Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Strange Bedfellows

This morning's Washington Journal, which I listen to on C-SPAN Radio through my XM subscription, made a slightly odd judgment call. They decided to devote an entire call-in segment to the question of civility in the media, lumping together the stories of the suspension of Don Imus and the reporting of Tim O'Reilly's proposed "code of conduct" for the blogosphere. I call this odd because my own feeling is that these two issues are about as alike as apples and oranges. As I and others have tried to argue in our own contributions to the blogosphere, concepts like civility are not easy to grasp; and trying to discuss them in terms of two such disparate events can only complicate the matter. The good news is that most C-SPAN callers did not want to talk about the blogosphere, so they kept the issue focused on the Imus affair.

C-SPAN callers, as a rule, make for a mixed bag. There is so much diversity (much of which is shot from the hip) that even the slightest hint of a trend may say something. This morning I was reminded of a sign I used to have on the door to my office at the University of Pennsylvania with the following lines of text:

You built the scaffold

You tied the rope

You put your head in the noose

And now you're complaining that the trapdoor opened

I was pleasantly surprised that there were so many callers who wanted to talk about the hypocrisy of the media business, and the way in which they have turned "shock radio" into a major cash cow, rather than about the "bad behavior" of one of the best known "shock jocks." The dead moose on the table is the underlying premise that Imus was doing exactly what he was paid to do, because that is what gets people to listen to his program, which means it is what gets people to listen to the advertising spots on his program. When both broadcasting management and the advertisers make a show of recoiling in horror at one particular move in Imus' particular brand of language-game (Wittgenstein and Imus in a single sentence … who woulda thunk it?), they are doing nothing more than putting up a front to prop up their own professed standards of "civility," which they feel are important for their public image. Well, I do not know about the kind of people who phone in to Imus (or, for that matter, Al Sharpton); but there seem to be a fair number of C-SPAN listeners who see that front for what it is. (Maybe they have gotten so good at detecting it in the government that they are now beginning to recognize it in the private sector!) If it took Imus going over a line that was never particularly well-defined in the first place (let alone fixed) to get people talking about where the real problem lies, then I, for one, am willing to accept his apology for what I personally felt was offensive speech.

Let me now repeat: None of this has anything to do with what is going on in the blogosphere, and attempts to examine it that way can only confuse a situation that is confused enough already. The fact is that there are a variety of ways in which radio broadcasting is subject to governance, and that governance has generally been effective enough to engender an implicit code of conduct. Yes, there are flaws in the governance structure in both the public and private sectors; but, when you compare radio broadcasting with all the other areas that provide the American public with goods and services and their governance structures, that sector does not look so bad. This is enough to make me wonder whether the underlying problem of safety in cyberspace would benefit from examining practices in radio broadcasting as a way to complement the theoretical insights of the fundamental documents of the United States government. I suspect that we would make a lot more progress than we would through a "wiki-based review" of a draft document prepared by someone who is much better at preparing high-quality no-nonsense desktop reference books (with really cool cover pictures).

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