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2007 04 05
Toronto Culture and Multiculture 5: How to Make the News

[Warning: this got out of control. Kept getting longer and longer. More and more theoretical. Nothing much to do with Toronto or Canada, either. What happened was there were a couple general ideas I wanted to start out with by way of introduction. Oh well. Here’s the introduction. Actual article to follow in a few days.]

It was August 11th, 2005. I remember it like yesterday. The day Wolf dropped the bag and let all the cats loose.

Happened while he was interviewing Bill Clinton. Sort of interviewing, anyhow. Wasn’t like Wolf Blitzer gave hoot or howl what Bill had to say. Old Wolf, he just wanted Bill to come right out and declare what a big mistake the Iraq war was. And Bill, he was getting mighty vexed. Also irked, peeved and just plain bothered. Would rather have talked about his initiative to help with the AIDS epidemic in hard hit places like Africa. Everyone already knew what a steaming botch the Bush administration had made. Bill wasn’t about to get catfighting – Bush-fighting – at Wolf Blitzer’s instigating. How to stop Wolf, though? That was the trouble. No stopping. Wolf had Bill’s scent, was going just about rabid in Bill’s tracks. Old Wolf wasn’t after taking prisoners that day. Nevermind taking any Bill’s hints to back off.

Wolf: .. [W]e're going to get to all of that [stuff you’d like to talk about] in just a moment, but let's talk about the biggest issue facing the United States, arguably right now. That would be the war in Iraq. Looking back, with 20/20 hindsight, was it a mistake?

Bill: … [T]hat's really not relevant anymore… we got to try to make this work. I still think there's a chance it could work, and it's the only strategy that will work.

Wolf: The reason I ask was it a mistake because in our latest CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll, we asked this question, has the war in Iraq made the U.S. safer from terrorism? Thirty-four percent said yes. Fifty-seven percent said no. How would you answer that question?

Bill: … I would agree with that. But independent of that, we are there now, and there now are terrorists operating there. And there is a clear majority of people in Iraq who are supporting the idea that their country should be free, independent and at peace. And they're trying to come up with a constitution and we're trying to train the security and the military forces. So I think – that's what I hope we can do, and do it successfully. And if we can do that, then our people can come home.

Wolf – dogging the bone: So I assume that the answer is, yes, the war was a mistake. Is that your answer?

Bill – losing what little remaining patience: You're trying to get me to make news, and I'm trying to educate people. It doesn't matter whether it was a mistake to go in or not at the time… My answer is, whether it was a mistake or not, we are where we are and we ought to try to make this strategy succeed, support that strategy. It's the only option that will get us out in an honourable way, having made these sacrifices mean something.

Wolf – flustered, looking for that bag he dropped, looking at all the cats running loose, looking anywhere but at Bill: That's my job. I'm a newsman. That's what I try to do, is make news. And you try to avoid news. That's your job.

That’s right. As seen on TV. As heard on CNN. Must believe. News people cease all restraining when it comes to reporting news. They’ve transcended mere reporting. Now they are making news.

Poor old Wolf. So inadvertently admitting, almost bragging his news making. It’s slapstick – when paid professionals fall so clumsily inadvertent. How, afterwards, they pretend it never happened. The way Wolf Blitzer yet simulates impartial objectivity. So factual. But oops – too late. Inadvertence happens. Happen it did. And for those that saw and appreciated it happening – live, on the air – it’s become difficult keeping straight faces when Wolf comes on. Because ever since, whenever Wolf tries coming on as reporting, he more effectively comes across as comedian. Far more effectively.

Ever since, Wolf coming on when we’re watching provokes total comic relief.

“Look Amy,” I say, “it’s Wolf Blitzkrieg.”
And Amy asks, “Is he coming at everyone live, from the Stimulation Room?”
“Sure is,” I say.
“Is he stimulating?”
“Not sure,” I reply. “Can’t see his hands.”
“Where are his hands?” she asks. “Under the table again?”
“Seem to be. What do you think he’s doing?”
“Well, what else? He’s a newsman. He’s making news!”

Slapstick. Not because news mediators are necessarily laughable when they go above and beyond the facts. Going above and beyond can be admirable. Nothing wrong with inference drawing and editorializing. To the contrary. So long as there’s some semblance of competence. So long as facts don’t get too transparently exaggerated, curtailed or otherwise deranged to conveniently fit hyperbolic inference. So long as incompetent news making does not get concealed in plain sight as just the facts. As just reporting. As if the incompetence never happened. Because deadpan inadvertence is just laughable. That’s what slapstick is – outrageous deadpan inadvertence.

