The Media (which media? THE Media!)

December 29, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

This age.  Bizarre.  Part of the bizarreness rests in how much we actually know about it.  We swim in a deepening sea of information.  How to cope? 

We compartmentalize.  So, though, do those providing us the information, and therein lies another problem, which is a question of integration.

Recently at a holiday gathering with my family we exercised what has become a ritual—complaing about the state of the world.  A comment that has been made often in the last couple of decades suddenly struck me with its self-evident, contradictory absurdity.

My father was going on about something he had learned regarding Israel, and ended with the oft-repeated question “How come our media doesn’t tell us that part?”  His meaning is clear enough—details of certain events are not presented to us on the nightly news.  Instead, something with a particular “spin” gets put on.  The nature of the spin depends as much on the program’s owners as it does the politics of the viewer.

But a larger question occurred to me.  So I asked it.  “If the media doesn’t tell us, how did you find out?”

“I saw it on Charlie Rose!”

And therein lies a wealth of assumptions which need examining.  Why isn’t—at least to people like my father—things like the Charlie Rose Show  The Media?

What is The Media?  This is an important question when we’re in hot debate with each other, because our sources of information dictate what we consider relevant.  They also dictate our attitude toward our culture, our civilization, our country, and our leaders.

To me, The Media is a fairly useless label.  We have television, print newspapers, radio, the internet, magazines, blogs, direct mail, town hall meetings, government newsletters, NGO newsletters, canvasers, missionaries, PACs…on television alone we have nightly news, morning news, news magazines (like 60 Minutes), talk shows, Special Reports, documentary programs (like NOVA).

My father seems to take as a given that if something doesn’t come over on the nightly news programs between five and seven (again at ten) then “our Media” isn’t telling us.  It is a prejudice many of his generation have, from the day when that was about it as far as news sources.  There was radio, of course, but that was tv without pictures, and newspapers, which went into greater depth.  The advent of the News Magazine Shows happened in the late 60s and for some people still may not be part of legitimate news sources.

My father is not connected to the internet.  He grew angry with me once for knowing more about something than he did, information I got off the Web.  Not personally angry, just–“Why should I have to pay $20 a month to get the information I need?  Why doesn’t my (free) television news give it to me?”

The answer—part of it, anyway—is simply that there is too damn much.

The other part of that is that television news programs are now part and parcel of the same ratings game as everything else on tv, and it is now entertainment more than education.

But that leads to the rest of the problem.  How many people assume there should be One information source and that it should provide everything?   And, consequently, all other sources are considered somehow illegitimate?

During the last two decades we have all heard certain people complain about the Liberal Media—yet it is a documented fact that over 70% of radio and print news sources are self-defined as conservative to right wing.  We can assume of the remaining 25-30% half can be considered neutral, which leaves 10 to 15 % as “left”.  Yet the overwhelming perception by a vocal segment of the population which assumes it is “the majority” is that most media is liberal-biased.

During that same period we have seen survey after survey showing a trend toward self-editing—we have so many news and information sources now that people can tailor their intake according to taste.  Which means that we do not, as a general rule, get a wide spectrum of information and opinion—rather we get self-reinforcing polemic.

The assumption is my father’s compaint is that there should be a single source of reliably neutral (by his standards) information.  If information shows up anywhere else, it must be suspect.  Yet trust in the veracity of those suspect sources is, paradoxically, rising.  They simply aren’t The Media.

While this may seem like a confusing set of compartmentalizations, it is also indicative of the susicious regard Americans have had toward anything purporting to be somehow cross culturally and nationally relevent—as if by the time a source actually becomes large and broad enough to cater to a majority it has lost its ability to be useful.

I am worried what this means for the public debate.  For instance, this past election saw the Republican Party lose its majority status in congress.  We are told that this was a referendum on the war.  Yet of the nearly thirty congressional seats that changed hands to become Democrat, two-thirds of the new representatives are vocally ProChoice.  To be told (by ommision) that this issue had nothing to do with the election is a curious consequence of the homogenization of The Media, if such a process is actually underway.  It is not, however, information that was censored.  I found out quite passively.  There were other left-right issues informing many of the contested seats and I am sure that the War, while significant, was insufficient to turn over that many seats.  But to find the other reasons, one needs look elsewhere than traditional network media sources.  One of the downsides of this is that those other reasons have not become part of the national quorum over electoral politics.

