In order to make decisions, human beings need information -- as clear, reliable, and precise as we can get; in other words, the Truth. Without it, complex decisions involving a consensus, or even something as simple as meeting someone for a movie, is almost impossible.
Nearly a year ago (on the day of Barack Obama's Inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, in fact), Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine posted an article about the work of Robert Proctor, a Historian of Science at Stanford University.
Cover Of Wired, January, 2009 (Photo: Wired Magazine)
Proctor has said that, ordinarily, the more information we have about a subject, the clearer it becomes. However, when contentious subjects are involved, our usual relationship to information is reversed -- ignorance increases.
As Proctor argues [notes Thompson], when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.Proctor has also coined a term to describe this condition -- Agnotology: Culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth. Proctor coined it from the Greek, agnōsis, "not knowing"; the condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.
“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.” (emphasis added)
Daily, second by second, we take in millions of bits of information about the world around us. Matrix-like, that shifting curtain of input shapes our sense of consciousness about that world -- and while most of it has to do with events happening to us, personally, what we listen to, see and read through culturally-designated sources for information is also part of that input.
United Press' Newsroom, In New York City, 1960's (Photo: UPI)
The job of a news reporter, on network television or in the pages of newspaper, was once to determine facts -- Who, What, Where, When, and Why; the Truth -- about events, and no matter where the chips fell, to accurately inform viewers and readers. Even the opportunistic, abrasive, nosy reporter (a character in our culture from plays and movies like The Front Page in the 30's, to All The President's Men in the 70's) was driven by a search for those facts, and the truth.
News and issues reported in the mainstream media, years ago, were certainly being spun on occasion by special interests, or the government. But those were exceptional interventions rather than the rule -- America's Media consisted of journalists who considered themselves professionals, and their level of success in their work was based on their accuracy. Their tradition really did believe in reporting fact, not cant. And (with some exceptions; Hearst's and McCormick's newspapers in the 30's are a good example), so did their editors.
Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Redford as Bob Woodward In
All The President's Men (1976): For A Little Longer, American
Journalism's Primary Role Would Be Accurate, Reliable News
Whether we picked it up on the radio, in the New York Times or on the 'The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite', information our Press provided to us and the rest of the 'Free' world was trusted as accurate and uncensored. We believed, as the journalists did, that the Media had an obligation to report the truth, independent of the government, the interests of a specific class on Left or Right, or the interests of business. These were American traditions; so we were told.
But the "news industry", and journalists, in the 21st Century aren't like that now, and haven't been for at least twenty years. The three major networks, ABC (owned by Disney), CBS (owned by Westinghouse), and NBC / MSNBC (about to be bought by Comcast from General Electric); cable news channels like CNN (excepting Fox, which is an unabashed propaganda channel); even PBS, through The News Hour -- and even with various Net sites and Blogs, teevee is now the primary venue for disseminating what passes for news in the United States.
Shields And Brooks On PBS' News Hour With Jim Lehrer:
Two Points Of View, And Both Are Just As Accurate...
In 2010, we believe the immediacy of an image in the same way that people once listened to and trusted what they heard on radio. Our belief in the accuracy of what we watch on television is a basic assumption that our Media wouldn't lie to us -- Christ; this is America, not some Banana Republic!
News and information are now commodities; just points of view, packaged and presented using the same tools 'n tricks of network episodic television. It's fast food, not a meal -- like Cafe Mocchas, or 'flame-broiled' hamburgers. News is less and less about any commitment to accuracy and real impartiality.
Fox: No News, Please; Just Insults And Screaming
(If, Instead Of O'Reilly's Usual Behavior With Guests,
["Shut Up! Shut Up! Shut Up!], He'd Ask Barney Frank
Why His House Banking Committee's Position On Regulation Has
Favored The Banksters At Our Expense, I Might Watch Him)
The format in providing information about the "contentious issues" Proctor mentions is always the same -- two or more advocates for sides of an issue answer questions put to them by a journalist, who isn't there to uncover basic truths about the issue; they're only a moderator. When solid facts are presented by any side, they're treated as points of contention rather than the truth, and lost in the adversarial nature of the process.
Viewers are left to decide who "won" what amounts to a debate between the Talking Heads. We're left feeling that no one is right; no one is wrong; gosh, reality is just a point of view, isn't it? Small wonder many people watching might fall back on emotional, rather than reasoning, responses to an issue (unless people are watching Fox, whose programming is slanted to evoke such emotional, and one-sided, responses).
Whatever either side claims is given equal weight in this format. If one advocate spouts an obvious lie, the journalist's job isn't to point that out, or emphasize the facts to show they're wrong. They simply nod, and toss softball questions so that "all sides of the topic is covered for viewers" (PBS' News Hour is famous for this kind of pap). And, the 'news' program can't be accused of biased reporting by either side, can they?
The 1984 Film Version Of Orwell's Book, 1984: Don't Expect This
Soon; But Radicals Always Seize Radio And Teevee Stations, First
We may not know the exact nature of the World we find ourselves in; there is more in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in all your philosophies, Horatio. But, misdirection and manipulation of news information is a common feature of the dictatorships and Failed States, and Banana Republics of the world -- so we've been told -- and not part of life in These United States.
So we've been told.