My friend Matthew Lopresti wrote me a few days ago to update me on the status of the Hawaii State Legislature's SCR 83 (see my previous post for information on this resolution). Unfortunately, SCR 83 didn't make it to committee, even though the state senator in charge of the committee, Clayton Hee, seemed to be in support of having the resolution heard among his colleagues. According to Matthew, the issue was that not enough people had written to their state senators (and not just Sen. Hee) about the resolution. This, at least, is what Sen. Hee relayed to Matthew once it became apparent that the resolution would die in the back rooms of our capitol.
Yet in his note to me Matthew raises a crucial point: how could broad-based support for SCR 83 be effected if mainstream media outlets refused to cover this piece of legislation until it became "newsworthy"? On the one hand, SCR 83's fate in committee was premised on public awareness (support, rejection, debate) of the issues. Yet our dominant media outlets, which are still largely responsible for shaping public awareness of the issues, wouldn't talk about SCR 83 unless it reached the floor of the Hawaii State Legislature.
It's a classic double-bind: without public support, a bill dies; but a bill won't be picked up by the media (which, again, shapes public opinion) unless it makes it to the floor. See how it works? It's suspicious-sounding all around, as though both politicians and the media were in cahoots as to what issues actually get heard by the public. Look at it this way: if the only bills that make it to committee/the floor are ones that supposedly have broad-based support anyway (without the media's attention), exactly how/where is genuine public debate of the issues happening? Where, in other words, are the outlets for bold pieces of legislation that seek to foment public debate of the issues?
Based on his experiences with SCR 83, Matthew frames the problem this way: "So, one thing I've learned from this is that things at the Capitol work with some degree of reverse causation. A bill or resolution is only heard in committee if they know it is going to pass on the floor. I was foolish enough to think (and believe what I was told) that if we can just get it heard, there can then be debate on the floor, in the media, and in the community - since the media said they would only cover the story to inform people about SCR83 if the committee was actually going to hear it. I was thus duped into thinking that local media was actually concerned with serving the betterment of democracy by informing the people of ways they can have a voice because I'm sure they were 'in the know' that if its heard in committee, its passing is already a foregone conclusion - hence my rant on the blog about their only concern being sensationalism."
Nicely put, and I'd simply stress Matthew's point about systematic (i.e., bureaucratic) political work being a foregone conclusion, a consensus-assuming practice that passes itself off as democratic deliberation. Note also, of course, the mainstream media's role in the matter: in lieu of coverage of such items as SCR 83, we've got "human interest" pieces and "health tips" and "market watch" and sundry forms of "news" that really only confirm "your" individual tastes and "your" individual lifestyle. News, in other words, has become a passing conversation with your friendly next-door neighbor: a pleasant little diversion; not the stuff of open, deliberative debate.