Books, culture, fishing, and other games

September 26, 2004

The Fictional Mainstream Media

I can't read fiction in the same fashion that I did when I spent days cocooned in books in my room ignoring the thunderous roar of tropical rain on our aluminum roof. Back then I disappeared into books, tuning out everything else. Books became my world. All of existence was inside those books. It wasn't an exercise of imagination to me, it was a step into life.

Books remain a way of stepping apart, but now they act more as alternate windows into life. Rather than escape, they provide new angles of view, new perspectives. Often it's an exercise in contrast. Sometimes what's there in the book is plain wrong, but error can illuminate truth in the same way that a dark background makes a light image more visible. In other cases a slightly difference perspective acts to solidify things. What was two-dimensional and flat, becomes three-dimensional and gains depth and heft.

So while there has been tremendous hullaballoo on the blogs I read about the Rathergate sequence of events, I've mostly played observer. I've been more involved in the Swift Veterans for Truth campaign to give the American public a different view of Kerry's status as Vietnam war hero. And I've been reading fiction. And while I read that fiction I can't help but cross-compare. The world in which I live impinges upon the world inside those books, unlike many years ago in those downpours.

While reading John Sandford's Rules of Prey, I came across this bit of dialog about handling the media:

"We should talk to the publishers and station managers or the station owners," Lucas said after a moment's reflection. "They can order the heat turned down."
"Think they'll do it?"
Lucas considered for another moment. "If we do it right. Media people are generally despised, but they're like anybody else: they want to be loved. Give them a chance to show that they're really good guys, they'll lick your shoes. But it's got to come from you. Like, top guy to top guy. And maybe you ought to take the deputy chiefs with you. Maybe the mayor. That'll flatter them, show them that you respect them. They're going to ask some stuff like, "You want us to censor ourselves?" You've got to say, "No, we don't. We just want to apprise you of the dangers of public panic; we want you to be sensitive to it."
"Do I have to share those thoughs with them?" Daniel asked sarcastically.
Lucas pointed a finger at him. "Quit that," he said harshly. "No humor. You're dealing with the press. And yeah, say share. They talk like that. 'Let me share this with you.'"
While I found this not devoid of insight, I don't think it describes well the state of things today. In Sandford's defense, he must have written that around 1989 since the book was published in 1990.

Or maybe my problem with that is that Lucas is perceiving the major media as one-dimensional here. The character of Lucas is smarter and more perceptive than that. That he, as an underling, is the one counseling the Chief of Police and the Mayor in the book on how to handle the media shows that Sandford intends him to understand the media well.

But the underlying assumption is that the media, collectively, wants to do the right thing. That is, they want to do what people of goodwill generally perceive as being the right thing. In Sandford's book, that holds generally true.

But I think a large number of us question whether in this case art mirrors nature. Part of the reason for that question, which has become even more central since the scandal of CBS errupted, is that the media, collectively does not obvious hold to the same values as the majority (though I will not say "vast majority") of American citizens. If this is true, then the media, collectively, might still be trying to show that they're really good guys, but defining "good guys" in a manner that is outside the norm. If that is indeed the case, and many argue it is so, the majority of the American public must understand that the major media will not act in what the American public sees as the public's best interest. The major media will act in what the major media sees to be the major media's best interest, which it also believes to be the American public's best interest, through projection.

Put another way, to hope that major media will come around and do for us what is right (according to the standards of the majority of Americans) because they are good guys, is simply not rational. The rational thing for major media to do is to do what major media believes to be right for America, assuming the major media sees itself as good guys. If the major media doesn't see itself as good guys, all bets are off.

Reading Tom Clancy's Red Rabbit provoked some thought on exactly this. He's talking about the early Reagan era Soviet politboro, not the American major media, but the insight pertains. Here Jack and Cathy Ryan are speaking, Cathy, who is a doctor, is leading:

"Yeah, it's hard to look inside somebody's brain. And you know what?"
"What's that?"
"It's harder with the sane ones than the crazy ones. People can think rationally and still do crazy things."
"Because of their perceptions?"
She nodded. "Partially that, but partially because they've chosen to believe totally false things--for entirely rational reasons, but the things they believe in are still false."
The point here is that the Soviets made some very wrong assumptions, and this led them to do some things that appeared to us to be irrational, but that follow rationally from their base, but wrong, assumptions. This is the situation the major media is in today. Clancy recognizes this:
"We can't even leak what we know about that to the media--"
"And if we did the media still wouldn't print it," Moore observed. After all, the media didn't like nuclear weapons either, though it was willing to tolerate Soviet weapons because they, for one reason or another, were not destabilizing. What Ritter really wanted to do, he feared, was see if the Soviets had influence on the American mass media. But even if it did, such an investigation would bear only poisoned fruit. The media held on to their vision of its integrity and balance as a miser held his hoard.
In this passage is a short laundry list of media wrong assumptions. The media assumes nuclear weapons are destabilizing in the case of the United States, and not so in the case of the Soviets. It's difficult to understand the logic of that unless one operates under some other assumptions. The key ones are that the United States is imperialist in intent and that the Soviet Union was not. To a nation bent only on defending itself, weapons are a shield. Defenses stabilize. To a nation bent on aggression, weapons are a sword. Offenses destabilize. Those are my assumptions. They appear grounded pretty well based upon history. City walls created stability; cannons destroyed the city walls and the stability (though later new stability emerged). It's not clear that major media agrees with even these last two assumptions; but they certainly see the U.S. as imperialistic, and for decades argued that the Soviet Union was not, even in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence in events, not to mention in the very "sacred works" of communism itself.

