Richard Holliman predicted in his article “Communicating Science in the ‘Digital Age’. . .” that the consolidation of mass media to six conglomerates would cause mass media to betray the public and damage the democratic ethos. He theorized how developments with the internet could counteract this movement in mass media, but he turned out to be overly pessimistic in this analysis. Or perhaps he wasn’t optimistic enough about the power of the internet to change the paradigm. I believe that this case study will demonstrate that the democratizing power of digital media has overpowered the multi-national media conglomerates.
Holliman decried the commercialization of deregulated media conglomerates, claiming, “The influence of public sector-broadcasting—encapsulated in the phrase ‘inform, educate, entertain’—may diminish” (p. 71, “Communicating Science in the ‘Digital Age’…”). This hypothesis is only correct about “inform, educate,” but not “entertain.” Mass media today is purely entertainment and it is impossible for mass media to reclaim the responsibility for information and education. This new status quo was formed through the internet, as the public discovered “alternative spaces. . . to communicate outside of mainstream media and editorial control, therefore potentially democratizing these aspects of public engagement.” The internet generated the fifth estate to challenge the authority of the fourth estate, and the enormous wealth to be made through the internet established the internet’s dominance over mass media.
Holliman wrote this article before the 2008 Presidential campaign when Barack Obama successfully created a grassroots movement through social media that won the Presidency before him. His only referent in terms of such a high profile use of social media was Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, when mass media was able to ad hominem Dean out of the race. That was the establishment’s final success in combating the fifth estate. After Obama won in 2008 the internet officially became the center of the political system. We live in a free market economy, and public demand is the law (despite what members of the old order would have us believe). The government-media establishment does have enormous power over the construction of reality, but only individuals can accept their version of reality. Since the internet empowered the individual, we each have the power to construct our own realities based on our own research, and the establishment hive mind is destined for the rubbish bin of history.
The only way for this establishment narrative to have any credibility would be for every news broadcaster to promote the same narrative. Most news media in the US do promote the same narrative, as they choose what to report based on what politicians in Washington are talking about (according to the Indexing-Model; Kennis, “Indexing State–Corporate Propaganda. . .”). Kennis found that mainstream news media showed a general lack of substantive analysis and investigative journalism, as they are paid by the establishment to be their mouthpieces, and you can bet that their contract completely restricts their freedom and autonomy. After the second Democratic debate, a pundit for MSNBC lamented about how he wished Hillary Clinton was more like she had been back in the 70s. Despite his personal lament, his contract forces him to continue pushing the narrative that Hillary Clinton is the candidate of destiny and that nothing can stop her. In reality, Clinton has enormous power to control her reality so the establishment has been using their money to get the news media to make sure that Hillary Clinton is happy.
Point for point, Holliman was correct about the results of the deregulation of mass media. The Citizen’s United ruling made this extremely worse as the corporate oligarchs could use their personal power to influence the Presidential race. But as I said earlier, Holliman underestimated the democratizing power of the internet. For the second Democratic debate, CBS chose to promote democracy in our political system, to the obvious chagrin of the establishment. I like to think that Stephen Colbert influenced CBS’s decision, but the decision came from the President of CBS News that Twitter would be incorporated into the debate.
Twitter itself participated in the planning and airing of the debate. According to a Twitter spokesman, the integration of twitter would create “a real time stream of conversation and reaction from members of the community. . .It really brings the process back to participatory democracy, rather than the debate just being a TV interview” (online Questions tweeted by the public with the hashtag “DemDebate” were collated live during the debate by a large workforce so that the best questions submitted could be used to form questions to be asked the candidates.
This new tactic CBS used was meant to prevent the establishment from pushing their narrative without any resistance, most likely as a result of the first Democratic debate when mass media caused the public to attack anyone who disagreed with the establishment narrative. When I first heard about this plan I couldn’t decide if CBS was doing it with good intentions; a couple days before the debate, the moderator of the debate, John Dickerson, was interviewed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and he sounded sinister when he said they would save all the “not-so-good” tweets to be “used in the post-debate analysis.” Perhaps CBS was unsure how their experiment would turn out, and needed to see what the public was talking about before deciding their position.
I thought CBS might want to focus on the tweets posted by lunatics to try to discredit Bernie Sanders supporters, which had been the news media’s strategy since the first debate. When the debate started however, it was clear that the debate had been planned extensively because after Dickerson told the audience that they should live tweet during the debate to actively participate in it. This exemplifies the engagement of digital media being used to make mass media more participatory. CBS should be lauded for being progressive in forcing the realignment of the fourth estate within the fifth estate.
During most of the debate, the integration of Twitter conversations with the questions happened seamlessly. Only once did CBS decide that the public should be allowed to directly respond to a candidate. This moment should go down in history as the point when the public officially overpowered the establishment, and it is thanks to the code of ethics that CBS displayed in their decision to work for the good of the public.
During the debate, Bernie Sanders questioned Hillary Clinton’s past relationship with Wall Street, and Hillary had her Jeb Bush moment when she said that “for the first time, 60% of my donors are women.” The audience went wild at this, cheering Hillary’s flop. CBS knew that Hillary Clinton had packed the audience with her supporters, and they must have been worried about what impression the cheering would send to the actual audience. I know I have heard people bemoan Bernie Sanders’s inevitable defeat simply because the audience cheered Hillary’s response. The public is easily tricked by these mass media tricks, and CBS decided they could not allow the debate audience’s cheering to fool the actual audience when Hillary proceeded to claim that she took Wall Street’s money to fight terrorism after 9/11.
The debate audience went wild at this—who couldn’t celebrate this fond nostalgia? But CBS put an end to this bullshit when they flashed a Tweet onto the screen behind the stage. The voice of the public roared at Hillary Clinton as the moderator read, “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now” (online). This will be seen as the knockout punch that ended Hillary’s quest for power. You can imagine the feeling of shame—a warm feeling at the crown of your head like warm egg yolk is sliding down your face. Hillary coughed and said, “Well, I’m sorry you took it that way.”
The debate audience was confronted by their own illusion and it is only time before they stop living in a fantasy world. The good news is that Bernie Sanders is an incredible candidate, easily the best we’ve had since FDR. They can accept having to make a little less money if it’s for the greater good, right?
And we can be sure that this integration of Twitter into the political debates is for the greater good. Twitter seems to have brought democracy back to our political process. As one person tweeted, “This is what @Twitter has wanted from news for years. Not just ‘we’re reading your tweets’ but ‘we’re reacting’” (online). The political landscape changed completely from one debate to the next, and it is because CBS showed the ethical principles of broadcast journalism. The second Democratic debate forever changed the relationship between politicians and the public.
Brogan, Jacob. “We Just Witnessed the First Good Use of Social Media in Debate History.” Slate (November 14, 2015). Online. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/11/14/hillary_clinton_took_a_tough_9_11_question_from_twitter_during_the_debate.html> (Accessed December 7, 2015).
Flores, Reena. “Twitter, CBS and the 2015 Democratic debate.” CBS (November 13, 2015). Online. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/twitter-cbs-and-the-2015-democratic-debate/> (Accessed December 7, 2015)
Holliman, Richard. “Communicating Science in the ‘Digital Age’: Issues and Prospects for Public Engagement.” Readings for Technical Communication, ed. Jennifer MacLennan. Oxford University Press: 2008.
Kennis, Andrew. “Indexing state–corporate propaganda? Evaluating the indexing, propaganda and media dependence models on CNN and CNN en Español’s coverage of Fallujah, Iraq.” Global Media & Communication 11, no. 2 (August 2015): 103. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, EBSCOhost (accessed November 30, 2015).