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.
The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.
Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.
Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.
Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).
The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.
Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.
But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.
The dissatisfaction with “established” news sources is real. There has been a worrying trend in media towards heavy editorializing, partisan bias, and selective reporting. All this is happening in newspapers and television news, also online.
But the answer to that problem is not to gravitate to “alternative” news sources which would see all these problems compounded at a much higher degree.
The answer to problematic media is to diversify your media intake, but also to make sure not to select even less reliable news sources. Either something is news or it is not. There is no “alternative” news, just as there are not “alternative” facts. There can be different interpretations of the same news and facts, just as much as media can have selection bias.
Ideally, selection bias can be overcome by indeed looking at news from different angles, and by maintaining all-out skepticism. Selection bias is nothing new, and has been a regrettable feature of newspapers for ever. You know that if you gravitate to a more liberal agenda, then the New York Times and the Washington Post are for you; and if you are on the more conservative side, it’s the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. Same with television, and with internet news.
Most problematic, however, are state media run by dictatorships. Russia Today, Ruptly, Sputnik, Al Jazeera, the Global Times, etc., may sometimes indeed carry legitimate stories, but they will not criticize the regimes in their own countries, and try to spread biased Soviet-style disinformation about the West. Regrettably, some of these sources of “news” are becoming more popular amongst Western youth who prefer critical reporting about their own countries – which is ok, but you will need to keep this in perspective. Soviet-style sedition campaigns work by eroding trust in Western democracy and making dictatorships sound more appealing in contrast.
There is not the “one news source” that explains everything. This is when we enter the realm of conspiracy theories and “alternative” news. The internet may make illegitimate content seem legitimate very easily, but again, diversification is the key here. Despite all the problems with established media, there is no alternative to solid and competitive journalism, everything else is just someone’s private opinion.
Journalism is one of the most important activities in any country. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, both are cornerstones for any successful society, not just for democracies.
Without a free press and free speech, no society will survive successfully for long. Dictatorships that disallow one or both those crucial components of public and civic life will fail eventually because they close themselves off to the truth, and get eventually stuck in a restrictive worldview that will not succeed to map reality correctly. If a country fails to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, it will also fail as a country.
Similarly, If a country’s citizens fail to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, they will fail as citizens, as human beings, and they will also fail their country.
The function of the press is as follows, at least from my perspective, I am no trained journalist:
Gather and publish information that informs on an important issue.
Deepen a discussion of that issue, and add analysis and disinterested evaluation to it, to draw reliable knowledge out from the information.
Make a judgement on what happened, based on the information, and your knowledge of the wider context, and try to make that judgement in the best non-partisan way, sine ira et studio, without anger or passion, so that evaluation can happen without unnecessarily falling into a partisan camp.
Give people the facts, but do not tell them how to evaluate it. You may say, “in my opinion, this is x”, but do not assume everyone should draw the same conclusions. Let people come to their own conclusions – if you have laid out your case successfully, they may just as well agree with you. If they don’t, they always have the right to exercise their own freedom of thought. People have a right to disagree without being demonized.
Do not use primitive click-bait ways to draw people in with an incomplete headline, using the hook-line-and-sinker approach all too common now. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in my driveway today, Click here (and here, and here, and here, and watch the ad here, and – what was this about again?)” – anyway.
News MUST be neutral. Commentary MUST be fair. There are no sides, only truth is the side of the journalist, and truth is always neutral. Ad hominem attacks against specific people ignore the complexity of political life. Don’t think you can easily label a person you don’t like or agree with in a way that such a label puts that person – rightly or wrongly – into the anathema corner of human discourse. Things are too simplified more and more, people’s assumed identities determine whether they matter or not, and dissent suddenly has to be partisan.
This is nuts. Don’t tell me what to think. Don’t pretend you can read other people’s minds. Don’t demonize the side you like. Don’t even tell me which side you like! I should not need to care!
You telling me what I should think in order to be a decent human being (according to you!) is precisely how socialist and fascist dictatorships talk to there people. Right-think, Wrong-think, Doublethink, etc.
The Media, if it behaves like that, is a problem. They need to fix this by themselves, and we all need to realize that we, the people, need to hold the Media as much accountable as the other important aspects of our democracy.
The key words here are truth and credibility. But the truth has many sides, and it belongs to neither party, nor group, nor identity, nor belief system. A journalist will run a story even if it is unpopular and goes against network or newspaper editorial opinion. A journalist will not just placate to the base, and hope they’ll support them when the power structures change. A journalist is equally liked and disliked by all, but respected for reliable information, the unvarnished truth, and contributing to the knowledge of all.