February 24, 2012 by The Editor
Not long ago I attended a lecture given by a recently-minted PhD. The speaker began by telling us that the topic of the evening was so complicated that it wouldn’t be possible to get into it too deeply, that we would have to be satisfied with a relatively simple explanation of the subject, and without being thoroughly grounded in certain background subjects, we couldn’t possibly be able to appreciate the matter anyway. This idea was reinforced a few times over the course of the hour-long lecture. I began to feel remarkably dumb!
The lecture was remarkable for other reasons as well, not the least of which was a sudden and superfluous differentiation of how the topic at hand was grounded in neo-Platonic versus Aristotelian thought; interesting, I suppose, but not really germane. I paid to see this lecture. Whether I got my money’s worth or not is probably open to debate, but my ‘take away’ was that you can be eminently qualified on paper and entirely ill-equipped to present your findings to the broader public. Not a real breakthrough moment for me, but up-close and personal.
This lecture made me think about the proliferation of a certain type of writing style in contemporary media that is characterized by titles or headlines such as “What You Need to Know about X” and “5 Reasons Santorum Blew It in Arizona” or “Why Religion Has Failed in America.” These headlines are meant to grab a reader, but they also suggest that the reader cannot figure out anything for himself – that the average reader of popular media has become so dumb that we are not able, in a paragraph or so, to determine the larger theme a writer has in mind without a blunt statement-as-headline spelling it out exactly.
Moreover, in the same types of articles and publications, one can often find phrases such as “let me be clear” and “it’s complicated” and “to be sure there are exceptions.” To be fair, such phrases are also stock refrains among politicians, but I’m less interested in who says such things than why.
Reading is part of listening, and when we read, as when we listen, we rightly expect that the people we are listening to or whose words we take in, are doing a number of things. For example, we assume that they are not telling us lies. We trust that they are sharing with us either original thoughts or rightly attributing the thoughts of others. In the case of non-fiction and expository writing (or a lecture), we assume that they are grounded in their subject matter to a degree that is more or less compatible with their discourse – ie, they are not bullshitting us.
What is problematic, in my view, is this last axiom. The more I read the more I fear that in many publications, those who are entrusted with the mighty pen are doing little more than bullshitting us with vague information that straddles the line between entertainment and information, or between opinion and news. Let me be clear: to be sure, there are exceptions and it is very complicated… There are many great journalists working today who do not grace the pages of the Grey Lady. We depend on journalism to do more, much more, than to entertain us or to sway us with their views. Through the media, through learning, through conversation, we “gain perspective” and importantly through “brushing up” against all manner of writers and orators, we should hope at times to “sharpen our perception.”*
So, when we encounter scholars and writers who present their findings couched in language that is at once exclusive and equivocal, it undermines the very process of exploration that we embark on when we pick up a newspaper or go to the digital equivalent – to interact, to connect, to extend ourselves and grow beyond the confines of our current mindset. Nobody wants to be ‘fed a line’ or ‘be taken for a ride.’ But in much media, it is often a choice between a genuine snake-oil salesman and a genuine intellectual whose message bears little resemblance to reality. Which do you prefer, lies or vacuity?
Related to this is another aspect of popular media: the time-honored tradition of selling sex, or using sex to sell. Recently those responsible for The Sun broadsheet in the UK defended their ‘Page 3 Girls’ – naughty photos on page 3 of the daily newspaper, as being ‘healthy role models.’ What then is the real difference between the naked bodies on page 3 of The Sun and the daily, often multiple times daily, articles in publications like Salon (dot com) on graphic sexual themes (eg: “Our Nation of Moaners” Feb 23, 2012 or “A Very Pornographic Rick Santorum” Feb 23, 2012)? The answer I believe is ‘very little.’ They are both selling a publication in which the rest of the content is so desultory as to have little appeal, forcing the daily appearance of titillating imagery to “sell” the publication.
The message is that, as publications, they view their audiences with no small measure of contempt. If there is cynicism, the source is the publisher, not the critic. What they are saying is that they know their readers are not interested in politics or theory or solutions. The naked lady, the porno-op ed: these are the real news. And this is the content they want you to see because in these elements of the papers, they are doing what they often do best and for which they do not have to apologize or equivocate, that is, they are presenting pure fiction and raw material. And it is in this final stage where we find the essence of information today. In effect, the role of media outlets is now more than ever to simply funnel information: they have become news aggregators. In the end, the sorting of unedited, uncurated “news” has now come down to us.
*From Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage