TCS Daily


New Media, New Power

By Duane D. Freese - December 19, 2002 12:00 AM

I was out of the country, and in a place where Internet connections cost a couple bucks a minute to use. That's my excuse for only learning through the Miami Herald's Caribbean edition on Tuesday Dec. 11 of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's verbal high dive into Deep South doo-doo at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

"I want to say this about my state," the Mississippian intoned on Dec. 5. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Ten days and three Lott apologies later, I got back, and Lott appears closer to taking his own long vacation than maintaining his leadership position. If he does fall or is dumped, it won't be because of the old liberal media bias, or even the old media, period.

As Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, has noted, the Big National Media nearly missed the story. His own paper buried its initial story on page 6. The New York Times missed it entirely. On the networks, it received brief mention by a couple of commentators, one of them, old media conservative Robert Novak spouting the ancient line about media bias against conservatives being at the root of Lott's troubles.

That, though, wasn't it. Nor was it Democrats who raised Lott's remarks to national prominence. Indeed, some liberals appear to be more forgiving, with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., being particularly magnanimous.

No, the real heat in the Lott affair has been generated by new media.

Some of that has come from the left, in particular liberal blogger Josh Marshall, who zeroed in on Lott's remarks at the start.

But what gave the story currency beyond another left-of-center smear was the focus upon the issue by the likes of libertarian InstaPundit Glenn Harlan Reynolds; conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, and National Review Online, in particular Jonah Goldberg and David Frum. And the conservative news and information center, Town Hall online, has provided a forum for the most thoughtful, and most scathing, commentary.

The fire generated in those places simply has not allowed Lott to get away with saying what he did about a Thurmond victory in 1948, failing at first to apologize for it, and then trying to pass off his remarks as simply a poor choice of words.

Such excuses ring hollow when, with a little exploration on the Drudge Report, you can find that Lott withdrew from an event a couple months ago honoring Harry Belafonte after the singer and liberal activist publicly called Colin Powell a "house slave."

In light of that recent event, Lott's own past and Thurmond's historic record, it boggles the imagination that he could even "wing" words about a Thurmond presidency being preferable for the nation only because he wanted to be nice to the old man.

But perhaps the most important element of the Lott story is the way in which conservatives used the Net and new media in order to hold a leader to account - something that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Bruce Bimber, a political science professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, who's done about as much survey work as anyone on the Internet's effect on politics, argues against the notion that new information technology means a "new politics." And I would agree. Politics is about organization of individuals around a group of broad tenets to accomplish vital societal tasks. New information technology doesn't change politics per se. But it can have a leveling effect by creating a real forum for the views of more participants.

When conducted through broadcast TV ads, telephone solicitations and direct mail campaigns, politics favor the kinds of organizations that only money can buy. And while ultimately that is the kind of organization any candidate needs, the Internet and new media allow motivated, like-minded, concerned people to coalesce and break through the normal filters of big money and big politics.

Bimber notes that, thanks largely to new communications technologies lowering the cost of communication, left wing protests could target the World Trade Organization with demonstrations that "involved collective action by tens of thousands of citizens in the absence of any established coordinating organizations."

Similarly, he found the libertarians were able to quickly generate 250,000 e-mails opposing, and ultimately defeating, the intrusive proposed Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation "Know Your Deposit Rules" in 1999

Now, the same thing has happened within conservative ranks regarding the debate over Lott and his suitability as a leading voice representing Republican aspirations and ideals. Thanks to the Net, a well-spring of intra-party opposition to the sentiments Lott expressed was generated, running counter to the general liberal media depiction of conservatives as unconcerned about racial bias and discrimination - this despite opposition by some elites within the party.

That is significant. As Bimber writes, "To the extent that the dominance of traditional elites is weakened, information technology may tend to broaden and 'democratize' the population of political organizations that give form to politics, advancing the state of political equality."

Republicans have traditionally suffered politically among minorities because their free market principles - both in the realm of commerce and ideas - and their views supporting governance close to home and limited government overall, provided little proactive remediation against the kinds of bias minorities have historically faced.

Republicans will never likely support the kind of affirmative action that grants preferences to legally recognized minorities, as many Democrats do (Lott's recent performance on BET notwithstanding). And they shouldn't. But thanks to new media, conservatives can now chastise party leaders who play to old themes of racial discrimination, inadvertently or not. And in that way they can affirmatively promote the kind of party of inclusion, based on character and ideas, not color, race, religion, sex or ethnic background, that President Bush is pursuing and most of them want.

Thanks to new media, the Lott story wasn't missed. Nor was the opportunity for conservatives to press for unbiased leadership.

 

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