We're the products of our environment, and, in many respects, the media defines that environment.
Monday's bombing at the Boston Marathon provides a perfect example of the defects of conventional news reportage -- and proof that we urgently need something better. We got "scoops," "experts," "updates," and post-tragedy Kumbaya, but at the end of those days of saturation coverage, we were none the wiser. It's like what studies find about television news: the more you watch, the worse you perform on knowledge exams.
We ought to care more about the narrative we're getting, about the texture of what saturates us. The way in which a story is handled shapes our emotions and perceptions, determines priorities, and influences seemingly unrelated outcomes that affect us in profound ways, sometimes transforming our society.
Worry, But Not Too Much
With the bombing story, emotions ran high, of course. The media understand this, and while they talk in reassuring tones and routinely issue sober disclaimers, almost everything they do plays to our irrational sides.
Two elements predominate: danger and reassurance. Some of the talking heads are there to warn about danger, others to reassure us. Some do both. We wouldn't want just one or the other -- it would be too hard to take. But together, they represent, psychologically, an ineluctable offering.
As long as they appear in tandem, we will sit, immobilized, and let the networks' pronouncements wash over us. We become so anaesthetized to critical thinking that we fail to consider whether we are getting any information of use at all.
On CBS, a purported expert declared, "It could be Al Qaeda, it could be someone influenced by Al Qaeda, or it could be a domestic lone wolf" -- when in fact it could have been anything at all, including a whole bunch of domestic non-Al Qaeda non-lone wolves. This man provided nothing useful in any way beyond conventional stereotypes. What he did do was define the permissible bounds of public conjecture.
Speculation and its close cousin, "analysis," predominate only in the absence of the hottest commodity, "scoops." News personnel are pressed into service to gather any sort of exclusive tidbits that might put their employer just slightly ahead of the competition. Temporarily, of course, and in the same direction. So, while CBS expert was strongly implying that we might suspect foreigners, CNN went it one better.
Correspondent John King reported:
"I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources, who is a law enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I'm not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people that will take offense even at saying that."
Well, no wonder. That "dark-skinned" detail turned out to be a false report.
In the absence of "scoops" or a fresh trove of "experts," TV news outfits resort to repetition. Thus, after several minutes, you're on a loop. They don't tell you that you are, and because we hear a live anchor slightly rewording things, we hang on, in the vain hope we are about to learn something new.
Another thing that keeps us hooked is the promise of being re-traumatized in as many ways as possible. Show us that bomb going off again, please. Let's see new pictures of the killed and injured in happier times. Let's see closeups of gnarled detritus, and, on occasion with disclaimers that young children ought not watch, at least a hint of blood and gore. Let us "empathize," and feel good about ourselves for doing so.
How many times do we have to hear the same -- literally, almost exactly the same -- stories about "our hearts go out to the families," about how "neighbors displayed yellow ribbons, lit candles and displayed American flags." A liberal news site sent out an email saying "we are all in this together."
To what end all this empathy? It may reassure us that humanity continues to shine through at tough times, but don't we already know that?
Some might say that stoking a "show of unity" is a principal responsibility of the American media. But is that really the purpose of journalism?
The definition of journalism I find most useful is, simply stated, the production and dissemination of news. And what, exactly, is "news"? Here's one definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: " Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events."
Is it new or noteworthy when people act in expected ways and say expected and indeed almost identical things in new situations?
Substitute for Substance
In today's economic and journalistic climate, resources for newsgathering are extremely limited. It's not surprising that the bosses go for quantity over quality. Much easier to collect a bunch of sterile or hackneyed "public reactions" than to ask the tough questions or do the hard digging.
When an event like the Boston bombing gives rise to wall-to-wall coverage, it fills our bandwidth. It exhausts us. It blocks out our ability to focus on anything else. At least, if we're going to give up on everything else, is it too much to ask that the coverage contain some useful information?
What Gets Blocked Out
At the same moment that all eyes were on Boston, in Washington, legislation imposing restrictions on assault weapons and ammunition clips, along with efforts to require the recording of sales of murderous weapons, were under merciless assault by the NRA and its allies. Indeed, the proposed laws subsequently went down to defeat. As horrible as the death and destruction at the Marathon, it pales by comparison to potentially avoidable gun violence, with literally thousands of times as much carnage. Put another way, the toll in Boston was a compressed version of that occurring during a single ordinary week around this country.
