Thursday, April 26, 2007

NNN Special Report: "Nebraska Politics in the New Media"

by Kyle Michaelis
The following is a speech I presented to the Nebraska Associated Press Broadcaster's Association at their annual awards banquet on Friday, April 13th. It was an honor and a pleasure to have the opportunity - as a humble blogger - to address some of the most powerful and respected people in Nebraska television and radio news. The thrust of my 15 minute remarks, followed by another 10 minutes of Q & A, was the role of the blogger and the future of Nebraska's traditional news media.

I have done a lot of complaining about the media in Nebraska since NNN was founded more than two years ago. Understanding that this was my first - and perhaps last - real chance to deliver a call to action to those whom I have faulted and held responsible, I spoke more bluntly than was probably expected by those attending to receive an award for the quality of their journalism. But, the NAPBA was a better than gracious audience, and I certainly appreciated that its members seemed to take what criticism I offered in stride - hopefully without taking offense.

That being said, I'm proud to present:

Kyle Michaelis on
"Nebraska Politics in the New Media"

[After some brief attempts at humor in introducing myself]....

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a blogger.

That isn’t always easy for me to admit. I have a background in journalism and – first and foremost – I consider myself a writer. If I had to choose a title, I would call myself a citizen journalist. The work I do is unpaid. The site is free-for-all, has no budget, and has spread entirely by word of mouth. And, to those of you who have never seen the New Nebraska Network, I’ll be perfectly honest that it really isn’t much to look at.

Why do I sometimes bristle at being labeled a blogger?. It isn’t that “blogger” is any great insult, but it does suggest a certain flippancy that undermines my every purpose. That’s not a problem when a blogger is using his or her site as an online diary. But, when I write about Nebraska politics, which has been the sole focus of the New Nebraska Network since it began, I am not writing for personal satisfaction. I am not writing to amuse my friends. I am writing to make a difference.

My words and my ideas are all I have. They are my only source of credibility, and each time I write I stake my reputation and my readership upon them. People don’t tune into a website like they do the radio on their way to work or television while sitting down for supper. Now, there’s a pretty good chance my readers are just wasting time at work, but at that desk - on that computer screen - my voice is one in a backdrop of millions. The competition may not be as fierce as that between newsrooms in the same market, but it’s global in scale and infinite in number.

The one thing I have going for me is that I do have a fairly specific niche. Nebraska’s blog community has been relatively slow developing, and the number of bloggers who actually focus on Nebraska politics with any regularity can probably be counted on one hand. But, even with these other sites – whether they lean Republican or lean Democrat - I like to think the New Nebraska Network stands apart by offering substantive and insightful commentary that readers aren’t going to find anywhere else.

Now, that’s a bold statement, and I don’t make it lightly. It’s also a statement I wish I didn’t feel compelled to make. Still, after years of following the Nebraska media – the last two with an almost ridiculous level of intensity - I do feel there is something essential that we are undeniably lacking. Mainly, the Nebraska media – and those of us in this room - have failed the people of Nebraska by not asking more tough questions that challenge the status quo.

It’s easy to put myself on a pedestal. I’m accountable to no one – I have no advertisers, no editors, and no station managers I need to keep happy. My audience is limited to those strange people with enough passion for Nebraska politics that they’re going to read a website dedicated entirely to the subject. I also don’t have to worry about the appearance of political bias because I’ve never been anything but up front that I am a progressive and I am a Democrat. I do not deny that this shapes my thinking and colors my articles. So, there’s no doubt this affords me certain freedoms that allow me to be more openly critical of our elected representatives …. who just happen to be mostly Republicans.

But, let’s not forget one more important thing – I’m not getting paid to do this. Asking questions and informing the public isn’t my job. It’s yours, and I’m begging you to take it more seriously.

I’m not here alleging any great political bias in the Nebraska media - just a general complacency that might be even more dangerous and disastrous for our democracy.

For instance, let’s take a moment to consider the tax cuts that are all the rage in the Nebraska legislature this year. Governor Dave Heineman presented his tax plan in LB 331 with promises of simplifying the income tax and providing relief to the middle class. But, where were his claims and his numbers actually subjected to even the most basic scrutiny?

Why was it never reported that the most basic structural change Heineman proposed – reducing the income tax brackets from 4 brackets to 3 – would have been accomplished entirely by eliminating the lowest tax bracket? Heineman had just proposed a higher tax rate for Nebraska’s poorest population and no one said so. At the same time, it didn’t take an economist to point out that Heineman’s proposals to eliminate the estate tax and to phase-in a massive rate reduction for Nebraska’s wealthiest taxpayers weren’t intended to help the middle class.

The numbers were out there, but no one challenged Heineman on them. When he testified on behalf of his tax plan before the Revenue Committee, only one state senator even asked him a question. Heineman is a smart enough politician to have stayed on script with his answer – as he’s done whenever the cameras are rolling and microphones are in his face. The man is a walking, talking soundbyte – I’ve got to give him credit for that. But, the Nebraska media should be ashamed for letting those soundbytes so completely set the tone of their coverage.

