Friday, November 7, 2008

Historic moments and the media: An appreciative nod to three impressive journalists

America has just collectively experienced a historic couple of months. These days are especially amazing for a sociologist: An economic crisis compared by many to the Great Depression at the same time as a presidential race featuring a 47 year-old black man taking on and beating a 72 year-old white war-hero. It's probably time for a collective deep breath.

To me, the most interesting thing about the making of history at this point in our country's lifetime is that history takes place in media -- on TV, on the internet, captured daily by blogs, written about in thousands of weekly and monthly magazines, digitally mastered on YouTube, poked fun at on SNL and the Daily Show. Millions of Americans interact with these media sources, finding their knowledge and fine-tuning their perspectives with the help of media every moment of every day.

Too often, though, the word 'media' invokes too impersonal an image. Today's media are often seen to represent a technological revolution. Technology is important, but we should remember -- blogs are written by people. YouTube video snatchers are people. Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, the editors of magazines and newspapers, television producers -- they are all not only people but incredibly creative people.

So I want to quickly name a few particular individuals who have impressed me as significant contributors to American public life and who make the media what it is. As I have paid attention to them over the past few months, these three men and women have improved our collective understanding of what we are going through. They don't necessarily give us fixes; rather, their job is the articulation of knowledge. The following three have done this better than anyone elese I have noticed.

Dylan Ratigan, CNBC, economics. Anyone who watches CNBC sees a lot of Mr. Ratigan. He has been all over the place. He has also been as impressive a critic of the Bailout package as I have seen. He hasn't been some reflexive faux populist. Instead, he has made a reasonable argument. That argument, as I see it, is a 'behavioral' reading of how economics and markets work. In sum, he is calling for a more transparent economic order, so that Americans can begin trusting the market again. He believes the crisis has severely shaken the public's trust in our capitalist system. The problems have not to do with liquidity, solvency, or any kind of traditional economic jargon. Rather, the problem is that individuals are rationally interpreting the economy to be untrustworthy of placing your money in it. He pounds this theme home everyday. My hunch is he is the first articulator of 'behavioral finance' ever put on TV.

Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, politics. Ok, ok, Ms. Maddow is a bit too liberal and a bit too partisan for me. And she runs an opinion show, usually my least favorite kind of television. However, she presents a wonderfully open-mind every night at 8pm cst. She smiles at differing opinions. She makes sure her own opinions are reasonable and based in evidence. In sum, I find Ms. Maddow a perfect liberal for the Obama age: young, pleasant, smart, and willing to engage difference.

John King, CNN, politics. Mr. King is more of a pure journalist than Ms. Maddow. A partisan bias is difficult to detect. His mind, instead, is geared toward data. He is on CNN most often during the Larry King Live show and during Anderson Cooper's show (8pm cst - 10pm cst). What I find most impressive about Mr. King is his use of both polling data (quantitative) and interview data (qualitative). He is a master of county-by-county polls and voting behavior. And I often hear him discuss the many families he keeps in touch with, year by year, to gauge the underlying habits and motives that are guiding voters' understandings of their political environment.

So there, three men and women who deserve our thanks. They do their jobs well. If as a country we somehow start to create more jobs -- and if Americans do these jobs as well as Mr. King, Mr. Ratigan, and Ms. Maddow do theirs -- we will get through this economic crisis. And we will be, I believe, a better version of ourselves on the other side.

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