I have a “bio-birthday” and a “web” birthday: on January 8, 1998, I built myself an awkward looking home at GeoCities’. This was the place to be, when GeoCities was not yet destroyed by yahoos who did not understand it. There were “neighborhoods”, I chose the sci-fi neighborhood (“Area 51”), and “Station”. Back then, it was clear that the internet was built for two things: Star Trek and pornography. I was definitely not doing the latter, thus Star Trek it would be. You can see early design versions of my site at my Layout History pages.
You had to learn how to do HTML, CSS, make graphics, logos, etc. You had to create your own content, thus you had to write, take pictures (analog!), scan them, reduce their filesize, create thumbnails, etc. Then, in a mad dash, a noisy modem session would be needed to upload the whole shebang to the respective FTP server. To find likeminded people, you joined a webring.
Web sites were wild areas for experimentation, and everyone who made one had to learn autodidactically, and had fun doing it. This was your own space, and it would be as good as your skills (and sense for layout and content) would be. You built your own identity. Your web site was an achievement, and once you felt it was good enough to accompany for longer, and once you found money to pay for it, it was time to get real. You dealt with InterNIC directly for your domain name, and would eventually get real server space.
The point is, you needed to learn, you developed skills, you learned about the nitty-gritty of the web. These were transferrable skills. You got to play, create something for yourself, and interact with like-minded people – who would actually get to e-mail you.
You still can do all these things, and some of them work better now. But there are monsters out there sucking all the creative energy out of the room in order to display shadows of it in their own space. MySpace provided a portal that still allowed for some wackiness to survive let people personalize the interface a bit more, but it was also the first step into a corporate world. Eventually, Facebook and all the rest have created a world where their own portal basically was supposed to encompass the internet. Now we also have apps that are graveyards for photos, short videos, shameless self-promotion, all to create ad revenue.
Your own web site works for you; but to Facebook (and services like it, wrongly called “social” media), you are the drone stuck in the matrix giving it life. You are completely dependent on social media platforms and their designs, their rules, their monetization. No skills need to be required, nothing needs to be learned that’s transferrable, other than how to use a stupid (in the sense of limited purpose) app on a phone. You cannot easily control your content, how it displays, how it will be read, and you engage with others in a monetizable manner where each of our “likes” feeds an algorithm to give you more of the same.
This is the end of creativity, or rather, it is the seduction of easiness that allows for the end of creativity. You can still get your own web site. Or even a blog (not the same, but better than social media). But most won’t, because we humans are all creatures of convenience nowadays, and why make the effort when minimal mock-effort is enough?
Why give up a personal space on the web that is really yours to shape for the simulacrum or rather poor parody of such a possibility on so-called social media?
I. Introduction, because this is a Longer Text and it Needs Headings
There appears to be a sense among many people that there is a problem with “the media.” Trust in media seems low, and there is a societal division with regards to which media is seen as reliable, which as misleading or fake. These divisions appear along most frequently along partisan lines. If it wasn’t such a serious problem, it would be quite humorous to see how different media (and their supporters) criticize their competitors as being unreliable, yet they themselves believe steadfastly in their own reliability (and so do their supporters).
Indeed, we seem to have moved away from a consumer attitude towards media, and instead to a supporter attitude. The media you consume defines you more than ever before, it seems.
As to the criticism, specifically news media engender a suite of response archetypes:
I trust everything media sources supporting view A are saying, and distrust everything from view B. I read to reinforce the views I already have, whether consciously or not. A media outlet that has proven trustworthy in the past will be given the benefit of the doubt; but if a media outlet (and their corporate or ideological sponsors) are suspect for a variety of reasons, I steer away from it.
I am generally skeptical of everything I read, see and hear. I try to verify everything I read, even of news sources that I am more skeptical about.
I do not believe anything from establishment media – whatever their alleged ideological background – and am relying instead on alternative forms of information.
These are, of course, stereotypes. Nobody falls into any category neatly, and may change their views over time, depending on life circumstances, mood, or social circles. In general, position 1 may be the most common. Position 2 is probably aspirational, and position 3 the biggest source of social division right now. Even if you’re in opposing ideological camps, if you are still in position 1, you inhabit the same universe as everyone else. Media is essentially self-referential, and hardly an hour may come by in which those holding view A will not somehow reflect about and position themselves towards view B, and vice versa. Opposites do not just attract, they require each other like opposing parties in a game – and just like in a game, you hope both are playing fair, but you suspect they won’t always (except your team is always right…).
But let us contextualize this critique a bit more. What do we mean by “media”?
