Thoughts on Media

One of the interesting media guys of our time is Ezra Klein. In his New York Times columns he will talk about old media luminaries like Marshall McLuhan (“the media is the message”) and Neil Postman. It’s the kind of stuff that only a truly dedicated communications freak would enjoy.

But Ezra also gets into issues that modern media constantly bring up: free speech vs. the internet, propaganda and honesty, cyber security and data privacy, and so on. He published a very long interview about a month ago with Sean Illing, a sharp writer who does interviews for Vox. Ezra’s starting point was that democracies seem shaped by what kind of “communicative culture” they have.

Sean agrees that “media technologies are disruptive,” sometimes toxic; and so the two have an extended discussion on how a communicative culture can influence democracy—for good or ill. “Our ideology is our technology.” But is it? Sounds like McLuhan again. People liked Reagan not so much for his policies but because he was good on TV. Sean says people “race for content, for clicks, for attention and we act like greyhounds chasing a slab of meat.”

But this gets to something we try to say in the book (The Paradox of Democracy, by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing), which is that what the media thinks it’s doing is not really what it’s doing, certainly not anymore. A lot of the press is still wedded to this 20th century model of journalism where we conquer lies by exposing them or we deliver truth to a country desperate to hear it and people make informed decisions and yada, yada, yada.

But this just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. There’s too much bullshit to debunk, too many conflicting narratives to untangle. The information space has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet. And the audience is so fragmented and self-sorted [that] a huge chunk of the country doesn’t really trust public institutions or the mainstream media. And they’re not listening, and a lot of it feels like it’s just a political class talking to itself. And I know that’s kind of depressing, but that has been my experience . . . .

If we are being confronted by the anxieties and the outrages everywhere all the time, and we can’t do anything about it, and the algorithms are pushing all the terrible shit in front of our faces all the time, that breeds fatigue and cynicism and probably despair.”

No one can deny that, I submit. The other side of that coin is simply . . . it’s what the public wants. A writer on Quora, Christine Infanger, says “the media is screwed up because people have their priorities completely wrong.” I like her argument; she’s on a good rant:

Does the media deliver more banality now because it’s what society wants or does society settle for mediocrity because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to? Maybe both. Let’s remember, consumers and their money have a lot of power—if people didn’t eat up channels known for their ‘news reporters’ blatantly lying, those methods would change immediately. If magazines didn’t sell truckloads of issues dedicated to which stars have cellulite or have been captured sans makeup or post-weight gain, those magazines would find a new tack. If people didn’t pay or click to see (name of celebrity) caught getting into a car without undergarments, those photos would no longer be in demand. If people didn’t want to analyze which celebrity gained weight, has a cute child, and whom may be having an affair with whom, there would be no market for it. It’s worth noting that the average paparazzi earns between $66-100k per year with the really smarmy ones earning a salary exceeding $250k per year. The public complain about taxes being high with those funds going to pay teachers, who are grossly underpaid, fund schools, many of which are sorely in demand of updating and new materials, libraries, parks, and police and fire departments. Where is the outrage about how much paparazzi earn to stalk ‘celebrity’ children coming home from school? The public is largely funding those outrageous salaries, yet seem content with it.

You get what you pay for. And that, unfortunately, applies to democracies as well.