Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jackass Journalism

CNN aired a report recently called Rehab Racket, and I caught part of it while eating lunch the other day. The show resulted from a big-time, one year investigation, and it reminded me why I loath television and the media with an unholy passion.

It wasn't the reality of the case; I have no problem believing that the rehabilitation industry is all sorts of fucked up, particularly since the report focused on California.

It was the presentation.

They were playing the "hard-hitting journalism" bit. There was one scene with a reporter trying to walk into the back door of a rehab center with his camera crew, simply by announcing who he was and what he was doing. It's so shocking when he isn't allowed in, as if they have something to hide! A later scene shows the reporter and camera crew following an executive around as she pointedly ignored the repeated, grating questions aimed at her and the constant re-positioning of the crew to get a shot of her downcast face. Finally she stops and talks to them, and why even bother listening to the conversation?

Call it "hyperdrama": we gotta do something to make a paperwork-driven investigation interesting, so of course, it's time to harass the shit out of people to provoke a reaction that makes them look fucking terrible. Welcome to the news business!

I HATE that shit. Not simply because it's confrontational, which is usually unnecessary but sometimes unavoidable. I hate it because it has nothing to do with the truth of the matter, and repeatedly shows both the idiocy of the general populace and the intrinsic corrupting lack of critical sensibility endemic to a world dominated by the attention economy.

The chief shitheel of this type of "journalism" has to be Michael Moore. I will never forget the final scene of Bowling for Columbine, with Moore having scammed his way into an interview with Charlton Heston, then pegging him with questions demanding an apology for a post-shooting rally in Michigan, which Heston quite rationally responds to by getting up and walking the fuck away. All the while, Moore is calling after him, voice sadly pleading, "Mr. Heston? Mr. Heston?"

God, it was fucking disgusting. It's just pure manipulation. How is there a living human who's bullshit detector doesn't explode when they see this? Because I knows, know, that some people reading this have seen that crap and thought it was a good report, very impactful. Those people are why Heinlein was right about democracy. I can't give a shit about freedom of the press, guys. I understand a general concern for the freedom of information, but the concept of the press as cultural watchdogs sucks. They're helping to drag it to the lowest common denominator. I have a very hard time giving a shit about newspapers being bought out or disappearing altogether. Burn that shit to the ground, for all I care; the institutional press is garbage.

If I see Moore in person, I might stab him. I wouldn't shoot him, which would just turn him into more of a martyr. Besides...
guns are too quick...
For those who haven't figured this out, I think you should stop watching shit like that. Do it now. The more aggressive and emotional the report, the less you should pay attention to it.

You should never blame a subject for walking away. It's the only thing they can do. The investigators invariably come at the mark with loaded questions and accusations that they are totally unprepared to answer. The enemy controls the camera, so you can count on selective editing. And since they've been researching you and have invested such time and effort into using you as a target in their dart-throwing amusement park attraction for kids, NOTHING that the target says can possibly help. Why do you think they try to catch the exec by surprise? So they can give her a fair shot?!

No one except lockstep liberals should allow themselves to be interviewed by the mainstream press, on their terms, in front of a camera. Period. If you're a part of something that the media criticizes and you don't have professional media training, let them talk, then create a YouTube video to put out your side of it.

There is enough on the web that describes the liberal press as an echo chamber, but it's more than that. If attention is a currency - and I'm quite convinced that it is - then the mainstream media is the equivalent of the banking industry. It loans out its power of exposure to those it deigns worthy, based on both the values of the involved journalists and the marketability of the product being sold. In the theoretical broad strokes, public opinion can move the market and affect the sellers, but the sellers regularly adjust public opinion by what it places on the shelves, remaking our expectations according to what's offered, so long as the pill is just palatable enough to be swallowed. Naturally, they don't present it that way. News is presented as giving us what we want, like any good sales pitch. None of this has anything to do with objective truth.

