Monday, September 28, 2015

Ezra Klein on How New Online Media Technologies Shift U.S. Political Conversation: Implications for "Pope Messiahs" and Centrist Catholic Media Gatekeepers

This is what I mean when I keep saying repeatedly that new media made possible by online technology, as well as the tools of social networking, are changing the game for the centrists who have long sought to control public political and religious discourse in the U.S.: Ezra Klein explains what, in his view, is going on with the rapidly shifting terrain of American politics:

[Th]e tools that party insiders use to decide both electoral and legislative outcomes are being weakened by new technologies and changing media norms. And so models of American politics that assume the effectiveness of those tools — models which weight elite opinion heavily, and give outsiders and insurgents little chance — have been thrown off.

Two points to note here: first, new technologies are weakening traditional media. They are changing the media game. They give more of us access to the role of "mediating" news stories to the world at large. And second, note the corelative statement with which Coates follows this observation: the centrist job is to "weight elite opinion heavily" while keeping dissenting voices firmly outside the conversation, firmly shoved to the margins, and pretending that they do not deserve a hearing, because they are not "objective" and "balanced" in the way centrist commentary is objective and balanced.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, vis-a-vis stories affecting the lives of African Americans, with the proliferation of internet media sites and social networking sites, it has become much harder for the centrist media gurus to maintain their gatekeeping position. As he also points out, it is now possible for anyone with a camera — and huge numbers of people in many parts of the world now have cameras in their handheld devices — to be a journalist. 

The kind of citizen journalism being done by "ordinary" citizens who snap photos of, say, police brutality against peacefully assembled citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, and immediately send those photos around the world changes the game of traditional media in a radical way. It upends the centrist gatekeepers and explodes their control games. 

To relate these ideas to the Catholic context, where the challenge of overcoming the dead hand of control of the centrist gatekeepers of the Catholic media remains acute and imperative, given the continued dominance of a mostly heterosexual, mostly white old boys' network that is shamelessly unapologetic about its unearned privilege in the Catholic media: as Sister Teresa Forcades has repeatedly reminded us, effective change of the Catholic institution will not come via a "Pope Messiah" over whom the centrist old boys (of both genders) fawn and for whom they cheerlead, while they keep the voices of other Catholics, "real" Catholics — especially those on the margins of church and society — decisively locked out of their conversations. It will come from the bottom of the church, as "ordinary" Catholics raise their voices and assert their right to a role in the conversation that makes church.

Think about this for a moment: a pope has resigned. In our own lifetimes. And though the reasons for Benedict's resignation remain murky and will not ever be fully disclosed to us, it is beyond doubt that the assiduous, unrelenting pressure of some long-despised members of the Catholic church played a key role in that resignation. I'm speaking specifically about survivors of childhood clerical abuse.

Who have refused to shut up. Who keep speaking out and telling their stories, organizing despite fierce opposition on the part of the institutional church and, for a very long time, from the media and the legal and criminal justice communities.

We would be foolish if we did not think that the adroit media campaign to make Benedict's successor an instant rock star is not intimately related to the fact that his predecessor resigned — in disgrace, if we're candid. His resignation was a tacit admission that the course he and his own predecessor, John Paul II, had set for the church was a disastrous course, one that has almost wrecked it. When we look at how the media fawn over Francis, we should never let ourselves forget that at least part of the show being staged for us in this adulation is a diversionary one: it's there to make us forget Benedict. 

The show is designed to make us forget Benedict and what he and John Paul II did to the church. Especially in silencing so many voices the church has desperately needed for its well-being at this point in history, including the voices of women, of theologians, and of the lay sector of the church in general, which rejects the magisterial teaching on contraception and the crude biologism in which it is grounded.

And none of this would have happened if survivors had not raised their voices and refused to be silent (and women and LGBT people, too). It could not, in fact, have happened in an era prior to the development of online technologies including social media technologies that permit many of us to step around the death-dealing clutch of media control exercised by centrist gatekeepers in the Catholic and mainstream media.

Now, even a rock-star pope cannot come to the U.S. without being immediately challenged, in real time, by communication networks that transmit their media releases and photographs across the planet, as the pope takes each step and utters each word. As long as this technology continues to exist and is free of coercive control, any word a pope utters or any step she takes as she visits another country will immediately be parsed and, in many cases, challenged by groups solicitous to see the truth — the full truth, truth that includes their long-marginalized truth — confronted by church officials.

Popes can no longer do their thing without immediate responses or even immediate (necessary) pushback from abuse survivors, women's groups, LGBT people, immigrants, etc. Or, to put the point differently, who a pope is and what he does is no longer mediated to the rest of us solely, exclusively by the centrist gatekeepers in the Catholic and the mainstream media. There is mediating going on that has sidestepped the gatekeeping process of the media, and this is, on the whole, a good development, it seems to me. 

It allows a fuller picture to be seen. It allows fuller truth to be heard. It gives voice to those whose voices richly deserve a hearing. It allows those on whose voices the well-being of the church for the future very much depends to be heard now, at long last. 

I do not believe in automatic or easy solutions to any complex problem. I am not saying that new online media and social networking tools automatically provide us with fuller pictures and fuller truth. The power of such media and tools to distort reality is enormous, as the case of Dylann Storm Roof, who appears to have been seduced into white supremacist violence by online websites pouring the poision of racism into his veins, reminds us. The very political-religious extremists who toppled Speaker Boehner and are now jubilating about what they have accomplished have been making adroit use of online media technology to organize themselves, too, and to pour poison into the veins of voters for some years now.

Even so, even with these cautionary concluding points for us to think about, I myself (perhaps because I, too, have been decisively shut out by the centrist gatekeepers of the American Catholic conversation) see much of value in the weakening of the centrist stranglehold in the media, as new online media technologies and social networking expand our social, political, and religious conversations. Surely this is desirable when what we have to work with now in the political and religious spheres is so stuck, so malfunctioning, so baleful for all of us except tiny controlling elites.

I post the screenshot of a Fox News video of Pope Benedict leaving the Vatican in Feb. 2013 not to gloat, but to remind us of where we've come from in just a few years. I personally find the evil-pope meme that has emerged with full-throated force in some U.S. circles with Francis's papal visit tiresome. From Ann Coulter to The Federalist, which posted an astonishing (and astonishingly stinky) attack on the pope full of stale Reformation polemics several days ago, the anti-Catholic strand of thinking that is never far from the surface in American culture has been in full evidence on this papal visit. It binds together people on one end of the political-religious spectrum who want to attack the socioeconomic critique of Catholic social teaching with people on the other end of the spectrum who see the Catholic church and its representatives as the embodiment of evil, full stop.

I see the real world as much more complex. And even as I strongly claim my right as a lay Catholic to speak out for what I discern to be the good of the church, I am not interested in attacking — but in being part of a movement calling for my church to be more faithful to the gospel. As I hope people in other Christian confessions will do, too, since I haven't noticed that any Christian church has yet ushered in the eschaton . . . .

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