II. A Brief Excursion into Media Critique
A medium is that through which information is channeled, through which the world becomes represented through us. We have no direct means of accessing the world; even our sensory organs mediate existence to us, and our brain interprets it. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes our reality as seeing merely shadows of reality represented on the wall of a cave, but as never being able to see reality itself directly (Republic 7.514a). Through education, specifically philosophy, he hopes we can unshackle ourselves from that scenario and see the real world, and see the ideas and the divine on our own without needing to rely on representations of them – viz. without the need for media.
Plato gives a second example (Phaedrus 274e-275b) when discussing the consequences of writing, and comes to a depressing conclusion:
“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
Furthermore, once the speaker is replaced by an author that is no longer available for conversation, texts replace conversation. This eliminates the human element from the equation, and creates distance, and opens up the possibility of a distortion from truth, from nuance, from interpretation and dialogic engagement. Culture – as transmitted through media – cedes to be a community-centered activity; it becomes an industry.
Theodor Adorno (yes, we are making a more than 2200-year jump) pointed out the dangers of such a culture industry, informed by his experiences with the Nazi propaganda machine, but worried about the possible rise of a machinery of entertainment, disinformation and commodification of truth in the West.
Both Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”) pointed to the properties inherent in technology itself to shape the any message mediated through it. We cannot ignore that the purpose of television is always entertainment. As Postman notes, in our obsession to be afraid of the Orwellian scenario of constant state supervision, we have given in to Huxley’s scenario of voluntary abdication of truth in pursuit of entertainment.
Gloomily, Michel Foucault, echoing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, kept reminding us that any form of speech, any discourse, is imbued with a form of power. There is no neutral information, no neutral discourse, no escape. All we can do is become aware of the power of discourse, and to keep this power dimension in mind always.
Finally though, there can be a source of constructive optimism also if we follow Jürgen Habermas’ relentless exhortation to create a new and functioning public sphere, after the old one (the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Renaissance and Enlightenment era salons of thinkers and dreamers, the old style newspaper landscape) is hopelessly lost. But if we aim for deliberative democracy, aim for the recognition of humanity of each other, and create an ideal space for discourse, we may just find a solution and do not have to abandon all hope in this post-Dantean infernal chaos.
What are we supposed to learn from this?
There is no neutral medium, and no media product – whether news, web sites, television, film, books, etc. – should be consumed uncritically. While some media products may manipulate to a high degree, there is no media that is not in some way manipulative or biased, whether through active commission of lies, or through omission of unwelcome truths.
III. Today’s Culture Industry: News Media and Corporate Ownership
While the critique of media pertains to non-news items also, most criticism is reserved for news media, but this is a short-sighted approach. If we follow the money, we will see that old-style media critique is still relevant.
By considering corporate ownerships and relations, we may gain some insight into possible influences on news reporting that may compromise the neutrality of some, if not all news outlets. That does not mean that all news and commentary originating from them may be tainted or unreliable, but it may point us as the audience towards being a bit more skeptical overall about what is reported and how, and what is left out. Money talks, and if corporations and governments are involved, there might be a specific bias. Ties to non-democratic countries that fight against complete freedom of the press (like China, Russia and Qatar) certainly will limit perspectives. Also, in cases where a company owns several news sources, you may find yourself in the same universe of similar news re-confirming themselves. Big media conglomerates also demonstrate that there are clear corporate ties between news, entertainment, and technology companies.
Current corporate ties for major news sources are as follows (see also: Wikipedia, TitleMax):
CNN: AT&T, Warner, HBO, Turner Broadcasting (upcoming theme parks in Zhuhai and Beijing, China, non-democratic)
FOX NEWS: NewsCorp – which means New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK); the non-news division of FOX belongs to Disney now
MSNBC + NBC News: Comcast, Hulu, Universal, Telemundo (upcoming theme park in Beijing, China, non-democratic)
ABC News: Disney (operates theme park in Hong Kong, China, non-democratic)
CBS News: National Amusements, Viacom, Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon (upcoming theme park in Chongqing, China, non-democratic)
PBS News: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, donor- and subscriber model, solidly trying to be neutral
LinkedIn: operates a censored Chinese branch
Washington Post: Amazon
Russia Today: controlled by Russian government (non-democratic)
Global Times: controlled by Chinese government (non-democratic)
Deutsche Welle: controlled by German government
France24: controlled by French government
BBC: independent from UK government
Al Jazeera: controlled by Qatari government (non-democratic)
Breitbart, Parler: Mercer Family Foundation
Guardian, Boston Globe, New York Times, The Hill, Politico: currently independent
This list is certainly incomplete, and is just supposed to illustrate the complexity of the problem.
We certainly know that ideology of the news channel or paper certainly plays a role (what I described as “side A” and “side B” above).