This has happened because the new technology has allowed a centralizing of power in the dimension of information. This information infrastructure has overwhelmed the parochial cultural networks which used to create regional identity as well as passing along regional information that was limited enough to be verified and acted on. Since this world-shrinking shift, it should be no surprise that the state and local have lost power to the international and global. Even if the individual hesitates, the localized networks kept people in check with intimate relationships which enabled accountability, and that's not always fun. So the global media behemoth provides liberation of the individual from the rigors of localized interdependency as its incentive, and eventually, everyone who feels oppressed at some point in their lives - namely, everyone - hops on board at some point.

The media takes every emotionally-shared feature of humanity and twists it into a bland, broad narrative that reinforces the sense of good versus evil they want to reinforce. The details are pasted over as irrelevant. This is how emotional manipulation is done on a mass scale: crudely.

You can't do it any other way. The bigger the audience, the more broadly the net has to be cast. The standardized tricks work: you present your research seriously to encourage the impression that you are a professional, and show yourself interviewing and chasing the perps to encourage empathy. You use stock Bad Guy music in the background, or no music at all, depending on your level of seriousness. And you give little tidbits of "well, this could have been a mistake, so we carefully checked everything" to fool people into thinking you're being even-handed in your investigation.

Every time someone watches, a payment is made to them. In exchange, the viewer does not expect or even want even-handedness, not really. Once the facts have been established - or appropriately muddled - what the audience really wants is to watch the side that they've bought into kick some ass.

In a physical fight, brutal beatings of a clearly inferior opponent are taken as dishonorable. In the economic world, exploiting superior capital in hostile takeovers or dragging out court proceedings until the other side goes broke are clearly recognized as disgusting. There, in worlds run by men, we recognize the dangers of not giving all sides a sporting chance and expect restraint. But in the attention economy, dominated by liberals, where people have decided not to be conscious of the deep moral and consequential ambiguity of most situations, where the overdogs deny their own power even to themselves, they love a violent, honorless thrashing of the Chosen Demon Scapegoat. The behavior is just... primitive. I'd prefer the relative honesty of the Two Minutes Hate.
I'll take my manipulation right out there in the open.
And we should be so lucky to experience a media with the integrity of our financial sector. The financial sector loses its shit with every boom-bust cycle, which means about every sixty years. The media loses its shit as often as possible, because that's what draws eyeballs. They are not accountable for a healthy, stable society. They benefit from a crumbling foundation, which becomes film at eleven.

In the past, the ambiguity of truth in values provoked some forms of decorum when it came to argument. Debate is formalized. Academics love to say that they merely present information, not a biased cultural viewpoint. Despite our cynicism, some people still think that a formal trial actually serves the interests of discovering the truth. We still pay a very rough, dutiful attention to political conversations, supposedly without prejudging things, and scorn open hacks like Sean Hannity and Dylan Ratigan in dinner table conversation.

But they get great ratings. That's what actually matters. I really wish we could just admit that journalism is entertainment and nothing more. It can't get more obvious. After the non-stop coverage of Paris Hilton going to jail, and after realizing that most of your TV news gets delivered by chicks with great tits, what more do you need? The information economy is competitive, and they will draw you in. We don't want to know the reality; we want voyeur stimulus and ammunition for arguments. We want to win.

Now, you know they aren't on your side, so why would you listen to them? Do you think you'll be accused of close-mindedness? Why would you be considered close-minded for not listening to them, when there are so many other people in the world who's bullshit opinion you aren't listening to, who don't happen to have airtime on TV?

There are over three hundred million people in this one country alone. The press, as an institution, does very little to justify the superior attention income it gets from everyone else. Think about it as a matter of equality, for Christ's sake: why should we all pay attention to these people, focusing our minds where they say we should? Why not listen to Bill down the street? Why not listen to your grandma? The opportunity costs for spending time and effort listening to the press make it a terrible deal. These are big issues, issues other people higher in the hierarchy are supposed to handle, and the press isn't giving you the full story, ever, so why bother taking one side in a game where you have so little skin?

So, the solution is clear. Stop listening. Stop watching. Cut off the cable. Tune in to people you know and trust. Lend your ears to those who's values are close to your own. Keep your eyes local and pay attention to problems closer to you. Be a part of a community, not a make-believe global village.

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