Monday, March 29, 2010

Amherst Politics: election over, time to get down to work (with some stray reflections on the media and political discourse)

Well, last Tuesday, actually, but it took until the end of the week for the media to bring empirical results for the major contests that were not headline material.

Although our local access channel, ACTV, reported the outcomes for the main races live (as fellow Select Board candidate Alisa Brewer and School Committee candidate Rick Hood and I were being interviewed in the studio [link not yet available]), and the weekly Amherst Bulletin ran the news in its weekly Friday issue, the Hampshire Gazette and Springfield Republican evidently concluded that their work was done on Wednesday. I mention this not so much because of my race (whose outcome was virtually a foregone conclusion, with only the vote count to be determined) as because of the contests for individual Town Meeting seats. We don't necessarily expect the print media to cover all that nowadays, but it deeply is ironic that, even as I write this, the Town website still bears only its original laconic [and misspelled] Tuesday evening announcement, "Prelininary [sic] Election Results: Override Passes in all Precincts": no official vote count for the closely watched override and School Committee ballots, not to mention, the less dramatic uncontested elections for Select Board, Town Moderator, Library Trustees, etc. etc.

Above all, though, given the limitations on coverage in the print and broadcast media: what source, besides the Town itself, can be expected to provide prompt election results for Town Meeting, the central democratic institution of our local government?

The Town's IT department posts results as soon as they are available, so the delay originates in the office of the Town Clerk. Now I understand, of course, that it was taking the Clerk's office quite a while to count the Town Meeting ballots, a process complicated in the first place by the large number of write-ins, and in the second place, by the frequent phone calls from people—guess what? seeking to learn the results of those contests (can you think of a better example of a vicious circle?)—but this is getting a bit silly. I mean, on the same day that the Bulletin ran the results of the major elections, we also received word of the final results in the Iraqi elections that had taken place on March 7, involving, let us say, far more difficult conditions and far greater numbers of voters.

And, although the Town website remains stuck in the past (it's just so March 23rd!), my wife (who was running for Town Meeting) and I on Saturday received congratulatory propaganda letters from a fellow who is running for state-wide Democratic office. This does raise a serious question about information and authority in the "information age": anyone—any political candidate, any blogger, any ordinary citizen—can call or visit Town Hall to get election results, and can then go on to circulate or act on them, even as the official source remains silent and behind the times. This is a revealing but less than desirable state of affairs.

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about the blogosphere and its impact on the tone and substance of our local politics. When asked about this in the course of election-night coverage on ACTV, my response, in a nutshell, was: A medium is only as good as the people who produce the discourse.

1) We need to historicize the problem. Newspapers used to be considered scandalous and unreliable. Eventually, they came to represent the voice of considered authority. Television was likewise long considered lightweight. With the rise of the internet, however, we wax nostalgic about the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And so on. (I've dealt with this and related issues here and here.)

2) Therefore: the more, the merrier. The blogosphere, for all its flaws, provides an opportunity to create a new sort of public sphere: for the government to engage in dialogue with the citizenry, and for citizens to converse with one another. Any fault lies not in the medium, but in the use we make of it. Not happy with the tone or content? Post a comment, or start your own blog. It's a hell of a lot easier than starting a newspaper or a television or radio station.

Speaking of the tone of politics, the real issue for me will of course be what tone and vocabulary to employ. As I was watching the national news on Tuesday evening, before heading off to the interview at the local television studio, Vice President Joe Biden's on-camera "blooper" topped the list of stories:

Biden's characterization of the passage of the health care bill as "a big fucking deal" quickly became notorious and promptly provoked a new thread on Twitter (#bidenthroughouthistory). Still, he made it sotto voce, and only by chance was it picked up on camera. By contrast, San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly has become known for using what reporters prudishly call colorful language openly and with abandon. After garnering attention for swearing profusely at the end of 2009, he evidently decided to make a virtue of a necessity in 2010: "Chris Daly Vows to Say 'Fuck' at Every 2010 Board Meeting -- For the Greater Fucking Good."

In Amherst, of course, our rules and customs place particular value on civility, but it's nice to have a sense of the range of behaviors out there. Stay tuned to ACTV.

As a closing thought, the opinions of the inimitable Austrian humorist and songwriter Georg Kreisler on the political profession:

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