreach into health care. Outside the Supreme Court, there was more invective. Wall Street's three indexes dropped 1 percent. On average of no less than every 2 or 3 minutes, avid members of both the Ron Paul and Tea Party movement tweet or post to Facebook every day, firing up their supporters. That morning was no different. Furthermore, the buckets of false and contradictory statements on Fox News are probably trumped by a factor of a million or so if you track the flow of political data on the internet.

The effect is a colorful universe of persistent half-baked ideas and suggestions, to which no particular faction of the Republican electorate can lay any specific claim; rather, all the notes and meanings are tossed and blended together in a mélange salad of the inchoate, meandering variety. But, given these trends, it is surprising each segment manages to retain its edges. Paul supporters are among the least bigoted of the Republican Party's members; they tweet constantly about the need for racial tolerance. This is rather unlike the messages of Tea Partiers, for instance, which regularly post racial epithets in live Twitter feeds and on Facebook. There are also avid supporters for Paul who are far less polarizing.

This Twitter feed from Freddie Jones (name changed) showed less inflamed reactions two hours after the announcement over the Supreme Court's health care decision. All of them are posts retweeted by the user, and have been edited for clarity and to withhold the user's identity.

Tweet 1: SCOTUS EXPOSES #Obamacare AS TAXATION AGENDA! #tcot #tlot #RonPaul #GOP #Dems #Breitbart PLEASE RT 

Tweet 2: ... [Ron Paul] suptrs...it is not our principle destroying this country, it is their lack of principle destroying this country. 

Tweet 3: It's a blatant violation of the 10th Amendment, and I am appalled that SCOTUS doesn't see that. 

Tweet 4: understand the need but never a big fan especially now that they took away my "thanks but no thanks" away 

Tweet 5: I think it sucks. I'm sick of our rights being violated. We are a free country? Yeah fucking right! Who's free? Not Me! #RonPaul

There are some tweeters who confine their posts to generalized statements and axioms, also at a near-hysterical pace. Hours after the health care ruling was announced, one die-hard Paul fan, lets call him TellHarry, had posted nothing at all to express his sentiments on the issue unlike scores of his compatriots. Several hours later, though, he retweeted somebody's else thoughts on it. Someone who suggested Justice Kagan was the one unfairly allowed to participate: "KAGEN SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ALLOWED TO RULE.! Obamacare wins: SCOTUS upholds individual mandate" 

Justice Kagan has little to do with the decision and the argument that suggests she should have recused herself is weak. Justice Roberts, after all, was the unanticipated swing vote. Nonetheless, TellHarry has 2500 loyal, polite and passionate fans and his messages tend to focus on broad pronouncements rather than specific policies. Maybe TellHarry is undecided -perhaps he wasn't entirely sure what the health care mandate would mean to him, in real terms. After all, he still isn't vitriolic on the issue like many other Paul supporters were that day. He was not short on passion either; TellHarry posts a tweet every day, on average, every 10 minutes and on the day of the ruling, again his posts were no different. Most are his own tweets, some are retweets. Here is the edited feed two hours after the health care judgment was announced:

Tweet 1: The politicians were talking themselves red, white and blue in the face. 

Tweet 2: Republicans and Democrats are all bunch of yo-yos controlled by Saudi Oil $$$ and Greed. 

Tweet 3: Our entire financial system is made to make the rich SUPER RICH by scamming all the rest of us. 

Tweet 4: The problem with political jokes is they get elected. 

Tweet 5: RT @DarrellIssa: Watch contempt live at fastandfuriousinvestigation.com 

Tweet 6: Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. It bears a very close resemblance to the first. 

Tweet 7: Agreed [someone's name]. 

Tweet 8: You have said it all. One Shi* bird for Another. This is the BEST WE CAN DO???? OBAMA & ROMNEY ?? 

Tweet 9: [someone's name], Thanks. We need to think out of the box. 
Tweet 10: Please sign this change.org petition and DEMAND INVESTIGATION AGAINST WELLS FARGO: chn.ge/QsB2DQ. 

Tweet 11: A statesman is enamored of existing evils,as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others. 

Tweet 12: Please sign this change.org petition and STOP BANKS from fraudulent foreclosures: chn.ge/ODzx8x 

Tweet 13: Rand Paul's support for Romney the THIEF = throwing the American Legend Ron Paul under Romney's election campaign bus.

