W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

Feeling like 1995

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

These days have evoked 1995 in more than a few respects.

The sale of the Washington Post closed Tuesday; the new owner is Jeff Bezos, who in July 1995 began selling books at Amazon.com, in near-total obscurity.

Amazon since then has made Bezos a multibillionaire and he has recently talked about leading the sometimes-arrogant Post to a new golden era, a vague reference to the Post’s mythologized reporting of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago.

The episode today in which a woman tried to rammed her car into a barricade near the White House, setting off a wild and deadly chase that ended near the Capitol, was faintly evocative of the night in May 1995 when an intruder scaled a fence near the White House, unloaded pistol in hand. “I’m here to see the president!” he shouted before being shot and wounded by a secret service agent.

Today also marks the 18th anniversary of the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in the slayings of his former wife and her friend. Simpson’s trial lasted more than nine months and its related controversies spread like a stain across 1995.

Crybaby Newt_1995NYDN

Recalling 1995: Newt and the shutdown (New York Daily News)

The strongest allusions to 1995 are of course to be found in the partial shutdown of the federal government — the first since the closures of November 14-19, 1995, and of December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996.

The shutdowns, then and now, are alike in their effects — government workers sent home, federal landmarks and national parks closed — but differ notably in their immediate causes.

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, “The sticking points during that 1995-96 fight centered on demands from Republicans … for cuts in spending on entitlements such as Medicare, the health-care program for retirees, as well as other nondefense spending.” They also pressed President Bill Clinton to agree to balance the federal budget within seven years.

The second and longer shutdown took shape when Clinton and the Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, differed over how to calculate whether the budget would be balanced in seven years, as the Journal pointed out.

The confrontations had improbable effects.

They allowed Clinton to steady his shaky administration; much of 1995 had been a time of missteps and gaffes for Clinton. He was reduced, for example, to insisting on his relevancy as a president amid a political landscape where Gingrich and the Republicans were ascendant following sweeping victories in midterm elections in 1994.

The government shutdowns of 1995 brought confirmation of Gingrich’s pricklinesss and volatility. One of the most remarkable moments of the government closure was his ill-considered outburst on November 15, 1995.

At a breakfast meeting with journalists, Gingrich acknowledged that a measure of personal pique was behind his toughening up the spending bill that Clinton vetoed to set in motion the furlough of 800,000 government employees.

Gingrich complained that Clinton had passed up an opportunity to negotiate the budget issues aboard Air Force One the week before, during a long trip home from Israel, where the president and congressional leaders had attended the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

Not only that, but Gingrich complained that he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole were forced to leave the Air Force One by the rear stairs after landing at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland.

“This is petty,” Gingrich said at the breakfast meeting. But “you land at Andrews and you’ve been on the plane for twenty-five hours [for the round trip to Israel] and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp. . . . You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?”

The perceived slights and rude treatment, Gingrich said, were “part of [the reason] why you ended up with us sending down a tougher” spending measure, making Clinton’s veto and the government shutdown a certainty.

The outburst turned Gingrich into the petulant poster boy of the government shutdown. The New York Daily News caricatured him as a wailing toddler, stamping his foot in anger. Gingrich’s favorability ratings, which had been ebbing throughout 1995, fell further during the shutdowns.

Clinton may have steadied his presidency during the shutdowns. But he also engaged in conduct that would bring his administration to the brink of ruin.

On the night of Gingrich’s outburst, Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky, a White House intern then 22-years-old, had their first sexual encounter at the White House — the first in a series of furtive liaisons that would lead, improbably, to Clinton’s impeachment three years later.


More from Media Myth Alert:

Challenging the myth of ‘techno-utopianism’

In Debunking, Media myths on February 22, 2010 at 8:47 am

The Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition carried a great article challenging the fashionable notion that new media technologies and platforms represent a lethal threat to authoritarian regimes, such as the theocracy in Iran.

It’s a compelling argument, that “free and unfettered access to information, combined with new tools of mobilization afforded by blogs and social networks, leads to the opening up of authoritarian societies and their eventual democratization,” as the author, Evgeny Morozov, says in the Journal article.

Employing digital options and technology to promote democracy has become a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

Morozov, however, warns that such views are little more than “‘techno-utopianism.'”

Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, notes that “the Internet often makes the jump from deliberation to participation even more difficult, thwarting collective action under the heavy pressure of never-ending internal debate.

“This is what may explain the impotence of recent protests in Iran: Thanks to the sociability and high degree of decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers—some of them composed primarily of net-savvy Iranians in the diaspora—that it couldn’t collect itself [last week] on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.”

Revolutionary change typically “requires a high degree of centralization” among opponents of authoritarian regimes, Morozov notes, adding, the splintering effect of the Internet “does not always help here.”

Moreover, unrestricted access to dissenting views isn’t necessarily a decisive, motivating factor in revolutions.

Morozov offers as a telling example the case of East Germany, where during the Cold War many people had routine and little-restricted access to West German television.  They lived schizophrenically, as the New York Times once put it: In socialism by day, capitalism by night–via West German TV.

Steady exposure to views challenging those of East Germany’s communist government did little to stir revolutionary spirits. Indeed, the East Germans were among the last to rebel against communist rule in the democratization wave that swept Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s.

“According to data compiled by the East German government,” Morozov writes, “East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country and the communist regime.”

Ironically, he adds, the upheaval that ultimately unraveled the East German regime had its origins in Dresden, which mostly was beyond the reach of West German television signals.

Morozov also points out that social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook “empower all groups—not just the pro-Western groups that we like.” They can be, and have been, co-opted to disseminate views harmful and antithetical to fledgling pro-democracy movements, in Iran and elsewhere.

Morozov’s article is a reminder of how tempting it can be to overstate, or over-presume, media power. This is a theme raised in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book debunking media-driven myths.

Media-driven myths are dubious or apocryphal tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence.

I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational. But too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

It’s easy and tempting to confound the media’s omnipresence with media power. And that certainly helps drive the appeal of “techno-utopianism.”


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