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Sunlight: The 2nd Best Disinfectant February 26, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Media, Politics.
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“Transparency” is tossed around Washington like the solution to all our problems.  But what good is a window if nobody is looking through it?  Citizens today are inundated by so much information that we must rely on others to sort and interpret the news that is actually relevant to us.  And in our politicized country, most of us receive governmental news from outlets at least slightly skewed towards our preexisting views.

I’m a liberal.  When a Republican says something outrageous, I know about it immediately thanks to Media Matters and the rest of the liberal blogosphere.  But when a Democrat makes an equivalent mistake, I may not even find out.  The big slips make national news, covered by the “balanced” mainstream media, but the more mundane mistruths fly under the radar.  The little lies about a particular bill.  The deliberately distorted talking points that obstruct well-intentioned legislation.  The average person does not hear about the everyday dishonesty that has crippled our democracy today.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  So we have multiple C-SPAN channels, the Freedom Of Information Act and more political reporting than would seem possible.  There is so much information available in the name of transparency that no single person could ever hope to monitor politics casually; that’s a full-time job.

How many ordinary people actually watch C-SPAN?  Virtually none*.  The cameras are almost always on, but nobody watches directly.  We all rely on dedicated observers to tell us if something of note happened in Congress.  So because we get our political news pre-spun and, more importantly, pre-filtered, few people get the full picture.

As a result, I would argue that sunlight is not the best disinfectant.  The blinding brightness of all this transparency has actually forced us to shield our eyes and turn away.  Too much of a good thing has had the exact opposite effect as intended.  It is true that sunlight stops the big schemes, like Watergate.  Yet more often, sunlight just provides fodder for the politically-hyped fake scandals, like “Climate-gate.”

There isn't really any useful imagery for this post, so here's a pretty picture of sunlight.

I’m not advocating for increased secrecy, I would merely like to point out that we have just witnessed the demonstration of a much more powerful force in the name of good governance: public viewership.

Despite its shortcomings, yesterday’s Healthcare Summit hosted by President Obama was something different.  Yes, it initially appeared to be an interlocking presentation of talking points, but 3-4 hours in, something interesting began to happen.  Unexpected areas of agreement appeared.  Sensible minority proposals met with majority support.  Progress was taking place.

In our toxic political climate, it is worth asking, “what was different?”  Why can’t such dialogue and rational policy debate take place in Congress, the body created for that express purpose?  Having the President there to babysit likely helped, but much more important was the fact that the country was watching.

Events that people watch in person are much less susceptible to spin because we form our own opinions on the spot. That is supposed to be the driving force of a free country: the will of the people, not the mantra of the shepherd with the largest, mindless flock.

I have no doubt that either side could strategically excerpt yesterday’s proceedings to make their opponents look foolish, and that almost certainly happened.  But when the public tunes in directly, politicians are once again restrained by a sense of accountability – the same accountability that objective media coverage, which is often necessarily “unbalanced,” used to provide.

The Healthcare Summit was not a turning point in our country.  The politics have not changed, even for healthcare, and the public is not about to become involved in everyday politics (nor, frankly, should they have to be).  But this did remind us, for a few hours, that productive political dialogue can occur – if we, the people, demand it of our elected representatives.

*Digging a little deeper, it appears that C-SPAN does actually have significant viewership.  That’s news to me, but I think my main point stands.

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