If a tree falls on PBS and no one's watching, would it make any difference? Well, let's put it this way. Last week, on September 3, the network broadcast about as revealing an expose of two inside-the-Beltway players -- lobbyists and the media -- as you're likely to see. This Tuesday was the follow-up: a look at the epic battle for ideological and political advantage waged in 1995 and '96 between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.
Did you hear any trees fall? I didn't think so. Kind of hard to hear over "NYPD Blue," "Dateline NBC" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
But my purpose today is not to berate you for failing to do your civic duty by watching veteran journalist Hedrick Smith's two-part, four-hour PBS special, "The People and the Power Game." My purpose, instead, is to show how the World Wide Web can be harnessed to extend the reach and shelf life of worthy programming that would otherwise pass almost unnoticed.
The series was an update of Smith's 1988 book, "The Power Game: How Washington Works," and was produced as part of PBS's Democracy Project, a civic journalism endeavor that aims to promote good government. Part one of the series, "The Unelected: The Lobbies and the Media," was especially valuable, as we got to see just how Harry and Louise talked us out of universal health care and marquee journalists such as Dan Rather and Peter Jennings explain why they felt they had to follow the lead of the Star, Dick Morris' favorite supermarket tabloid, in reporting on the Gennifer Flowers scandal.
But unlike the show itself, which dissolved into the stratosphere as soon as the closing credits rolled off the screen, the web site for "The People and the Power Game" remains a vibrant presence. It's only a slight exaggeration to call it a multimedia extravaganza, including as it does a real-time video clip in VDO format (I'm taking PBS's word for it, since I lack the computing power to try it myself), transcripts and selected interviews from both shows, information on how to order copies of one or both two-hour segments, guides for citizens and teachers that can be printed out from within Adobe Acrobat, and, of course, the obligatory public forum.
Will the web site help get the word out about this important series? It's hard to say, of course, but it's got a few things going for it. For one thing, it's especially aimed at classroom use, and schools, more than most homes or institutions, are already hooked up to the Web. For another, it's got one of the most respected brand names in the business attached to it: PBS. In fact, "The People and the Power Game" is just a small part of the PBS Web site, which promotes everything from "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to "Shining Time Station."
In fact, the web may evolve into the ideal way to distribute programming by voices that can't crack the mainstream. Take the example of Texas populist Jim Hightower, whose lefty talk-radio show was cancelled by ABC last year shortly after the network was purchased by Disney, which Hightower had criticized in the past. Rather than give up, Hightower made his daily radio commentaries available in RealAudio on his "Hightower Radio" site, theoretically extending his reach globally. Jeff Cohen, head of the progressive media-watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), often complains that a web site is no substitute for inclusion in the mainstream media, and he's right. At the same time, though, Hightower argues persuasively that progressives today need to build their own media, just as the Populists did in the late 1800s. Indeed, FAIR's own radio show, "CounterSpin," is available in RealAudio on WebActive.
An important key to any such site's success, though, is what's called in the business a "branded identity." PBS obviously has it. "Hightower Radio" doesn't. Indeed, excellent sites such as that of Globalvision, which produces the highly-regarded human rights TV series "Rights & Wrongs," and The Consortium, an investigative webzine published by October Surprise gumshoe Robert Parry, are lost in the ether, lacking the legitimacy and readership conferred by a gateway with a brand name. Perhaps if The Nation ever finishes its perpetually under-construction web site, it can serve as such a gateway for the best of progressive media.
"The media and big business have so much control over our government, it's time to take it back," wrote a "People and the Power Game" forum participant. "The Internet is the key to put power back into people's hands, and the sooner we realize this, the better off we will be."
Overly optimistic? Perhaps. Considering that big media are even now sucking up vast sectors of cyberspace for themselves, it's certainly possible that utopian visions of a democratic, decentralized media on the Net will soon give way to a more unpleasant reality. We'll know better in three to five years. In the meantime, listen: Did you just hear a tree fall?