Monday, January 31, 2011

America's News Blackout

As wealthy a country as the U.S., preaching democracy and freedom of the press, is in some ways more hermetically-sealed than Saudi Arabia. While Canadians are viewing Al-Jazeera English, a highly-regarded cable network offering Middle East news, American cable companies refuse to carry it.
  It is ironic that U.S. officials berate the beleaguered Egyptian government for cutting off Internet service within their country, while Americans remain blocked (read here) from viewing the kinds of indepth coverage that might have prepared us for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.   Also unavailable to us will be serious analysis of what we might expect next from this volatile but strategically vital part of the world.

   The mainstream media in the U.S. is imprisoned in a hall of mirrors, a lesson I learned in the mid-1980s, when I landed a job as an editorial writer for a major regional newspaper.  In this environment of editorial meetings and deadlines, I came to love essay and opinion writing. But I also began to recognize that something was wrong with me. It was not the pressure of deadlines, but rather the constant bombardment with the exigencies of other people’s lives, which tore into my psyche. A natural shyness I had endured since childhood, along with a hypersensitive temperament and a tendency to introspect and turn inwards were suddenly devolving into a curse. I learned that the paralyzing, ever present fear, racing heart beat, churning sensations ripping through the pit of my stomach, and presentiments of dread were classic symptoms of anxiety.

Each morning’s editorial meeting became an increasingly painful ordeal as I struggled to maintain perspective despite a pounding heart, physical trembling and a growing confusion as to what “news” really was. Like a sore rubbed raw, my anxiety symptoms seemed to expose the tender underbelly of media work, which I was otherwise unprepared to examine in my comfortable new profession of journalist. As I devoured what came off the wire services, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, local and regional newspapers, a pattern came together, I began to recognize a distressing truth. “News” was nothing more nor less than a mirror of the readers’ collective preoccupations. It is the job of the editor to identify those interests of the media public. What do we then learn about the world in which we live -- all too often, very little. It is not that the reportage from respectable media sources is distorted or erroneous. Editors place enormous emphasis on trying to provide an accurate reporting. It is rather that “the news” is selective in ways that feedback on our own preoccupations rather than presenting a balanced range of events occurring around the globe. What does and does not make the media cut? Of the nearly infinite number of events transpiring in this world of five billion on any given day, what is chosen to be reported reflects the interests of the readership, rather than a purely neutral presentation of global events. It is what a sufficient segment of a population market is willing to pay money to read. And what happens to everything else that goes on in this remarkable world of ours? Those events, which do not push our American emotional buttons, recede into invisibility. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. I am as avid a newspaper reader today as I ever was. But nowadays I read with a perennial caveat in mind. This “news” is not the world. If anything, it is me and it is a map of my own culture’s unspoken and largely unacknowledged filtering of the world -- nothing more, nothing less.

But surely, a little knowledge about the world, however selectively arrived at, is better than pure ignorance? Not necessarily. This selection process is an interior one, emotional, and hidden from empirical verification. Because we Americans pride ourselves in being rational, we often lack the necessary skill to identify the emotional states, disguised as objective intellectual or social curiosity, which might be driving our interests.

The real problem is that we are left without constructive referents or role models for any values, beliefs, lifestyles, other than our own. We tend to learn little if anything from the preciously diverse cultures of the world. In our Americanized version of the news, every inch of the cosmos, just so happens to suffer a gross exaggeration of our American problems. Yes, we have violence in our inner cities, but just look at the Congo! Yes, we have a high divorce rate but just look at those Saudi Arabians chopping off adulterers’ heads! Yes, we have racial problems, but just look at the genocidal Hutu of Rwanda! Thus, we become entrapped in an almost virulently anti-learning process, which ensures that we develop few if any genuine insights into the politics, social or human relations of these “alien” cultures, which dot the global landscape. Of course we don’t just do this to foreign subjects. We also do it to ourselves, our communities and society. And here again the error is merely one of context. But so powerful and influential an error it is, that we become imprisoned in the society’s dominant cultural values and conditioning, and are blocked from becoming acquainted with any viable alternatives. In this regard, Professor Susan D. Moeller of Brandeis University asserts in her book, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death:

The Americanization of events makes the public feel the world subscribes, and must subscribe, to American cultural icons and if it doesn't or can't it is not worth the bother, because clearly the natives are unworthy or the issue or event is.

