Greetings from the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago. Wednesday we had a very smooth trip to Chicago and the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting. This conference is huge, with literally thousands of participants. And while I love life in rural Maine, it’s nice to be a big city again, especially one like Chicago which has both friendly people and a beautiful downtown.
My task Wednesday evening was to read four papers which I am to discuss at a panel tomorrow. This papers are outside my comfort zone, in that they are focused on media and communication studies. One of them does take an approach very close to mine, with an emphasis on Gramsci and Stuart Hall, as well as psychology, but the others cite a literature I am only starting to become familiar with. Though I have blogged about my change in research focus from German/European politics to an analysis of the US media, this is my first professional foray into that sub-field. As such, it feels fresh, and I am thoroughly enjoying the papers I will discuss tomorrow.
One looks at the rise of Twitter, and its impact on politics, another on how teaching about media and politics has to change, another explores theoretical challenges to looking at new media, and the last analyzes the press to find a right wing bias in the “objective” reporting of welfare reform and other issues. It’s closest to my approach, looking at framing and the nature of the reporting (e.g., reports focus on issues as political conflicts between elites, rather than getting in the merits of the issues). When I first was asked to be a chair/discussant for this group, I thought about saying no — am I ready to critique colleagues who have been in this sub-field for years? But two reasons pushed me to yes. First, having been a section chair, I know how hard it is to get discussants. I wanted to make my section chair’s life easier rather than more difficult. Second, I thought that I could both learn a lot and come at the papers with a different perspective.
I’m excited about this new research path in part because things are in such a state of flux there isn’t a lot of good research that explores how media change is effecting politics. Looking at blogs, the tea party movement and the like (I told my research assistant, who is co-presenting the paper here, that her task this summer would be to research facebook and politics), it’s a new world out there. Gone is the elite/establishment “objective” perspective put forth by the big three networks and major news dailies. Gone as well is the emphasis on professional reporting and thorough fact checking. Now its about speed, gossip, rumor and emotion. Blogs tend to speak to a particular audience, riddled with personal attacks of both politicians on the ‘other side’ and those who venture to their blog with a different perspective. What does this all mean?
As much as it is obvious to anyone who has experienced how the world looks from a different perspective (in my case a European/German perspective vs. an American one), we all have biased interpretations of reality. We don’t objectively see the world as it is, we interpret reality, politics, and even core values through prisms of beliefs and understandings about the world, acquired from life experience. More than ever before these prisms are shaped by the media, thereby helping define how people see/understand the world. So if the mass media are undergoing dramatic change, then politics cannot help but be fundamentally transformed as well.
So tea partiers twitter, Obama raises record money with a cyber campaign, the political pendulum shows a capacity to shift more wildly than ever before, and young people especially get used to all knowledge at their fingertips right away. When I don’t know the answer to a question the first thing that comes out of my seven year old’s mouth is “google it!” I had to explain to him that as vast as google is, it cannot tell me how cars will look in fifty years!
Unfortunately, I’m somewhat pessimistic about these changes, though a long term goal of the research will be to propose ways that this powerful media tool can be used to expand critical discussion rather than simply promote emotion-laden narratives. This reflects the “libertarian education” goal of Paulo Friere, though applied more broadly.
But for now, I’m looking forward to this conference, the panels, and moving forward in this new research direction.