Monday, June 09, 2008

The Powers That Be

A month ago, I plowed through the late David Halberstam's 1979 book which shares the same title as the subject of today's journal. It reveals the manner by which the events of the world and their ultimate journalistic impact are dictated by a handful of influential people. Particularly the book reveals the means by which a few notable persons' own unique prejudices, peculiarities, biases, and opinions dictate the nature of the news we receive. Though heavily dated in sections, The Powers that Be is an instructive read inasmuch as it reveals the basic building blocks of how the system was set up and the methodology by which print journalism, television journalism, and radio journalism were interwoven. With the rise of the blogs, much of the system has been obsoleted, but it's still instructive to contemplate what came before in shaping what will come to pass in the future.

It's fashionable these days to lash out at the media for its failings and in doing so to attempt to crack the code by which its supposed uniform agenda revolves, just as it is fashionable to formulate conspiracy theories and interject intrigue into the major policy decisions of our government.

Print journalism in particular is scrambling to find a toe-hold. Newspapers are losing more and more ground to electronic sources. Evolve or die ought to be the message of twenty-first century mass communication, and woe be unto those who stubbornly cling to the way things have always been. They will be the first to go broke.

So having attempted to set up my observations, I turn towards the present day with several questions, knowing full well I may never find sufficient answers for them so long as I stand outside the world of the mainstream media. I know history is in the making this election cycle, but the question I always come back to is to what degree the media runs off of some mutually agreed upon meta-narrative or to what degree its very functionality resembles a kind of chaos theory. Is there a method to the madness, or is it some combination of the unexpected and self-fulfilling prophecy?

Who is the puppeteer who pulls the strings? Who is the man behind the curtain? I am not obtuse, so I reiterate again my understanding that media narrative is driven by forces well beyond an outsider observers' sphere of knowledge. And in saying that, I recognize that it's easy to over-estimate the ghost in the machine or the unsettling fact that human error and human ego might well dictate its successes as well as its failures. And one often wonders who are the movers and shakers who decide which stories are fit to print and which would circumvent the course and means by which the rough narrative and direction of this and any other campaign would turn.

Yet, I think about how many people simply do not question the validity and the truth behind the information they are fed. We are a more skeptical society than we were in decades past, but many people do not have the cognitive abilities or the knack to see the inherent bias even in supposedly impartial texts. Every sentient being has a sense of skewed perception and favoritism, despite frequent urgings to the contrary; every writer plays favorites to some degree or another. One doesn't need a college degree to understand this.

Historians, novelists, pamphleteers, and scholars have effectively in times past taken hold of the events that transpire in any important happening and eagerly twisted them around in the direction they believed was best suited for public consumption. It's a paternalistic, but often selfish viewpoint that presumes that "we know best" while undercutting any conception of free will. And I have certainly done my part, too, and do not apologize for it. Though we may deny it, there's an authoritarian side to many of us which runs contrary to the romanticized ideal that provided enough education, people will be able to make the proper, informed decisions to keep American society healthy and functional.

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