Sunday, May 08, 2016

Media, manifestos and other manipulations

These days one of my favorite podcasts is On the Media. Don't be put off by concern this is just endless criticism of Fox News -- or more exposés of journalist bias. After 15 years doing the program, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield have figured out how to define anything that interests them as within their subject matter. The result is idiosyncratic, eclectic, informative, and often funny.

For example, on the linked home page as I write, there are programs about a 1957 film whose plot has elements of the Trump moment, exploration of the legal battle over access to academic archives that may contain evidence of crimes by the IRA in Belfast, and a dissection of the propaganda battle over a drug that may -- or may not -- treat female sexual dysfunction.

Or, if podcasts aren't your thing, you can read Brooke Gladstone's comic book: The Influencing Machine. Like the show, this is serious reporting and reflection, delightfully presented. Gladstone plays the same role she often adopts in her interviews: she's the endlessly curious innocent who asks all the embarrassingly ignorant questions you wish weren't ordinarily skipped by less secure journalists. Here, she recounts the history of the interaction between technology and media, from ancient Mayan artists through Twitter addicts. She punctures the various pomposities that journalists have adopted in each epoch. She doesn't have a high opinion of many practitioners of her own craft -- or so her character here suggests. (If she really had as low an opinion as she conveys, I don't think she'd be able to attract so many media figures to submit to interviews on her show. From the sound of these, they like and trust her.)

The book includes an observation on U.S. journalism worth remembering. She highlights the pattern through which U.S. governments draw us into wars. Whether it was the first Gulf War, the Spanish-American conquests, World War I, Vietnam, or Iraq II, the pattern is the same.

Whether dead babies, the sinking of the Maine and the Lusitania, the attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, or Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the premises for going to war usually are built on partial or total fabrications. Fundamentally, this is because our government does not trust us to come to the right conclusion -- that is, to go to war.

... Combat reporters focus on the fighting. The reason, our reason for fighting, is lost in the fog of war. And once that's lost, it takes a long, long time to recover.

Yet she is not about to blame our ignorance or distraction entirely on governments.

Once I was confronted by a gaggle of high-ranking Chinese journalists who pointed to several instances in which American news outlets pulled their punches when reporting on the Bush administration and the Iraq war. They said they proved the American media were afraid of the government.

That's ridiculous, I replied. The American media are not afraid of the government. They are afraid of their audiences and advertisers. The media do not control you. They pander to you. ...

Both the podcast and Gladstone's comic are U.S. media at their best: diligently researched, thoughtful, and vastly entertaining.

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