But what is the process by which we become less rather than more informed? I tell myself that I recognize that the news is not really unbiased, objective information about the world. I insist that I am "too smart" to therefore take what I read as gospel. And yet my attitudes and therefore perceptions about the world are being formed below the surface of my conscious awareness. I will when the occasion arises, whether in argument, or in the formulation of my political views reflect the narrowly circumscribed input from the news media. Invariably, this flawed understanding of the world creates its own blinders. Yes, we Americans fail to live up to our own standards in this regard, but just look at . . .! This perennial lack of referents for anything that does not mirror our particular societal insecurities and preoccupations, makes it all but impossible for us to find answers in other cultures to any thorny questions about which our society has not yet been able to come to grips.

The Air-Popped-News Syndrome

Some years ago, a nutrition watchdog group publicized the fact that the popcorn sold in the nation’s cinemas contained deadly, artery-clogging globules of cholesterol, fat and sodium. A predictable public clamor ensued and cinemas began offering unsalted air-popped popcorn. But alas, nobody bought it. Admittedly the stuff tasted like Styrofoam. But it was healthful. No doubt, we had been deluding ourselves into believing that our goal in buying popcorn at the cinema is optimal healthfulness, when it might have been quite another, i.e., feeding a butter-fat and sodium addiction. In buying “news,” we may have convinced ourselves that our only objective is the acquisition of unbiased information about our communities and the world, when in fact its primary appeal is feeding our emotional need for constant self-validation. But the biases have little to do with whether the actual writing style is fictionalizing or the traditional mode of straight reporting. Why indeed does “good news” not sell? Actually it does sell so long as the human interest story uses the same formula of self-validation. The issue isn’t necessarily good or bad news. It is emotional self-validation. A human interest story must engender the emotional charge of patriotism or overwhelming charitableness in “us” relative to an ungenerous “them.” As for “bad news,” its self-validating role is even more powerful. If the day’s media offerings do not give its subscribers an emotional charge of several rather predictable sorts, they won’t buy the newspaper or tune in to that television station. We tend to commonly demand from our media an inversion and projection of such emotional preoccupations as righteous indignation, shame and guilt. I have seldom, for example, read an article about violence in Africa that did not use the admittedly colorful phrase “hacked to death.” Our own casualties of war are simply “collateral damage.” Even though the populations of most African societies live peaceful lives at a molecular fracture of our American material wealth, the wisdom they have evolved to bring harmony to materially deprived societies becomes as invisible to our attentional screens as air. Not surprisingly, the things we castigate others for doing are merely a slight variation on those issues and actions among ourselves about which we have significant unease.

As regards shame, I have come to observe that the more embarrassed we are by the levels of violence in America, the more prurient becomes our interests in reading about third world violence. We define whole continents and regions by their savagery, when the number of people killed in local wars may merely equal the number of murders committed in America during any one year.

Another example of projecting our emotional shadows onto other cultures relates to guilt. The busier we become in pursuing the American Dream and all too often emotionally neglecting our own children in the process, the more relentlessly we root around the globe for headlines of child abuse, but never familial love and devotion to children. The more guilty we feel about our American prosperity, the more we seek out the pathetic details of third world misery and impoverishment. But we never seem to read about people who are living meaning and satisfied lives in harmony with their ecological environments.

Blaming the Media

The media has in recent years become the all-American scapegoat for much of what ails our society. But alas, the media is not to blame for the subtle but powerful censuring devices, which filter our news. It merely responds to the marketplace. And that market is us. However, we live in too complex a society, the technology and weapons that we possess are far too powerful for us to remain clueless about the world in which we live.

So, how then do we truly learn about other culture, or for that matter about ourselves? In America, we pride ourselves in having a “free press” in relation to so much of the world. This is true and it ought to be a source of pride. But if we look more closely, we come to see that rather than censorship operating at the level of the government, it is generated by the market itself, the tastes, preferences and emotional needs of the readership. It creates an ironclad feedback loop, that can be difficult if not impossible to escape.

When we are truly ready, not just intellectually but spiritually and emotionally as well, to explore the life events and cultural values of other cultures, (rather than using them selectively to seek our own self-validation), then we can begin spending time exposing ourselves to their media and information sources. Given the remarkable breakthroughs in communications technology conditioned by the world wide web and other such global links, we have before us at this moment in history a priceless opportunity in which to become acquainted with the cultural perspectives of others and to penetrate the veil of our own cultural narcissism, if we so desire.

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