Today the seemingly interminable campaign comes to an end. My feeling is that this was the first real internet election, where this medium dominated the process. The internet has been at the forefront of organizing, fundraising, news gathering and dissemination, and analysis. It has profoundly changed the dynamics of campaigning for good and bad, but mostly for the good.
The speed and unfiltered nature of the internet can lead to the propagation of wild stories about candidates that have no basis in fact, and this election had them in plenty. It had been both disturbing and amusing to read the wild stories that have circulated. But at the same time, the investigation of these stories and their debunking also took place rapidly.
In past elections, the last two weeks of a campaign were when all the really dirty tricks were pulled and laws bent or broken. Voters would get pamphlets and phone calls conveying scurrilous and false information about opposing candidates or there would be efforts at intimidating and otherwise suppressing the votes of supporters of opponents. Such things would start out largely local and small scale and by the time it became significant enough to reach the attention of the major media, it would be too late to investigate and debunk before the election, and after the election people were too tired and dispirited to care as much about things that were now moot.
But in the age of the internet, last minute smears are not as effective. Word quickly gets out as to what is happening locally and people can compare notes and do their own investigation and combat the smears almost in real time. So the window during which you can launch an unrebutted smear has become much smaller, down to just one or two days before the election.
To some extent, the major media has been complicit in its own demise by not realizing that they could still fill a vital niche by providing time for genuinely knowledgeable people to speak about topics. While the internet does allow for people to get direct unfiltered news, there is definitely a role for some filtering system that can bestow a seal of credibility to otherwise unknown people who have nevertheless important information to share. For example, when Terry Gross interviews people on her NPR radio show Fresh Air, I listen even if I don’t know the person simply because I assume that she would not put a total crackpot on the air. I have reasonable confidence that the interviewees have been screened and do have something useful to say, even if I disagree with them.
But much of the mainstream media has instead devoted far too much time to people and things that properly belong on the internet, namely trivial news and instant commentary and opinion by people who don’t know much more than you or me.
For example, in my hotel room when I was staying in Las Vegas, after being driven from the casinos by its noise and garishness, I decided to do what I only do when I am staying at a hotel, and turned on the cable TV news channels. I do this periodically to confirm to myself what a waste of time such programming is and it did not disappoint.
I watched CNN for about an hour or so. Both Anderson Cooper and Larry King spent an inordinate amount of time on the sad story of Ashley Todd, the young Republican campaign volunteer who made up a story about being assaulted by a black Obama supporter who carved the letter B on her cheek.
In that one hour of TV I must have seen her ‘perp walk’ (where an accused person is escorted by police from a building to a car with hands handcuffed behind her back) at least half a dozen times. What is the point? True, to make up a story of a black man assaulting a young white woman because of her politics during an election campaign in which race is bubbling to the surface was a terrible thing to do. But once it was clear that the whole thing was a hoax concocted by a seriously disturbed woman, the news element of the story was over. What remained was only of interest to psychologists. Why was it necessary to repeatedly humiliate her by showing the perp walk? Even though she did an awful thing, as a result of this repeated showing, my sympathies were with her. These perp walks are a form of voyeurism that we can do without.
The rest of the time on CNN was spent with a panel of four people (two Obama supporters and two McCain supporters) discussing (actually talking over and through each other) about the Todd case and its implications for the election, Joe Biden’s statement about the danger of a crisis and its implications for the election, the infighting in the McCain camp and its implications for the election, and Sarah Palin’s shopping spree and dismissal of fruit fly research and (you guessed it) its implications for the election.
In other words, it was a total waste of time. There was not a single substantive issue discussed in any way that would have enlightened the viewer or provided a deeper understanding of anything, not even historical context. Everything was discussed in terms of the political process here and now and what effect it would have on the voting. These ‘analysts’ love to pontificate on how ‘the voters’ would react to some trivial news when they have no better idea than you or me. The time would have been far better spent having someone knowledgeable talk about why people study fruit flies.
After watching for a little over an hour, I had had enough. What amazes me is that these talk shows continue to have an audience day after day! What do people watch them for? Any actual new information can be gleaned within the first few minutes introducing the topic. There seems to be hardly any time when a genuinely knowledgeable person on some issue is brought in and allowed to explain it in depth. And of course, one is forced to endure the repeated commercial breaks.
In the days before the internet I would be forced to watch such shows in the hope that between these gabfests they would have some actual news. But now I can find news about any topic with just a few clicks in a few minutes.
Which brings me back to the mystery of why people still watch these so-called ‘news’ shows now that the internet can satisfy their news needs. Is it for the gladiatorial nature of the verbal jousting, seeing it as an alternative form of competitive sports? Do people get pleasure in seeing ‘their’ team get the better of a verbal duel with the opposing team?
Is it to actually see what semi-famous people look like? I must admit that it is marginally interesting to see and hear people whose names were familiar to me only from reading things by them or about them. For example, I now know what Bay Buchanan looks like, for whatever that is worth. But that has only a fleeting novelty value.
There must be something about these shows that I am missing, that keeps viewers returning. But what is it? I am truly baffled.
POST SCRIPT: Christianity as crazy as Scientology?
Bill Maher discusses politics and religion with Jon Stewart.