Call the Senate vote bad timing. Just like the atypical rampage the week before in which a "nut" used a knife instead of the standard-issue assault rifle. How atypical? Very, says USA Today in an article, "Mass Knife Attacks, Like at Texas College, Are Rare." Yet, at the time of the Senate vote, opponents of stronger gun laws were beneficiaries of this statistically anomalous but dominant news story.
Those who still will not do anything after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown ad nauseum had "cover" from the Boston bombing to not make hard choices.
Of course, a real nut, seeing the kind of coverage lavished on the Boston bombings, would be more, not less likely, to want to generate such a hullaballoo.
Double Standard on Tragedy
We repeatedly fail to see how such media circuses feed the sickness. It's an uncomfortable topic, but you can be sure that every assigning editor was aware that the Boston Marathon story had all the elements of high ratings: Families gathered. A hallowed sports event. Children. People of all backgrounds. A popular city and site.
Other stories in the news -- such as the explosion Wednesday night at a Texas fertilizer plant, resulting in more fatalities than the Boston bombing -- lack these compelling elements. How many people were glued to their sets or talking constantly about the Texas tragedy, which involved not "ordinary American families" enjoying a beloved pastime, but blue collar workers in a "right to work" state where unsafe working conditions are hardly considered shocking? Even when it seemed possible that the Texas explosion might also involve terror, it didn't capture the same degree of interest. We came to learn that perhaps it was "just" an industrial accident -- at a plant that hadn't been inspected in five years. Such accidents, if that is what it was, are only likely to increase as federal inspection funds are slashed as part of the sequester.
The truth is, some things grab and keep our attention more than others. The people who run the media know this. And because they have to sell ads, they focus on some things more than others.
Was there anything else we could have been focused on? There was, but it was just too "distasteful" to broach, at least in the early hours. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it was the Fox brand (admittedly a local station, not the propagandistic Fox News Channel) that dared to raise questions about events that terrorize the public. In this report, the correspondent dares to remind us that the FBI has in the past had close relationships with people who want to blow things up, and has even facilitated these plots up to the point where law enforcement can intervene to thwart the bad guys. Was a similar sting in place at the Marathon -- a sting that went horribly wrong?
One veteran marathoner, Alistair Stevenson, the cross-country coach at the University of Mobile, says that he noticed an unusually heavy police presence, including bomb-sniffing dogs and spotters on rooftops, before the race, and that runners were told not to worry -- that law enforcement was carrying out "drills."
Stevenson's account was reported in an Alabama blog run by a consortium of respectable local news organizations, but it was virtually ignored by the traditional media. Nothing here worth a second-look? Really?
Is it heresy or madness to take a harder look at the metastatic growth of the national security state? History is replete with examples of cynical efforts to create "strategies of tension" in which the public, fearful of growing chaos, turns to the reassurances of those who promise order.
In fact, it so happens that advocates of increasing surveillance are pressing their game on every front. One involves the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which, if enacted, would authorize your web service provider to pass along your real-time personal data to the Federal spooks. There's been a lot of opposition to this, but something like the Marathon bombing can be a game-changer. Those who monitor public sentiment understand the power of emotion to alter public stances.
That's not to say there is necessarily anything "more" going on here. But from history, we know that the official story will point to one of two things: either an organized radical (Left or Right or Foreign) group that threatens "the American way of life," or it will be a "lone kook."
It could be that by the time you read this, we will "know" the "full story." At press time, the story was breaking in a new direction, with two young immigrant brothers, Chechens, the identified culprits. Why Chechens, who, though Muslim, would principally have a beef with the Russians, with whom they have been at war, not with the US? And why if they were, as apparently they were, treated well here and given opportunities, including a scholarship?
The upshot will be to bring the US and Russia into closer alignment.
Remember, though, that even the most radical of terrorists can be wound up by infiltrators, or can have links to our good friends, as we reported about those identified as the 9/11 hijackers, and their ties, via a house in Florida, to the Saudi royal family.
Oh, and what about the fire that broke out around the same time as the Marathon bombing, at the nearby John F. Kennedy Library and Museum? Interest in that fire largely vanished as soon as we were tentatively assured that it was (perhaps/probably) unrelated. Talk about symbolism: the Boston Marathon on "Patriot's Day" -- and the repository of records related to one of America's greatest mysteries, the death 50 years ago of a President who warned us repeatedly of the dangers of tyranny -- and who sought peace with the non-hardliners in the Kremlin.
So let's not settle so fast for the wrong kind of reassurance. Other societies have learned the hard way to be wary of too-easy answers. We simply must be open to the most inconvenient truths -- not out of paranoid fantasies, but from a cold-eyed look at history and recent experience.
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