Monday, July 19, 2004

Can you prove you're not dead?: News and "not-news" and sins of information-omission

I was intrigued by this article in Sunday's NY Times, and moreso in the afternoon as Mrs. Meridian and I watched Super-Size Me. By the way, Google was kind enough to provide this link from Tech Central Station that takes issue with the film; we provide it here in the interest of fairness, but I refer you to the tiny "About TCS" link waaaay down at the bottom of the page. It's important to know what hands are feeding all these mouths in the blogosphere.
Anyway, given that, as I mentioned in a recent post, the Meridians had just seen Fahrenheit 9/11, it seems to me that some of us are getting information about topics--truly significant issues facing our nation and culture--within a space traditionally thought of as reserved for "entertainment." Meanwhile, as the Times article makes clear, within that space of performance (and note the connotations of THAT object of the preposition) called the newscast, we have, since the happy-talk phenomenon of the 70s and 80s, seen a gradual blurring of the line between news and entertainment such that Jon Stewart has begun to gain credence as a political commentator and Arnold Schwarzenegger uses The Tonight Show as a de facto press conference to announce his candidacy in the California gubernatorial race last year. That blurring occurs on the so-called news channels as well, as the networks have no choice but to feed the ravenous demand created not, at first, by the audience but by the simple logistics of there being 24 hours in a day. Add to all this the spectacle of the NY Post's premature--and erroneous--announcement of Kerry's selection of Gephardt for his running mate and the much more serious spectacles of the Times' public soul-searching regarding its coverage of the events leading up to the Iraq war and the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal's recent apology for not having covered events during the civil rights movement of the '50s and 60s, and what do we have? Another manifestation of the postmodernist dictum of "no privileged narratives," this one called "infotainment" by some? Something new, heightened as it is by the exponential increase in the kinds of and outlets for media? Is it more difficult now than before to decide what is "news" and what is not? Is the very definition of "news" in doubt now?
The boundary between news and, for lack of a better term, "not-news," has been a blurry one at least since widespread literacy arose in the West in the 17th century. This arose from the cultural convention that prose narratives, though they could and would differ in kind, nevertheless claimed to be factual accounts of their subjects. It's that acceptance that allowed people to accept as fact that medieval literary oddity called Mandeville's Travels until at least the 1500s. Early novels in Spain and England (and certainly in other countries as well) would often be called "histories," and such was the power of the printed word in those days that once Jonathan Swift announced, in a broadside, the death of an enemy of his, and the poor fellow was at some pains to prove that he was still alive.
We like to think we as a culture are past such confusions as those: we go to bookstores now, and we find the books helpfully categorized for us into "Fiction and Literature" and "History" and etc. But now, it seems, it's in the realm of what Neil Postman calls "information" that that same confusion arises. What do we and others need to know? Who decides such things? Now, in this hard-wired multimedia world of ours, since the answer to the second question is "We all do," the answer to the first becomes ever-harder to answer.** When fewer people were deciding, there was less we "needed" to know. I'd not argue that that is preferable to our current situation; limited access to/sources of information are hallmarks of repressive societies. But information-saturation (sorry for the clunky phrase) has effects just as dangerous on us as having too little information: there's less space for us to think and imagine; we paradoxically become bored, and only intense--chiefly visual--stimuli get out attention. As only one instance: Fahrenheit 9/11, I'd argue, is commanding the audience and attention it is not because it's telling informed people anything new, but because its images are so arresting.
Do we run the paradoxical risk, in this world in which never before has there been so much available for us to read, of being drowned into a collective illiteracy by all that information? Both Moore and Morgan Spurloc (Super Size Me's director) conclude their films by pointing the finger at their audience's passivity in letting others, in effect, doing the thinking for them. To grossly over-simplify their arguments: We (and others) have committed sins of information-omission, which is partly why we're fat and in Iraq. The solutions to such problems, though, involve something much more difficult than voting out George Bush in November or not super-sizing at McDonald's.

**Addendum: the questions I asked seemed to presume a passive, Walter-Cronkite-as-Most-Trusted-Man kind of audience as regards the matter of news sources. That's obviously no longer the case, as the very existence of this blog makes clear. We all get to decide what we think others need to know. And since there no longer exist only a few ex cathedra news sources, it becomes all the more imperative to be discerning and thoughtful about not only the kinds of things reported as "news" but their sources as well.


Alex said...

There is one other thing that is quite new and I suspect will have a more profound effect as soon as the masses discover it. In fact, I read somewhere we are up to 10 million of them and counting. The answer is Blogging. Where else can you print for free, have world wide coverage, say / discuss anything under the sun and meet someone interesting without eyeballing them?? The eyeballing them comment may seem silly but since 99% of our evaluation of people comes from the visual for the first time in recorded history we can share ideas / comments / viewpoints on a purely intellectual level without concern for the 3 dimensional image.

