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by Alex Gregor

December 9,2010

I’ve become a political news junkie.

It’s not because I can’t wait to get the latest dirt from Wikileaks, or because I want to learn the newest word invented by a politician. It’s because I’m a researcher for a film about the national debt and federal budget deficit.

I’m learning a lot – but in ways I didn’t expect. Sure, I’ve got a handle on some complicated issues, but I can also tell you about diminishing returns: the more news I consume, the more I realize I’m not learning. Let me explain.

I’m paid to absorb everything I can about the debt, the deficit, and the politics surrounding both. That’s so that our film can tell people something they haven’t heard but need to know – and will listen to – about America’s financial problems.

It’s an understatement to say that keeping up with the news, even on one topic, is like drinking from a fire hydrant. The limiting factor for today’s reader is time, not the quantity of information. But even if I could consume more content, would it matter? I doubt it.

Here’s the rub: for all the talking, the news isn’t always saying that much – at least not in the headlines. Sure, there’s an abundance of good reportage. But what’s worth listening to seldom drives the news cycle. A tiny fraction of what I find on my subject is insightful, original, or useful. One of the worst habits of the media is reporting news stories about news stories. (Case in point: most of the hubbub about the TSA and “porno-scanners.”) For every smart piece about Wikileaks (see Lila Allen’s), two dozen are dreadfully boring. The same goes for almost all major topics, the debt and deficit included.

The self-referential nature of the news is a function of several things. A 24/7 news cycle drives, and is driven by, a constant demand for new content, whether or not there is anything substantive to deliver. Participatory media enable new voices to join the fray, even if they’re not providing new information. And business pressures force media to limit what they can cover.

So what we get is a series of echo chambers. As readers, we can choose our favorites based on our biases. Social media exacerbate this dynamic because they drive the popularity of content – it’s like a bartender “sweetening the pot” by putting a little money in the tip jar at the start of the night. If a video gets hundreds of thousands of hits, expect it to get millions. When it comes to news, stories quickly gain momentum regardless of whether or not they’re actually newsworthy. What rises to the top of the pile isn’t the best. It’s just the most popular.

People berate politicians for not getting things done. Two points in response: one, we elected those politicians; two, the redundancy of our political discourse – especially on the Internet – isn’t getting much done either. And that’s also on us, the public.

In the age of the mashup, when so much cultural discourse is based on the reiteration of memes, just about anyone can find or create a platform for their voice. But it’s harder than ever to say something original, incisive, and meaningful. And it’s harder still to capture an audience who want to listen.

Americans want to hold politicians more accountable. We should do the same for media. They don’t have midterms, but they do have ratings. And we’ve got social media. It’s on journalists to create content that’s worth our attention, and when headlines are about [insert dumb story here], they’re not doing their job. But when we don’t use the social tools of the web to drive smart discussion, we’re not doing our part as readers.

Media isn’t just a two-way street. All too often, many-to-many discourse makes it seem like we’re stuck in a crazy roundabout. Some cars merge in, others merge out, but too many seem to keep going around and around. Even though we’re still learning how to drive in this new traffic pattern, we have to remember that going in circles isn’t the point. As readers, we get to have a say about where we’re going. Social media give us a chance to argue over the map, so to speak. So let’s be sure to speak up.

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