The Paul fan base is a muddled bunch. But Paul voters have been sweeping a few state parties across the country with striking alacrity. They have gained the majority of Republican delegates in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota and Louisiana and their supporters are undeterred in their enthusiasm. 

In the New Hampshire primary, Ron Paul supporters overwhelmingly earned less than $200,000 a year. That segregates Paul voters from Romney voters in that state. In the Iowa primary, the Paul group crossed all education levels and the faction won a majority of the vote, garnering 23 of the state's 28 delegates. They are highly diverse pool of people in opinions that they hold and these voters disagree amongst themselves on a range of political issues. Nonetheless, they have aggregated a critical union. Their concerns over topics like the health care debate do not all match up with Romney voters. A January 2012 national Reason-Rupe poll considered the issue:

Although many political pundits intransigently continue to perceive the political world as a dichotomy along a left-right political spectrum, Paul's success appears to be largely owed to the many Americans who do not fit neatly along a socially/economically liberal vs. socially/economically conservative spectrum. Instead, he attracts a diverse group, with many self-identifying as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

But the startling number of inconsistent, clashing sources of information many Paul voters and others read on the web is mind-numbing. On the day the Supreme Court ruling passed, here are two links posted by the same person, an ardent Ron Paul fan.

Post 1: A link to an article titled, "Health care ruling could leave poorest Americans at greatest risk." (From MSNBC). Under it, someone posted, "it always does.." 

Post 2: The user wrote: "Chief Justice Roberts actually ruled the mandate, relative to the commerce clause, was unconstitutional." Then she posted a link to a statement from the Ron Paul website titled, "Statement on Supreme Court Obamacare Decision"
(at paul.house.gov). Three people 'liked' the statement.

In the first Facebook post, it is clear this voter, lets call her Eleanor, cares deeply about how the health care law will affect the poor. In the second, she thinks that because the mandate was ruled unconstitutional under the commerce clause, the Court has struck down the whole law. In fact, the law was ruled constitutional under the taxation power of Congress.

Combining these judgments together, one might see she has constructed a new reality, in which: a) President Obama does not care for the poor, and: b) that the Supreme Court can identify constitutional action, perhaps, but that President Obama will overrule such action because he will presumably exercise executive privilege of some sort over the Court's decision. The former is highly unlikely and the latter is impossible. But the impact of this mix-up, compounded by the volume of data Eleanor has consumed, reflects she is misinformed.

In response to the ruling that day, Eleanor posted 80 stories over a 9-hour period. She included articles from 32 websites:  MSNBC, governor.virginia.gov, foxnewsinsider.com, ronpaul.com, huffingtonpost.com, boston.com, politico, reason.com, theblaze.com, yahoo.com, businessweek.com, thehill.com, csmonitor.com, gopconvention2012, ijreview.com, libertycrier.com, examiner.com, lewrockwell.com, capitolcolumn.com, money.cnn.com, businessinsider.com, dailycaller.com, washingtonpost.com, newsday.com, foxreno.com, policymic.com, blogs.ajc.com, paulfestival.org, wnd.com, foxnews.com, healthcareitnews.com, and tenthamendmentcenter.com. She also consumed dozens of graphic images, memes, cartoons and photos that day from unidentified sources. Her confusion about the future is evident; indeed, it is not a stretch to surmise from her distressed posts that she is terrified. The tenor of her conversations, and those of her Facebook friends, are for the most part, compassionate but ambivalent. Another post was a graphic that read:

Now It's The ObamaCare Tax 
Feeling 'suckered' yet, middle class America?

Under it, Eleanor's friends had responded on her wall.

Friend 1: "The poor deserve medical treatment as well as those who can afford it, your just too right wing." 

Eleanor: "Love it so we are going to make everyone poor now instead of helping the few. Watch how many jobs this cost." 

Friend 2: [to Friend 1] "... that's a very simplistic view. Not trying to be rude but, read what is in his plan. The taxes are the least of what we will receive from this plan!" 

Eleanor: "Someone has to pay for it [Friend 1]. Who is paying for it? We already have 20% unemployment and now more companies will leave the states." 