As long as the major media holds these assumptions, there is great danger that any conclusions they draw rationally will be very wrong, perhaps exactly opposite to what is right. When you start from a basis of black is light and white is dark, you are going to end up with some very wrong color combinations when you try to mix those with blue, yellow and red. Your light blue is going to look more like a night sky than a day sky.

Likewise, if you start with the assumption that America is at its very core imperialistic, every single action that the United States takes must be viewed 180 degrees differently from the way that those of us who believe the opposite, that American is fundmentally not interested in taking over other countries, or the world, will view them. The problem is not that major media is stupid, though they like to believe the rest of us are, the problem is that they base all their reasoning on things that contain too many wrong "facts." That's the generous conclusion.

Of course, if they listened too well in school, they may believe there is no such thing as a "fact," that there are only observations by discrete observers, and all else is a political battle to determine whose view will rule. If that is the case, all bets are off. The media are the bad guys. You cannot believe that there is no good and there is no evil, only different views, and be good guys. That concept cannot even exist within a frame of reference where there is no good or evil, and thus there are no good or bad guys. There are only those in power, and those out of power. Those in power are those who control the perceptions of the rest.

Does that sound a little familiar?

Thank God, that isn't the case, much as some wish it were so. If we're careful about from whom we accept our facts, if we seek to verify those facts (as Reagan put it, "trust but verify," the Apostle Thomas shared that sentiment) ourselves as best we can, and if we are conscious of our own assumptions, and consider how our positions might shift if those assumptions are wrong, we can control our own views of reality.

And that's what is really terrifying the mainstream media at the moment. Collectively, they really have come to consider themselves "the fourth estate," an unelected branch of our government. They are not. They are a pack of elitists who seek to exert influence from outside government. They really believe they know better than the rest of us. There's nothing inherently wrong in that. I admit to a certain knee-jerk elitism myself (I'm writing this, after all). It becomes a problem when we allow them more power than this system our forefathers designed allows for. If they can act like a fourth branch, they destroy the delicate balance of a three-branch equilibrum. A fourth estate is a threat to American democracy.

A bunch of private citizens exercising their right, and responsibility, to free speech on matters political, religious or anything else, is not. That's what our system is intended to encourage and protect.

We've allowed the self-proclaimed "fourth estate" to garner too much power because the cost of entry to mass communications was so high. It takes a fortune to start and run a newspaper, a radio network or television network. But those have provided real benefits to us in collecting, sorting, selecting and spreading news (information, facts, opinions) rapidly and widely. In order to encourage the technology, we granted limited monopolies to some who would take the risks of creating the businesses to perform the needed function. But some saw opportunity in the power granted by that process. Over time there has resulted a real usurpation of power. The major media was able to, did, and has become accustomed to "shaping public opinion."

That was not its intended function. It was meant to broadcast information, and hopefully facts and truth. It has gone beyond to attempt to define what is fact and ultimately truth, and in doing so control the shape of American government. The intent was to provide information so that the public could make informed decisions. The reality is that major media carefully selects data such that any rational person who receives information mostly from that media will arrive at the conclusions that media has determined to be desireable.

But that day is passing. The cost of entry to mass communications has fallen lower than the cost of owning a car. The result will be millions of competing voices that provide information that, we, the consumers, must wade into, select from, and use to form our own views on the world.

The paradigm has shifted. No more is the process of staying abreast of current events one of allowing the chef to present his meal. The process already resembles better a smorgasborg, where we consumers belly up to a buffet that extends out of sight. We pick and choose the order and timing of our courses. We eat as much or as little at a time was we choose. And if we choose dessert first, there is none to slap our wrists.

The communication of information has traditionally been very linear. That has changed. Control of the flow of information, and thus of the conclusions formed by a rational mind, depends upon controlling the content and the sequence of the information. The new media removes most or all of these controls. Determining the content of the infomeal is now the responsibility of the infoconsumer. If we are wise, we will struggle to prevent such controls from returning.

Communism, and other forms of tyranny, depend upon the control of information to keep their populations compliant. Democracy depends upon the lack of controls on information to keep our governments compliant. The major media is a control on information. For a time the tradeoff was necessary, it no longer is. It's fighting to retain its power; we must not let it win.

That is not to say the media must be destroyed. What must be destroyed is its role of control over opinion-making. No more must we allow the "shaping of opinion" by elites who wish to do so by controlling our access to information. The way to prevent that control is to encourage alternate flows of information. In a free market that means one thing: consume widely. Do not allow yourself to become dependent on a limited set of information channels.

Unlike CBS, verify, only then trust.

Posted by dan at September 26, 2004 02:07 PM | TrackBack
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