Alvin Felzenberg and the Effects of Digital Technology on Politics

Alvin Felzenberg’s talk entitled “The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game” drew some interesting connections between the nature of the media in modern day America and the public perception of the President. Because television and the internet enable us to be constantly tuned in, news coverage is now designed to give us real time updates of what is going on in Washington D.C.. To a certain extent, this instantaneous access to information is extremely valuable: we live in a democracy where our beliefs and opinions are intended to dictate the course of politics, so it is only appropriate that we know exactly what is going on at all times. Because the technology of the digital age renders this information much more accessible, it can be argued that modern technology is, in fact, strengthening the institution of democracy within our nation and around the world.
In his talk, however, Felzenberg assessed the negative implications of the media’s instant access to information. Because of the ever-increasing number of outlets of information (television news, web news, blogs, etc.), the pressure for news coverage to address issues in a way that the public will find engaging has grown. Felzenberg discussed the tendency of the media to rate every action taken by a President in a way that obscures the big picture due to its focus on relatively insignificant details. I agree with him in the sense that I, too, feel that this approach to news coverage has become increasingly common. The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, for example, prides itself on being a place where “news and information are arriving all the time.” This real time aspect of the show exaggerates the importance of events that are taking place in the present at the expense of other information that is necessary to provide a contextual basis. In this way, the media encourages wild fluctuations in the public’s perception of a President. When Republican Scott Brown of Massachuetts was elected to the Senate, news programs discussed the failure of Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole to satisfy the nation. Talk of a Republican resurgence in the 2010 midterm Congressional elections reigned supreme, until Obama’s health care reform passed last month. Now, news programs hail Obamacare as a watershed moment in American politics that has not been matched in recent years. Although these two events certainly deserve extensive coverage and attention, the way in which they were portrayed by the media fails to recognize them as parts of a larger whole. This mentality translates into what Felzenberg describes as an erratic and unreliable ranking of the Presidents.
Another component of Felzenberg’s argument is the media’s tendency to broadcast information first and verify later. While the potential for ordinary people (rather than simply a handful of elites) to participate in the shaping of public opinion is a valuable product of 21st century technology, the unreliability of this information poses serious dangers to the public perception of elected officials. This dubious information is even more of a reality on the internet, where anyone can post entirely unsubstantiated assertions. The claim that Obama was Muslim, for example, surfaced during the 2008 elections and circulated around the globe. Although it is the responsibility of sensible citizens to verify information before accepting it as fact, the tendency of Americans (and people all over the world) to accept what they hear (or read) at face value enables baseless accusations to grow to in strength online.