What is to be done when the major means of communication with the majority of a nation’s people is under the control of select groups that consistently distort and fabricate the information delivered?
This is the situation that the whole world faces. The major points of contact with the information that the world’s people require in order to make personal and societal decisions are primarily: TV, radio and print media, and internet sources that are driven by these sources; other internet sources are more correctly called propaganda tools regardless of their ideological position.
The primary “news” sources lay claim to some degree of neutrality and veridicality; but, they only pretend “neutrality” on issues that do not directly concern their owners or the self-interest of individual reporters and “news” departments. They use the cheap device of giving “equal time” and authority to positions whether or not there is any valid reason to assume equality; they always distort and ignore news that would negatively impact the economic and political elite.
The consequence is that there is no consistently reliable source for vital, informing descriptions of the conditions of our world. We cannot act with any confidence that the information upon which we must act is accurate. While we know we are being lied to, there is no source that stands as sufficiently honest and unbiased that we can use it as a reference to measure the maelstrom.
Of course, some people with enough time, experience and determination can often piece together descriptions of events in ways that they might reasonable trust as veridical, but there is little or no way that their efforts can be generally disseminated – or for that matter, separated from the propaganda that is boiling up as a substitute for real information. So, regardless of the motives, of which there are many (to be looked at more closely in moment), the result is the almost complete impossibility of the general public having the information that they require to act in response to the actual events and processes going on in the world. This is the loss of a most basic survival tool: accurate information to inform action in the environment.
Insidiously, the non-news part of media acts to set the base-line expectations for the “news” itself. ‘Every’ person in TV dramas carries a gun, drives a Land Rover, uses a satphone and lives in a million dollar house or condo; even if they have a 50K job doing what, in the real world, might be some form of accounting. ‘Everyday-people’ have al Qaeda sleeper cells in the house next door to them. Serial killers roam the streets of every neighborhood. And personal success and satisfaction is never ever seen as a moment of quiet reflection.
If we average the content of the lives we see portrayed on our “home theaters” and compare them to the actual modal lives of American citizens, the disconnect rises to the level of the pathological: the stories that we tell about ourselves have absolutely nothing – nothing – to do with the lives we lead, even as we attempt, as we always have done, to model ourselves after them. For every film like The Remains of the Day, there are hundreds where the moral choices are drawn in crayon and gratuitous blood.
People embrace the entertainment media, giving it 50, 80, even 100 % of their non-working life (and many times part of their working life) not so much to be entertained, but to be part of the common human experience. If people felt fully connected to flesh and blood people, then they would not spend 5 hours a day watching 2-dimensional electronic representations of people that they can’t know, can’t touch or ask a question. If people felt informed and competent in the execution of their lives, then they wouldn’t so desperately seek the slick and phony “competence” of media “heroes.”
The professional news media is now only an extension of this pattern. To a large extend it is competing with fictional stories, with the carefully rehearsed control of emotional content and production values, while at the same time purporting to discover and extract accurate descriptions of events and behaviors that talented and powerful interests wish to remain hidden. My critique in no way is intended to suggest that this social role and responsibility is easy, only that this vital role is being thoroughly mishandled and abused.
The reasons for the abuse run from the most mundane to the most violently draconian. Reporters and editors have often been the targets of the forces who wish not to be reported on. In 2006, 81 journalists were killed (other accounts give the number as 110) and 871 were put in jail worldwide. 2007 saw 86 (95) killed and hundreds more jailed. The assumption is made that the vast majority of the journalists so treated were acted on in response to their reporting things that someone really didn’t want to see made public. A message was being sent: speak and die; this would distort what is reported on.1
But there are many other ways to motivate the distortion of information. Limbaugh is reported to have a 400 million dollar contract! Top TV “news” anchors are all in the 6 to 8 figure range. These amounts of money create organized interest groups deep within the media beast with a disproportionate voice in how stories are framed so that the “news” show can ‘get its story’ day after day. The self-interested corporate ownership of media has its own influence.
At the other extreme the public must be appealed to to watch and listen. This has become about polling and presentation, personality and production values, matching expectations and desires more than giving the most straightforward accounting of events no matter where the chips may fall – there must be no chips, though sparks are good, i.e., there must be no real consequences, just shiny things to distract attention. If real substantive stories with real consequences that led to human action were presented, people might come to expect, and eventually demand, substantive information…. And then there would be the danger of the numbers a couple of paragraphs above going up – it is a tough decision: package a dishonest product, have sycophantic fame and make lots of money… or tell the greatest truth that can be divined from the muscular digging of evidence and be ignored, rejected, threatened, fired, jailed or killed.
What matters, what gets lost in the wailing over this and that specific crime against the public good, is exactly that, the public good. Just as wind sailors died from the lack of specific vitamins, so societies die from the lack of accurate information on the vital details of life. A social order cannot sustain on lies. It is just so simple: the biophysical world in which we live requires that it be responded to from veridicality. The ‘vascular system’ through which is pumped the information necessary for societal and individual survival is diseased and failing. The informational nutrients of life delivered by it cannot be trusted and we accept them with reluctance even as we must, at some level, accept them.
What hope there is in this model of our informational dilemma comes from those who will not give up trying to organize, out of the cacophony, some bits of the real. So long as this impulse is alive there is always a corner to be turned. Like the creature that collects tiny drops of water, one at a time, from the morning dew in a rainless land, those who have the ability and inclination to organize some more truthful image of our present time must do so to stay mentally alive. As those people spread their efforts and share their methods for making sense of the intentional chaos perhaps, just maybe, a critical mass can demand even more.
- For comparison, there are 50 to 100 teachers for every journalist. Teaching can be very dangerous in regions of deep social conflict and tyrannical governments, teachers are jailed and killed for their teaching, but the numbers are generally small and certainly far below the proportional rates for journalists. I couldn’t find a source that totaled the numbers of teachers killed or jailed for their professional activities, but a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation gives me numbers perhaps half those for journalists, almost all in the most troubled places. This would make journalism about a hundred times more dangerous given the smaller numbers. [↩]