“We Become What We Behold”

For weeks I’ve been noodling over and drafting (but mostly noodling over) a post summarizing my thoughts about the media.

First, the grammar grouch in me would remind everyone that the word media is a plural noun, and therefore any statement starting with “the media is” reeks of ignorance and must be discounted, if not ridiculed.

Then I would old-white-guy-splain that a medium is just a conduit for communication, and what we’re really talking about when we say media are mass media, which fall into three categories: print (newspapers, magazines, books); broadcast (radio, television); and internet (websites, social media). And then I’d mention that each of these are further divided. For instance, over a hundred thousand new books are published in the US each year, and they are anything but uniform in terms of subject matter, point of view, or quality.

Then I’d say that if the mass media have anything in common, it’s that almost all of them are commercial enterprises that prioritize profit. Mass media generally have two sources of revenue: direct sales (the price you pay to buy products like books) and advertising. In both cases, to maximize revenue they need to maximize their audience. So they’re perpetually tempted to stretch (or even manufacture) the truth, embrace extreme and outrageous behavior, and sensationalize. That’s the real bias of the media. Their division into liberal or conservative, mainstream or alternative, serves ideological ends, but mistakes market positioning for purpose.

I’d bring home the point by including the February 2016 statement by Les Moonves, chairman of CBS, that Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He was further quoted as saying, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

I’d finish with a depressing flourish of some sort. I hadn’t worked that part out yet, so I was stuck. But in a Rolling Stone article this week, Matt Taibbi — the answer to the question “how great would Hunter Thompson have been if he weren’t a gun- and drug-obsessed asshole?” — came to my rescue.

Taibbi argues that for decades, the drive to maximize audience has dumbed down the mass media, which in turn have dumbed down the general public:

We learned long ago in this business that dumber and more alarmist always beats complex and nuanced. Big headlines, cartoonish morality, scary criminals at home and foreign menaces abroad, they all sell. We decimated attention spans, rewarded hot-takers over thinkers, and created in audiences powerful addictions to conflict, vitriol, fear, self-righteousness, and race and gender resentment.

We spent years selling the lowest common denominator. Now the lowest common denominator is president. How can it be anything but self-deception to pretend this is an innocent coincidence?

As someone who has seen the most trusted man in America go from Walter Cronkite to Rush Limbaugh, I agree with Taibbi. But I’m not sure that’s the whole epistemological story.

I’m speculating here, but I wonder whether the recent change in dominant mass media has also contributed to our cultural descent. Television became America’s premier mass medium in the 1950s and held on for half a century, until the internet took over. Through most of its reign, television offered few choices of content, meaning tens of millions of Americans had to watch the same stuff. The stuff was vapid, but it was also unifying — we could talk about it at school or at work the next day — and for the most part it had a chirpy, upbeat quality, filled with good-looking people, neat resolutions, and hope amid tragedy. Reagan, Clinton, and Obama were all TV presidents, great on camera, heavy on the optimism.

The internet, by contrast, offers countless choices, allowing us to go wherever our biases are most consistently confirmed. And it’s proving far more hospitable than TV to conflict, vitriol, fear, self-righteousness, and race and gender resentment, as evidenced by the trolling, doxing, and other nasty habits it has birthed. He may watch Fox News, but Trump is our first internet president, surfing white nationalist websites, amplifying their toxic memes, and trollishly venting on Twitter. As Sue Halpern reported in the New York Review of Books, his campaign used internet advertising, particularly on Facebook, to an extent undreamed of by Obama’s election team.

When I was a kid, a lot of adults made fun of Marshall McLuhan and his famous statement that “the medium is the message.” But it may be true to a degree we couldn’t imagine — as may be the title of this post, also taken from McLuhan — and it doesn’t sound so funny anymore.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.