In a recent email debate, a friend of mine raised an interesting point about the role of the Internet in fueling populist fervor, especially during the current economic meltdown when populism has been a particularly dominant cultural force. We were discussing the issue in the problematic context of anonymous online bulletin boards, where negativity and vitriol seem to fester in nearly every context. It is certainly the case that angry, anonymous posts about Wall Street elites can often be unproductive and reactionary, and they have the potential to breed further negativity. But it seems to me the recent glut of news reports about lavish bonuses and other company perks on Wall Street touches on something deeper.
News outlets have capitalized on populist sentiment in recent months, and the Internet has been a particularly good vehicle because of its viral nature and public accessibility. Average citizens are both authors of and sources for online content. One major “populist” story broke last month on Huffington Post when a reader sent in an audiotape of a Morgan Stanley conference call announcing “retention awards” for employees. The headline reached millions nearly instantaneously, and the story required virtually no reporting because the audio spoke for itself. The idea that economic headlines can be created without the input of financial and political elites, and more importantly, without the input of established journalists, is undoubtedly altering the narrative about the financial crisis.
This situation poses a number of risks. For one, there is a threat that we will give some voices unwarranted attention and power. Particularly during the financial crisis, there is a high risk that citizen journalists won’t have the necessary expertise to make sense of the complex issues involved. But, at least theoretically, it also frees at least some online news content from the confines of corporate media, which has historically had a well-documented pro-business bent. Second, many successful online news outlets are geared to sensationalized tidbits rather than in-depth investigative journalism, so online populism is fueled, in part, by stories that are taken out of context, provoking knee-jerk reactions about corporate irresponsibility. Any time you paint with a wide brush to fit a particular narrative, nuance is lost. But again, this is hardly a problem unique to online news or to coverage about the financial crisis. Television news is completely driven by sound bytes, and established journalists routinely quote sources without providing any context for the reader, even if the quote states something verifiably false.
On balance, it seems to me that the harms associated with the “us vs. them” populist mentality largely driving the media in its coverage of the financial crisis, mirror the harms typically linked with the mainstream media – oversimplification, bias, and a covert agenda. This time, however, the losers are different. In the current media narrative, those negatively affected include banks that were not involved in the risky sub-prime mortgage business who now face severe public scrutiny and unwarranted criticism, whereas previously, the victims were recipients of public assistance who were working two jobs and nevertheless lumped in with so-called "welfare queens." No matter what the impact, oversimplification of the issues has a net negative effect on public discourse, but I can’t help but think maybe this wave of populism has given us a healthy dose of anger, something our disengaged, complacent population could certainly use.