Dear Mr. Matthews,
I want to write to you regarding MSNBC’s post debate coverage. I have chosen you because I like you, I often find you entertaining, and I respect your experience for both its breadth and depth.
I am a professor of communications (PhD in Mass Communication) and a scholar with an interest in political media, particularly online media, and the discourse of ordinary citizens in online forums.
I noticed a disturbing theme in the post-debate coverage. I fear it is a theme that has often been prominent in my own discipline. It is a theme my mentor, Robert Ivie, has called “the distempered demos.” This is the attitude that questions the ability of the citizenry to fulfill the role required of them in a democracy. It paints them as uninformed, shallow, emotional, and easily swayed by the superficial. It perpetuates a patronizing attitude towards the public. For example, in the MSNBC analysis of the debate, there were many such references. Although Mr. Romney prevaricated, sandbagged, and revealed that he has no specific policies to offer, several of the MSNBC panelists concluded that some imaginary audience of noobs (to use an Internet term) would respond in a visceral way to Mr. Romney’s “aggressiveness,” ergo, he wins. But after more than a decade watching regular people discuss politics online, I can tell you that we no longer live in the same world that existed in the early days of television, when Nixon was sweaty and Kennedy confident (one example that perpetuates the myth). This was an era of communication research in which the “hypodermic” theory of media effects was still prominent. Since that time we have come to understand media effects and interactions as a complex and highly contextual process. There are visceral reactions, there are cognitive reactions, there are narrative interactions, and longitudinal effects.
I know there is an interest in a close race when your business is attracting viewers for hours of political coverage, but I am writing to suggest that your myth of the distempered demos is increasingly incongruous in the modern world of social media. While the MSNBC hosts were bemoaning the President’s loss, citizens all over the US were making a meme out of Big Bird. Silly? Perhaps, but also evidence that they were paying more attention to the actual policy proposals of Mitt Romney than his aggressiveness. Internet memes are a way to make the truth viral. Big Bird trended from the moment Mr. Romney suggested defunding PBS until this morning around 7:30am EST. It is an example of his philosophy of government. The American people recognize this, and don’t want to imagine American children growing up without Big Bird.
Welcome to the world of online citizen protagonists. If you give them a little credit for being the well-informed, well-intentioned, passionately patriotic people (on the right and the left) that they are, you might find a new spark for your programming.