Friend 3: "But Eleanor, who are we going to vote for instead? The people are so blind that they do not understand that they are being right/lefted to death. What's the solution?"

Eleanor has reached the limit on the number of new friends she can add to her feed. She also has 1,200 subscribers, which means that altogether there are over 6,000 people receiving her posts. (The Facebook feed limit is 5,000.) Based on the things I saw on her page, this one, in my view, most closely matches her sentiment when it comes to the Affordable Care Act.

In a range of published articles, democracy scholars and political scientists are finding that news coverage these days heavily favors the well-educated at the expense of everyone else, and that the internet has created a media climate in which most Americans are spectacularly misled by what they read. While information is a boon to many and raises levels of political knowledge and connectedness to politics, it also leaves in its wake a trail of confusion. People learn the most not from newspaper articles that highlight complex legislative questions, but rather from highly condensed, digestible material presented at just slightly above the elementary school level. Even among elite groups of news consumers, complex information does not lead to better knowledge when it comes to politics. And those least educated benefit most from television. Doris Graber, a political scientist, suggested the impact of the news in its current form in a 2004 academic research article (emphasis added):

News stories often overwhelm people with more facts and figures and even pictures than they can readily absorb...Stories are routinely written or narrated at an eighth-grade, or even twelfth-grade, comprehension level that ignores the fact that most American adults do not function comfortably above a sixth-grade level.

Political scientists Jennifer Jerit, Jason Barabas and Toby Bolsen tested some of these patterns in their research on the relationship between levels of news coverage and political knowledge among American voters. In a 2006 research article they stated:

Expert commentary and contextual coverage typically are considered indicators of quality in news reporting, however, citizens with low education seem the least able to digest this type of information.

They also found that in mapping the links between volume, news and education, a crowded news environment favors those most educated by a significant margin. However, even among this group, on topics that were more arcane, the more educated and lesser educated were both equally likely to answer incorrectly when asked specific political questions. And so, what about those new fact-checker websites? Given the research described, as well as the trends showing many get their news from comedy and graphics, it is hard to predict what the impact of such websites might really be. 


Polarization in the news is not hypothetical; it has become reality. Indeed, in historical terms, the country has never been more politically divided. A study this year by Reuters revealed that an overwhelmed internet space does impact our confidence overall, as news consumers, and hampers our abilities to sort information. Even highly educated consumers of news lingered far longer on questions they were asked when presented with extra data. In other words, when they had less to choose from, they responded more confidently. When they were presented with more stuff, they spent more time corroborating knowledge, matching it up piece by piece, going back-and-forth, over and over, comparing the bits the had with what they found available online. (The sample set was a group of a few hundred business school students.)

We all have approaches to tackling the knowledge web. Sticking to what you know is comforting and reassuring. It can also be counterproductive when it comes to politics. The second observation that came out of the Reuters study was that people migrated more readily toward the people whose opinions they agreed with, and isolated themselves from others. Such action, though understandable, has implications for burgeoning political movements in a democratic, two-party system.

To test the rigidity of our two-party political circles, I began my own petri-dish sized political experiment. For 30 days, I resolved that I would develop an active identity as a swing voter on Twitter and Facebook. (This is hardly far from the truth, in fact. I am rather discouraged by both parties these days.) I decided I would reach out to the Ron Paul faction and learn what they knew and thought, retweet their posts when I agreed or found their thoughts interesting -and try to rally them toward a unified coalition across the partisan spectrum that sought changes in government. Within my Facebook feed, I would engage my liberal friends to consider a switch to the other side.

Yes, polarization on both sides is real -that's what I discovered. But Ron Paul supporters I had never met were more welcoming to the idea of becoming Democrats than my friends were in turning Republican. In fact, I managed to scare more than a few when I suggested it. I started to propose that Marco Rubio, for instance, was a sensible candidate one could rally around and posted that to Facebook. Minutes later, a friend I had not seen in years, lets call him Greg, posted a note to my wall:

Pia: Are you a Republican now? Your last few FB posts have surprised me a little.

I responded.

Thanks for writing. I'm a truth seeker and the Democrats have either been really naïve or simply outwitted by Republicans. I'm tired of being on the losing side. I want my voice to be heard.