I am split on what the consequence of that is. Do viewers already gravitate to a specific view, and then consume news conforming their bias? Or is their own bias created by a one-sided diet of news? I suspect this is a chicken-and-egg problem.
One more consistently raised but very valid criticism is the increased blending of news and commentary. You could add also the undue influence that any editorial stance – even if it may be contained to a commentary section – may exert over the entire enterprise.
Is news supposed to help people make up their own mind, or is it telling them what to think? Can it even make them do that – at which point would they risk them switching the channel, or buying a different paper?
V. The Decline of News Journalism
The real story here, of course, is the decline, if not outright destruction of real journalism. I am talking about newspapers – not because I am old-fashioned, but because that’s where most of real journalism actually still happens.
Television news is first entertainment, then commentary, then news – of course that is a polemical opinion, but especially in the American context it rings true. (In the German context, it depends on the channel – the society-supported subscriber-based channels ARD and ZDF do have functioning news rooms, and are focusing on news. Private channels like SAT1, RTL and PRO7 are more entertainment. Similar probably in the UK with regards to the BBC vs. independent television news).
I may have watched to much Superman and have been influenced by its Daily Planet, but aren’t newspaper newsrooms still more important than we all think? Where does your news come from? Who is typically cited on TV? News agencies (Reuters, DPA, etc.) and Newspapers, I presume.
More and more big newspapers are streamlined, news rooms made smaller, commentary enslaved by Twitter and Facebook, content syndicated, and small newspapers are disappearing or managed in bulk. This destroys the very fabric of our society. Who reports any more on local corruption and malfeasance? Certainly it is still happening, despite there not being any stories in the local newspaper – if you still have one.
If Media are still to be the fourth estate, they need to still exist in all parts of the country, and report on anything possible, and monitor and critique every single aspect of society, culture and politics.
VI. Balanced Skepticism
Returning to the sentiment with which I began: Are we in a position now where we seriously cannot trust the media at all anymore? No. But we all need to do our work, conceptually, and financially by supporting the news sources we do consume and trust.
Can we trust the media? As long as the media still mainly trusts us to make up our own mind, I would say yes, and would welcome the diversity of voices that can be heard on all sides of any debate.
In the end, there is only one truth. There are facts and non-facts. Something is either true or false. Beyond those distinctions though, there are grey areas of opinion, commentary, selection bias, spin, framing, etc. We need to be aware of the limitations of each news source, and we need to do our work as citizens to look beyond just one source of news. This is the only scientific and democratic attitude that can prevent us from being lodged in too deep our own filter bubbles.
Thus, if a news item only occurs within a specific news ecosystem and is ignored or not reported everywhere else, this should raise concern. If there is a definitive slant in opinion and commentary all the time, and it may affect what is reported in the assumedly neutral news as well. That does not mean there has to be bias, but we should assume there can be. An overall skeptical attitude is always a good thing.
That being said, we can indeed be skeptical of everything, but we also must put this in perspective, and our skepticism should be balanced. Reality is murky, and just as we cannot trust everything automatically, we also cannot distrust everything automatically. We need to follow the saying that “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” as suggested by Carl Sagan. I have come to believe that it pays to listen to Carl Sagan most of the time.
“Aren’t we tired of change? Can’t things just stay the same? Why can’t we just fix our society once and for all and be done with it? Just do it, do it right, have the right people in charge, and we’ll all be happy and can go back to our own lives.”
This fictitious quote probably represents what a lot of people are feeling, and have been feeling, around the world, throughout all time. It’s a familiar desire, it is at the core also of any utopian promise: Create the perfect society, let us be happy, and leave us be.
Such a promise is deeply anti-political: Politics is the domain of the constant management and improvement of society. No matter which political model is followed, this will always apply. Aristotle categorized societies according to two parameters: number of rules, and good/bad implementations of such a model. He distinguishes between rule by one (Monarchy1/Tyranny2), few (Aristocracy3/Oligarchy4) or many/all (Democracy5/Ochlocracy6). Notwithstanding these distinctions, there will always be politics, but the reach of political participation will be limited.
You could argue that if you limit participation, you spare most people from having to deal with politics. They can live in peace and quiet while people who know what they’re doing are taking care of things for them. Even in democracies, many people who would have citizenship rights self-limit their engagement out of a variety of reasons.
In a utopian society – or so the fantasy goes – that should be ok. Yet we are not living in a utopia, no matter what you believe. Thus if you do not have political participation rights, or choose not to execute them, you are relying to others doing that work for you. You will be at the receiving end of decisions made by others. These others may or may not be well-meaning; but even if you grant that (you shouldn’t always, but let’s just for sake of nicety do so), they will always be human beings, or – in the case of algorithms or artificial intelligence – be programmed by human beings. They will always be imperfect, always be flawed. Monarchies may claim to draw their power from that one which is perfect (typically called God), but no monarch themselves will be God, not even Pharaohs, Emperors or God-Kings.
