Remember the Maine? This jingoistic rally cry reminded American warmongers of the US Naval battleship that mysteriously blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898. Despite unknown causes of this explosion, the sensationalized yellow press, at the time controlled by newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, insisted in their respective publications that the Spanish government was at fault for this unfortunate mishap.
Later historians agreed that the circulation competition between the New York World and Herald were chiefly responsible for the Spanish-American War that shortly ensued. Outside of propelling Teddy Roosevelt into being the next Vice-President with his Rough Riders exploits, the conflict was the first illustration in modern times of the power of the press to influence national policy.
From that time on, with major leadership coming from newspapers, they grew up with agreed upon journalistic standards that have survived to this day. This has meant radio and television later taking their place in this mass media mix to help mold public opinion.
In 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon Debates provided the catalyst for television to become the dominant force of determining the outcome of Presidential elections. This basic model did not change for the next half century although newspapers, magazines, radio, and printed matter distributed by the Post Office played important roles with influencing the electorate.
Now we come to 2008 where a new media revolution erupted with the election of Barak Obama. He was the first national political candidate to unleash the immense power of the internet to win over voters. By using blogs, Facebook, U-Tube and other social media outlets along with on-line fund-raising, Obama overtook favored Hilary Clinton in the primaries and propelled himself into the White House.
Five years later, the internet revolution has become even more intense with previously important news outlets scampering to maintain their importance. We have:
1. Newspapers going out of business quicker than Persian Rug stores. Circulation has dropped so much that home deliveries are being replaced by electronic versions of everything from the New York Times to the Contra Costa Times. Political endorsements from the printed media have by and large lost their luster. With declining advertising revenues, newspapers now have fewer pages and less staff to cover local affairs.
2. While still remaining an important force in the national political process, network television news has given way to cable outlets in recent years. Does anyone know or care who the anchors are on CBS, NBC or ABC these days. With cable news led by Fox being so ratings sensitive, this medium has lost much of the objectivity that previously existed with the Big 3.
3. Radio’s subordinate role in the media has remained virtually constant since the ascension of TV in the 1950′s. Aside for news stations, talk radio most notably with a right-wing slant, has played an important part in recent years molding public opinion. At the same time news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News have been relegated to the waiting rooms of dental offices with free copies distributed to maintain falling circulation.
4. E-Mail has reduced the amount of information distributed by the US Postal Service. While their colorful red white and blue trucks continue to make their rounds, Saturday deliveries are being eliminated and offices are being closed to reflect declining volumes. Unless this revered.institution can re-invent itself, it can be expected to decline in importance.
Meanwhile, the influence of the internet with mobile devices leading the way can be expected to grow exponentially. For Goggle, Face Book, Twitter, U-Tube, Apple, Microsoft, Craig’s List, Amazon etc.. , the skies the limit.
While these entities have replaced printed media and to a certain extent television in filling the time of consumers, they have left a major deficiency policing their product. Neither the FCC nor journalism school standards control the content of what is presented in the social media.
Most bloggers not only lack knowledge of libel laws, but neither care about them as well. They are missing the so-called fairness doctrine of presenting all viewpoints. As such content in the internet is principally controlled by its users leaving a major void in upholding the cherished notion of social responsibility.
Opinions are often mixed and confused with facts by bloggers on both the left and right. Since they cater to a particular audience, they have little incentive to move out of their sub-groups As a result public perception of issues is often expressed at the extremes. This appears to have led to the epidemic or polarization that has gripped the country. Perhaps this at least partially explains the gridlock in Washington D.C. where middle ground between Republicans and Democrats is seldom found.
While the internet revolution has had its negative effects in diluting the decision-making process of American Democracy, it has had positive aspects as well. Some minorities and disenfranchised people who previously have been shut out by traditional media outlets, have found a voice in the internet blogs. Many individuals including this writer have been able to communicate with others because of the net.
Like any revolution, the social media uprising of today will have to sort itself out in the years to come. Much like what occurred in the yellow journalism era that encouraged an unnecessary war over a century ago, society will have to find a way to at least partially regulate activities on the internet.
This is where that ancient document known as the U.S. Constitution will likely need to interpreted for technological advances not even contemplated when it was written in the 1700′s. This job will be considerably more difficult than controlling the showing of Miley Cyrus’s lewd dance moves or explaining how Fantasy Football leagues spur more discussion than figuring out medical costs under Obama Care.
Similarly to other mass media forms that preceded it, the Internet will mature and find a needed balance. Even in the darkest days of the New York Newspaper wars when all sense of objectivity appeared to be lost, society would be rewarded by the institution of Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in journalism.
Just Remember The Maine.