Thursday, July 29, 2004

Digital Revolution

Recent events in Portsmouth, Ohio, and the recall of the mayor in particular, may reflect the remarkable revolution that electronics has brought about in communication in general and politics in particular.

Several days before the recall vote, I was talking to a solid citizen, Bob Mollette, who was very active in the recall movement. He probably was in a better position than I was to say how the vote was likely to go, but he was curious about what others thought. I told him that I had interviewed a number of people for my video documentary on the recall, and my sense was that dissatisfaction with the mayor was both deep and widespread, as a PORTSMOUTH DAILY TIMES survey had recently indicated.

But the campaign to keep the mayor in office had spent a lot of money in the two weeks prior to the election, and the two local newspapers, the DAILY TIMES and the weekly COMMUNITY COMMON, as well as local radio stations, had carried paid advertisements focusing on the criminal records of several leaders of the recall movement. The COMMUNITY COMMON carried as an insert a flyer that was designed to look like a WANTED poster, with mug shots of the ex-convicts. It was an attempt to smear the widely-based recall movement by identifying it with criminality, in spite of the fact -- or perhaps because of the fact -- that the ex-convicts John Walton and Lee Scott had long since done their time and were now actively crusading against political corruption. The advertising blitz did not mention Austin Leedom, the founder and editor of THE SENTINEL, who is an Air Force veteran and a deeply religious person, nor did they say anything about the Mollettes, a very impressive couple. The blitz was a crude smear job, but I thought it might succeed. In addition, the local media though they did not use smear tactics, editorially advised readers and listeners to vote against the recall. I thought the editorials and the blitz could possibly turn the tide against the recall movement.

However, I added an important qualification. I told Bob Mollette that one of the most striking things I had noticed in talking to people was how many of them were electronically literate. Even if some of them were pretty shaky when it came to using the English language, they knew how to operate a computer and go on-line to read publications like THE SENTINEL and THE SCIOTO COUNTY NEWS and to participate in lively electronic discussions, like DANNY'S FORUM, and read blogs and see digitalized documentaries that cover controversial subjects from an unconventional point of view.

As recently as fifteen years ago, when I moved here, TV, radio and newspapers had enormous almost exclusive power to shape public opinion, especially in a company town like Portsmouth. The proliferation of technology and the internet especially has democratized -- the elite might say bastardized -- political discourse. Once confined to the Letters to the Editor section of the DAILY TIMES, if they were lucky, unempowered people in our river city can now criticize those in power as well as each other, sometimes bitterly, whenever they want to. The people of Portsmouth were communicating with each other during the recall movement not only the old-fashioned way -- by word of mouth -- but electronically and digitally. That is one of the reasons the smear campaign did not work. The people of Portsmouth were not letting the media do their thinking for them.

The privileged class of Portsmouth may have been confounded when their money not only could not keep the mayor in office, it could not stop him from being swept away by a 2 to 1 margin. The voters of Portsmouth had more faith in ex-convicts than some of the con-artists who control this city. Those in the recall movement utilized the new technology to achieve a stunning victory. The digitalized genie is out of the bottle. In Portsmouth, things may never never be the same.