Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"You Can Run, But You Can't Hide"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide”
March 16, 2011

The tragedy in Japan and Gadhafi’s escapades in Libya have had the effect of removing the problems of deficits from the front pages of newspapers and from the evening news. But the problem persists. February, with only twenty-eight days, won the dubious crown as the month showing the biggest federal deficit. For years, politicians have hidden behind words of their own deceit. With the advent of YouTube, bloggers, tweeters, etc. that is no longer possible. They have to take ownership of what they say and what they do. Ironically, the internet, while providing more information at faster speeds then ever before, also allows the public to read or listen to complete speeches. No longer do we have to rely on sound-bites or news editors snipping out those items that fit their preconceived idea as to what is important. It is what gives me confidence, during this period of ever-rising deficits, that politicians will be forced to confront the deficit problem.

Traditional news sources – newspapers and network TV (and now cable news) – have been losing audiences for more than two decades. Reuters recently reported the results of a survey conducted by Pew Research, which indicated that in 2010 online ad revenues exceeded that of print for the first time – $25.8 billion versus $22.8 billion. That trend will only worsen for print. The Newspaper Association of America reported that, on average, 39.6% of Americans over the age of 18 read at least one daily paper. However, the breakdown by age category is significant. Only 24.1% of 18-34 year olds pick up a paper versus 55.1% of those over the age of 55.

The trends in television news show similar patterns. Audiences for networks’ news have been declining for twenty-five years. And, now cable news is showing similar declines. In 2010, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all lost viewers. Nevertheless, another Pew Research study showed no decline in terms of the public’s knowledge of current affairs.

We owe that fact to the internet, which has been the big winner in garnering viewers – a medium dominated by bloggers. According to Web Site Performance Monitor, a firm that monitors websites and internet traffic, there are about two billion online users of the internet, sending or receiving 247 billion e-mails every day. (It is estimated that about 80% of this traffic is spam.) Approximately 126 million bloggers seek to reach those users. Facebook has at least 350 million users, of whom 50% log in every day. Dick Costello, COO of Twitter, claimed last June that his company was getting 190 million visitors every month, of whom 65 million tweeted at least once a month. YouTube serves up one billion videos every day.

Consumers have been quicker to adapt to this changing world than have been traditional media and politicians. In time, this changing dynamic should have a salubrious effect on the way politicians perform and reach out to their constituents. They will not be able to hide. What they say can be used against them, or in their favor. For example, yesterday, in the aftermath of the passage of the umpteenth fiscal continuing resolution, Nancy Pelosi, who once urged Congress to pass the healthcare bill so that the people can discover what’s in it, in an attempt to clarify her opposition to budget cuts, said “It’s not about the money; it’s about the morality of what we’re doing.” President Obama’s indecisiveness on Libya has been seen by millions. On the other hand, Mr. Obama’s magnanimous and healing speech in Tucson after the massacre that killed nine and badly wounded Representative Gabrielle Gifford has been seen in full by 796,218 people on YouTube and read by thousands more.

This trend in media will either make politicians far more circumspect, or make them more honest. Time will tell.

The search for an honest politician has been compared to Diogenes’ search for an honest man, a search that has been underway for years. Simon Cameron, a onetime Senator from Pennsylvania and Abraham Lincoln’s first Secretary of War once said: “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” He must have been speaking from personal experience, for he was fired by Lincoln for corruption after less than a year. Nevertheless, he was re-elected to the Senate, only resigning when he was assured that his son would succeed him. Last year, the Adam Smith Institute in London scrapped its annual Honest Politician of the Year Award, because no qualified candidates could be found. Next year the Institute is planning to give its award to the most Corrupt Politician of the Year. “This should give us many more candidates,” said Institute director Dr. Eamonn Butler, “Indeed, I can think of 646 already.” (There are 650 elected members in England’s House of Commons.)

It is far too early to know the full ramifications of the democratization of the news, but letting the sun shine into the dark recesses of Congress has to ultimately be positive for voters. Democracies depend on a well informed public. The biggest problem facing our nation is the one of deficits and it is comforting to see what has happened in Indiana, is happening in Ohio and Wisconsin and now what Democrat Martin O’Malley is attempting to do in Maryland. H.L. Mencken once said: “An honest politician is regarded as sort of a marvel, like a calf with five legs…” The internet, with myriad bloggers representing every conceivable political position poses a possibility of turning some of these rogues into honest people. They may run, but they won’t be able to hide.

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