This is not about whether Heineman’s original tax cut plan was a good or bad idea – even if I personally found it appalling. This is about the fact that Heineman’s statements and Heineman’s press releases completely dominated the media’s reporting on the issue. I don’t doubt that there was some independent fact-checking, but that’s not enough. When Heineman is armed with cherry-picked numbers to put his plan in the best possible light, it’s not enough to say that his numbers are accurate. What this state needed was independent analysis that might actually portray the proposal in an honest and complete light that a good politician like Heineman will do every sort of dance to avoid.

Honestly, who can blame them? If the media is willing to let itself be manipulated by regurgitating selective figures and well-rehearsed soundbytes, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of that fact.

A politician can save you the trouble of doing research. He can save you the expense. He can save you the time. But, he’s not doing your job for you. Your job isn’t getting done. The truth isn’t being reported. Suddenly, the public is getting nothing more than secondhand press releases, and – too often – that’s exactly what’s happening in Nebraska.

This isn’t a result of bias. This is the result of laziness, and I’d go so far as to call it the prevailing characteristic of Nebraska’s political press corp.

Which brings us to blogs and this hard-to-define concept of “the new media.”

There are many people who believe that we’re witnessing the dawn of a new age in politics and in journalism. There are many who believe that the rise of the blog and online communities will radically transform not only the relationship between politicians and voters but also the relationship between the media and its audience.

While I don’t doubt that new mediums and new means of communication will change these relationships, I’m actually quite skeptical that these changes will result in a more democratic society or a more informed public. The potential is there – God, there is so much potential – but so far, when I step back and look at this online universe in which I inhabit and invest so much of my time, all I really see is a new playground for the same games.

Now, I may not fit the bill, but there is a certain “coolness” factor surrounding blogs at the moment. They’ve been around for years, but the news media - both nationally and locally – have really embraced them in the last year or two – particularly in the realm of politics.

There are blogs dedicated to every subject under the sun, so it does seem odd that political blogs receive as much attention as they do. They’ve got their own corner of Newsweek. They’ve got their own segment on CNN. Just here in Nebraska, I’ve personally been interviewed on TV, cited in the newspapers, and even asked to speak at this dinner. Not bad considering that many people in our state have never and will never read a blog – let alone one about Nebraska politics.

So, why do people care? Why do blogs receive this attention? Again, why am I here?

The beauty of blogs is that they do have a way of leveling the playing field. They might be the purest example of the marketplace of ideas that our country has ever seen. There is little-to-no cost of entry. There is no corporate censorship and, for better and worse, there isn’t much in the way of self-censorship either. It’s an emerging form of communication without any specific bounds or standards, so there’s still the perception that anyone with something worthwhile to say who’s able to say it effectively can find an audience.

Still, the question of why the news media seems so fascinated with blogs is a legitimate one. For some, I think it’s an admission that they haven’t done enough to integrate diverse viewpoints and perspectives into their reporting. For others, I think it’s a simple matter of following the hype and giving the people what they seem to want.

It might just make good economic sense. The audience for traditional media – whether the people in this room want to hear it or not – has been stagnant for years. It’s understood that, in the coming years, increased emphasis on more engaging online content is probably going to be essential just to maintain a market share foothold. From an advertising standpoint, who wouldn’t want to attract those who read blogs and watch video clips on YouTube – they’re young, they’re tech-savvy, they’re educated, and – whether to an ideology or just to John Stewart – they already tend to be loyal. They may not reflect the larger population but that’s still a demographic any advertiser wants on board.

The problem is that this idea that the new media can serve as a supplement to the traditional media seems to underestimate that the online world really is a new medium that needs to be thought about in new ways.

Then again, I wasn’t asked here to offer my thoughts on the 21st Century marketplace. That I have opinions on the matter and am only too happy to share them without invitation, however, is very reflective of my role as a blogger.

Basically, the only requirement for blogging about politics is an abundance of opinions. Writing skills come in handy. Being informed is generally a good idea. But, by and large, we are commentators.

Despite my pretenses to the contrary, bloggers are not journalists. Many of us adopt a vaguely journalistic, truth-seeking mission. Some of us do our best to uphold journalistic standards of form and objectivity. But, the only real checks are the ones we impose upon ourselves, and those can change day-to-day or as the situation dictates.

Maybe I’m projecting my own faults and my own weaknesses onto the blog community with that assessment. But, from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve written myself, there’s a critical stage of fact-checking essential in journalism that is not expected of a blogger. For lack of resources – mindful that this isn’t a job – a blogger has the latitude and might even be encouraged to rush to judgment and jump to conclusions.

Speed is a factor, but not in the same marking your territory sense as scooping your rivals. No, on a blog, the speed with which you respond is essential to the relationship with your readers. There is an intimacy born of blogging’s instantaneous and immediate nature. Bloggers are not in a position of authority. They stand in the place of the reader, the viewer, the listener – except they don’t do so passively.

Personally, I write when I hear something on the radio, read something in the paper, or see something on TV and feel the real story has not been told. When some critical bit of context has been left out, when there are obvious questions that remain to be asked – that’s when I log-in to the New Nebraska Network and share my two cents with the world.