John B. said...

Bloggers already are having effects on events, though I personally see those effects as more of a mixed bag than you seem to. In the first place, let's be honest: not all those bloggers are blogging about politics or ideas; many (most?) of them are essentially keeping online Dear Diaries that get read by their friends. And even of those who DO write about more serious matters, true, they do indeed have the right and, now, the ability to say and disseminate whatever they want, but it doesn't follow that we will especially want to hear/read everything said--indeed, I've run across stuff that I fervently hope is being read by as few people as possible.
In politics, certainly, some bloggers get cited regularly in online columns I read and provide links to--over there on my sidebar to the right. I also remember an NPR story, back from the time when Trent Lott resigned from his position as Senate majority leader, which credited bloggers with keeping in play Lott's remarks which seems to advocate his longing for Strom Thurmond's segregationist politics of the 1950s: the print and TV media were present at the same event, but didn't immediately comment on Lott's comments; bloggers, though, kept writing and writing about it, and the traditional media began running stories about it. In other words, they helped make the news. Bloggers in businesses have been credited with bringing corporate wrongdoings to the public's attention. And so on. These are all good things, I'd say.
With that freedom you mention, though, comes responsibility--on the part of both bloggers and their audiences. The web is more full of rumor and half-truths and out and out misinformation and lies and hatred than it is of truly thoughtful commentary. The anonymity you refer to is its greatest liability as well as its biggest asset: In cyberspace, you can't see your targets' crying or their anger. It's easier to bully; it's as easy to stereotype another person's opinion on the basis of his/her words as it is to do so on the basis of that person's appearance--all that's changed are the grounds on which one bases that stereotyping.
So, yes: I'd (very) cautiously agree with you about the potential for bloggers to shape and change political discourse for the better, but only cautiously. Very.

Brendon said...
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Brendon said...

Interesting post, I think that the most important issue is that of "information-omission." That concept, to me, is not the result of having our lives saturated by words, words, words from every direction (though saturation plays a role), so much as it is a symptom of modern Americana. Here in this place we're intrinsically taught about the value of time. We want everything faster and and more to the point, and we've reached a tipping point finally, where our society at large is willing to sacrifice accuracy for brevity. There's no longer a demand by the general populous to separate editorializing from "real hard news." And since there's no demand, there's no accountability, hence the rise of Fox News and the likes of O'Reilly, Hannity, and Limbaugh. Not to mention Air America and Al Franken (of course, being liberal, I like the guy, but spin is spin). The information age especially has taken the burden of truth out of the hands of those presenting "us" with information and put it in our hands. No one's required to be right anymore unless someone else calls their bluff. The bluff of course being that what's packaged as news is really opinion garnished with some data to look and smell like fact, but really be a big fat editorial.

Can blogging save this? I don't think so. There are some fantastic bloggers out there being as objective as possible, but there's one hitch to's been redefined as liberalism. And liberalism redefined as unpatriotic. Information is the ammunition that's fueling this culture war, and until the people ingesting that information, the general public, demands something more than a sound bite from our favorite talk show host, we're still in the dark about what's true and what's surcumspect. Basically, we're not going to get the truth until we demand it. And since I don't have a lot of faith in the general public, I think it's going to be a long time coming. In the mean time, I think we read as many sources for the same story as we can and come to our own conclusions. Thinking for ourselves is all we've got. Cheers.

John B. said...

I agree, Brenden: the solution, no matter one's political stripe, is to cast one's net pretty widely as regards listening/reading. The links I have in "New and Comment" are a mix of sources from across the political spectrum (though, sorry, I refuse to link to either Fox OR Air America); I find that, whether I agree or disagree with what these folks say, I feel that they and I can actually talk with each other and stand a chance of being listened to. I'm as willing to be persuaded, if need be, as to persuade.

As if on cue: I ran across this article by P.J. O'Rourke in this month's Atlantic

O'Rourke seems at least Libertarian to me--indeed, there are times when I swear I detect a whiff of Objectivism in him. He can be acerbic at times in his judgment of more moderate types. But he's intelligently acerbic. The fact that he's funny doesn't hurt, either. And in this article, he's spot on: most spokespeople for the left or right are, in essence, preaching to the converted. He listens to NPR because he likes to argue; I like reading George Will's columns and The Weekly Standard for exactly the same reason. They are smart; they challenge me to think.

Some of the most poignant writing I've run across these days is by Andrew Sullivan (see my Links list): politically conservative, a supporter of the war in Iraq, but also openly gay. To see him wrestle with these conflicting value systems--and, of course, argue that reflects an admirable honesty that I can't help but admire. Would that more people were less partisan and more thoughtful about their politics.