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Media and Politics
in Virtual America
By Edwin Diamond and
Robert A. Silverman
MIT Press, 1997, 202 pages

In this look at the interconnection between politics and the media in the 1990s, Diamond and Silverman discuss the changing nature of the presidential campaign; the phenomenon of talk-show democracy; the effects of new technologies on political journalism; electronic town meetings; the role of "handlers" and media consultants in today's political world; and the vicissitudes of public opinion polling — especially the instant variety made possible by new technologies — in a time when the line between politics and entertainment has become increasingly difficult to discern. Some of these essays have been adapted from articles in National Journal, New York magazine, TV Guide and other places which may explain why they are generally short on analysis and long on description and narrative.

Diamond and Silverman make their position clear at the outset: "The shift from the old one-to-many communications model stirs talk of a brave new world of many-to-many communications. Politics, the enthusiasts say, can be made democratic, participatory, open, exuberant — in a word, enjoyable. The triumph of politics-as-entertainment and entertainment-as-politics speeds the transformation of the national landscape. In the pages that follow we trace the emergence of a place that looks like a real democracy, and a real country, but is in fact a construct, like reality but not real. It is Virtual America."

The authors point out that while interactive technologies, talk-radio, 1-800 telephone numbers, increased access to political figures through fax machines and computer modems at first appear to be genuinely democratic developments, they have "resuscitated a kind of Know- Nothing populism." There is nothing to suggest that these innovations will improve our democratic dialogue. Arguing for the primacy of content, they maintain that technology is merely "dumb machinery" until it is animated by the "spirit of human intelligence" and that "the key to genuine communication ... is that someone must take the time to listen, and to think."

It's a rather lackluster argument around which to organize a book, but it makes for entertaining reading. Besides, I can't imagine that readers with a genuine interest in probing these issues would turn to such media critics as Diamond and Silverman anyway. Diamond has made a name for himself as a media insider writing about media insiders — hardly the one to turn to for a dispassionate analysis of the workings of American journalism or the implications of new technologies on the American political process.

Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.