Suddenly, the action picked up (a little). I have, after all, never been a feisty social media wunderkind; so I was surprised by swift replies from college friends and far-flung colleagues I had not spoken to since my teens. Another friend, lets call her Joan, whom I have not seen in fifteen years, wrote in hours later with her analysis.

The Republicans have driven the entire national dialogue so far to the right with their intransigence that even the democrat position is now right wing. I agree that this was very crafty on their part, and I do admire their organizational skills. The democrats suffer from being a party both of principled leftists and of very very moderate or even right wing politicians. This causes them, as a party, to hold a variety of policy opinions and prevents them from voting as a bloc. This seems like inaction, but it is really the way Congress is supposed to work. Congressmen are supposed to represent their constituents, not toe the party line. 

I think it sends the wrong message to support the Republicans right now. It seems like that represents compromise, but it just sends a message that you want policy to move farther right (you want to invade Iran? you want to deregulate banks? you want to cut social welfare and shut down the EPA?) when we're in a global financial and social crisis that could easily lead to another world war. The Republican party has already screwed things up enough. They aren't looking for compromise. They are looking to put another Republican in the White House so they can go back to lining their pockets regardless of how much the country suffers for it.

Joan is a physicist and holds a doctorate from Stanford. She is confident of what she believes. Many others are too. Hours after she posted, I answered. Again, I suggested the two-party system was in need of retooling, and that maybe the Republican Party could even use a few Democrats. Hours later, in a show of unity with Joan, a few other friends (she did not know) began to 'like' her comment. My cousin spoke to me by phone and explained that Ron Paul has an inconsistent platform -and that, this is something I should consider. My mother called and asked me incredulously: "you are Republican now?" She tried to stave her indignation.  My husband wrote me e-mails from work suggesting I take it down a notch because people might misunderstand the experiment. I have since gained 10 conservative Twitter followers, a whopping rise since I began my foray into social media; and I have chosen to tone down my messages. It has been less than two weeks, and I am still learning how divided we have become.

The allergy on the part of liberals to find common ground with supporters of the other side of the party does cost something. In terms of the Paul movement, for instance, it is driving those supporters into the arms of more extreme Tea Party advocates. Many Tea Partiers have also voted for Paul in large measure. Retail politics in such a climate (for good reason) privileges human interaction and authenticity over vague, unrealized policy precepts and a blind adherence to platitudes on both sides.

The passing of the Citizens United judgment in the Supreme Court earlier this year will further complicate the situation because the obsessive focus by the media on transparency and nitty-gritty details will cost us more sincerity in our political communication. The Supreme Court judgment effectively allows contributors to bundle unlimited amounts of money into larger campaign organizations -called SuperPACs -that can run negative campaign ads. Such campaigning relies on the idea that hurtling faux 'transparent' judgments at candidates (saying, for instance, that, "Mitt Romney's poor record at creating jobs has hurt Massachusetts because the state was 47 out of 50 in national rankings that measure this trait") can quickly skew the information architecture in favor of one candidate or another (in this case, benefiting President Obama). But the larger question over whether Mitt Romney actually created jobs in Massachusetts is obscured once the complaint is made. Why?  Because we are inclined to consider a binary view of the issue although, in fact, no answers may be available to such a question. Real transparency is compromised. The result is that Obama supporters seize on a false bit of "news"; and Romney supporters lob another insult back at the President in return (claiming, for instance, that President Obama's health care plan suggests he wants to "socialize" America). Again, the latter cannot be proved but it has a factual ring to it -it sounds right because a mandate that compels every citizen to participate is a form of government interference. But, neither "fact" is really a fact at all -instead, both points are simply inaccurate judgments.

Somebody somewhere will have to decide which judgments are right, or worse still, which are good enough to live with. But the reason the feud develops and balloons online, on cable or elsewhere, is because of an unswerving belief in the power of transparency alone to clear up the argument. (If there exists a ranking, for instance, that features Massachusetts at number 47 in creating jobs, and Romney was governor of the state while it happened -why, then it must be true that Romney caused the drop in rankings. The numbers have been applied and used effectively in helping to proliferate a false judgment. So, although the judgment is false, the facts may well be true. The emphasis on transparency leads us to evade larger questions.)

