Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our Twisted Path to Trust and Persuasion

MeanMesa is somewhat perplexed by the current discussion of the media, our Fourth Estate, and its rather soiled role in informing our citizens.  The inescapable odor of elephant manure wafting through the parlor literally begs for a reference to that old idiom.  Relax, MeanMesa intends to post even more weighty points than one could find on the weight scale under the great, grey beast.

The issue might be stuffy and academic if the "duties" of the media were not such an integral part of the mechanisms of our democracy.  "Media duties?"  What are we saying?  Should someone be dictating to the media what its duties might be?  Should someone "grade" the performance of the networks with respect to whether or not they are performing their "duties?"

These would be interesting -- probably incendiary -- questions if the answer to them amounted to nothing more than an invitation to "hammer out the facts" in the given moment and "co-exist" with whatever might be decided.  Happily, this is not the case at all.

In the late 18th Century our nation said -- or at least, rather forcefully implied -- that there would be "rules," "duties" and even "enforcement" on the conduct of the Fourth Estate.  Happily, however, the judgement and authority to perform these tasks was left to the ultimate power in the new country.  What was implied all those decades ago was simply that the government would not be empowered to control the press, not that the press was entirely free of any control.

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Instead of policy or bureaucrats sitting in the role of some meat handed referee, it would be the citizens -- the consumers of the Fourth Estate's product -- which would be charged with this responsibility.  How, exactly, would that be accomplished?  Easy.  When the work of the Fourth Estate proved deleterious to the common interest of the population, the worst of all possible remedies would automatically emerge to correct the bad behavior.

Wow.  Wait a minute.  An example or two might be useful right here.

If a popular newspaper were to publish a stream of information which incited the population to support some policy, and the information turned out to be  false and the policy turned out to be severely counter to the interests of the readers who had trusted it previously, the citizens, still burning from the misuse, would very easily move to another news stand to purchase an alternative media product the next morning.

If a news network hosts one slack jawed pundit after another, all promoting some general influence on those who consume the broadcasts, all of whom being convinced -- by the same pundits -- that it was actually the very best quality information anywhere, and it turned out not to be high quality at all, or, in fact, nothing more than a cheap promotion of the interests of the "quiet" sponsors of that network, the listeners and viewers would, predictably, avoid any more of the same "like the plague" and adjust their knobs and channels elsewhere.  These ex-listeners and ex-viewers would, while still burning from the mis-information and manipulation they had experienced from this miscreant network, simply pick something else and hope for better results in the future.

Of course, this predilection to avoid further self-damaging persuasion only becomes realistic if the "other choice" actually exists.  A separate MeanMesa posting could be made exploring the reasons that any such a media enterprise would actively undermine the existence of its competitive alternatives.  This is a grotesque question of choosing to control competition as opposed to offering "truth" in such a competitive quality that the consuming market will decide in your favor.

MeanMesa has posted before concerning the very desirable alternative of debate compared to single voiced, unchallenged, inflammatory -- yet toothless  -- polemics.  (  Uncontested polemics are for sissies.

Now, for a quick MeanMesa quiz:  "Have you heard the media you consume contradict what has been presented by its competition?"

Of course, the co-dependent approach to such a task will be to simply present contradictory and "turn the deciding" over to you.  MeanMesa, on the other hand, much prefers a more direct approach, that is, where the media steps forward with something along the lines of "They told you this.  Here's why it should be disregarded."

In the age of relentless video records of not only the sound of the words, but also the image of the faces, such gambits aren't actually all that risky.  For example, comments from Senator Mitch "McChinless" McConnell lambasting Obama's deficit might be accompanied by video of the very same man repeatedly voting for the deficit -- and not in a small way, either -- during the autocracy.  But, we notice, such a "reality based" contradiction is not reported.

An actual debate between opposing Senators would be free to express issues of such grave hypocrisy.  However, aside from a few sparsley attended progressive shows, the insult is simply -- and thoroughly -- forgiven.  Is this the high performance of the Fourth Estate?  Can we possibly consider this to be some sort of validating performance of the media task of responsible reporting?

Further, Americans seem to enjoy Sunday Morning "news" shows where "out of control" interruptions and argument are the style de jour.  Viewers with an undeniable appetite for "news" which can be believed watch discussion not dissimilar to an athletic event.  Although hardly presented in the formal discipline of an actual debate, the frothy emotion of the "discussion" lends itself well to the idea that, when speakers are in a state of near apoplexy, they will, somehow, be less inclined to outright lying.

We watch spokesmen with unapologetic assumptions of authority and veracity, but we usually watch them speaking by the themselves only.  We see high school style "rebuttals" such as the mouthy disasters of Bobby Jindal or Michelle Bachmann following the words of the President.  We see uncontested charts and graphs trotted out on the floor of Congress with "information" not removed a single millimeter from the unsupported rantings of some right wing nut job on the radio.

We see impossible references to unexamined authority.  "It's in the Constitution."  "It's in the Bible"  "It's the will of the American people."  These are all comments which will never bear the actual "light of day" because they are not true.  Yet, out they roll in an endless, gaseous cloud of misinformation -- and, to the point of this posting, unchallenged.

MeanMesa would feel ever so more reassured with outright statements.  "No.  That's is simply not true, and here's why I say that."  To her credit, one of our favorites, Randi Rhodes, (The Randi Rhodes Show, 1350 AM KABQ, Albuquerque, 1PM to 4PM weekdays) speaks to this bravely and openly.  She admonishes her listeners to not believe what she says and furnishes (in her "homework" section) the supporting references for what she says on the air.

Not too long ago, the President (responding to unsupportable comments by  Senator Lamar Alexander, R - Tennessee) repeated a highly relevant quotation:  "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts." 

Such statements, while well within the purvey of the voice of the President, should have emerged from an eager, competitive press.  Point made.

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