What Gets Into People?

June 6, 2008

In other words, why do ordinary citizens travel hundreds or thousands of miles at their own expense to wrestle with questions of media and society? I mean, I understand why they’d spend all that money and time on someting important like a baseball game, but this?

For Valerie Traina of Denver, it’s because of a passion for the environment. Traina is leaving her job as a fund-raiser for a child abuse prevention agency and going to grad school to become an environmental journalist.

“Environmental stories are suppressed by the corporate media,” she said. “Finally, with the rise of the new media, we have a chance to really get some of these important stories before the public and help do something about the environment. Because if the environment goes, none of us will be here, anyway.”

Dr. Jim Brancato teaches communications at Cedar Crest College, a small liberal arts college for women in Allentown, Pa. For him, it’s a matter of keeping up with his students, who grew up with new media and effortlessly incorporate it into their lives. But Brancato also believes that the mainstream media have actually ventured far from the American middle.

“The corporate media have really gotten away from what the majority of Americans believe in,” he said. “I actually think the ‘alternative’ media are much closer to the mainstream these days. On issue after issue, they really reflect the values that most Americans have.”

Arthur Lies showed up at the conference after realizing that an octopus had invaded his life.

“I grew up with a newspaper called the Fargo Forum,” said Lies, a retired schoolteacher from — where else? — Fargo. “Then it became just the Forum, and then it became Forum Communications. I was looking at their Web site recently — do you realize they own 34 newspapers? It’s an octopus. And then you look at our TV stations in Fargo: four stations, and it’s Disney and General Electric and Rupert [Murdoch]. The big corporations own everything.” (A century ago, the Standard Oil monopoly was often depicted as an octopus, as in this cartoon. That’s the kind of feeling I get from people here when they talk about the corporate media.)

There’s definitely big change happening in the media world, and it’s not stretching the point to call it people power. This conference features several political bloggers — most notably Jane Hamsher and Duncan Black — who were unknown three years ago, but now have followings in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. They are mobilizing people, influencing elections and having an impact on public policy at the highest levels of our government.

That would have been virtually inconceivable 10 years ago, or even five years ago. But it’s a fact of life today, and there’s no going back.

Political bloggers have learned to harness these forces more effectively than most bloggers on the commercial side. For people like me, whose job it is to market things, the challenge is how to find the key to getting people to feel as passionately about a product as they do about politics.