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After New Hampshire

Here’s what I’m learning: For those of us who like the sound of “Internet democracy,” who yearn for political and cultural renewal and “transformation,” the entrenched obstacle is not the old politics. It’s the old media.

Of course the 2004 campaign has been about media all along. If our politics has been about only One Thing since 9/11, I’d say it’s about the fight to rescue a Republic (“of the people, for the people, by the people“) from the temptations of Empire (of the foreign oil, for the corporate class, by the military). But if our politics is about more than one thing, the next most important fight is about voices in this democracy. Who gets to speak? Who gets to exercise more than a vote? Who’s empowered to join the conversation that defines the problem and makes a priority list of responses? Who gets to feel the rush of public engagement? The Internet invites a vast expansion of that expressive franchise. For the Internet-minded, the core issue in 2004 lies outside the party lines or the standard list of left-right choices. As blogger Matt Stoller has written, “we are witnessing a nonpartisan war between those reactionaries who reject the widening spatial boundaries of politics and those visionaries who embrace them.” Not the least of the Internet’s charm is that it reminds us subliminally of a beloved myth, the open American frontier. It reconnects us with both the free-speech and the community of town meetings. It fires up again the self-reliant Emersonian dream of a liberated nation of vocal non-conformists. “The Internet, like the frontier, is about creation, growth and open spaces,” Stoller observes. And for all those reasons, we are seeing, it scares some people and some interests half to death.

The Howard Dean campaign (much more than Howard Dean himself) has come to stand for the possibility of an Internet democracy. From the beginning there was no separating the “political” and “media” tracks of the campaign’s offensive. Didn’t he say early on that he was running for president because the alternative was to spend the rest of his life yelling at the TV set? Dean’s defining thrust was against the war in Iraq, in which even before it began the big newspapers and TV networks were embedded. His first contribution was simply to sound an anti-war alarm that institutional media had muffled. Millions of people knew intuitively that his warning was wise; millions more know it now. He began with a bold exercise in definition–a job of critical journalism that our big media don’t perform these days. In large dimensions and small (like his chippy defiance of Tim Russert), Dean’s campaign was a critique of the somnolent self-satisfaction that runs through our housecat press. And people loved him for it.

My two-track verdict on the Dean campaign to this point is this. The politics of it is powerful, in a real sense triumphant. But the media strategy in it has proved dangerous, maybe terminal in this 2004 campaign. The political machine surrendered to Dean before Christmas. But an ugly media machine has risen up in January and very nearly destroyed him.

First, the politics: the Dean campaign has recharged our limping democracy for a generation, with vivid fresh examples of what citizenship can mean: all that self-starting civic energy, the MeetUp mobilizations, the decentralized consensus, the articulate idealism, the viral activism. Bill Bradley called it the best thing he’d seen in politics for 20 years or more. Is there any question that the model of mayor’s races and Congressional campaigns in the future will be found in the citizen spirit that the Deaniacs put to work? This is the point that I believe old pros like Al Gore and Tom Harkin were endorsing. They’ve seen the future of progressive organizing, and they know it works. In its small-sum fundraising on the Internet, the Dean campaign cleansed the Augean stables of campaign finance when bought politics had come to seem the unbeatable rule. And it put a compelling short list of serious issues on the table for all to argue: the extension of health care, the refinancing and reinvention of public education, responsible realism in a world that wants to respect us. Even as Howard Dean’s vote totals were coming up short, the field of his rivals was sounding more and more like him on the identifiable issues. It misuses the language to call this a political defeat.

