Wednesday, December 14, 2005

How Can Media Change Politics?

I recently came across a new and (I think) noteworthy web site covering the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral election: The Next Mayor. It's a well-edited multimedia site with stories from WHYY (the local public radio/public television station) and the Philadelphia Daily News, the region's #2 news paper, after the Inquirer, both of which are owned -- at least for now -- by Knight Ridder. The two papers also share a building and an integrated online presence at

The third player behind The Next Mayor is a group called The Committee of 70, a watchdog/501 (c)3 group now headed up by Zack Stalberg, who used to run the daily News. Here's a selection from their new mission statement:

Seventy is best known as the city’s dependable watchdog during election time. Although we will continue to focus on trustworthy elections, we are actively branching out into direct advocacy, aggressive research efforts and large-scale civic education programs. Recently, for instance, Seventy has focused on legislation aimed at curtailing the contract awarding practice known as “pay-to-play,” on openness in government and on changing the random and sometimes corrupt process by which Philadelphians select judges.

At critical moments over the last 101 years, the Committee of Seventy has stepped forward to stimulate reform and help drive Philadelphia ahead. We are at it again.
The Next Mayor seems to be an important part of that. I also like the "Help Wanted" sign at that web page: "Fifth-largest city in the nation seeks motivated cheerleader type for mayor... Inspiring leadership, unquestioned integrity, knowledge of the issues, vision for the future and solutions for all of the city's problems are preferred."

The last line lets you know that they're being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I'm not entirely sure which of these "preferred" qualities is the most implausible. Philadelphia has a notorious problem with pay-to-play, and seething anger over real and perceived corruption in the government has been building up in the region for years. Some of that erupted in the still-rolling mayoral office wiretap scandal (which had the somewhat bizarre effect of rocketing current mayor John Street's poll numbers in the 2003 election) along with the indictments of various City Hall officials and people who do business with the city. That, along with some new ethics bills (sponsored by councilman and mayoral hopeful Michael Nutter) has everyone talking ethics for the upcoming election.

Along with being a classic NPR/political journalist issue, ethics is part of the Committee of 70's mandate -- but so is promoting governmental cooperation and economic development in the Greater Philadelphia region. I don't think it's accidental that two of the top stories on the Next Mayor site include a WHYY radio show on "The Next Mayor" project which really focuses on how local politics have turned the city and suburbs against one another, and a Daily News story about Chicago's attempts under Mayor Daley to better integrate local government with an eye towards economic success. The lesson is that Philadelphia could and should be a regional leader if corrupt and/or the shallow, self-serving politics of division (on both sides, but especially by Philadelphia against the suburbs) didn't get in the way.

In some ways, The Next Mayor resembles the vision of discussed at Snarkmarket and elsewhere: a genuine multimedia site that offers helpful and comprehensive political information with a real ethical energy behind it. In other ways, though, it's totally a child of the traditional media: it's basically a web partnership for two of the big traditional media sources in the region (with no stories from any other sources, and no user comments or discussion board), edited by a newspaperman turned head of a partisan advocacy group, albeit one with a noble mission.

Even the notion of regional cooperation to a strong degree stems from the site being a partnership of a newspaper and radio station -- the region is really just the audience, reformed and reborn. Media companies don't think in terms of political boundaries -- they think in terms of media markets. They always have to operate with both the city and suburbs in mind, and suburbanites who work, shop, and may have grown up in the city -- in other words, commuters -- are easily the most natural consumers of newspapers and radio.

Personally, I agree that regional cooperation is essential -- look at the recent SEPTA workers strike, when the local governments did virtually nothing, and Gov. Ed Rendell had to come in to get an agreement on the table -- and I've often talked about Chicago as a practical model for how a large city/metropole should be run. I guess what I'm trying to argue/understand is the ways in which the shape of the media affects not just political coverage, but an attempt at political change itself. Admittedly, there are lots of other players involved -- the board of the Committee of 70 is filled with representatives from universities and oil companies and regional and national businesses, and lots of people outside of the media. But I wonder what something like The Next Mayor would look like if it were less like NPR and more like, and what kind of political change it could indicate, precipitate, or advocate -- if it could do anything of that kind at all.

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