28 December 2011

If the media sets the agendas, and the medium is the message, what is the message?

The ever-entertaining saga of sage Ron Paul continues to entertain, baffle, irritate and inspire hoards of Americans across political spectra. His extremism, when coupled with the Tea Party on one side and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the other, has created an Overton window the size that this country has never experienced.

But the media's role throughout the event has been most interesting. As noted in a Salon.com post by Steve Kornacki, the media's ignorance of this Texas gynecologist's steadfast ideology has proven a double-edged sword — while he's not getting equal recognition as other GOP runners, his appeal has grown, perhaps even because of the media's exclusion. The media is, after all, a biased and consuming machine driven by political and ideological toadies, right? 

As Kornacki notes, the media's exclusion allowed Paul "to present himself to audiences on his own terms and helped him become something of a sympathetic figure. In effect, Paul was able to take advantage of the many  nontraditional means of communicating with voters that now exist without those voters being subjected to screaming mainstream press headlines about Paul controversies and gaffes."

But has the media's ignorance of Paul also given him credibility, because people are not trustworthy of the media? Could it be people feel sorry for him being excluded, and choose to support him because they feel bad for him? Who knows.

Politics aside, the power of media, including the internet, is vast. Our realities are based on our environments and our interactions with these environments. The more time we spend online, the more power the internet has to set agendas — a well-known and controversial power that for the past century or so has been wielded by traditional media, if you buy into Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaws' theory.

The internet is now the No. 1 news source for people under 30, and the No. 2 source for news in America after passing newspapers in 2008, according to a Pew poll, and it's gaining on television for the top spot. It is no longer a non-traditional method of news for people — it is becoming the source. And television is falling fast, while the internet has nothing but gains in its future.

How will the internet, with it unlimited capacity for information sharing, be a vehicle for positive social, political and cultural evolution without also being a source for derision, lies and misrepresentations? What kind of education system do we need to ensure that harm is minimized, and that "news agencies" are free from agendas? What kind of enforcement system should be in place so there is accountability?

If popular extremism means the middle is becoming more inclusive, what does that mean for the media, and what is our role in keeping the playing field alive with healthy players?

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