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Friday, October 3, 2008

The Nonsensical World of Washington
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One of the problems the country wrestles with in every policy arena is that democratic institutions work in fundamentally irrational ways. In business, science, philosophy, and every other discipline that adheres to the traditions of Western liberal thought, logical coherence and rationality are prized above all else. Indeed, outside of Washington, an idea or proposition that does not have at least a patina of basic rationality will be rejected outright as unworthy of serious consideration. The same does not hold true "inside the beltway." Political bodies respond to the perceptions of the electorate, whether or not those perceptions bear any relation to fact or reason.

So, for example, it cannot be gainsaid that we live in a time of extraordinary media abundance. Never in history has one be able to access entertainment and information from as many sources, with as many different viewpoints and of as many different kinds, as easily and cheaply, as one can today. Yet, because people tend to remember that which angers or frustrates them, and to pretermit that which does not, the popular perception is that "the media" is monolithic and failing.

Now, as a matter of fact, everyone has their own perception of how, precisely, the media is failing - some think it too conservative, others too liberal, some find popular media to be bland, while others object that it is too racy, some argue that local issues are ignored, while others complain that too much capacity is devoted to community channels and programming - but to those who would pander to these perceptions for political purposes it matters not. The fact that almost everyone can find something about the media to which he or she would object suggests that it is in fact quite diverse. Those whose political objective is greater government control over the media, however, use the fact to generate angst and to foster a general backlash against the media. Thus, in Washington, no matter how counterfactual or nonsensical the position, politicians and policy advocates can claim a lack diversity and choice in media - and they are taken seriously.

The phenomena of directing political responses at popular illusions is widespread and quite dangerous. The political left complains, for example, that the general, but mistaken, impression that Saddam Hussein was responsible in some way for the attack on the World Trade Center contributed to early popular support for military operations in Iraq. The political right, on the other hand, can just as appropriately complain that a superficial, incomplete, and often incorrect understanding of the factors affecting global climate change drives modern environmental policy. It simply is too difficult to get the electorate to understand and deal with complex fact sets, while it is comparatively easy to get the electorate to respond to a well-told boogeyman story.

I don't have a general remedy for this affliction. We should all, however, raise our voices in opposition when policy proposals are offered that are facially irrational. It would be a start, at least, to tackle suggestions that do not even make an attempt to draw a logical connection between the facts and proposed policies.

So, for example, certain groups, I understand, have been importuning the FCC to maintain certain specific program access provisions that were imposed upon News Corporation attendant to its acquisition DIRECTV. It has lately divested itself of that interest. The program access provisions in question had nothing whatever to do with News Corporation as a stand alone entity. That is, the logical connection between the facts and the policy has been severed. If there is an alternative basis to maintain the provisions in question (i.e., the facts somehow warrant maintenance of the provisions even absent News Corporation's ownership of DIRECTV), that should to be decided in a separate proceeding directed at the relevant questions.

Outside of Washington, such a measured and rational approach would seem uncontroversial and, indeed, de rigeur. In the nonsensical world of Washington, however, it is by no means clear that the FCC will do what is obviously rational; it may well instead do what is obviously political. Acceptance of that approach should put us all on edge.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 12:25 PM | Mass Media , The FCC

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