Blogs can flesh out a story. They can provide the context that most people will not piece together themselves because they’re busy living their lives and have other priorities. Now, I think the best journalists do a good job of building that context into their own reporting. This may invite charges of bias, but it’s called informing the public. What could be more unethical and in greater violation of the public’s trust than remaining silent on an important point just to avoid the appearance of bias.

Blogs are less concerned about appearance. We’re expected to be biased, and there certainly isn’t any pressure to be polite.

While these are all strengths, they aren’t without their drawbacks. As much as it pains me and insults my fellow bloggers, I’m very concerned with the parallels between blogging and what’s become of cable news. There is definitely a level at which Bill O’Reilly serves as the televised template for what many people consider good blogging. There’s a point at which every blogger seems to declare his or her own personal “No Spin Zone” – where a single truth prevails and the fools who disagree will no longer be suffered. I find this ironic because, like O’Reilly, spin is all most bloggers really have to offer. Spin is what we do.

The difference is that your average blogger is not presenting his or her work as something that it’s not. They’re partisan and proud of it. Their readers come for the spin that caters to them or challenges them from a perspective they might not otherwise consider. This spin is not an active attempt to mislead in the worst sense of the word, but it does require that one be willing to go out on limbs and not shy away from innuendo.

I’ll be perfectly honest that I take comfort in the fact that I can be wrong and can be misled because, like anyone else, I’m relying on the news media for the facts that inform what I write. If you don’t do your job providing unbiased, in-depth, investigative reporting, the bloggers of the world will still have their opinions, but they’ll be a whole lot more ignorant and ill-informed – just like the public at large.

The people in this room, you have legitimacy. You have credibility. You have the people’s trust – whether it’s deserved or not. Take that responsibility seriously, or it will be no time at all before the talking heads, the talking points, and the worst excesses of our dueling political dichotomy have completely taken over.

Blogs can be part of the problem, or they can be part of the solution. Regardless, I think it goes without saying that blogs are here to stay. Eventually, the topic won’t be so trendy, but the medium itself will continue to develop. How much good they’ll do – what size of audience they’ll actually reach – I can’t really say. But, they’ll be around. And I expect certain voices will emerge online that become quite credible and influential – probably even here in Nebraska.

They’ll criticize bad reporting. They’ll claim bias from the left and from the right. They’ll mock our politicians and try their best to hold them accountable.

The traditional media will do what it can to co-opt the new media – to make a buck, to broaden its audience, and to keep a check on the competition. Meanwhile, politicians and their staff – who are so obsessed with image and message control – will no doubt find new and evermore creative ways to manipulate the online community for their own purposes. It’s already ridiculous now, and it will only get more ridiculous with time.

As for me and the New Nebraska Network, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be in the blogging game. The only reason I’ve stuck with it as long as I have is because I truly believe those who share a progressive vision for this state have been horribly under-represented and their issues under-reported by the media. Also, there are important debates about Nebraska’s future that simply aren’t being discussed or even acknowledged as they should.

I have no delusions that the New Nebraska Network is going to single-handedly change Nebraska politics. But, I’m happy to have been in on the ground floor as this new medium develops, and I hope – when I’ve finally gotten sick of the sound of my own typing – there will be a few other voices to step up and follow in the New Nebraska Network’s footsteps.

There are so many important things to be said and no one way to say them – just so long as someone believes enough in the power of ideas and the strength of democracy that they’re at least willing to try.

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Blogger Unknown said...

I've been anxiously awaiting the posting of this speech, and it did not disappoint. Great job, Kyle! Wish I could have been there!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

good speech kyle.

I think of blogs, political and otherwise, as your really good friend who knows way more about a topic than you.

I have friends who are way more into underground rap than I will ever be, as much as I love it. So when I hear of a new artist or mc, I go ask them.

But now there are underground hip-hop blogs, and I can go there.

I am that political friend to a number of people, and that's why I write my blog.

At the same time, blogs serve as nexus points for lots of people with the same interest to get together and talk shop.

the comments on the nnn could easily be mistaken for an 11pm Clancy's conversation any day.

Blogger Skipatore said...

Unfortunately, Kyle, I think your assessment of the media, particularly TV news, is accurate. Can you imagine a local network really breaking down the numbers on Heineman's plan in a thought provoking story? Its viewers would learn that for some of them, their income taxes will actually be going up a bit. Certainly we deserved a compare and contrast story when Heineman and Hahn proposed their ideas before the people chose one of them as our governor. Im glad thoses folks heard your speech. They deserve to know a lot of us have expectations that aren't being met.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle, great speech. Wish I could have been there. How was it received? It's not to the degree found in Washington, but we have our own local pundit class. They're not used to criticism.

Don't downplay the effectiveness of blogs that point out the shortcomings of journalists. Until a year or 2 ago, there was no way to publicly disseminate the hackery committed by some of our "renowned" pundits (see David Broder). Without blogs like yours, these people would remain unaccountable. Keep pushing!


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