By The Arkon
September 11, 2018
This is the media: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the same common rubble of banality. War, murder and death are all the same, like bottles of beer, with the daily business of life being reduced to nothing more than a melancholic comedy.
– Max Schumacher (Network, 1976) [altered]
Our sense of reality is created by two groups of people: those who produce media and those who consume it. Audiences are never quite as passive as they’re made out to be; they are active participants in the creation and perpetuation of a shared reality, because when we allow lies and misrepresentations to go unchallenged, we become complicit in trading reality for falsehood.
– Carina Chocano
In the same way that someone’s view of a landscape is dependent on their vantage point, a person’s reality is determined by their perception of the world around them. Altering that perception even a little bit can fundamentally reshape their worldview, and when such a sleight of mind is implemented across an entire society, it becomes possible to establish a far-reaching ignorance about how the world is constituted. What better way to enforce such a universal lack of comprehension than through the use of mass media? In a society where people’s view of the world is obtained from behind the glare of a TV screen, laptop or smartphone, electronic mass media has become indispensable to the current order of things. With news being in overproduction and instantly accessible, Western man seems to know everything about the last twenty-four hours, but very little about the last twenty years – much less the last twenty decades. No wonder, when so much of what people know is what they see on TV or read in the papers. In this regard, today’s media acts less as a window into any reliable reality, than a stage on which journalists, pundits and entertainers perform fictions and scripted narratives.
Due to a never-ending barrage of misdirection over the last few decades, a sizable part of the world’s population have come to sense the disparity between how uninformed they are and how informed they could potentially be. As a result, the collective mood towards mainstream outlets has become increasingly uniform: it is now considered a somewhat cheerful axiom to distrust the media, what with the perceived advent of “fake news” and all. But hardly anyone takes the extra step of considering what the implications of this widespread contempt are for both the general public and the media itself. For the public, most of whom seem happy to endure the continued presence of the very corporations they distrust, in spite of the divergence between their real-life experiences and the narratives offered up by news channels, it indicates a decline of the general discourse into the realm of theater. With its potential for creating endless entertainment, news has long since become a fought-over commodity, where outlets target their demographics to sell a product that the audience then uses to reflect the righteousness of their lives back to themselves. For the media, their loss of standing in people’s minds indicates an abdication of their professed role as “watchdog of the public interest” and a forfeiture of their presumed authority to mediate the civil order. On TV and online, the news, like everything else, is presented, unapologetically, as entertainment – scandal-driven, filled with celebrities and chasing after ratings, forever inclined to answer their critics with the longstanding refrain of “We’re just giving the people what they want, and we have the receipts to prove it “.
The real world is admittedly a big place, too complex and byzantine for most people to comprehend in a holistic way. But instead of courageously striving to attain an understanding of its workings, modern man has allowed himself to be deterred by the prevailing social order, which tells him that he is not well-equipped to deal with so much subtlety and variety. In order to facilitate his understanding of events, he has been taught to settle for reconstructing them using a simpler model. In steps the media to lend a hand, as the prism through which supposedly intelligible narratives can be delivered. But this assurance is duplicitous; most of what has traditionally been called “daily news” has actually become inert, consisting of information that gives people something to talk about, but doesn’t lead to much meaningful action. Wars, crimes, fires and floods have all become the mundane content of what the world calls Today’s News, served up in soundbites and presented in a sufficiently digestible style to be swallowed. Such a format doesn’t lend itself to any thorough exposition of critical issues. The media summarizes and misrepresents a problem in 20 seconds, then repeats the summary over and over, in an endless 24-hour cycle, until something new pops up to talk about. This format can be seen across all major subscription news channels, and its aversion towards presenting holistic narratives is most emphasized in times of crisis, like a bombing, war or disease outbreak, where the reporting of facts may pacify the public’s desire for information, but leaves them in the dark as what the true nature of events is. As a result, so-called “journalism” today is mostly just a pantomime of itself, suggesting that nothing more is required of journalists than the reporting of facts; any facts will do. In this light, all news is fake news, in so far as each media outlet skews its presentation of the news to satisfy itself and its consumers. One could even say that embedded within the frame of a news show is a kind of anti-communication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic and sequence of events, as it favors contradiction. Interestingly, we find this rejection of rational presentation in other types of media as well, mostly within entertainment, like in modern art, with the Avant-Garde movement, in cinema, with the No Wave scene, in theater, with Vaudeville shows, and in music, with genres like Noise and Industrial. These are all categories of media that utilize the abstract, irrational and even the absurd for purposes of satire, protest and experimentation. However, in the case of news media, when continuity and logic have been abandoned, what remains is but a symbol-image complex of information that inspires more confusion than clarity. Stripped of the narrative consistency needed for an objective communication of actuality, the media is transformed into a burlesque that offers more distraction than insight. But at least this provides steady employment for an assortment of state-sponsored pundits or “experts” to explain things to their audience at the level of a 5th grader.
