[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
While the attempted SUV bombing in Times Square was the big news this weekend (rightfully so), two smaller stories, taken together, highlight another risk to our democracy.
On Sunday, Geoffrey Dunn discussed on HuffPo the latest lie to come from the Sarah Palin camp, as she claimed her ethics issues in Alaska were "a sinister 'partisan' conspiracy directed by Obama's White House against her."
The day before, the New York Times reported that ABC News laid off nearly 400 workers, representing about a quarter of the total staff.
What do these stories have to do with each other? And why should we care?
Simply put, as political scientists Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter wrote: "Political information is to democratic politics what money is to economics: it is the currency of citizenship.” And right now, our democracy is operating with a dangerously low bank balance.
We are living in a time of revolutionary upheaval in the way Americans get their news. In 1980, more than 50 million viewers watched the network evening newscasts. For the week ending April 19, 2010, that number had plummeted to less than 20 million. Even accounting for cable news, the drop-off is astounding. (There is also the issue of the changing nature of network news, namely the evolution from a public-service-oriented presentation of facts to a profit-motivated outlet for infotainment and human interest stories.)
With network news and newspapers struggling, the two pillars of traditional hard news are slowly disappearing from American lives. Yes, many people now turn to the Internet to get their news, but this raises two main concerns. First, we are in a transitional era, in which the old media (broadcast and print) are supporting the free news content online. That model can't last, and we have yet to see a financial model emerge that would allow news content to be funded in an online future. Second, many online media sources (like cable news outlets) are partisan (while we know HuffPo is an excellent source of fact-based news, its progressive instincts can be used against it, as I will discuss in a minute).
What this means is that when Sarah Palin (or Rush Limbaugh, or anyone at Fox News, or a Republican officeholder) lies, the traditional mainstream media is not in a position anymore to expose the lies for what they are. I understand (and greatly appreciate) the great work done at HuffPo and other sites like Media Matters in making sure that right-wing lies are identified, publicized and rebutted. These sites are doing work that is essential and valuable to our democracy. But there is a qualitative difference between challenges from progressive-oriented sources and the traditional mainstream objective media. The fact that such media are dying allows the lies to gain traction in some quarters.
For our democracy to function, there has to be real debate on issues. Citizens won't always agree on what policies or even which priorities and values should prevail, but they have to at least agree on the basic facts of what is happening in the country. With the emergence of a right-wing media structure (Fox News, conservative talk radio, etc.) that prioritizes whipping up its base over telling the truth, the right has now constructed its own set of "facts" for its faithful. In this world, President Obama is a terrorist-loving Muslim socialist born in Kenya who seeks to have the government take over American businesses while stripping Americans of all of their freedoms. How can you reasonably debate policy when there are two different sets of "facts"?
This weekend's Palin and ABC News stories remind us that the sources of our shared facts are all but gone. And who wins as a result? Those who would seek to create lies to further political goals.
So the HuffPos and Media Matters of the world have to keep doing what they do, fighting the good fight to expose right-wing lies. And we all have to be vigilant to do what we can to keep the right-wing lies from gaining traction in society. But all of our work is made harder by the demise of traditional hard news sources. ABC News no longer does the work it did when news was considered the networks' public obligation in exchange for the free public resource of transmission rights. Nevertheless, when ABC News loses a quarter of its staff, our democracy loses some of its ability to sift the lies from the facts.
Or to go back to Delli Carpini and Keeter's analogy, if political information is the currency of democracy, there are a lot of counterfeit bills floating around our citizenry. And there are fewer Treasury agents in the field trying to catch the counterfeiters.