Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association hosted the “Talkin’ About Politics” panel on October 20, featuring Crain Insider’s Erik Engquist and TheBrooklynPolitics.com’s Colin Campbell. The panel explored the current state of politics, political reporting and its effects on the process, and how to increase citizen engagement. The civic asked me to moderate the panel.
Though I’ve sat on many panels – usually about new media and journalism – I’ve never moderated one. I decided to deliver an opening statement at the civic that related to new media and its role in social transformations throughout history. With Occupy Wall Street in full swing, and a vibe of discontent sweeping through the nation, I argued that this was in part due to media shifts that sparked social shifts, that, in turn, demand a realignment of political institutions. My hope was to get blood boiling among the attendees for a feistier dialogue. I think it worked.
Thank you very much to the civic for asking me to moderate, and thank you to Engquist and Campbell for being good sports.
Below is the transcription of my opening statements:
Good evening, and welcome to Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association’s “Talkin’ About Politics” panel. Before I begin, I’d like to say thank you to the Civic and especially Ed Jaworksi for putting this together, and for inviting me and my colleagues to be a part of it.
So… last night I was telling Sheepshead Bites’ business manager, Robert Fernandez, how I was looking forward to exploring the issues I see plaguing not just Brooklyn or New York, but the entire national political landscape. Robert cut me off. He said, “You’re not going to be good at this. A good moderator needs to be objective.”
So let me be upfront about this: I’m not going to be a good moderator.
I’ve got a point of view. Like so many others, I’m fed up with what I see as political abuses, worsened by uncivil civic discourse – and I think our troubles go beyond the easy and obvious. We could see the troubles of Senator Carl Kruger, the resignation of Congressman Anthony Weiner, or – even more generally – the political stalemate in Albany and Washington and, though depressing, they’re easily dismissible as temporary discord in an otherwise strong, well-functioning government.
But that would be superficial. What I’m here to ask the panelists tonight, and to have you think about when you go home, is whether or not the problems we face go deeper. I’m here to ask if, perhaps, we as a people of the 21st Century, have outgrown our political institutions. I’m here to ask if our political media is helping or hurting discourse between political shareholders. And, finally, I’m here to ask what can be done to better empower individuals like you, and groups like the MMHC, to have your needs served to the fullest extent.
That said, I’m glad that this panel is comprised not of academics or politicians, but of reporters.
I say that for a few reasons. For starters, being a reporter means being in the trenches of the political arena without quite being a part of it. They bear witness to a lot more than they write about, making them, usually, better informed than most citizens, more pragmatic than most academics, and more independent than most politicians.
Second, I say I prefer reporters because of the role the media plays as a catalyst for change – or as an obstacle to it. Historically, political upheaval has always occurred simultaneous to the emergence of new mass media technology. The Protestant Reformation went hand-in-hand with the Gutenberg Press. The ability to produce pamphlets and newspapers played a major role in the American Revolution. The Penny Press spurred Populism. Mimeographed newspapers spawned the New Left of the 1960s.
Today, it’s blogs, Facebook and Twitter. And today, it’s the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street – two sides of the same coin, though coins might not be the image preferred by the Occupy Wall Street folks.
This is not coincidence. When new media forms take hold, it doesn’t just change the media. It changes the way we communicate with each other. It changes the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society. And it changes the way we interact with our government.
Our government. Governments, encumbered by bureaucracy and plagued by an over-zealous commitment to the status quo, are always the slowest to change to the needs of a new social paradigm.
So, what happens during historic times like the one in which we live is not simply people being upset with corruption or the economy or injustice. What happens is a domino effect sparked by a change in media. First, the technology changes. Then the people change. (This, mind you, is where we are in history at the present). Then the reporters, their narratives and their values change. Finally, the political institutions change.
In short, today’s struggles – and almost every other major political struggle in history – and the apathy and the incivility and the ignorance that lead to political abuses – are not rooted in any particular plague of the present. Beneath them all is one undercurrent, one over-arching theme – that is that the people have outgrown the antiquated political machinery and processes of the past, and today we demand something new.
So that is why I’m glad it’s reporters here today. Because we – myself included – will get to talk about the needs of the communities we serve. And you will give us the fuel and ideas for change – the changes we need to make. And together – the people and the media – will ultimately provide the pressure for the political change that is due.
Now that you’ve suffered the indulgence of your ill-equipped moderator, allow me to say a little about the format of this panel. After introducing our panelists, they’ll be asked to briefly summarize the state of affairs in city, state and federal politics. We will then discuss political reporting, and whether or not it adequately serves the public. Finally, we’ll discuss ways that both the media and political institutions can encourage more public engagement – and how the public can exercise more influence in politics.
Please, hold your comments during these sessions, as we will turn it over to a question and answer session for the last half of the panel.