1/27/08

Pro-union journalism fails democracy

Democracy is fragile. This year's presidential primary proves that our democracy is approaching a breaking point. The triumvirates of capitalism, democracy and American values are the pillars that have made the United States a great nation, but our democracy is crumbling and American values are eroding. The burden to correct these frightening trends rests on each of us.

American values oscillate and shift over time, but seven long years of aggressive conservative ideology under George W. Bush has accelerated the corrosion of our core principals and values. National complacency, apathy and a lack of American spirit has empowered the brazen shift in America by the ideological influencers of this administration.

Today, if America speaks of freedom, democracy and human rights, we are hypocrites, despite our long record of standing on high moral ground. As a nation, we can begin to restore our American values by acknowledging the mistakes and incompetence displayed by our government (the government, not the troops) in invading Iraq, neglecting the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, and the abuse of executive power by the Bush administration.

The demise of our democracy has progressed over the decades from small cracks of concerns to major fissures requiring decisive steps to mend. Our founding fathers recognized that a majority rule democracy requires the electorate to be informed, knowledgeable and vested in the government. Fostered by the First Amendment to the Constitution (freedom of the press), we became a nation of newspaper readers; journalism was the glue that fortified our democracy and informed and educated us. Many journalists helped expose corruption, held politicians accountable, and provided the facts and perspectives the candidates avoided.

A healthy democracy requires participation and easily accessible and accurate information to function effectively. Over the years, the emphasis of the media shifted to entertainment and away from the conscious of our democracy. Without independent, trusted, fair and unbiased journalism, our election process has insufficient checks and balances. The information void has been filled by political factions leveraging the tools of mass marketing; focus groups, fear, faith, uncertainty, doubt and celebrity endorsements to manipulate enough emotions to create a majority.

Through the Internet, cable TV programs, blogs, and radio talk shows, there are more media options, but these are almost exclusively focused on serving niche markets. Political mass marketing is now tailored to manipulate each market segment, many of which are now owned by News Corp. (Fox) or GE. This is capitalism at work. We have options to choose from countless slanted sources. The neutral, factual, informative information is available, but requires a commitment and an effort beyond what most Americans are willing to invest. We are a capitalistic society in a competitive world, so we have no choice but to accept the evolution of our media.

We have arrived at the point where the Jan. 11 Wall Street Journal promoted a presidential primary story by Dorothy Rabinowitz as "the best drama on TV." That pretty much sums up what the presidential primary is for the media. They build the drama, from putting the leading characters front and center in the debates, moderator questions and time pandering to those they have designated to be the main characters, lead stories focused on mudslinging and building suspense for the big show.

In New Hampshire, we had seen much of Sen. Clinton's marketing efforts, including leveraging the gender differential. Voting to make history is irresponsible and only achieves an academic footnote. We do not make history; history makes lessons and Sen. Clinton proved that drama takes center stage. Can a nation infatuated with reality TV programs discern the difference between a campaign stunt and reality?

In the weekend preceding the N.H. primary, Sen. Clinton's emotional moment was not the tears from crushed ambitions, the fear of failure and the specter or facing all those wealthy donors, rather scripted lines about wanting to do so much for our country. The well-documented performance with an all-female group of supposedly undecided voters garnered front pages, top spots on Internet news feeds, and the nation's attention.

Will America be able to break free from the grip of money, media and factions controlling our government? If we continue to forfeit control of our government to well-funded and organized extremes, we have no one to blame but ourselves. It is our taxes, our elected officials, our value system, our country and our responsibility to make America, America again.

Here are a few suggestions to help the people regain control of our federal government.

First, the presidential primary system must be restored to a process that lowers the barriers to allow for more candidates to participate, a process that favors informed voters and allows for individuals to debate, discuss and create a much more thorough hiring process for U.S. president. Today's front-loaded primary schedule is slanted to protect the investment in a candidate by minimizing the opportunities for a critical stumble (remember Howard Dean's scream) and to maximize the money advantage of a campaign that is dependent on mass advertising and media coverage.

The Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary, South Carolina and possibly a small Western state should remain since they force candidates to meet one-on-one with the voters. These proving-ground states must be separated by at least two or three weeks.

The rest of the states should be divided into six or seven regions of roughly equivalent delegates. The regions will vote three weeks apart and the order will rotate each election cycle. Some years, the last vote will be critical, others the first or middle; the key is that no state will be marginalized by the process. These regional voting blocs will provide much-needed savings for a broader field of candidates (resources and travel).

Second, we must get the nation to participate. Approximately half of all eligible voters register and make it to the polls for a presidential election. That is a failing grade by any measure. All citizens need to be energized and committed to participating in our democracy.

Patriotism, a great pride and personal commitment to protect our American values and rights, needs to part and parcel with voting. There should be no limit to the "carrot" approaches we use to reinvigorate a national participatory movement. However, we have so much ground to cover and so little time, a few "sticks" will be required.

One approach is to make the existing tax credits and deductions (including dependents eligible to vote) conditional on being registered to vote and ideally voting. Nothing is being taken away; we just need to earn the right to receive the tax deduction by participating in our democracy. The federal government can deploy this at the federal income tax level and leave the states and municipalities to implement solutions that match the varying tax codes. For those who do not participate, they are not entitled to the same benefits as their neighbors who choose to keep our democracy healthy.

While adding any governmental step is inherently bureaucratic, costly and inefficient, I would like to believe with today's and tomorrow's technology, this incremental burden can be minimized.

Third, we still face the same dilemma of how to ensure that the electorate is focused, understands the issues, and is independent of the never-never land mentality the media and extreme political factions create. A real demand to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates and their positions creates a market. If journalists cannot capture the attention of the electorate, then the entertainment industry or other entrepreneurs will step up to fill the void.

As the primaries role across the country, so will the education and factual interest of the voters. We can have Celebrity Election Jeopardy — debate winners and losers will be tracked real time through the Internet and text message voting, and registered voters win prizes and money participating in online and in-store educational games. Voting wards, then towns, cities and counties, would compete to win incremental funding for the local school systems. Funding will be provided by a dollar-for-dollar match from the nonvoting entities of corporations, PACs and unions as well as individuals who contribute above a threshold amount.

As a nation, we can choose to implement these types of changes to restore democracy or allow our country and our money to be controlled by the winners of popularity contests and a government catering to extreme factions and oligopolies. If we do not act, democracy will continue to degrade to the point were we have the Evangelist Capital Building, the GE or Fox FCC, the UAW Department of Labor, the Halliburton Statehouse, the Planned Parenthood Department of Health, the ExxonMobil District Court, the Department of Blackwater Security, or the local Viagra Fire Department.

We have no excuse for not recognizing that our democracy is approaching a breaking point. All those celebrity-style Rudy and Hillary campaign signs are screaming, "Democracy is falling."

(seacoastonline.com)

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