Sunday, September 14, 2008

Doomed to Repeat History

As a model Media Ecologist, I seldom put on my finance MBA hat, earned almost thirty years ago from NYU's Stern School of Business. I am putting on that hat now to comment on the demise of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America and the continuing jeopardy of AIG and Washington Mutual. So far we haven't had a stock market crash like the one credited with precipitating the Great Depression, but it is clear that our economy teeters on the brink of a comparable collapse, and that the wisdom and actions of financial leaders and government officials over the next several months will determine whether we follow in the footsteps of our great-grandparents or dodge the silver bullet this time.

Think about the types of things that FDR's administration put into place to pull us out of the last Depression: federal programs like social security; public works to employ those cast out by the tanking economic infrastructure; and a clear commitment to regulate financial markets and curb the most egregious activities of financial movers and shakers. For example, we take for granted the presence of auditors overseeing the financial presentations of our corporations. There once was a time when corporations could report financial results in whichever way they wanted, with no necessary connection to actual performance or liquidity. Though abuses still abound, most corporations and investors appreciated the level playing field that financial transparency provides.

That's the broad picture. From a Media Ecological perspective it will be interesting to see how the current media confront the bad economic news and whether they help or hurt efforts to deal with the unavoidable decline of American economic might. Populations prior to the great Depression depended on print, radio and film both to gain an understanding of what was going on, and also to escape it from time to time. We add to these television and the internet, plus the wisdom gained from 75 years of comtemplation of what went wrong before.

It is clear that a proactive program of public works, a new commitment to regulation of markets and corporations and a bolstering of the social safety net will be necessary if we are to weather this current economic storm. Look for clear pronouncements from the various candidates of what they will do and what specific steps they will take immediately to meet this challenge. Note which media are used to lift our spirits, confront recalcitrant citizens and communicate a vision for a post-Depression II America. FDR used the radio for his Fireside chats to confront fears and to unite the disparate regions and social classes of Depression era America. How will his successor use contemporary media to the same ends?

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