Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Media We Deserve?

I finally got around to watching "Good Night and Good Luck" this week. What a fabulous film. Everything about it was perfectly conceived and produced. So George Clooney can act, write, direct and be very handsome, all at the same time. I am jealous. But that's not what I wanted to write about. The film is bookended with excerpts from this speech Edward R Murrow gave to the RTNDA Convention in Chicago on October 15, 1958. It's well worth reading in its entirety as the argument that the media needs to act independently and confront its audience whether the advertisers who pay for it like it or no is succinctly and convincingly put. He accuses the media and the corporations that pay for it of underestimating its audience but he also levels a stern gaze at a complacent and comfortable public. Perhaps to misquote H. L. Mencken we get the media we deserve?

The aspect that strikes me hardest from reading the transcript is both what remains the same today and what has changed, not at an institutional level, but at a technological and sociological level. Today the mass-media is owned and controlled to an even greater extent than it was even in Murrow's day and the direct distortion and selectivity in reporting is perhaps even more blatant. Imagine The Times, The Sun or Fox News criticising Rupert Murdoch? Doesn't seem likely and that's just a single obvious example. The other similarity, or logical extension of Murrow's thesis can be seen by looking at any TV schedule at prime-time. Asinine soap opera, "reality" TV that bears no relation to any reality I've ever experienced and other low-attention requirement shows that aim to comfort not challenge, relax not provoke and anaethetise not enliven its viewers. Murrow's wish that every now and again a spot should be found on the major networks at primetime for a show that would increase the "exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation" has largely not come to pass, principally because the cost of television is now so high that the marketing applied to its production has been finessed to a precise science of not upsetting anyone at all. And since we still consume it unquestioningly, we get the media we deserve. Or do we?

Today The Guardian reports that for the first time Britains are spending more time per day online than they are watching TV. We still watch nearly 3 hours of TV per day (who has the time?) but the trend is clearly in one direction. Now it is possible, likely even, that most of this online time is spent on eBay and finding pictures of Scarlett Johansson in the buff but the difference is that the era of being spoon-fed media is over. Murrow wanted an occasional prime-time slot for some serious journalism because that was the only way he could hope to reach a sizable audience. Spectrum was limited and the barriers to access were high. Today we can view what we want, when we want it. If you want to check out Newsnight at 3 a.m. because that's when you feel best able to process it, you can. So my first point is that we can now control when we experience our media and how we experience it.

The second change from Murrow's day is that the quantity of media out there is exponentially greater. The internet provides almost barrierless entry to anyone with a little technical nous to become a media creator, and through the power of the search engines if your article is deemed good by other users and is linked you will become an authority. Peer review at a truly massive scale. Of course 99.9% of the content of the net is garbage but this is not really a bad thing as it enforces a lot of critical thinking by those who consume it. The concept of something being authoritative simply because it is published has always been fallacious, but it is now palpably absurd, and more importantly, that is blatantly obvious to all. So we peer filter our content. Something I find online intrigues me, I e-mail it to friends and we discuss it. They may pass it on to people I have never met. Sites like www.aldaily.com or www.boingboing.net provide links to interesting pages around the net i.e. they provide the same function at a higher level. The issue today is not the stymying of opinion or content, it is whether we can develop the critical and technical faculties to find, filter, disseminate and process that data.

The change from spoon-fed media to a hunter gatherer approach does not come easily and much that we learn in our formative years does not equip us with the skills that will become more and more important. The ability of anyone to comment or criticise leads us to long threads of discussion on any topic imaginable. Articles are debunked; the debunking is debunked and so on. You can follow a meme as far as you want to take it and experience it from multiple perspectives. The sheer amount of opinion and data means that it is possible for anyone with some critical facility to "triangulate" their stance on an issue by examining not just the data itself but others' interpretation of that data. The notion of an authority has changed from one of deferential respect, immortalised on paper or tape, to a Darwinian evolution of ideas where the consensus is always in flux and the viewpoints multiple.

I suspect that Murrow would not have felt comfortable with this sea-change. He seems very much to me a benign patrician of the old school of journalism. He had his opinion, which he believed to be right and fair, and that was what he reported on the radio and latterly television. The notion of editorialising was difficult and most seemed to feel that if the facts reported were correct that was sufficient. That other equally verifiable facts were not reported did not seem to them editorialising. It does to me. To put it another way, old-media because of its limited spectrum and time (as well as the bias of its reporters in whatever direction) meant that it was always going to be, in the words of Alan Clark, "economical with the actualité". It is unavoidable and no amount of semantic twisting and turning can disguise it. The new media is to all intents and purposes infinite which is a scary proposition, but ultimately if we can conquer our preconceptions and our technology it is a liberating one.

These are the last two paragraphs of Murrow's speech. We can substitute "the internet" for "television" in 2006. In 1958 I don't believe he was right, television is too limited a medium but perhaps now, finally, we have stumbled upon something that we really can use.

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, "When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival."

Because no-one controls the sword and scabbard of new media it is impossible for it to rust. Someone will always want, and have the ability, to use it.

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