I am tempted sometimes to wring my hands in despair at the sorry state of the Federal Government, at our $8+ trillion national debt, at our incredibly low popularity ratings around the world, even from our allies, at our lack of global competitiveness in some key industries, of our economic slowdown, and most of all, at the incredibly biased and inane media coverage of politics and elections.
But then I think about how the internet is changing everything, and how the ideas of openness and transparency and collaboration for the common good are powerful and viral and may never be able to be caged again. And my discouragement melts away. I look forward to the time when these concepts infuse our electorate with the information and tools they need to make better decisions than we have in the past few decades, when the power of the media has been concentrated in the hands of a few people within a few companies.
In 2006, a law was passed and signed by President Bush that is a first step towards helping every US Citizen learn how the government spends tax dollars.
Here’s what Edwin Feulner of the Heritage Foundation said in 2006 about how to reduce federal spending, as he reported on this ball:
There’s a simpler, cheaper and more permanent solution: Allow 300 million Americans to review how government spends our money.
That’s the idea behind the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, a measure co-sponsored by an unlikely duo: conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and liberal Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), with strong support from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to build an easy-to-use Web database containing detailed information about all the grants and contracts the federal government hands out. This database would allow virtually anyone to see how much money a federal program received and how it spent that money.
As I understand it, the web site expectmore.gov was supposed to be the place where we can learn how much money is being spent on every federal program and every federal contract. Currently the site has an Alexa rating of about 11,000, so it is quite popular, but it seems to simply report generally on the efficiency of each federal program. Many federal programs are currently rated ineffective, meaning that they aren’t demonstrating results and therefore are a waste of taxpayers money, but I can’t seem to find anything on this web site that tells how much money we are spending on each program. I actually thought that was the main point of the new law.
In fact, I searched for “site:expectmore.gov dollars” and “site:expectmore.gov million” in Google and found fewer than 10 hits for both terms combined.
If we ranked the ineffective programs by dollars wasted, instead of alphabetically, and if we allowed for citizen input as to the qualitative effectiveness or ineffectiveness of various programs, rather that just letting the government do all the ratings, then this tool could be a powerful way to combat waste and to shrink the federal budget, as one wasteful program after another faces the scrutiny of an informed populous.
Another hopeful sign is that transparent government is being pushed in several states, and many are beginning to publish their entire budgets online. Of course, it would be easy for any state government to publish the budget in such a way that the average person wouldn’t even begin to figure it out. But I assume that overtime some best practices will be adopted by state and local governments, or that some private enterprise will figure out how to take the raw data from state and federal governments and roll it up into a very user friendly interface, allowing citizens to provide feedback to elected officials on all their fiscal decisions.
Okay, so the trend towards transparent government is already underway. But what about transparent media?
I would love to see media companies and reporters to stop pretending to be objective.
Anyone reporting on stocks is required by federal securities law to disclose their position in a stock so that their “reporting” doesn’t influence the value of the stock.
But no one, to my knowledge, in the political arena, is required to disclose any bias whatsoever. A major news anchor could be a sworn enemy of a particular party or candidate, and could be using all of his/her influence to bias the elections against them, but no one knows.
Now I’m not someone who believes in a grand media conspiracy, where the boards of directors of all the major media companies get together to decide who the next President of the United States will be.
But I believe that everyone in the media has a personal bias, and that very few individuals take their journalistic calling seriously enough to be able to report on news in an unbiased way. I remember seeing a sign on a university professor’s door (he was a communications professor) with a quote from about 1910 by the Dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism to the effect that the profession of being a journalist basically “went to hell” when students stopped studying history and started studying communications. So now, instead of having deep content expertise, many journalists and media company employees understand entertainment and psychology, and know how to create certain reactions among their viewers/listeners/readers with attention grabbers and sound bites. Instead of having deep knowledge so they can inform us, they have skills so they can manipulate us.
Is that completely unfair? Or do you think is actually true?
One example: if anyone in the mainstream media really wanted Mitt Romney to be elected the next President, don’t you think someone would have reported that he actually won in Wyoming, and that he actually leads in the delegate count so far?
Instead, everyone is saying Michigan is his last stand. The media seem to want to declare certain candidates have lost. And voters can easily be affected by this. No one wants to “waste” their vote, by voting for someone that the media declares has no chance to win an election. So Giuliani is clearly losing momentum in Florida.
The young people in the country, who seem to avoid the mainstream media and get their news almost exclusively online, from all kinds of sources, including millions of blogs and from their social networking friends, don’t seem to mind wasting their votes for Ron Paul. Any online poll, any poll that uses cell phone text messaging for voting, and both the MySpace and Facebook “primaries” overwhelmingly went to Ron Paul and to Barack Obama. And yet the mainstream media for the most part ignores this.
But as the social networking generation get older, every four years the mainstream media will lose more influence, and more and more voters will be informed in other ways.
I think there is an opportunity for a media entrepreneur to embrace transparency and emerge as a trusted source for a generation of US citizens that don’t trust government or media to be objective. I think someone could launch a news company where EVERY reporter’s bias is revealed in every report that is made.
Sometimes the bias is so subtle:
- a silly picture of John Edwards next to a handsome picture of Obama. So who chose those pictures and why?
- Ron Paul gets the same percentage votes as Giuliani in New Hampshire, but his name doesn’t show up on the pie chart because there isn’t enough room for it.
- Romney wins Wyoming but no one reports it.
Again, I’m not saying there is a single media conspiracy underway, but I do think that transparency is coming. Either the mainstream media will embrace it, or someone else will emerge that really does create a trustworthy media company, and will eat their lunch as the social networking generation increasingly ignores CNN and Fox News and goes elsewhere for their information.
Until we get transparent media here in the U.S., I find that often times the best source of news is from the UK. I am impressed by the journalism in the Economist magazine, the Financial Times, and sometimes get good information from the BBC. In a recent search, the best explanation I could find on the confusing delegate counts for the Republican and Democratic primaries was from the Guardian, another UK paper.