Saturday, December 6, 2008

The vicious cycle of crappy newspaper movie reviews - and what Obama can learn from it

Roger Ebert wrote a depressing column last week about the wide-spread trend of newspapers laying off their film critics, replacing intelligent movie reviews with more celebrity coverage and teen gossip. Reading this column, I couldn't help but see a reflection of the same problem I've discussed in this space: the vicious cycle between low public standards and the groups that feed those low standards.

Roger Ebert is far from the first person to mourn the passing of the intelligent American consumer of news. Everyone from NPR to the New York Times to the Atlantic and on have blamed everything from cable news networks to the internet to low-quality "news magazines" for the steady downward trend in reading in America. Still others take the stance that none of these are to blame, only the lazy American citizen. After all, who makes the decision to veg out in front of the TV? The media are only providing the content that the public demands, and they can't be blamed if the public demands content devoid of meaning and conveyed at a level suitable for 12-year-olds.

We heard plenty about this during the last campaign cycle, too. We all complained about the inane coverage on the 24-hour cable news networks, but we all watched it anyway. We knew that the hologram gimmick on CNN added nothing to the news coverage, but we talked about it anyway. Sure, plenty of us are relying more and more on the internet for news, but we are kidding ourselves if we think the internet alone is going to raise the level of discourse in the country. Visit any news aggregation site like Digg or reddit, and count the number of intelligent stories against the number of funny pictures and YouTube videos. When I check my Google Reader feed for news, half of the items my friends have shared with me are LOLcats (thanks Ben).

It's not just the news coverage either. Even the candidates themselves, both of whom pledged to elevate the campaign above the petty issues of the past, fell into the same patterns of petty politics and playing to press sound-bites. And many people are quick to remind us that all of this is because the reporters have dropped the ball, forgetting that their job is to investigate and report.

So now we've blamed pretty much everyone. It's no surprise Roger Ebert wanted to get in on the action.

Fundamentally, all of these problems have the same underlying structure, and it's one that occurs across all aspects of society. Essentially, it comes down to this: how do you motivate a group to want what is best for itself?

Behind that question are questions that are also difficult: "what is best for a group?" and "when people have different ideas about what is best for a group, who is right?"

Ultimately, because we have a democracy, these two questions of content are decided in a de facto way, by whoever manages to answer the question of motivation. If we had a dictatorship, we would answer the questions in a different order - first deciding what is right, then deciding how to implement it (and this last question would have a very different answer than the answer in a democracy).

Problems of this type arise not only in communities and governments, but also in businesses. From what I've learned in consulting, acting as a bottom-up democracy is generally the preferred way for a business to initiate organizational change. But even in those cases, the prime movers are usually top management, who then try to rally the workforce and harness their energy and ideas.

This is the tactic that Obama is taking, and it's very different from the blaming and complaining that has pervaded every corner of the media, from consumers to newspapers to film critics. It's easy to blame, but it will take a commitment from top management (in this case, the President) to make a dent in any of these problems.

So if you think that Obama's plan is hopeless, or if you believe that the "new politics" will turn out to be more of the same, then you have a very pessimistic view of the future of American politics. Because if this doesn't work, nothing will.

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