Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Fall in the Suburbs

Bear Cub Tackles Garbage
photo credit: Gillfoto, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 4.0 International

At this time each year with foliage fallen, in the early morning half-light, animated shadows take the shape of deer hearing a noise inaudible to others, and, looking up from grazing on their favorite garden beds, turn tail to scatter, clattering across the bitumen of neighborhood roads.

In this season, human suburbanites bring out a bevy of bird-feeders, multiplying the offerings of seed and suet to help the birds, and the inevitable squirrels and chipmunks, through the winter. 

On sunny days, a shadow sensed overhead causes birds and the smaller creatures to freeze like stalagmites, alert to a predator hawk's survey before its dive-through swoop. At times, a bear, or bobcat, or quick red fox will be glimpsed crossing the fallen leaves, attending to pre-winter foraging. Hunkering down and preparing for what's to come are instincts strongly sustained by suburbanized animals--and, this is also somewhat true of their human neighbors. 

A not-so-mythical Neighbor Jones attends to outdoor chores to prepare home for winter. Apparently a keen role model, Jones keeps right up to date with the latest garden tools, gutter guards, and any advertised gizmo needed for such responsibility. A dimming memory of Aesop's fables, or James Thurber's stories, fables, and cartoons, or quips of Ogden Nash might keep some suburbanites' feet on the ground, but Jones captures currency with TV and social media clicks and swipes.

This very modern commander of what is popular frequently forages the advertised specials, to keep ahead of the outdated. With dopamine that advertising and media have stimulated in the brain for more seasons than remembered, Jones is ritually separated from conscious thought. Gilbert and Sullivan's very model modern-major-general could not compete with such an embodiment of the media's key goal, which is to have more people diligently spending more time on the media.

So runs the theme of an intriguing book, Veils of Distortion: How the News Media Warp Our Minds, recently launched by a practicing journalist, John Zada. This is not a new suggestion. Vance Packard was the canary in the coal mine, so to speak, pointing to practices in subliminal advertising in books like The Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s. In the next decade, Jacques Ellul alerted to the power of social propaganda, which predisposes us to respond to the most unremarkable drivel. And, many more since.

What's refreshing within Zada's insights, beyond his being employed in the news media and daring to critique the news media, are observations on how it is that what gets treated as news are aberrations from real life for most people--and, how this news sets an increased appetite for reports of the bizarre, the dangerous, and the outlier, which ever since people existed we are keen to know about. Zada describes a variety of added touches that degrade the news as "info-tainment." 

He suggests that this "news" crowds out reality. The news media just keep on obsessively covering mainly outlier incidents to infer a besieged, beleaguered world, contrary to what most people might ever experience. And, for all this churning invention of an apocalyptic fantasy, news media outlets in fierce competition with each other are competing for an ever-diminishing pool of followers, as droves of potential readers and viewers choose to spend time elsewhere--little wonder!

Yet, without the persistently professional investigations of journalists, much malfeasance of elected officials would never be known. And, journalists deploy information gathering and writing abilities within standards of the profession, media management, audience interests, and other constraints that would paralyze many people. The regularity of finding and getting to us items that might be truly fit to print or to broadcast is an ever-changing landscape, ever-demanding on talent, patience, persistence, politeness, and a host of other positive human qualities.  

Zada seeks to avoid taking cheap shots at his colleagues though. He defines various types of "fake news" precisely, including as disinformation, and alerts to the supercharged impact of the news media as servants of conspirators and other disinformation merchants, by obligingly amplifying their existence, activities, and messages. Such "reporters," hyped by dopamine of their own making, highlight extreme details of disinformation merchants to ensure a "news piece" gets passed through the news organization's internal gatekeepers for publication or broadcast. 

Zada points out that Aric Toler has noted news media magnify the reach of disinformation "way beyond anything Moscow could achieve by itself." Likewise, touched on is how news media ever so regularly cover grifter and charlatan politicians, massively expanding the reach of their propaganda. He points to the role of PR as propaganda and many other aspects of "churnalism" in the "news factory."

While this book mainly probes a great many examples of the distortions to offer diagnosis of the why, how, and what that drive the news and the consumers of news, he does touch on "what to do." Zada's brief concluding suggestions for action, understandably perhaps, are mostly geared to those in the media, with some suggestions quite doable and others less so. At least, unlike the litany of diagnostics and forensics offering no remedy that most publishers continue to launch upon us, he makes the attempt. But, while an interesting read, clearly this is not enough. 

Unfortunately, warnings are not remedies--and, in the United States and many other countries, it is in the disinformation land of the suburbs that elections are so often decided. It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that the old claim that the news informs to develop an informed electorate, for example, just isn't true. And, apart from a relatively few notable bright-lights in the media, op-eds and cable channel megaphones don't much help.

So, who will offer more than is needed of what really matters? Namely, support for the ongoing fights to sustain freedoms of thought, speech, and association. For a start, this includes putting an even brighter spotlight on the actions needed yesterday to

* codify the much talked about guardrails of democracy, with prompt and vigorous prosecution of violators

* dismantle propaganda everywhere possible

* replace the grifters and charlatans who currently are making "news" with what the decent, elected representatives are actually doing, rather than what they're wrangling about doing 

* use the undoubted power of the media to creatively develop analytic and critical abilities among all generations.

Before too many naysayers line up, let's remember what the media can do when truly creative individuals have a go. Long-running are some genuine accomplishments of media organizations partnering with initiative-takers, to bring freshness in some areas beyond the news--often with very young audiences, like Sesame Street, Play School, and Blue Peter.  

Who will invent the next new, new thing that enlivens the ongoing fights for freedoms of thought, speech, and association?