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Wednesday, September 26, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Digital-media overload keeps our heads spinning

Special to The Times

Today's digital democracy is characterized by more free expression than ever, yet it has created a dangerous degree of polarization that threatens to stifle a productive democratic debate on the key issues we face at home and abroad.

Progress requires consensus, and popular bloggers, talk-radio hosts and TV talking heads don't get paid to resolve thorny problems through reasoned compromise.

That is the paradox of our age of "always on" connected devices: We are plugged in to hundreds of media channels and millions of Web sites, yet we have to wonder if the center will hold in an era when we are free to tailor our news sources to fit our personal preferences.

Let me explain: In the old days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, three national networks, two newsweeklies and four major daily newspapers framed our political debate, supplemented by scores of special-interest magazines and small publications. The barriers to entry to reach an audience of more than 100,000 people were great, requiring access to a printing press and distribution system, or ownership of a broadcast license and facility. Yet, these high barriers allowed editors to create news products that sought to appeal to a broad swath of Americans, spanning political parties and other divides.

Cable television, video distribution and the Internet broke those barriers, enabling more voices and creating the potential for a more vigorous and robust marketplace of ideas.

Yet, after a generation of exponential growth in diversity of voices, one could soberly ask whether we have spawned a class of better public servants, who genuinely strive to serve their broad constituencies, as opposed to a cast of media-savvy pols, who survive by catering to vocal, single-issue interest groups.

The byproduct of diversity has been to increase the level of shrillness and narrow-minded megaphones. This applies to both poles of our political spectrum.

On talk radio, the loudest and most conservative voices have thrived, reaching a loyal audience that relishes the chance to hear the same drama every day: the tawdry Clintonians' scheme to engineer another rise to power to achieve their well-disguised liberal agenda.

In parallel, the Internet has given rise to such voices as Daily Kos, MoveOn and the Huffington Post, which celebrate the inconsistencies and failures of the Bush administration every day in lurid detail. Neither side perceives its mission as fostering consensus on key issues that affect our daily lives.

New technologies enable even more popular participation: Wikis, which allow anyone to create and edit a Web page, have emerged as repositories of knowledge about every subject under the sun. In the political realm, barackobama.wetpaint.com is a great example of people coming together to collaborate for a common purpose.

Am I suggesting that this surge of fresh actors is bad for the commonweal? Not at all. Rather, we should be worried about the varied response of traditional media to the new world of blogging, wikis and e-mail campaigning.

Fox News is a prime example of a media institution with a political agenda that has adapted to new media and has successfully carved out an audience of conservative-leaning viewers.

By muddling in the middle, CNN has lost audience share and seems to struggle to define itself outside of contributing smothering live coverage of the crisis du jour.

CBS News once served as a platform for Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, who delivered political perspective with crisp authority and who were not afraid to condemn American military quagmires, such as the war in Vietnam. CBS has steadily lost viewers and is looking to well-coifed new anchors to stop its ratings slide, while it would do better to rekindle the stubborn integrity that Edward R. Murrow brought to network television.

In contrast, NPR has thrived as an institution that uses both the Web and radio to bring the world to local radio markets.

Media outlets today are struggling to adapt to new technologies and simultaneously redefine their mission in the Internet age. While the emergence of new voices allows us to look at the world in a new perspective, we have lost centrist institutions that used to remind us of what we have in common. As a kid, I would run to the mailbox to get Time magazine to see what was going on in the nation and the world at the time of Watergate and Vietnam. Today, one can get the spin one wants by tuning into the right channel in the right medium.

In an environment characterized by YouTube and The Drudge Report, it's time for independent daily newspapers and radio-television networks to both master new technologies and resist the temptation to target audiences based on political leanings. Failing that, our politics will be increasingly polarized, leaving us only the illusion that we are well-informed.

Alex Alben, a high-tech executive based in Seattle, writes regularly on technology, media and politics for The Seattle Times. E-mail him at: alexalben99@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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