For the same reasons, John Kerry’s “victory” in Iowa and New Hampshire seems to me thin in its political dimensions. In his confused reiterations, his no-apology apologies about an unpopular war in Iraq, Kerry has conceded a point to Dean, not won one. A child of privilege and a multimillionaire, two years ahead of George W. Bush in Yale’s secret sanctum Skull & Bones, Kerry makes an implausible populist, no candidate to open up a stuffy Washington establishment. Kerry was an authentic hero of our generation in his twenties–in hellish warfare and then the anti-war movement. But the presidential campaign emphasizes the combat bravado, not the misery of his letters home from Vietnam: “…I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind,” he wrote in 1968. Where is that insight, that voice, today? Kerry is campaigning this year as Bush Heavy. Sometimes I wonder if he is trying to unlearn his own lessons from Vietnam. In his go-along vote on war with Iraq in October, 2002, Kerry betrayed his past and core peacenik constituency. He was a dupe, and he still can’t admit it. In brief: beside the slippery claim of “electability” and the Bush slogan “Bring it On!” is there any mandate implied in the votes for John Kerry?
No, the results so far are not about politics. They’re about an assault by commercial media on the very idea of a self-willed, self-defining citizenry. Howard Dean scares the institutional media out of their wits–not because of who he is or what he might do as president, but because of what he and “Internet democracy” say about them.

In September, 2002, right about the moment Howard Dean was deciding to run, the nonpareil media critic Jon Katz was writing prophetically on the New York University web page: “The flight of the young has become central for our understanding of what journalism is or needs to be. The young drive our new information culture. They invented and understand new forms of media–especially the Net the the Web… They understand, too, the extraordinary power and meaning of interactivity, and how it is redefining narrative and story-telling… But journalism doesn’t get it, and has resisted the idea fiercely. Newspapers, newsmagazines and TV networks haven’t radically changed form or content in half a century, despite their aging audiences, and growing competition from new media sources. They are allergic to interactivity. Increasingly, it appears they are incapable of it.”

Katz forecast it all. The Dean campaign is everything that contemporary journalism is not. If you believe he is their worst nightmare, it’s small wonder they tried to crush him like a bug. Almost every touch from Big Media has been to cheapen the Dean cause, to miss the point, to find some personal excuse not to notice the Dean movement. “Who is the Real Howard Dean?” Time magazine asked. A week later Newsweek, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, put “Doubts About Dean” on the cover. Tom Brokaw testified on NBC that he hadn’t been able to discover any Internet effect on the voting in Iowa. On the night of the caucuses, Bob Novak averred on CNN that there never was any such thing as a Dean movement. These are famous last words from dinosaurs. Samantha Shapiro’s cover piece in the New York Times Magazine late last Fall was, oddly enough, a high and a low. She put her finger on the brainy idealism that had drawn young computer geeks from all over the country to Dean’s headquarters in Burlington, Vt., but she and the Times’ photographer also left the strong impression that these were strange barefoot nerds who’d concluded that a political campaign was a way to get laid.

Then came the infamous scream on caucus night in Des Moines. Here’s the simple test of news judgment: if you’d been in the frenzied hall with the Deaniacs that night and heard the candidate’s finale, would you have called home to report it? I saw a performance quite like it the night before in Iowa City, and thought nothing of it. Yet there it was on a ridiculous clip of party tape–a lot less embarrassing than, say, George H. W. Bush upchucking in Japan–but in a few thousand repetititons a new character had been launched, the “red-faced ranter” surrounded by somber doubts that he could be “presidential.”

The TV coverage of the New Hampshire returns was appalling. The big three networks stuck with prime-time entertainment. So we were stuck with cable panelists: hyperactive, all about themselves, not us or the country, a stream of cliches. No end of trite phrases were turned to trivialize Howard Dean and his effort. Though he’d never been credited with courage or forethought in crystallizing the dangers or doubts around Iraq, he could be demeaned now in second place on primary night as a mere anti-war candidate, a latter date McGovern. And of course he was dissed continually as a caricature of “anger,” no matter that a large majority of New Hampshire voters told the exit-pollsters that they were angry, too. William Kristol made the only point I’ll remember: that as long as Iraq remains a bleeding wound, John Kerry’s vote on the war leaves him wide open to Howard Dean’s critique.

Richard Reeves made the shrewd observation on our “Blogging of the President” broadcast Sunday night that something fundamental had changed since John F. Kennedy and television exalted eachother in 1960. What had happened was that the TV networks discovered that American audiences were more interested in football than in politics. Sure enough, we are being conditioned again this week to understand that everything that happens in the Superbowl is more important than almost anything at stake in a presidential campaign.

It’s a dismal moment in American media, and just the right time to be developing a real conversation on the Web. The revolution will not be televised, but maybe it will be blogged.

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