So it was an interesting holiday discussion.  Anything that prompts a question like this is worth the overeating, the unfortunate presents, the cold weather, and the crazy traffic. 

So tell me:  What do you consider The Media?

Oh, and have a good New Year.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Culture, Current Events, Entertainment, Media, Noteworthy, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Statistics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (11)

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  1. Scholar says:

    In tv production class, we learned about news sources such as the Associated Press and Gannet. The AP provides just the news events without the spin. We also learned how to *frame* information coming off of the Associated Press to make it seem more interesting or seem more important. British television news (BBC world news) has very little "spin".

    At the other end of the spectrum is Rush Limbaugh's show and Bill O'Reilly's show (which, ironically, he calls the "no spin zone"). These guys pick and choose the stories they want to report and present them in a fashion which supports their bigotry.

    The internet is a growing news source. I guess thats why, when folks log on and start blabbing about God and the faults of science, I feel obligated to intervene. The internet, when used correctly, can be a reliable source of knowledge. It may be the only time many of these folks have an opportunity to be exposed to the "Real News" about evolution, stem cells, war, famine, science/astronomy, culture. This is because they live in small town America where modern books have not yet reached but the modern coaxial internet cords have.

  2. Dan says:

    I have become so suspicious of spin and slant that I immediately regard anything coming from media sources outside the CBC as potentially false, which is not really useful to me. I know how to parse information out of spin, but more often than not I find myself cutting certain media sources out entirely rather than work at getting a clear image of the issue. Further, with most of the media sources in Canada owned by one of three companies, getting broad, differentiated views on subjects that matter is difficult. I have trouble knowing who to trust.

  3. Jason, very much enjoyed reading your blog entry. You should consider getting your own website. Your family discussions sound remarkably similar to my own, except with the role of father/son/convervative/liberal reversed. You correctly point out that media bias would be in the eye of the beholder. For example: a news story states "abortions are up this year." I'd like to hear "unborn baby murders are up this year." Is this bias? Yes, it is.

    Keep up the good writing!

  4. Scholar says:

    Richard,

    Do you support abortions in the case where the mother was impregnated as a result of rape?

    Do you prefer to force pregnant mothers to carry their fetus to term, even if they cannot be (or do not wish to be) a fit parent?

    Does stem cell research hurt babies?

    Please enlighten us as to how a conservative feels about such issues.

  5. gatomjp says:

    Richard:

    May I add to Scholars list of questions?

    What do you propose be done with unwanted children?

    Do you have any adopted children of your own? If not, why not?

  6. If you'll read Jason's entry on Biblical Morals you'll see that even he, the atheist, had to conclude the golden rule of do unto others. So, either an unborn baby is an "other" or it isn't.

    Surely you won't be surprised to learn that there are many viewpoints within the conservative spectrum. I do not support an overturning of Roe V Wade. I am far more interested in supporting the woman who will carry the fetus, regardless of how it got there. I want to change her mind. I want to change the minds of all the people who are going to have unsafe sex tonight. If they could think of the consequences being a "who" instead of an "it", they may choose more wisely.

  7. gatomjp says:

    I agree with much of what you wrote Richard, but I also can't help but notice how deftly you avoided answering any of the questions put to you by Scholar and me.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jason's post exposes the tip of a bigger iceberg. He points out the fallacy of assuming that only one cause — Iraq — explains why so many Republicans lost their jobs, when so many other issues were in play. For example, Virginia senator George Allen likely didn't lose his re-election bid because of Iraq; more likely his racist comments that were recorded and played on youtube are what did him in. Some fell on ethics issues; others apparently fell for opposing stem cell research; the list goes on.

    Whatever combination of factors brought them down, The Media clearly loves over-simplified cause-and-effect analysis. They have only a few minutes to cover an issue before cutting to a commercial, so they have to be brief and simple. They do this when reporting moves in the stock market. The Dow Jones Industrials average will move one way or another, essentially randomly, and some talking head behind a news desk will declare The Cause to be a change in housing starts, or an f-x (foreign exchange) rate, or unemployment, etc., when the real cause is clearly a combination of many factors. It just looks better when the talking head presumes to know what he or she is talking about.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    Richard writes: "So, either an unborn baby is an “other” or it isn’t."

