Assembling democracy

January 16, 2007 | By | Reply More

Imagine that you’ve been given a huge box, hundreds of yards on each side, filled with hundreds of millions of parts.  Imagine that you been told that it is your job to assemble all of those parts into a single functioning machine.

To your dismay, though, you can’t find any assembly manual.  Imagine your frustration!  It’s hard enough to assemble much simpler household products without their manuals.  Without instructions, then, how can you possibly assemble hundreds of millions of parts into a functional whole?

Just as there are hundreds of millions of parts in this hypothetical machine, there are hundreds of millions of flesh and blood Americans.  Together, we constitute a complex adaptive system of an unimaginably huge number of permutations of interactive possibility. 

A vigorous media is the instruction manual for our democracy.  It tells us how we fit together by telling us important things about each other.  A healthy media doesn’t merely tell us information. To accomplish this, it must also listen to the stories that matter to each of us.  A healthy media is necessarily interactive.

The decision to have vigorous media is therefore an affirmation that each person has a significant story to tell.  A free and vigorous media allows the people to become self-assembling parts of a Democratic whole.  When we are well-informed, we know the real-life possibilities for interacting with each other. 

To function smoothly and efficiently as a democracy, we often need to work closely together, in a coordinated fashion. A healthy media system allows us to know each other’ stories.  Knowing each others’ stories allows us to coordinate working with each other.  It keeps us from blindly bumping into one another.  Coordinating our actions with each other allows us to anticipate each others’ needs and wants, thereby avoiding unnecessary conflict.  At bottom, Democracy fueled by wide-open interactive knowledge is a matter of efficiency

It is critical to note that this process of assembling ourselves into a functioning whole is an ongoing process.  It never stops.  Therefore, a true democracy that ceases to have a healthy media continues to be a democracy in name only.

Without a depth of understanding of the numerous other people with whom we share our country (and planet), we will be guided by misunderstandings, conflict and violence.  In the absence of a free media, much of that violence will take the form of the state’s police power.  Without a free media, the state will strive to achieve order in the only way it understands: it will attempt to force us into ostensible order through top-down coercive tactics. Governing a complex adaptive social system in a top-down manner risks dangerous inefficiencies; it invites jamming parts of the system (citizens) into places where they don’t belong. Where we are kept in ostensible order by such tyranny, there is no need for the diversity of stories that characterize a bona fide media.

The two basic options for running a country, then, are A) bottom-up, grassroots democracy guided by a vigorous and freewheeling media that informs us about each other or B) a top-down pretend democracy motivated by fear, where that fear is a dysfunctional substitute for meaningful information.If there is no legitimate media (no instruction manual for democracy), there can be no functioning democracy.

If you don’t really want a democracy, you don’t need a free press.  Consequently, those who don’t cherish a vigorous and freewheeling media do not cherish a healthy democracy.  We must never let them try to tell us otherwise. 

It is true that there can be a pretend democracy if there is a pretend media. Unfortunately, that is what we have been working toward for several decades. 

But now there is more hope.  Thousands of media advocates are leading the charge, many of them presenting their ideas this weekend in Memphis. 

There are many heroes in this movement, including the FCC’s one-two punch: Commissioner Michael J. Copps and Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein are fighting for us and 
Commissioner Copps has recently declared war on those who want to further sicken our democracy by further poisoning our media.

Here’s one way we can shift from defense to offense – one way to demand that the nation’s media moguls hold up their end of the bargain with the American people.

I’m here to propose that we replace the bad old bargain that past FCCs struck with the media moguls with a new American Media Contract. It goes like this. We, the American people have given broadcasters free use of the nation’s most valuable spectrum, and we expect something in return. We expect this:

1. A right to media that strengthens our democracy
2. A right to local stations that are actually local
3. A right to media that looks and sounds like America
4. A right to news that isn’t canned and radio playlists that aren’t for sale
5. A right to programming that isn’t so damned bad so damned often.

To make this fight personal to you, use Media Tracker to check out the way in which your media outlets have been absorbed by national corporations that have no regard for state and local programming.  You will be astounded.

The Media Tracker (sponsored by the Center for Public Integrity) will tell you who owns the media where you live. Type in your ZIP code or a city and state. Media Tracker will comb our database of more than 5 million records from government sources, corporate documents and original research.

Finally, here’s an illustration of how bad it can get when the media becomes unresponsive, when media ceases to allow use to work together (this is from the Fighting for Air:  The Battle to Control America’s Media (2007), by Eric Klinenberg):

For the residents of Minot, North Dakota, Clear Channel Communications is synonymous with disaster.  Early in the morning of January 18, 2002, a train derailment sent a cloud of poisonous gas drifting toward the small town.  Minot’s fire and rescue Department’s attempted to reach Clear Channel, which owned and operated all six local commercial radio stations, to warn residents of the approaching threat.  But in the age of canned programming and virtual DJs, there was no one in the conglomerate’s studio to answer the call.  The people of Minot were taken unaware.  The result: one deaths and more than a thousand injuries.

But such disasters are only the most dramatic illustration of big media’s indifference to the public interest . . .

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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Communication, Education, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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