In an environment where websites and blogs rapidly proliferate, neither judgment can be properly corrected or corroborated. How do we know which side is good enough to believe? Which belief is one that we can truly live with? And what about whether Governor Romney will, in fact, downsize American jobs or whether insurance premiums will rise once President Obama's health care law takes effect? Ultimately, we are now in the process of trusting fewer people to present us with these truths. Few believe in the absolute credibility of the New York Times. Far fewer believe the judgments of Fox News. On either side of the political spectrum, each argument gets angrier and noisier; and more disillusionment follows with every subsequent bit of online trivia, blog or cable news feed. Lessig considered exactly this point in his essay by describing the particular reason why "naked transparency" can be counterproductive (emphasis added):

The point ... is not that the public isn't smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological. It is what we would hope everyone would do, if everyone were rational about how best to deploy their time. Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings.

In such cases, whether or not transparency is 'good' is hardly the point. Neither is the suggestion to add more 'good' information to the argument. It is being swallowed up by the internet news machine in a big way: fact, data, judgment, whatever, matters far less in this climate than it should. Sheer volume, instead, is having an impact -it is poisoning the political space and costing us authentic human contact and deliberation.


The Credibility Gap 

The impact of voluminous argument online can be measured most tellingly by the credibility gap between those in power and those who are on the receiving end of government policy. The editorial writer, Thom Friedman, has already acknowledged the sheer proliferation of opinion on the internet being one source of the problem. But more revealing was the view of a commenter on The New York Times website who responded to the columnist's recent editorial on the topic in rather candid terms.

From Portland 
Just like an overabused pancreas, which finally gives up dispensing insulin, so the American public, so abused by those in power with their constant lies and obfuscation of facts, has no trust whatsoever for whomsoever is in office. Our lives are bombarded with lies on a daily, if not hourly basis. If you watch TV you are assailed with lies about every product pitched between sound bites called sitcoms or "news". It will take a lot of work to regain our trust. Right now I don't think that there is anything a politician could say that an intelligent person could possibly believe.

Opinions like the kind from Portland are not uncommon. They cross party lines and contrast sharply with how news media has been viewed in the past; but few in positions of influence, in the media or elsewhere, have managed to address the problem.  Most people in the press have instead continued to seize on the need for more transparency, in other words –more information… and more news. 

In 1938, the first Gallup survey ever taken found 73 percent of people thought the press was “fair” in its coverage.  By 1997, a Newseum/Freedom Forum survey revealed that 63 percent of Americans thought that news was manipulated by special interests.  Half felt it was too biased or negative in tone.  The credibility numbers these days are far worse.  If the majority of Americans do not believe what the media has on offer, one naturally has to reflect on its limits.  Contrary to what reporters say and believe, in its current form, modern journalism is not accomplishing many of the goals it once sought to achieve.

The question is not over whether or not we need transparency (we do).  But in a climate characterized by the enormous influx of political donations and innumerable web distractions, citizen blogs and opinions, we need credible, moderate views in highly digestible form; and political commentators with far more clout among government officials than even Thom Friedman can muster.  Those, in other words, who can dissect and track highly complex legislation on a regular basis, reach across party lines to appeal to all of us; but especially those in the conservative, effective and highly organized Republican base who presently hold far more influence than the political left.  We need such commentators to do some of the thinking for us, temper the anger and provide truly viable judgments and ideas.  Indeed, the need for such journalists has never been more pressing.

In previous decades, editorializing on policy making as needed, and in complex circumstances, was a task an institution like The New York Times was respected for, and took rather seriously.  Take these two descriptions by Talese of James Reston, a Times journalist who began working as a columnist in 1953.  He retired as the executive editor of the newspaper in 1989.  Reston was a moderate in American political life, lauded for his modesty.  In his obituary, he is credited for being “perhaps the most influential journalist of his generation.”  Reston wrote extensively in his column on the Vietnam War and civil rights movement.  Here, Talese describes Reston’s perspective on the Cold War. 

When The Times would publish a series of articles out of Washington revealing that the government was selling more arms around the world than any other nation, while government officials were making speeches deploring the international arms race, Reston would attempt to put things in perspective by reminding readers that the Russians were selling arms, too, and that it was in the “vital interest” of the United States to maintain control of the Middle East oil wells against possible aggression by Soviet-armed Arabs.