In the West, everyone may be entitled to an opinion, but these are opinions of a different order than in centuries past. It would probably be more accurate to call them “emotions” rather than “opinions”, which would explain why they change from week to week. The triumph of fiat opinion and mere conjecture over being informed and educated is the result of a longstanding disinformation campaign waged by the media. In fact, contemporary mass media has altered the very meaning of “being informed” by creating the illusion of knowing something, but actually leading its viewers away from knowing. The purpose of their messaging is, after all, to persuade, distract, entertain or misdirect; anything but to actually inform or enlighten. It’s as if you were to pass an antique store with a “Laundry Done Here” sign in the window, and come back with your dirty clothes to be washed, only to find that the sign was merely a store item for sale. But if challenged, the store, much like the media, can always take cover of behind a screen of plausible deniability: “Sorry, but this an antique store. We sell all kinds of things here“.
During the 20th century, the world came to be dominated by non-interactive forms of media: movies, radio, recorded music and TV, where audiences consume content from a distance, after it had already been created and recorded. In centuries past, however, entertainment was largely interactive, where the performers and audience formed a unit, observing one another, as seen in theater, live music and sports. The cheers, boos or even silence of the audience exerted a shaping power on whatever drama, race or song was being performed, and this interplay between an entertainer and his crowd was a given. People from such an era would look upon our current-day media usage as nothing but an aberration. One can only imagine how a class of students from that time would react if today’s media landscape was described to them: “Excuse me, teacher, you mean a time is coming where people will just sit there and watch a screen? They couldn’t do anything else? Won`t everybody feel terribly lonely or alienated?”, “Yes child, they would probably go mad. But this kind of development is just a theory. No-one believes it will actually happen”.
As dissatisfaction grows with the failed promises of capitalist utopia in the West, there is much talk about escaping the zombified consumer existence by seeking a kind of Eastern-flavored enlightenment, as seen in the ever-growing popularity of yoga, New Age ideology, astrology and the burgeoning wellness movement. But there can be no enlightenment for a society which lacks the means by which to detect the lies that are fed to it. In the present age, such enlightenment is most unthinkable, particularly in a world where establishment media and technology giants control the public realm. This would never have been possible had not the public allowed the very same establishment to twist reality into whatever shape that is convenient to them, through the images broadcasted into people’s homes. Alas, all that the citizenry demands, in exchange for their subjugation, is their continued and sacred right to mount protest in the form of scathing polemics against media consolidation, vigorous public debates about free press, and resounding cries for policy reform to restructure media corporations, none of which get to the root of their problems. This is why the notion of real revolt seems ridiculous to the ruling elites of the current times. Ours is the age of entertainment, advertisement and publicity, where the hunger for trivialities outstrips any desire for answers. Even when nothing much seems to be happening in our immediate environment, there is always publicity or marketing for something or another everywhere, in the form of commercials, ads and billboards. A few people here or there may perhaps be discerning enough to see through the veil of such a circus, but the rest simply remain uncritical for the good and sufficient reason that they have other things to do. Having been fed on a steady media diet of fake news, they live in a perpetual state of doubt anyway, from which the only escape is to play dumb or be indifferent. Ignorance thus becomes empowering, as it enables people to go about their lives in peace. In a time where the mainstream media publishes endless stupidities and falsehoods with impunity, and people owe more to their illusions than to their knowledge, it turns out that the learned man might be defined not by what he knows but by what he ignores.