Friday, August 15, 2014

Mushroom communications

Political leaders think we are best when kept in the dark.

By Bill Kraus

A couple of the tacit assumptions that made the founding fathers think that the democracy they were inventing would work have fallen on hard times.

They assumed there would be open, communicative, accessible, and responsive legislatures and legislators.

They assumed that there would be a common public communication system which would provide the voters with the information they needed to select their legislators and judge their performance.

In reverse order then…the common communication system was for most of our history the print press. It was not common in a monolithic sense, but it was journalistically comprehensive, maybe overly so.

Broadcasting came on the scene and added immediacy to the common communications which was worthy and brevity as well, which was not.

Most voters continued to rely on the print press with broadcast a supplement. Too many of us, however, began to think that broadcast was the whole thing. The responsible broadcasters often pointed out that the entire prose content of a national TV news broadcast wouldn’t fill a column in the New York Times.

Broadcast was never the whole thing and in some important respects, like the dreary recitation of the numbers that are such a large part of understanding where the government gets and how it spends its money, it is almost “no-thing.”

The wonder of the Internet does not enhance citizen understanding as much as it fragments and segments it. The Internet is a communication fire hose. It becomes useful only when narrowed to a manageable bit. The more narrowed the bits the less complete they are likely to be. The Internet drives partisanship more than it increases understanding. No one can absorb it all. So we pick those sources most likely to be agreeable to our biases and are usually too short to show the inevitable “other side” of the story. The Internet, through no fault of its own then, tends to reinforce preconceptions instead of opening up discussions on the very complicated subjects that voters are asked to understand and weigh in on.

The legislators elected by those of us whose information is neither as balanced or complete as it needs to be are not helpful.

There is this undesirable side effect that afflicts too many of the powerful: secrecy. Those who are elected quickly learn that they know more than their constituents do. This makes them not only better informed but more powerful as well. If they are too open in sharing what they know their power is diluted, as is the advantage that information gives them.

The result is that the flow of information from the insiders is simplified and truncated. They don’t say, but many think that (a) the public wouldn’t understand and/or the public doesn’t care.

A recent example of this is the release of statutorily mandated reports on contributions to and spending by candidates for office. All the public is told is the top numbers: how much was raised and how much spent. The purpose of the disclosure mandate is to let the voters know where the money that went to the candidates came from. This is part of what is reported. But it is not organized in a way that gives anyone any sense of who is contributing, which might also indicate why who is doing so.

By disclosing everything without explanation the disclosures reveal almost nothing other than a big number which the press seems to think is an important indicator of popularity, which it isn’t.

I have no idea how to create or come back to a common communication system like the now obsolete “I read it in the paper” was.

I do think we, all of us, should demand that those we elected to office tell us a lot more in much more meaningful detail about what they are doing and, particularly, what they are spending our tax money on and for.

I want an itemized receipt like the one I get at the grocery store.

How hard is that?

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