Got to be that over-reporting and under-reporting – transparent exaggerating and curtailing – in the news seemed like incompetence. Seemed like systematic incompetence, since it kept on pretty much non-stop. The audience started heckling. Started inventing media conspiracy theories. Grey team. Left-wing conspiracy. Right-wing conspiracy. Fifth columny.

Just audience heckling, though. Sure, would’ve been appalling if true. Would’ve been curtains for any semblance of democracy had news making – not mere reporting – turned out ideologically concerted. Media power is such that no democratic electing could survive the demise of media ideological plurality. But that’s just it. Why the audience was only heckling. News making could not be conceived as concerted consent manufacturing since, absent ideological plurality – like under totalitarian regimes – media is powerless to make or manufacture anything. Ideological plurality is the soil from which media power grows in relentless and inexorable profusion. Eliminating plurality desolates the very soil from which media power grows. Lays it sterile barren waste.

Obliterating plurality – ideological, cultural, personal – is first totalitarian priority. Most especially and particularly media plurality. When it comes to consent manufacturing, slashing, burning and salting any soil where media power might grow is what it’s all about.

Not so in relatively open, relatively free and democratic societies. Here, in untrammelled soils of prolific plurality, media power grows inexorably. Media grows overpowering. Overwhelming.

It’s like night and day. Here, media variety grows ever noisier and more pandemonic. Not so there, under totalitarian regimes. While as many television channels might well be available there, those do nothing for variety. Since there but one channel gets credited official. The rest are all unofficial. And when citizens turns to unofficial channels, the announcer looks up, glares and starts screaming.

“Back! Back to official channel, citizens! We know who you are! We’ve got your numbers!”

It is a joke. There’s no comparing. There’s no middle ground. There’s no manufacturing consent absent either reliable consistent truth or, alternatively, force. Making the news – crying Wolf, instigating catfights, exaggerating, curtailing, misleading – manufactures no consent. Neither false making nor even making false news manufactures consent. Even outright lying won’t do for manufacturing consent. Lying sows confusion – and when confusion prevails it can only mean dismal failure manufacturing consent.

Wherever consensus may be realized without being purchased, there’s an alternative between two fundamental, categorically irreducible kinds of consent manufactories. Either genuine imagining, searching, re-imagining and re-searching truth by increasing plurality; or enforcing official falsehood by obliterating plurality. No middle ground. Not for long. Precisely because, regardless how outright and intentional the falsehood – like in propaganda – lying doesn’t cut it. Outright lying best accomplishes the opposite: sowing confusion and, thereby, manufacturing dissent. Thus, when discarding truth, manufacturing consent demands enforcement turn increasingly imperative. That’s the totalitarian imperative. That’s the point of forcing, the meaning of truth at gunpoint. Maintaining lies as-if true. That’s what cuts it when it comes to manufacturing consent spiting and disregarding truth. For truth never ceases struggling to emerge. And whenever, inevitably, truth-manufactured consensus arises in opposition, then truth disregarding, force-manufactured consensus must mow it down. Cut it and cut at it until it ceases twitching. Cut and cut again everywhere it twitches to re-emerge. Otherwise force-manufactured consensus maintaining the big, sacred, official lies, falters and fails.

Truth never ceases struggling to emerge. Though not for universal love of truth. Were it only so. Mostly, merely for the inevitable longer-term consequence. Force-manufactured consensus is at both competitive and evolutionary disadvantage. Relative to truth-manufactured consensus it fails to both produce and reproduce. Be it ever so keen and tempting a short-cut, absent continual re-enforcement it dulls, tarnishes and rots. And, in event continual re-enforcement persists too long, force turns from means to ends. It’s total curtains, when force turns from means, to ends, to the only end in itself.

When consensus is manufactured by truth, right makes might. When consensus is manufactured by force, but forcing yet conceivably remains as means to credible ends, might increasingly makes right. When forcing becomes the end in itself, no possibility of consensus manufacturing remains. None. Only obedience and belligerence relative to force. For when powering, overpowering, super-powering become ends in themselves, then there remains no right but might.

So. However overwhelming, news media is not ideologically concerted. Independent whelming by the media hinges on media independence – plurality. Were media merely an appendage of state or other power elites, there’d have to be gunplay forcing us to consensus. Absent gunplay, endless repeating party lies would mean nothing but confusion. So – that’s a relief. Knowing it isn’t ideologically concerted media lying independently subverting our public spheres and partial democracies. Knowing that, rooted in ideological plurality, media influence grows overwhelming. Knowing what lush new feeding grounds the internet medium opens wider for trolling. Knowing that every brand of crock-potter is eagerly at liberty to disseminate lies and nonsense farther and wider than ever before.