    By calling a fetus "an unborn baby," Richard tries to answer his own question before he asks it. The only people who call a fetus "an unborn baby" are abortion-rights opponents who have a political agenda. The trouble is, of course, that the phrase "an unborn baby" is too vague to support meaningful debate. Is a fertilized egg in a Petri dish "an unborn baby?" Is a blastocyst "an unborn baby?" Therein lies the problem with folks like Richard: they try to pre-empt honest, meaningful debate about important topics by inserting terminology that merely fans emotions. They do so, presumably, because they fear they will lose if they try to debate an issue on its merits.

  10. Jason Rayl says:

    There's a soft underbelly suggested in Grumpy's last comment that no one really wants to bring up, but which is, in fact, implicit in Roe v Wade—which is the factor of Acceptance in the issue of pregnancy.

    The only people who call a fetus an unborn baby are not just abortion rights opponents. Predominantly, they are people who have become pregnant who gleefully look forward to having a child. In their minds, that lump of cells is already a child, whether other people see it that way or not.

    What this means in practicaly terms is that the power of assigning status to a fetus—or anyone else, for that matter—is the individual's. If a woman becomes pregnant and categorically doesn't want it, that fetus never does become a child in her mind. It is an assignation of status. For the woman who wants it, the same assignation of status occurs in the other direction.

    What Roe v Wade recognized in its three trimester test is exactly that expanding sphere of acceptance and status assignation—that the longer the woman waits to decide, the more people around her become involved in the status, the more the state may intrude in her decisions (and when you read it, it's there—the state may intrude over time). The decision makes it clear that indecisiveness is unacceptable. Is it a baby or is it a fetus?

    But initially, it is entirely the pregnant woman's choice to make that assignation of status, and her decision must be respected first—because we all have that right in diluted form when it comes to our choices of association. Perhaps a brutal idea, but the fact is we assign status constantly to people we don't know. Perhaps, in this society, we no longer do it to determine who is human and who is not once they have been born and are walking around interacting, but in many other ways we do.

    Which is why laws governing murder of a fetus can be upheld—because the woman bearing the fetus has (presumably) already assigned it the status of a person by continuing to carry it. She has made it a human victim by her acceptance. Looked at that way, there is no conflict with choice issues—it just runs a little deeper than a fashion option.

    And I read Richard's comment as an observation of journalistic bias more than a statement on abortion per se. Wrapped up in his second response is a clear statement that the decision must still reside with the individual—he just wishes individuals would make different choices.

    For the record, let me state that I believe abortion should be legal, but that I find America's abortion rate distressing. Those fetuses should never have happened. There are ample birth control methods which, used responsibly, can drop unwanted pregnancy precipitously (just look at Europe's abortion rates; are they having less sex than we are? don't think so). The problem is that the anti-abortion groups are also anti-birthcontrol as well and bollocks up attempts at creating a national education, distribution, and access program to make birth control more widespread and readily available, especially to the poorest among us. Most prolife groups are, indeed, antichoice.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    At the 9/11/04 conference of the Society of Professional Journalists conference, Bill Moyers addressed what "news" is:

    “Real news,” said Richard Reeves “is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” I am reminded of that line from the news photographer in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day : “People do terrible things to each other, but its worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.”

    [For the full speech, see here]. I think that Reeves' definition is a good start. It immediately diminishes the importance of our empty-calorie so-called local newspapers and so-called local newscasts as sources of "news." After all, how does it help you to keep your freedoms to watch the typical local newscast or read the local newspaper? They're mostly advertisements, sports, household tips, whimsical diversions. In fact, these alleged sources of "news" function as a bait and switch. Many people think they've done their job staying current by reading the local newspaper and watching the local newscast, while they've actually gotten themselves a bunch of fluff and only a morsel or two of real news.

    If local "news" sources don't provide decent helpings of news, what does? Jason, I think you're right that people need to consider articles and shows that seriously treat important issues, whether or not they go by the name "news." You can't judge a book by its cover. That is how you get to the news today–by digging for it yourself, by considering numerous sources. There's no getting around it that anyone wanting the "news" will have to do a lot of the work to find information sources that "ring true" and challenge us.

    Maybe this approach suggests this rule: if it is too easy to find and digest, it's not likely to be meaningful news.

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