The News that Tells us Nothing
Thomas Jefferson was a visionary, and like many visionaries, was poor at actualizing his own vision. He wasn’t a great president by many measures, and violated his own words many times. Even so, Jefferson borrowed and synthesized many humanist and progressive ideas, and gave us some significant political insights.
One was the power of the press. Jefferson is credited with some very contradictory thoughts about the press. As president, he suffered a lot of heat from the press; then as now the press was largely controlled by capitalists and federalists who wanted a strong central government. Jefferson said that a person who reads nothing knows more than a person who reads a newspaper. Even so, Jefferson strongly believed in a free press and said that a nation with newspapers and no government is preferable to a nation with government but no press.
Still, we have to credit Jefferson with a clear vision of how the press can be used against the urge to freedom and good governance. He stated that a person who reads nothing is better educated than one who reads the newspaper. He was referencing the discrepancy between what a free press could be, and what it typically become.
The idea that citizens need to be well informed to instruct their governors springs from the idea that citizens are the final authority in the nation. We need to know what goes on to form an opinion; public opinion drives the government.
The vital flaw is that the press can be manipulated to form public opinion, an idea of manufactured consent that psychologist Alex Carey put forth and Walter Lippman and later Noam Chomsky developed to describe how market forces create a press that has a normative function.
We easily see how this works: purveyors of media in the U.S. have tremendous power to form opinion, and indeed, to direct our gaze. In turn, our gaze has a financial value for the media; they get dollars for our attention. Traditionally, the press has had an adversarial role with government in free nations, acting as watchdog for the public. However, this role makes the press extremely valuable to government and corporations. The press is reliant on government sources for information. Likewise, corporate dollars fund the media to direct our gaze. The illusion of a free press is powerful, causing citizens to imagine that what media directs our gaze to is important, and the perspective it gives us is informative.
But, American citizens are not generally critical thinkers. Particularly in the age of the constantly connected, citizens trust their media with making important choices on content and perspective. But information and “truth” in perspective are far more slippery concepts in practice than in our dogma and sound intentions.
Though a good newspaper will attempt to be objective, the process of deciding what constitutes news, what information to provide, constraints on sources of information, the order and presentation of possible opposing views make real truth finding difficult or impossible. Even so, a good article on an important subject is often hard to find, while media coverage of some events is disproportional to it’s importance to the nation.
We consider the “sinking of the Maine” and the power the image had to predispose the nation to war with Spain. What Pearl Harbor was to World War II, the sinking of the Maine was to the war with Spain. The Japanese did, indeed, attack Pearl Harbor; it is unlikely the Main was sunk by Spain. Even so, the Hearst newspapers made much of the event and it is often viewed as pivotal to the cause of war. Likewise it has been suggested from historical evidence that Britain and the U.S. knew the attack on Pearl Harbor was likely, but delayed action because they underestimated the strength of Japan’s ability and wanted to push the U.S. in to war with Japan.
Likewise, the commandeering of commercial airline flights and the destruction of buildings as the World Trade Center changed history in the U.S., giving birth to a new level and style of intelligence and law enforcement. It has become fashionable for politicians to talk of sacrificing liberty for greater security.
As other wars occupied citizens, the new war, and the new America which as arisen as a result of the nation’s response to the destruction of two high profile buildings and the deaths of 2,700 people. Though other nations have endured actions against civilians as the result of public policy, known as “terrorism”, the United States responded in a convulsion of social change.
To be clear, the World Trade Center did not represent all Americans, only the most wealthy. However, it was treated as an attack against all Americans by the media, which enjoyed the public attention for months over the event. It predisposed Americans to accept the idea of greater government control over individuals.
Since September 11, 2001, the mainstream press has typically supported the build up of military and intelligence technology used within our borders and against Americans. There have been occasional hand wringing in the mainstream press about the militarization of local law enforcement and massive purchases of automatic weapons and ammunition by department of fatherland security, and some small notice of the blooming of the several intelligence agencies who are spying on Americans. People who rely only on mainstream media for news, though, typically know nothing about the spreading power of the federal government.
Likewise, popular entertainment frequently features programming which glorifies the militarized government, making the idea of heavily militarized “authorities” moving about in the midst of average citizens, directing them and “protecting” them as though our people were sheep and the various kinds of cops were sheepdogs. The threat of terrorism and personal violence is magnified by such “entertainment”, causing the average person to feel afraid of strange, dark forces that they are powerless against, and only the government can effectively deal with.
There is still news to be had, on the internet. But, increasingly, internet news providers are being marginalized, harassed or even arrested. The free press that Jefferson envisioned is far more clearly represented in the margins of media, small market newspapers and blogs, than my mainstream media. Unfortunately, since there are fewer wealthy sponsors for the unpleasant truth, they don’t have the resources, nor the contacts, that media which enjoys the support of government and corporations do. Those who find sponsorship, for example, Democracy Now, find themselves constrained in their point of view. The positive effect of a widespread free press is that one can get some news from the Left, and some from the Right. The critical viewer or reader knows the truth is in there somewhere, most often where the two poles agree. Currently, for example, The New American, a whiz-bang Right Wing rag often agrees with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now on issues such as domestic use of drones, the dramatically increased powers of the Executive Branch created by the “Patriot Act” and NDAA.
As bad as the media is about directing our gaze to create consent for government actions, it is worse at distracting our attention with nonsense. The average television viewer likely know more about the fortunes and foibles of passing celebrities than about how their representatives are voting, or the results of the volumes of laws they pass. Note the graphic which outlines what we should be concerned about, and what the media features for us. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor is it very sophisticated, but it does outline the nature of the problem. Unfortunately, I have no idea who the author of this graphic is, I would provide a link.
It’s up to the news consumer to make good choices about what goes in their brain, when there are choices to make. Mainstream Media have people on staff to jigger the material present to please the animal parts of our brain. More than 50 years of research has produced a product which mesmerizes, but doesn’t educate.
It’s also possible a lot of people have made the assumption that it’s too late, the nation is going where it is going and there is nothing they can do to prevent it, so they might as well watch reality TV instead of wrestling with actually reality.
I’ll suggest that we are not likely to shake off our torpor and begin demanding a better information and better governance. Until then, a person who watches no mainstream media knows less than a person who watches nothing.
Good Luck! We’re going to need it.