Ideological plurality has never been more assured. Yet, as media influence grows increasingly overwhelming, media lying mounts worrisome even if not ideologically concerted. It drives us to confusion. It manufactures ceaseless petty dissenting. It obscures issues, drowning significance in vast-flung mud slides. It degrades all discourse. While amounting only to mischief as yet, while doing nothing to directly subvert public spheres, it is mounting worrisome. The sort of mischief that saps from within. On one hand inflating public spheres. On the other, degrading discourse. Time may come the centre will not hold. Time may come we lose all centre, all sense of who we are and what, once, we stood for.

Not at all suggesting that news media engages in outright lying. Not for a moment. Not as if the pictures were all forged. Way it used to be with the tabloids. Back when you’d see baby Jesus riding three-headed cows at supermarket checkout counters. News making isn’t outright lying. Still. The difference is in degrees, not in kind. Who’s surprised when media images get enhanced for dramatic impact? Who’s surprised when footage turns out to have been repeatedly staged? Who’s surprised how many blind eyes the media turns to veracity?

Nobody’s surprised what media does for ratings. We get to watch daily news making. Especially on slow news-days. When the news is not a pin dropping. Then they get churning. Paula Zahn special reports that everyone’s more comfortable with familiar-type faces; and therefore that we’re all racist. Sure. As if racism were reducible to stimulus-response flinching from the unfamiliar. Then, months and several special reports later, she discovers people tend to self-segregate. Eventually, she may come to appreciate that some of the more thoughtful prefer to dissociate. These are wonderful realizations for a young person to have. But headline news? Only by inference that she reports racism. As if. And Lou Dobbs. Goes American crusading against undocumented workers. Yeah. Against people risking life and limb to work in America. Against people prepared to subsist as outlaws and risk all for the privilege. To work in the land of opportunity. In America. The land whence Lou Dobbs pontificates. At no risk to himself. Against those that so love America, they’d risk anything to work there. But hey, what to do on slow news days? Got’ta make the news. If there’s none other to pontificate against, Lou Dobbs can be depended on to pontificate against those that love America better than he. No point agitating against undocumented workers lacking documentation. Far better making headlines agitating against undocumented workers working. Far better vilifying and scapegoating those working without documentation as if destroying – i.e., destroying American values and valuables. Now, that’s making news. Headline news. And, of course, there’s Anderson Cooper. On slow news weeks, he’ll go exploring the world. Exploring with all the insight of a precocious six year old. That sign, blowing away before him? Must be a sign of really, really strong wind.

Crying Wolf, exaggerating, enhancing, curtailing, misleading, absurd pontificating. Sowing nonsense and confusion. Nevermind issues. Nevermind signifying. Must make better rating news. Wouldn’t be too bad were there laugh-tracks. Lots of ratings to be had for comedians. Even though honest comedians ridiculing events tend to be far more thoughtful than news people about it. And funnier, of course. All the more reason for laugh-tracks. Avoid all the confusing. Stop pretending to be so serious. So factual. What’s wrong with honest comedy?

Alright then. What’s any of this got to do with Toronto, Canada? Fair deal. Since there’s even more slow news days and weeks in Canada. And our military activities don’t much help making news. Certainly, we have casualties. But nothing spectacular like the steaming botch in Iraq. To the contrary. Our men and women in Afghanistan are making us proud. Actually helping things out. What to do? Try to amplify Jack Layton’s bugling that we aren’t talking to the Taliban? No go. Smart alecks in the audience started yelling the Taliban only wants to talk about how and when we’ll surrender. Started calling Mr. Layton Taliban Jack. Though sad, it wasn’t news. How about later, when Mr. Layton tried bugling that we’re spending way more on military security than reconstructing? No go. Audience heckled that there’s no reconstructing without security. So much for making military news. What then? Stick to local news? Not consistently good enough. So.. provincial. Get some Canadian comedian to ridicule American events? Maybe. Might work. Too bad it doesn’t. That guy’s happening like disasters not waiting.

What to do? How to make rating news in Canada? How to sow some that home-grown confusion, commit some head-lining, rubber-necking mischief? There are ways. Particularly one to be explored next installment.

[Peter Fruchter is a part-time faculty member in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent. Toronto Culture and Multiculture is an ongoing series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]

["Wow! High Winds Blow Stuff Down!" image by Tim Boyd and used via a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 04/05 at 11:42 AM

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