Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cantlon: Garbage in, garbage out

In his column today Tom highlights the danger of monocultural news-sourcing, which not only can but inevitably does skew your perspective on the world. He frames it in terms of left-right politics, and I'm afraid he doesn't go anywhere near far enough.
    Most Americans believe that we live in the most open society in the world in terms of the variety of opinions and perspectives that our media bring us. But most anyone who's done any serious time outside the wire in the larger world will tell you that it's not what it seems.

It may seem alarmist, but it's truer than any of us
would like to believe.
    We live in the North Korea of materialist consumerism. What look like competing, opposite worldviews here are only subtly different flavors of the same pap to the rest of the world. The American ideological landscape is a giant ant-lion trap, pulling us closer to the jaws even as we think we're walking away. And the idea that we're free to choose makes the pervasive propaganda more effective. North Koreans think they're free, too.
    I learned how this works when I first got involved professionally in the propaganda business, back in the mid-'80s. I started getting work editing business news and communications, still my bread and butter today, and I needed more depth in the lingo, so I subscribed to The Economist. As its title suggests, this weekly publication, part newspaper and part magazine, primarily covers news and analysis about business and economics. But at least half its pages are dedicated to some of the best detailed news reporting in the world, bar none. It is erudite, excellently written for educated professionals, and its coverage is broad, worldly and international. It's dense and meaty, making Time and Newsweek look like supermarket coupon flyers, and it takes days to get through it. I studied up and it helped me a lot in my business.
    But after a couple of years I noticed that I had gradually started seeing everything in terms of money. The core perspectives of the paper's editors, despite their obvious high value on editorial objectivity and integrity, had seeped through between the lines and stained my value set. I spent a couple of months looking for conscious propaganda moves in the paper, but never found them. I canceled my subscription, and after a few months found that I got better. Since then I've been a lot more guarded about what I read -- not reading less, but rather reading more consciously.
    Our pervasive consumer culture, with its attendant sense of powerlessness, its low regard for spiritual and community values, and its mechanical simplicity, is the blinders on American culture today. Its messages are literally everywhere, inescapable if we're engaged with the world at all. Its central purpose is to get us to buy stuff, but the related values and methods infect everything we see and think, especially our politics. While I don't believe in a grand malevolent conspiracy, the results are indistinguishable.
    There exists no wonderland of objectivity anywhere on the planet, but outside this country the values and cultures are far less powerful and more competitive. Many nations actively control their media to better reflect the values of their culture, and while this sounds like totalitarianism to Americans, it also helps keep the consumerist wolf at bay, and there's a lot to be said for that. The competing voices coming across borders, so hard to find here, provide broader and more diverse perspectives for those willing to pay attention.
    So when Tom writes, "constant exposure to only one view really does ... limit your thinking," I hasten to add the warning that American media, left, right and "center," really do give us a remarkably uniform view of the world that is broadly inimical to our interests as individuals and communities.Our only defense is to be constantly and positively skeptical and conscious about the messages that bombard us daily, checking in with our internal values and aware of the larger context and bias of our mediated culture as a whole.

PS: Commercial television sucks your brain out through your eye sockets. There is literally no value there. For the survival of your own ability to think, get it out of your life. Try it for a couple of weeks and see what happens to your head. More here.


Anonymous said...

I really mean this, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are a wonderful way to get a different viewpoint. They often have better insight than the guys on the real news networks re: wall street, business, and politcal stories, as well as skewer both sides of the aisle when they suddenly display selective amnesia about their own utterances and behavior in the past.

Mia Connolly said...

I am reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. I read it in a college course about six years ago, but I think I am getting more out of it this time around. It is about the degradation of public discourse when its main source of information is television. It's a short easy read with some good bits of wisdom to percolate.