Last week there was a low hum of concern about free speech, and perhaps rightfully so. A student was “tasered” after disrupting an appearance by John Kerry at the University of Florida, thousands gathered in Louisiana to bring voice to a stifled imbalance of justice during racial incidents in the town of Jena, and actress Sally Field had her anti-war comments censored during the Emmys.
While these events indicated some possibility of repressed expression, we did, in fact, hear about them. You likely know by this time exactly what it was the former “Flying Nun” had to say on a record low-rated awards show. You’re probably less filled-in on exactly what Blackwater is, how it operates, who owns it and profits, and why they have such an extensive presence in Iraq. Oh, and why you pay for it.
The fact that President Bush will ask for $200 billion for Iraq in 2008 may have escaped you because it was headlined on a Saturday. However, if you did open the LA Times that day you were also able to enjoy a full page in the “A” section that described at length the careers of the dime store mooks who were in OJ’s posse that night at the Palace Station Hotel.
There’s nothing new about pulling one’s hair out over the distraction factor at work in our information delivery systems. But we owe it to ourselves to consider whether the interference between us and what we should know is getting more sophisticated and harder to detect. Is there more effort required, more personal cost, in getting good information?
Consider my current state-of-the-art favorite: CNN has adopted, almost literally, a small child named Youssif who has come to Sherman Oaks from Iraq for surgery to correct severe facial burns received in an attack by masked men outside his home in Baghdad. CNN is tracking the boy’s progress with updated chapters each day showing Youssif arriving, playing on swings, comments from his mother and the surgeons… you get the idea. What we don’t get before or after any of these uplifting packages are detailed biographies of the Iraqi civilians who, far from getting Sherman Oaks medical care, are now dead as the direct result of America’s destabilizing of Iraq.
For a huge corporate news-gathering channel to take one story and give it a beautiful resolution while, for all intents and purposes, ignoring a veritable mountain of 80 to 100 thousand civilian corpses… that’s something even Orwell couldn’t have predicted regarding the dissemination of information in the 21st century.
Consider also the 24-hour plague of speculation and conjecture. At any given moment of the day, you can turn on a TV set and find four people talking at the same time, offering neither facts nor background nor historical perspective. They’re just speculating based on one simple truth: The camera is on.
Here you might point out that, thanks to the Internet, we can get any information that we want or need. Yes, the thing you might be looking for may be out there, and you might land on it. But then you’ll have to wrestle with the veracity of Internet information, much of it arriving at your digital doorstep without benefit of confirmation, editing, or any claims on the mental health of the author. And it’s up to us to individually prioritize what we learn from Internet sources. What we enjoy about corporate media is that – right or wrong – it does that prioritizing for us. And thanks to guys like Walter Cronkite, we tend to trust the context.
But more and more we are presented with a context alleging instantaneous unfiltered facts (“Breaking news…”) and an illusion of deep and full background (“You’re in The Situation Room…”) that just isn’t so. And while Dan Rather fights for the “truth” in his lawsuit, we are all still stinging after having a war sold to us with lies via a fully cooperating media.
Last week over lunch, a friend of mine suggested that the fix was already in on the Democratic presidential race. It was clear to him that Hillary was the “front-runner” because corporate America has decided she’s the one they can best do business with. I haven’t decided, you haven’t decided… but maybe it’s been decided for us. Wouldn’t it be great to utilize all those news-gathering teams out there with their microwave gear and their mobile units to see if my friend’s theory is true? As a citizen, I’m free to vocalize that wish. And at the same time, I’m powerless to call any of them in from their OJ coverage to work another story.