In addition to that, you may have created the perfect society, but challenges will continue, life goes on, history will continue. There will be external threats, technological and economic changes, environmental challenges, weather, diseases, dangers from events in space, you name it. Unless you freeze society in time, change will happen always. Time is the master of us all. The longer we live, the longer our society lives, challenges will keep coming. No single state has ever lasted for ever. Even the biggest, most powerful, most resourceful empires, and the smallest, most secluded, most protected states, have all disappeared over time. Mortality is the essence of all our being, and all our institutions, and we can fight it only for so long.
This means that change cannot ever be avoided. Now you can choose to prefer a societal and political model that limits your ability to fight those challenges yourself, and to promote positive change. Of course, this is a constant struggle, and it will be unending. Once change brings about countless others, and so on and so on. The Greek story of Sisyphus shows him continuing to push a boulder up a hill, but the bolder keeps rolling back, and his work will never be finished. This is life, this is all of us.
But maybe this is a good thing. We cannot not be political – either we are participating in society, or we will be society’s victim. Participation thus is critical, in whatever form possible, and fighting for participation is part of the human struggle forever.
Is it worth it? Maybe Albert Camus has an answer here: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
1μόνος / monos = one; archein = to rule 2τύραννος / tyrannos = tyrant 3ἄριστοι / aristoi = the best 4ὀλίγοι / oligoi = the few 5δῆμος / dêmos = the portion of the people that are allowed (and expected!) to be politically active, typically called citizens, in distinction from strangers, unfree people, and sometimes relatives of citizens without citizenship rights themselves (typically children and – historically or still in some countries – women, or others with minority status) 6ὄχλος / ochlos = the mob. Sometimes, the distinction for rule of many/all is called Polity/Democracy, in which “polity” just means “political community”, and democracy means “mob rule”. Athens called its democracy ἰσονομία / isonomy, which means same law for all.
The gloating of the assembled dictators of the world and their cronies had a certain unintended humor in it. After a few ragtag misfits decided to play the role of domestic terrorists and invade US congress, causing a half-day of mayhem and chaos, including four casualties, the premature glee and schadenfreude coming out of Iran, Russia, China and Venezuela heralded the end and decay of US democracy. This was predictable Soviet-style propaganda – I grew up with that, and it feels very familiar to me. It is the propaganda of those whose biggest fear is the victory of their own people over their corrupt and criminal governments.
Surely, the pictures were worrisome, embarrassing, sometimes shocking. But nowhere to be seen were police or paramilitary or military troops shooting on unarmed civilians. Nowhere to be seen was the mass arrest of protesters. Action was taken, eventually, against those who took up arms against the democratically elected representatives of the people. But the freedom of speech of those otherwise protesting peacefully was not harmed, even though they clearly voiced opinions from beyond the pale.
At the end of the day, Congress resumed the business that was so rudely and criminally interrupted. The election of Joe Biden was certified, Trump uttered a quasi-sincere message of peacefulness, Republicans discovered their backbone, and the nation – having stared into a small abyss for a few hours – came to their senses. Criminal behavior will be punished, peacefully uttered democratic dissent will not.
The lesson here is the opposite to what “concerned critics” are wanting to see: This nation has survived a more than imperfect founding, a Civil War, the seductions of both fascism and socialism, the Cold War, Watergate and 9/11. It will survive Trump. It will survive because of democracy, but it will need to address the conditions that brought up so much mass discontent. Whatever problems the US has, and it has quite a few, they pale in comparison to those countries mentioned above.
Predictably, there were also “concerned voices” coming from democratic allies like Germany. Ironically, Germany had witnessed a similar event rather recently – the storming of the Reichstag steps by a similar mix of people, including the harassment of parliamentarians in the building by known agitators brought in by the extremist party Alternative for Germany. Surely, what happened in DC looked more dramatic – but in all honesty, the scenes in Germany were more foreboding. Nazis on the steps of the Reichstag (and their cronies inside of it) still look more ominous than a guy in Viking dress together with his ragtag co-conspirators rummaging through the halls of Congress.
Today, Trump realized he lost the election, and announced a regular transition. He understood that what happened was much more damaging to himself and the cause of his supporters than to democracy. He is now in damage control mode, while the country has been shocked back to attention. The US has survived its four-year stress test of democracy, and will survive many more.
We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).
While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.
I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.
I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.
We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.
Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.
I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.
These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.
Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.