Talese says Reston was “not so sure” about the influence the press wielded at the time.  But according to Talese,

Reston himself on occasions during his career encouraged or inhibited political decisions by his words in The Times; and in the Time magazine cover story about him it was said that he sometimes planted one of his own ideas with government officials and, after being assured that it would be discussed, he wrote in The Times about the idea that was under consideration without hinting that he was its originator. 

Much has transpired in the news business since the 1960s.  Some would simply dismiss editorializing of the kind Reston practiced as outright unethical.  Others might wonder what side of the political fence of an argument might be affected if journalism were practiced in such a manner today –and judge it in those terms.  Many more would fear that transparency on a range of important topics might be compromised, as they were then.

Formidable disclosures and investigations on the part of reporters who published the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon era elevated the status of those in the news profession and helped restore public faith in the media.  Soon after, however, media organizations began to indulge in these accolades, and the trend to corporatize and coalesce media outlets began to take off. 

But it is not unique to the 70s and 80s that news organizations have feasted so deliberately on terrible woes and human interest stories –that pattern has existed since the inception of the business.  Even in 1949, nearly 40 percent of the American public believed the media was too sensational.  H. L. Mencken, editor of the Baltimore Sun, wrote in a 1930s issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

The primary purpose of a newspaper crusade is to ‘give a good show’ by first selecting a deserving victim and then putting him magnificently to the torture.

A few years before Mencken wrote, Republican owner-editor Henry Luce, a fiercely aggressive, wildly successful journalist started Time magazine and openly stated at the outset:

[C]omplete neutrality on public questions and important news is probably as undesirable as it is impossible.

That he admitted this early into his publishing career did not, however, affect the credibility of the media he was producing.  He even publicly included a motto for Time:

-A prejudice against the rising cost of government. -Faith in the things which money cannot buy. -A respect for the old, particularly in manners. -An interest in the new, particularly in ideas. -“To keep men well-informed”—that, first and last, is the only axe this magazine has to grind.

Things have indeed changed.  Most of all, however, there has been the need to fill many more hours of the day with news, a circumstance that has bled from television into print and to the web.  Today, the revolution that began thirty years ago with cable television has ambushed us with content, and developed our awesome appetites for vast and ‘unprocessed’ data everywhere, including on the internet.  By ‘unprocessed’ I mean unverified, reductive or untrue, and this shift is leading us into a carnival of distractions online –that has infected our politics.

Since the data revolution on 24-hour cable television first began, news professionals have unsurprisingly become a rather discredited bunch.  Ratings by news consumers on what is credible continue to dip.  CNN, in particular, is beginning to enter a new phase of decline as bloggers gain ascendency in an unmediated news environment –and the dearth of daring, hard, opinionated reporting coupled with media credibility.  Fewer people can capably grasp a holistic context for what they see, despite an evident need for it.  Technology has only exacerbated the desire to read and consume information.  On the flip side, shrinking profits have meant news professionals are leaving the business in droves.  City newspapers are losing their grip on local markets as readers move to the web for access to more knowledge.  

The art of political clout

Americans are gathering a good deal of information about government and their legislators online.  A quotation from the Pew website:

Government interactions in the information age are often fueled by data,” said Aaron Smith, a Research Specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and author of a report based on a new national phone survey. “Online citizens can—and often do—‘go to the source’ in their efforts to monitor government activities, evaluate the impacts of new legislation, and track the flow of their tax dollars.

People truly want to know why government is not working.  The reason is not because knowing alone is going to help them, but because they want to figure out, in the simplest terms, how to fix it.  To do so, what will not help is pouring more information online, but instead empowering those who can craft discrete political clout with lawmakers.

There was little that was attractive about the old ways of backroom dealing between reporters and the government in the 1960s.  But the public trusted the media anyway.  Why?  A lot had to do with trusting the individuals who made news.  Nothing, perhaps, reveals this more profoundly in its nastiest form than The Columnist, a new play on Broadway, which proffers a fictionalized account of syndicated opinion journalist Joseph Alsop’s grip over beltway politics in Washington.  A war hawk, Alsop's reporting had an adverse impact on the conflict in Vietnam, and dragged Kennedy, Johnson (and McNamara) deeper into it. 

