The other night, like 14.7 million other people, I tuned in to NBC to watch Matt Lauer conduct a 'Presidential Forum' with, in turn, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The 'Forum' was conducted aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, which is now a museum, and the in-studio (or shipboard) audience was made up of veterans. The were mostly there, apparently, for window dressing.
I don't have to (nor do I want to) get into the many failings of Mr. Lauer's handling of the event. More than enough has been written about that. And it was pretty appalling.
Watching it, however, I could not help but ask myself, 'who elected Matt Lauer'? That is, by what process did we all collectively, since we are all in this election together, decide that we would allow Mr. Lauer to serve as the interlocutor between us and the candidates? That we would be dependent upon his questions and his insights (or lack of them), to determine what we could learn about the candidates? That we at home, like those veterans, would be nothing but window-dressing for the Matt Lauer Show?
I am not here asking how NBC arrived at Mr. Lauer, as opposed to, say Rachel Maddow. I am asking a deeper and more basic question - who elected any of them?
As it happens, I am reading Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree at the moment. It's a history of the rather unexpected rise of Martin Luther in Wittenberg in the early 16th Century. You might not see the connection immediately, but bear with me. It's interesting.
Luther, of course, was famous for posting the 95 Theses on the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg, kicking off the Protestant Reformation. Luther's big question (among many big questions), was, 'why do we need these priests as interlocutors between us and God. In effect, 'who elected them?'
You see where I am going here.
There had been other theologians who had asked similar questions of the Catholic Church before, but what turned Luther's quest for answers into a movement that shattered most of Europe was the invention of the printing press. Luther not only posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Cathedral, he also printed them.
Now, that very same printing press, to Luther's mind, also freed the average person from the need for a priestly class to stand between God and Man. With the printing press, everyone could have a bible, printed in their own langauge and draw their own conclusions.
The Internet is the Gutenberg's printing press of our own era. It makes it possible for everyone to express (and publish and broadcast) their own opinions and their own questions. It is a technology that allows the average person to bypass the 'media' just the way the printing press allowed the average person to bypass the Pope and the priestly class (at least according to Luther).
Donald Trump has been masterful at using Twitter to do just that. He doesn't need NBC or CBS or CNN to get his messages out. He does it directly to the public whenever he wants. And, he doesn't need the high priests of the media to interpolate his opinions- whatever they are.
As strange as it may seem, Donald Trump is really our first 21st-century candidate.
But... the thing about the Internet is... it is open to everyone. And that pathway goes both ways. As Donald Trump has access to Twitter (and Facebook, which he doesn't use too much, and Instagram etc etc..) so do the rest of us. It's a true free press. It's a true democracy.
In 1961, HL Mencken wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."
In 1961, owning a 'press' meant that you were either Bill Paley or Punch Sulzberger.... or their employees.
That is no longer the case.
Today, we all 'own' access to a free press.
Matt Lauer is an employee of NBC/Comcast/Universal and whatever else it is called. But that media machine is very much a product of the pre-internet days. Those old media companies no longer have a monopoly on a 'free press'. They are dinosaurs (even if they don't know it yet - but I think they do in some way).
The technology of the Internet, like the technology of the Printing Press 500 years ago, in a very similar revolution, means that we ALL have both the right and the ability to be heard, and now the tools to be heard. It's a level playing field.
Shows, (and it is nothing but an entertainment TV show), like Mr. Lauer's fiasco on the Interpid on Wednesday, are the remnant of a very old media world - and one that increasingly does not work. (Just look what happened).
The fact is, we no longer need to cede our access to issues, news, events and even candidates, to a self appointed 'Priestly Class' of 'Journalists', selected by a few corporations. We no longer need to be restricted to a world in which the media companies say, effectively, 'we make it, you just sit and watch it.' We can be more than just a passive audience for 'the show'.
Some may say that you need a 'host' or a 'personality' to be able to interview the candidates, or whomever. This is a very 20th Century/linear view of the world. Facebook has no 'anchors', it has no 'hosts', it has no highly paid 'stars' to help us navigate our way through political discourse. And yet, it works. The same can be said of Twitter or eBay or Instagram or any one of a hundred other social media companies that are the children of the Internet - as opposed to old media trying to be relevant.
Facebook is 21st Century. NBC is 20th Century.
Now, you may say that the world of Facebook is 'messy'.
Yes it is! And it should be. Free presses are, by definition, messy. The world before the printing press was like the world of NBC and CBS and CNN. A few institutions, (the Church and the King) produced all the books. All of them. And there were not a lot of them. It was very much like the world of NBC pre-Internet. "Here... is the truth." Period.
In the 30 years after Gutenberg, more than 15 million books were printed in Europe. It was an explosion of print - and it was very messy.
We all love a free press. It's the basis of our First Amendment. The only people who really fear a free press are.... ironically, NBC, CBS, CNN... It undercuts their monopoly. In fact, it really undercuts their whole reason for being - or at least for paying Mr. Lauer some $30 million a year.
The iPhone is the 'Gutenberg's Printing Press' of the 21st Century, and it is in your hands. It fees all of us not just to be passive 'watchers', but rather active participants in the world.
For future political fora, it should be possible to architect a format that effectively bypasses the need for a Matt Lauer - or anyone else.
You think that is crazy?
Look at the world that the Internet has created.
Airbnb -- the world's biggest hotel chain that does not own a single room. Uber -- the world's biggest taxi service that does not own a single taxi. Facebook -- the world's biggest journalism platform that does not employ a single journalist.
Our current political system is stuck in the 20th Century, but it doesn't have to be.
originally published in TheVJ.com