Chautauqua Day 1 - John Harwood

John Harwood was an interesting choice to have kick off the Chautauqua season, and the week one series of discussions on ethics and the media. His focus, in a sort of round-about way, was that political party polarization both feeds, and is fed by, the drive for viewership of a sensationalism-hungry media.Harwood refers to parties as "brands", and says that in the political sphere, these brands have done nothing but solidify, cementing public participation in a binary system. This simplification is driven by the notion that people, by-in-large, want to know what they're getting in a particular candidate or party.Historically, Harwood contends that this calcification in the party systems stems from Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Voting Rights act in 1964. The dems became the pro-civil rights party and the republicans the anti-civil rights party. From then on out, you knew what you were getting. If you wanted smaller governement, fewer services, larger civil defense, and focus on waning deterioration of social values, you were a republican. If you favored increased federal services and gun control, enironmental protection, and abortion rights, you're a democrat.

Does Harwood have his real hair? Yes, he says, demonstrating his answer to what may be the most important political question of the morning.Decline of the political party system? Hardly, he says. We're just on the cusp of a new party system. "The new one hasn't ended the parties; it's changed the way people think and understand them, and I think they've actually emerged stronger, because people know what they're voting for."Do they really? There's some data to support it, at least to support the assertion that when it counts, the public steps up to the plate. In 2000, only 105 million people voted. In 2004, that number went up to 122 million, largely attributed to strong sentiment one way or the other toward the Iraq war.And yet, in spite of this solidification in the party system as Harwood proports, the American public is becoming less and less easy to pin down on some more traditionally divisive social issues. According to a recent study by the Pew Foundation, we the people skew right on gay marriage and gay adoption, left on embryonic stem cell research, and straight down the middle on abortion. We're not moving further apart, we're moving closer to center, according to the study.Harwood is on the community line in this speech. I'm hard-pressed to find a scholar of media that doesn't support the assertion that the search for viewers and increased circulation drives desperation reportage across news outlets; a drive to cover sensational and salacious that trumps - intentionally or otherwise - reporting stories to their conclusion. Dare we bring up Duke LaCrosse?On the other side of the fence, political pundits are better now than ever at taking control of the conversation, themselves trumping newsgathering with talking points and spin.But I'm not convinced Harwood made a clear and compelling connection that the media is complicit in the on-going bifurcation in the party system. Instead, I'd submit that media is reporting less adeptly on social issues, taking the easy -- and cheap -- out on hard reporting decisions, and the result is the appearance of a media role in goosing outrage and salaciousness for fun and profit. That the parties are better at this game than the media doesn't make it news.

A bit off topic, he brought up one of the best points of his speech in the Q&A.

Q: Let's focus on newspapers for a second. One question has to do with what is the consequence of the reducation of newspapers, the reduction of staff, on journalism, and is there a ripple affect of reducing commitment in journalism in newspapers that will then have a consequence in the overall delivery in news beyond newspapers?Harwood: That's a very smart question, and it's absolutely true for this reason. The most important piece in television news everyday is what's in newspapers. One of the interesting things that I've noticied going from, you know, people you keep their foot in both camps: Television people don't have a lot of self confidence about their own judgement.

This is the paper of record connundrum. I fully contend that much of the market for broadcast doesn't consider their medium as important as traditional print news. This fuels the more symbiotic relationship between print and broadcast: news begins in the papers, is supplemented the next day in pictures, and is investigated to conclusion in print. The rise in cable outlets and their 24-hour coverage has had some affect on the practical application of this relationship, but it's certainly there. Fewer reporters trained in print newsgathering will most certainly have a negative affect on quality and quantity of reportage.I had the opportunity to meet Harwood after his talk. Turns out, he's joining the online discussion and starting a blog this week through his role as a political reporter with CNBC. He stopped short of supporting the assertion that the rise of citizen media fueled by David Gilmor and his ilk was leading to a new middle-media. I told him I thought it was great, his journey into the blogosphere, and welcomed him. Where could we find him online?He couldn't remember the URL.Tomorrow, David Westin, President of ABC News.