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Media and Elections: The Return of the Citizen Voter

By Bill Payne, University of Minnesota, Duluth

In 2004, I traveled America making a documentary about why only half of Americans who are eligible to vote choose to do so. At the time, I was a 44 year-old liberal. Zack Swanson, a 24 year-old conservative, traveled with me as co-producer and videographer. We went to 22 states and interviewed about 300 people on camera. The result was the documentary 50/50: The American Divide.

I learned a lot. The most profound insight I gained was how complex individual voters are. We approached many people on the street, describing our documentary and telling the subject that we were from different sides of the political spectrum. We engaged people in conversation about why they vote or don’t vote, how they perceived media coverage of politics, and what they felt needed to change about the electoral process to get more people involved.

The Americans we interviewed were complex and difficult to characterize using the simplistic labels we see so often in the media or polls. Liberals espoused conservative views. Conservatives expressed liberal views. And almost everyone was disgusted with the influence of money on elections and the way the media reported the process.

I had made a commitment during the shooting of the documentary to study the media and how it was reporting the election. What Zack and I experienced in person was far different than what we saw being reported on television, in print media, and on talk radio. American voters, and the politicians that vie to represent their views, cannot be fairly represented in 30-second sound bites.

What really matters in an election is representation. An individual must decide which candidate will best represent them when the governing body begins to address the legislative issues before us. Each citizen must develop a political perspective. They must gather the information they need to determine which candidate will represent their perspective most often. In 1776, Americans declared:

“….governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The electoral process is designed to continually “institute new government”. Information gathering is crucial to this ongoing reinvention. Without information that has integrity, we cannot make good decisions. The media, which acts as the largest and most pervasive conduit of information, is not driven by what will most likely result in our “collective safety and happiness”. It is driven by economic and political self-interest.

We the people cannot allow the media to be the only way the story of the next election will be told. They will begin to frame the story of the 2012 election November 3rd of this year. It will not be a true representation of who we are, what we want or need, or how we see the issues. It will perpetuate the consumer politics that have infantilized us.

My experience making 50/50 taught me to engage with people who disagreed with me. If we all try to do this, the conversation that ensues may help us create government in a way that will allow us to move forward as we are able. This act of reaching across political difference, coupled with other initiatives sure to arise from the many citizens that will become involved in this movement, can bring the responsibility of governance back into the hands of “We The People”.

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  1. As I read this post, I immediately thought of Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. There, Boorstin begins to identify what has now become an all-encompassing reality. The role of media in shaping not only politics but our lives has become so dominant, that it’s almost difficult to think of any other way.

    I haven’t had a TV since I left for college, so I’m turning into a moth around a light when I happen upon a show or “news” on TV. I’m drawn in by all of the colors, text, and multiplicity of “things” going on simultaneously. I have to stand back and realize what’s going on. I get my news from online/print media and from NPR when I’m cooking or in the car. But tuning into cable news, for example, makes me feel dirty. Non-issues are issues and people making noise are given space to say what they want. Discourse and discussion have long been replaced by sound bites and talking heads. Even online news sources go this route. It’s hard to find good journalism today.

    So what does it have to do with media and elections? First, it seems to me that we are confronted by a challenging reality. Fox, MSNBC, and the rest of the gang aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they are becoming more focused and more partisan. Fox has left behind their attempt at appearing fair and balanced and instead opted to donate millions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republicans. MSNBC is going to spend millions rebranding themselves with the phrase “Lean Forward” in an attempt to become the media outlet of choice for liberals and progressives. CNN is going to continue to flounder for a number of reasons, but one of them being that they didn’t go for a certain segment. Trying to stay out of the hyper=partisan debate only getting your marginal ratings. Folks want to tune in to hear what they want to hear, much less what they maybe should hear.

    But this documentary work brings me to my second point. That is, the media doesn’t have it. There are rich, detailed stories of citizens who are seriously concerned about and interested in questions about governance and how politics shapes their lives. These stories don’t make the news. They aren’t flashy enough. People have committed their lives to working for a better country, better communities, but these stories of democracy in action aren’t going to be heard by others. But this cannot discourage.

    There are many stories from the American civil rights movement that have nothing to do with MLK or some of the other major figures in the movement. We don’t hear those stories for a whole host of reasons. One of them is that it’s easy to anoint a leader and have a spokesperson for a movement. We’ve learned to do this with tremendous results. The problem is that the movement getting assumed into the work of a person or a small group of persons. The many stories we have from the civil rights movement are truncated and squeezed into just a few stories. Many attempt to tell these other important aspects of the movement, and we must do the same today.

    Third, discussion among citizens is vitally important in a democracy. But if we don’t encourage such discussion and create spaces for such engagement, we don’t have much hope for more than partisan attacks without really knowing anything more about the “other” than what we’re told to believe by cable news and the like.

    We’ve seen the limits to making a movement try to fit within the limited abilities of an elected president and the subsequent frustration. If there are serious attempts at having a “We the people” movement today, we cannot let it get put onto T-shirts or neat logos. This is when we get an image. I’m more interested in icons in the traditional sense: images that tell much richer stories behind the image.


    October 6, 2010

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