Watergate was a fox-and-hounds story and had a nice linear plot that people could follow. That oversimplification was never true, of course. There were legitimate constitutional and separation of powers issues, and the usual horde of folks angling how they could advance their careers in the confusion. But these rapidly became entirely secondary to the main chase. We are used to these sorts of political narratives – Ham Jordan, Oliver North, Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton. Buy a program, root for your side, but the story line remained linear. Like a good crime thriller, there might be false trails and entertaining side plots, but the good Aristotelean unity remained.
In retrospect, the linearity was already fraying with the Gingrich and Clinton episodes, but only in the 21st C has the dynamic changed sufficiently that we need a new sports metaphor. It is not just the Democrats and Republicans taking turns at fox-and-hounds. The Department of Justice battles the Congress. CIA competes with State to undermine the FBI conspiring with the NSA against the DoD, and each agency has internal factions as well. It is now the Coliseum, with bears, dogs, lions, wolves, and men all thrown in together, an unclear melee with unclear plot. Ashcroft wanted to reform INS, Rumsfeld wants to remake the Pentagon, Condi Rice wants to get the State department to carry out American policy rather than override it, and all of this plays out in front of us.
Plays out in front of us. That is the difference. That is the Alvin Toffler Future Shock adjustment that we are making. The new media not only reveals the subterranean struggles which have always been present in these events, but changes them as well. The moves and countermoves between parties, branches, and agencies used to take place in measured time. Now the scandals and accusations ebb and flow so quickly that reaction time has become part of the battle. We the spectators influence events with our roars and judgements.
What we are seeing in Washington in the last few months is a sort of information anarchy. Have we won or lost the war, or are we still plodding? Is illegal immigration an emergency or a long-term advantage? Is the congress defending the constitution or covering its butt? Is the president intruding on our liberties or just fighting the war? We have always wanted to know the answers to these questions, but in 2006 we want to know the answers now. Because the answer to the first question influences our response to the fourth question, which helps us answer the second and third. There is no longer time to let an answer settle down before we respond. The spinmeisters used to worry about changing peoples’ minds; now they just manage impressions temporarily.
An agency or politician with a scandal used to hope to ride it out, deflecting attention until the news cycle tired of the story. If the spotlight shifted to another circus ring in time, they could briefly hide, lick wounds, and heal. Now the light is never completely off. The spotlight switches rings more rapidly, but darkness no longer provides cover. The lights can come up full again at any moment.
I don't think the media changes things nearly as much as they would have us believe they do, or even believe they do themselves.
Is it out of the question to believe that all that's happened is that these departments simply cling more tightly to their secrets in order to avoid the inevitable change that follows the favor or disfavor of the crowd once they discover something?
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