When I had crossed the Atlantic, way back in 1973, to live close to the greatest democracy that the world supposedly had come to know – of which Canada was a de facto cultural colony at the time, I remember being utterly stunned by the incredible attraction and success of the Sunday morning sermons on US television. The gentlemen, as far as I recall all male and white, built commercial empires and personal fortunes beyond belief, through naked manipulation of their religion-related emotions. As far as I was concerned they were ripping off ignorant and predominantly poor people in plain daylight. All of that was permitted under “Freedom of Expression”, and nobody needed to be protected against falsehoods because everyone was considered smart enough to figure things out for and by themselves.
Almost forty years later the phenomenon has not disappeared, although it certainly morphed and diversified. I also have the impression, not more than that, that the pseudo-religious business has been scaled back somewhat, as the Grand Preachers grew senile or simply changed the terrestrial life for an eternal afterlife.
New strains, and more dangerous ones, of this disease have surfaced in the last twenty years. When CNN came into being, in the eighties, it presented itself as a twenty-four hour global 24-by-7 news caster. Its reporters and journalists contributed up-to-the-minute information, and some commentary, about world events. It was a welcome addition to an extension of the news gathering in the world. Even the BBC was challenged and responded in kind.
Impressed by the success of CNN, other media moguls started investing in “world news” organizations. News gathering and reporting would never be the same again: it had become just another business, where return on investment was more important than straight facts, or any kind of facts for that matter. For others, like Al-Jazeera or Berlusconi’s media empire, it was not only business but also politics, no more and no less. “Democracy” and “Freedom of the Press” would be victorious.
We have now gotten to an era wherein news organizations are just creators of news and, if they have any say in it, of shaping events, destroying governments and building new ones. The reporting on Egypt is a great case in point. Even on this day, “Day 16 of the Uprising” CNN is committed to “democratic change”.
FOX News, at the same time, reports almost neutrally on international events, because they focus on US “news”. From a business perspective that is very wise: the Americans public have been and are still, understandably, more interested in local affairs than in international events. Therefore, why would FOX compete with CNN for a not-so-lucrative market, especially as CNN (and BBC and Jazeera, for different publics) dominate that segment? They elect not to. However, their domination of 24-by-7 US news not only brings in nice business revenues but also suits the political agenda of their investors: kill the democrats, democratically of course.
Both companies are manipulating information to realize their commercial and their political agendas. In days past, I forced myself to actually watch and listen to Glenn Beck and to watch and absorb the news from CNN’s international talking heads, most notably Andersen Cooper. I admit that, purely on based prejudice, primarily linked to scant information about Beck’s pseudo-Martin-Luther-King Event in Washington, deciding to sit down and listen to Beck for a full couple of hours was not easy.
After that exercise, and knowing what liberals and conservatives – all democrats! – think about CNN/FOX or Cooper/Beck, I surprised myself. Indeed, although I consider them both manipulators of information for ulterior motives, I was more impressed by Beck than by Cooper. The latter, and the journalists surrounding him, actually construct a particular worldview, obviously the view that they like to be realized in the field – Mubarak must go now! - , be that because of their political or philosophical convictions, their commercial objectives or their personal careers and media fame. They continuously splice film footage and sound bites, not to support facts, but to create their own “facts” and enhance the messages that they want to promote. From Haiti, to Tunisia to Egypt, to wherever they can prey open a “news making opportunity” CNN has been on this delusionary track. With a new talking head “star” every other hour, in front of and behind the camera, they are in show business now.
While FOX obviously selects newsbytes to serve their political and, in the same swoop, their commercial objectives, the Glenn Beck “Show” (as it is explicitly labeled) posits controversial opinions about sensitive subjects (to which standard conservatives and liberals have strongly diverging attitudes, but it does not try to construct a reduced reality a priori. Glenn Beck presents indeed the views, and accusations, of the opposition and uses a selection - of course! – of appropriate arguments and statements to defend his own beliefs and opinions. It seems to me that he is attacked more for the views that he holds – controversial as they may be, and fear inducing as the may be considered to be – than for the manner in which he constructs his case.
While I understand the reaction of the “intellectuals” – a predicate which journalists and liberals want to exclusively own – my “democratic sympathy” goes to Beck rather than to Cooper, for he former doesn’t intentionally and explicitly blindside us: he is not afraid of the confrontation. That is not to deny that he too deviously spins his own stories and projects his preferred reality, of course he does! Unfortunately though, many other TV news organizations do not even bother anymore to bring different sides of the story because they are prejudiced by their own opinions or objectives, as individuals and as organizations.
One of the inventions that serves their disingenuous purposes well is the so-called “wordcloud”. It is, indeed, a mixture of words, displayed according to some kind of discriminatory statistic that can only be described as opaque, and, to boost, it is a cloud, implying randomness and disorder by definition! Now, what can they read, for us, into these clouds? The answer is straightforward and meaningless: anything! And these “news media” feed us, inspired by their lead journalists who are themselves motivated by their own ego tripping and by blinking dollars, prepackaged thinking for us all, dumb receivers, and select that which they feel we ought to digest, such that we can support their thinking, no more and no less. Welcome to postmodern newscasts!
One wonders where this trend, this nascent and quickly evolving autocracy of the news media, will end. Shall we soon be able to have democratic elections for “accredited journalists”? (Beck certainly might one day stand for election, but will Anderson Cooper follow suit?) The arrival of “social media” does not simplify matters either. With every new internet user, the so-called democratic content of society increases, according to the liberal idealists. Indeed more people will make their voices heard, but does that mean that there will be more objective information around? Who then will be able to parse through it, and discern false from true?
Democracy implies personal choice and objective knowledge. It is true that in Egypt, as in many other countries, there has been little choice. It is just as true that, in the West, it is extremely difficult to get objectively informed. As long as we refuse to open the discussion on the quasi-absolute nature of some holy rights – absolute freedom of worldwide expression, absolute freedom of the world press, thus effectively suppressing any kind of obligation or duty, as persons or organizations, to be either truthful, or liable for spreading outright lies, self-serving opinion and destabilizing disinformation, the world community will be unable to govern itself effectively, preventing it from generating more prosperity for more members.
Port Stanley, Falklands on Wednesday, Feb 9th 2011