Ron Paul’s appearance on Meet The Press last Sunday was immensely revealing for many reasons, not the least of which was his success (in the words of The Smirking Chimp) at “parrying each of Tim Russert’s attempts to find a gotcha moment with honesty and conviction — two things Russert was obviously unpracticed in dealing with.” What really jumped out at me, though, was what the interview revealed about the limitations of traditional political journalism as practiced in this country over the last century. It ain’t for nothin’ that newspaper and television reporters and pundits have steadily lost audience over the last decade to a new army of amateurs and outsiders — a world of information scarcity is being replaced by a world of information plenty, and political journalism’s place as the arbiter of public discourse is eroding fast.
For a model, let’s think about another behemoth that’s scrambled to react to the online revolution: the music business. From the birth of the record album until the 1990s, the business of popular music revolved around scarcity: albums (and 8-tracks, cassettes and cds) cost money to record, produce and distribute, so only a limited number of them could reach the public at a given time (before that, if people wanted music, they made it themselves). Recorded music created the new business of mass music distribution, and record companies and record stores HAD to act as filters, due to the fixed amount of shelf space available to sell recordings. And since their success as companies depended on selling reliably large numbers of albums and singles, the system was biased in favor of musicians and genres that presented little risk.
Radio only amplified this tendency, since playing records on the air is a terrifically successful way to promote music, but airtime is even more limited than shelf space. From “race music” to the psychedelic revolution to the birth of hip hop, new or niche styles had to fight for broader recognition, usually relying on an Elvis or a Nirvana to break out and demonstrate that an unfamiliar genre was commercially viable.
Then the digital revolution happened and this longstanding world order was upended: instead of a world of information scarcity, we now faced a world of information abundance. The music industry reacted with smug indifference at first and panic later, but the almost-inevitable result has been an explosion of new niches and the gradual decline of mass music brands. Very few bands fill stadiums these days, but plenty can sell enough tracks online to support themselves, and many more find that the free online distribution of their music helps build the tour audiences and t-shirt sales that 99% of working musicians have long depended on for an actual living. More and more musicians find that MySpace, blogs and informal or formal online social networks can quite effectively replace the mediator role that record companies have played for the past century.
American political reporting, particularly in its television form, suffered from similar limitations during the age of information scarcity. Only a relatively small amount of time could be devoted to political discussion on the air, so the topics discussed were equally limited. Once again, reporters, editors and commentators HAD to act as filters of what was discussed, though in this case the product they were “selling” was advertising time on their own shows rather than the shows themselves. Print journalists faced similar constraints, since newspapers had only so many column inches to devote to political coverage, particularly as the number of papers in this country declined in the 1960s.
How does Ron Paul’s Meet The Press interview fit into this story? The Internet has created room for an infinite number of political niches, but the traditional system of political journalism has yet to completely accept this fact. Look at the bulk of coverage of the presidential race: it’s horserace obsessed, for a start, but more than that, it’s focused on a handful of designated frontrunners to the exclusion of everyone else. How many questions did Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Tancredo and Chris Dodd receive at this year’s media-mediated debates? Not many, because they didn’t fit the filtering criteria of poll status and fundraising. They weren’t “serious” candidates because they weren’t mass candidates, in the same way that a band that might only sell 50,000 records wasn’t a “serious” player in the music market.
Look also at the commentators themselves — when was the last time you heard someone utter a phrase that seriously questioned the narrow consensus that passes for public discourse in this country? This applies to either end of the spectrum, too, regardless of those who see a liberal bias in political journalism. Abolish Medicare or Social Security? Crazy talk! Universal health care? Impossible, and probably socialist to boot. Limits on corporate citizenship? Not in this economy. Pacifism? Or REAL militarism, for that matter? You’ll never see a Noam Chomsky on the Sunday morning talk shows, and until this weekend, you wouldn’t have seen a Ron Paul. That was what was so refreshing — even though I agree with very little he says, at least his ideas had a chance to reach a television audience. And of course they did so only because his dedicated group of followers raised enough money to meet one of the traditional criteria of political viability.
In the current Newsweek, Andrew Romano examines the implications of the new world of long-tail politics largely through the prism of the parties and candidates, but the explosion of niches will ultimately hit political journalism itself if it wants to retain its authority and even utility. Ron Paul’s online rise shows the power of a dedicated niche, and many more will follow in his path. How long will it take the traditional mediators of our public discourse to notice that we care about a lot more issues than they seem to realize?