The media’s greatest source of power is in its control over news distribution. Back in the days of printed newspapers that literally meant their ability to put a printed sheet in millions of mailboxes. But in the Internet age when all sites, big or small are equally accessible over the network, distribution means something subtly different. It now consists in defining what constitutes the news. In an era where time is money few have the luxury of ferreting out the truth online. Most would rather open the TV or go a reputable news site. There they start and there they end.
The influence of today’s great media empires over the news lies less in the truthfulness of their product, but in what they choose to cover, in what they choose to offer.
Yet, as the Atlantic noted, the Gosnell story had it all. “The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy.” In that last, however, lies the rub. Nothing is thoroughly newsworthy until the powers that be, whoever they are, decide that it is something more than “local crime”.
And the powers that be have decided Gosnell is “local crime”.
We learn that over 700 Special Operations veterans are “demanding a new investigation into the September 11, 2012 terror attack that took the life of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans.” But we learn this information from the Daily Mail, a British newspaper specializing in sensational news. The great majority will remain unaware of it. And if someone brings the matter up in a talkshow it can always be dismissed in terms of being a story found ‘only in the Daily Mail.’ It is delegitimized and vanishes before it is even noticed.
But the media’s efforts to maintain control over the narrative,to retain authorship of the talking points, comes at a very stiff price. The need to displace any current headline has led to the requirement of shortening the news cycle to the point where it delivers not public memory, but public amnesia.
The news must now resemble nothing more than the old ticker boards with snippets scrolling past. The average reader is now in front of its high tech version, a man strapped to a chair in front of a TV set, bewildered by fleeting images, none of which bear the slightest apparent connection to anything previous.
If you ask the average person ‘what happened today’? he might regurgitate a series of disjointed recollections, like a person struggling to regain his memory after a plane crash. A man might watch the daily CNN coverage about say, Syria, for years on end and still be quite unable to say what it is about.
When we are asked ‘what was in the news’, we might say “I saw a clip of thousands of people fighting for relief food in Africa”, as if that were the event in itself.
Jonathan Foreman, in his book, Aiding & Abetting: Foreign Aid Failures recounts that in aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, dozens of journalists descended on the town of Goma to cover the sufferings of the refugees there. The overwhelming impression given by the newsmen, describing stories of disease with their brows knitted in concern, were that these were victims fleeing the recent genocide.
In fact “they were the Interhamwe militia, together with their families, many of whom had also taken part in the mass slaughter. They and the Hutu government had been confronted with defeat by a Tutsi exile army (the RPF) invading from Uganda.”.
This dark circus flourished for two years thanks to the donations of foreign governments and charitable Westerners. It only came to an end, to the economic disadvantage of the ‘international humanitarian community’, when Rwandan Tutsi forces, fed up with attacks mounted from the camps, invaded Congo and overran Goma. As David Rieff points out, if in 1944 200,000 SS soldiers had taken their families out of Nazi Europe as it fell to the allies and fled to some neutral country, they too would have humanitarian needs, but the rest of the world might have found it hard to ignore the political and moral context of their presence. They would have found it even harder, if the SS troops had used refugee camps as bases for attacks on those who had survived their genocidal efforts. Yet that is almost exactly what happened in 1995, when the world’s aid agencies and NGOs landed at the Goma airstrip and made a vast effort to succour, house and feed the defeated Hutu forces and their families.
We were watching the bad guys, not that you would know.
The other price the public pays for allowing the media to choose talking points is ‘optical distortion’. For some reason the doings of Jay-Z, or Karmala Harris, or Kim Kardashian are regarded as front page material by the editorial staffs whereas the Kermit Gosnell trial is mere “local crime”. Thus, not only do the news images flash past the viewer in a jumbled sequence but the relative proportion of the scenes depicted is grossly distorted.
The joint effect of these practices is essentially to create a badly misinformed public. What is worse is that since the politicians themselves are the greatest consumers of the ‘news’ public policy itself — a matter of greater concern to the Washington Post reporter — is distorted by this drivel. It creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which the clowns believe their own press. They come to actually believe that what Jay-Z thinks is more important than the possible existence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Kermit Gosnells in inner cities all over America.
Perhaps the greatest damage wrought by the manipulation of the ‘talking points’ and the ordination of the narrative is that it poisons the well of public knowledge. It corrupts our database of information. It creates in a 21st century society a kind of dementia and Alzheimer’s made all the more tragic because it is self inflicted.
The ancients knew the eventual cost of self deception. Euripedes quoting an even earlier, unknown source, wrote “those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad”. We’re already at the mad part. What is part 2?