Reston too was an arbiter of politics and his ties in Washington meant that, more often than not, his hands were never clean.  But knowing deeply how the strings were tied behind the scenes meant Reston considered his task one imbued both with nuance and fact, and it affected how he wrote news.  Context, in other words, made him careful.  He also used his influence to press lawmakers to change their behavior.

But few examples speak as clearly to the invisible efforts of reporters to stack the deck for good cause than those of Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham, who led the institution between 1946 and 1963.  Journalists of our generation place little emphasis on it today, but Graham cemented Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson’s position on the vice-presidential ticket back in July 1960, after it became apparent Kennedy had won enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency. 

Graham (and Joe Alsop) negotiated with Senator John F. Kennedy (JFK), highlighting Johnson’s appeal in the south.  When Robert F. Kennedy tried in response to suggest an alternate role for the Texan Senator (offering Johnson to take up the position of Chairman of the Democratic National Committee instead), Graham confronted JFK directly.  According to Graham’s notes, cited in Katharine Graham's book A Personal History, on a call with the publisher of the Post, JFK was calm and reaffirmed his intent to add Johnson to the ticket, saying that, “Bobby’s been out of touch and doesn’t know what’s been happening.”  Shortly thereafter, JFK drafted Johnson for the vice-presidency.  Lyndon B. Johnson became a significant political figure but his role in the White House began with messy handwringing by Phillip Graham, a moderate Washington power broker who had already considered the impact Johnson might have unifying the country. 

There were few other than Graham that could have mediated as boldly between Senator Kennedy and his brother – but Graham is scarcely remembered for it.  

Like most people, the Post’s publisher had his share of flaws.  He was also among the first to forcefully suggest to Johnson that he consider endorsing civil rights legislation in an effort to draw Northern liberals closer to him, something Graham persisted with well long after Kennedy was elected.  Graham could do the things he did, perhaps, because he was also beholden to nobody else.  Regardless, he had left his imprint on history.


Fewer newspapers are viable business units now and this has hurt original reporting; but also, the plethora of new reports, videos and things has undermined reporters as unbiased traders in political knowledge.  The data deluge has sapped our attention from difficult issues, thinned hard truths and steered us away from those with reasoned or unpalatable views.  

In a more fragmented news environment, there is also detachment by the press when it comes to finding solutions to endemic political problems. Actively diffusing partisan gridlock, for instance, is rarely considered a journalist’s responsibility these days.  Graham would have objected to the sort of reporting that prides transparency and efficiency over temperament, national interest and judgment. Greater transparency is certainly for the better, but extreme sanctimoniousness by the press in a fractured climate happens not only because journalists are principled.  It also happens to be good business.  

Attending to the bottom line, for all reporters, publishers, editors and the like, has become critical.  But myopia on the part of newsmakers is helping them dig their own graves.  Unable to set themselves apart from net chatter, journalists are losing appeal.  Opinion columnists are no longer the harbingers of new ideas they once were.

What next?

Transparency, though valuable, cannot substitute for participative democracy.  The US Congress has become erringly locked in a waltz no single politician, reporter or citizen has the clout to dissolve.  And yet, there is more blogging, intelligent opinion and capable technology than ever.  Tools have illuminated unipolar, obvious causes, but they have yet to bring coherence to complex political decision-making.  

Compromises will emerge once the majority of the mainstream news focuses on what is useful for the public in both parties to value and understand.  More generally, we ought to find new ways to take responsible journalists seriously.  On a practical level this may mean creating technologies that filter, cultivate and privilege thoughtful voices.  It may also mean endorsing those reporters with a broader outlook who highlight worthy data, but also have moderate, rather than left-leaning, judgments.  Those who can speak in videos, graphics, humor and digestible materials will have a longer shelf life.  As both citizens and journalists we must consider how to move away from the rhetoric of both political parties, and restore public faith in the mission of an opinionated, influential mainstream press.  And we ought to find a way to place more power back in the arms of reporters.

Pia Sawhney has been an independent journalist and documentarian since 2003.  Her films and reports have been published and/or featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Variety magazine.  She has covered long-form political stories on immigration, terrorism, national security, leak investigations and the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.