Jimmy Wales, the founder of the great open source encyclopaedia Wikipedia, has a new hobby. Much to his dismay, he notices that more and more countries are ruled not by the elected politicians but by the broadcast media. He writes on his new open source platform Campaigns Wikia:
For more than 50 years now, we have been living in the era of television politics. In the 1950s television first began to have a major impact on politics, and the results were overwhelming.
Broadcast media brought us broadcast politics. And let’s be simple and bluntly honest about it, left or right, conservative or liberal, broadcast politics are dumb, dumb, dumb.
Wales’ observation is not completely without foundation. Anyone who has an interest in politics has noticed that over the past decades politicians are more prone to “please the public” through the eyes of the camera, or microphone. It is therefore not without reason that one can perceive current democracy as being ruled by the broadcast media, not by the government.
However, some nuance has been brought to this point of view by a recent PhD thesis (press release in Dutch) of Barbra van Gestel, who defended her thesis on 22 June 2006 at the University of Leiden. She investigated the influence of the media on the policies of the local government in the Netherlands. Her conclusions were rather surprising and contrary to the point of view of Jimmy Wales: the role of journalists is systematically overrated, they do not have a leading role in the formation of new policies but rather they follow local government policy-making. In both case studies that Barbra van Gestel analysed the critical reporting of the media did not influence the local government policy.
But, to add nuance to the nuance, Van Gestel’s study was limited to only two case studies, and they both involved local politics. It’s clear that her conclusions cannot be directly transposed to the media circus that surrounds national politics, especially around election time.
So even though we might not have entered the era of broadcast media governed societies just yet, the dangers are apparent. Especially so for the younger generation, that feeds more and more on snippets of news. Maybe the new trend of the social web, or Web 2.0 where the public and not the media makes and ranks news stories (e.g. digg.com), will counteract this trend by taking away a little bit of the power that the broadcast media has acquired over the past decades. This movement might restore the balance and give democracy back to the people, not the media or the vain politicians.
Note: If you think this article contradicts my previous post about citizen journalism, think again. Web 2.0 gives citizens more control over what they consider to be news, they don’t necessarily need to write the news themselves. The role of the media is to critically scrutinize the work of the politicians, the consequence of Web 2.0 will be that it gives the public the ability to critically scrutinize the work of the media.