Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Mirror on the Stick

Media produce the feeling that my reading or watching them shows me what is going on in the greater world. The feeling holds an element of truth. News bring reports of distant public, even of private events. My sphere of awareness is thus enlarged. Venturing out locally at six-thirty in the morning I learn only that quite a few people in Grosse Pointe, MI start their days jogging. Reading the morning news is a bit like extending an immensely long stick out of the dark pit of locality where I live; at the end of the stick is a mirror—by means of which I can survey the wider reality I can never actually see in the flesh. Because I am always—even if I travelled to Cairo, say—in a pit of locality. The nature of the mirror at my stick’s other end is therefore of importance. How good is it? To what extent does it distort reality?

Our working assumption is that we can actually know, that we can see, the world. But the mirror is distorted by the very structure of the media. The media report a composite, a manufactured image. It will contain reports of physical events: storms, earth quakes, heat waves, floods, accidents, the outbreak of wars. At a guess these average out to about 10 percent of all reporting. The bulk of news will tend to be political. Strictly speaking these won’t be reports of happenings of the physical kind but accounts of things people are saying. Say 45 percent. Rarely do media stop at that point: President Obama said; Prime Minister Netanyahu said. Accompanying this sort of reporting will be stuff labeled or functioning as commentary, thus things people are saying about what other people are saying. Let’s gauge this, conservatively, at 15 percent. What people say in public life sometimes has consequences, outcomes, results: votes, the passage of laws, financial results of corporations, Supreme Court rulings, etc. 5 percent? This leaves 25 percent, dedicated to what might be labeled as all else, thus sports, “people,” entertainment, “style,” culture, science, etc.

The media have always been about advertising income, somewhat shaded by the will of certain powerful publishers to influence politics. Too many things happen, too many words are uttered; all of it can’t be reported. Editors must therefore choose. And their choices will be government by perceived public interest. If it bleeds it leads; sex sells; celebrity; scandal. The very need to choose, combined with the structural need of news corporations to gain circulation, produces a manufactured composite that mirrors back to us not the world so much, thus as it actually is, but the average of human desire at any moment, but even that desire only as filtered by short-term interest.

Hence of course the notion that the mature adult will consult many sources of information before he or she can be reasonably certain of getting a genuine glimpse of reality. That mirror on the end of the a long stick just won’t do. But by and large it does set the tone.

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