Has the News Become Like the Neutrino?

Boston Summit04 Speech

by Deane Rink (delivered 7/24/2004 at U Mass., Boston) deanerink@hotmail.com

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at deanerink@hotmail.com

Consider the neutrino.  Billions of these pass harmlessly through our bodies every day and we are not aware of them.  They do not affect us in any measurable way.  HAS THE NEWS BECOME LIKE THE NEUTRINO, present all around but lacking the power to change us, omnipresent and impotent at the same time?
Who benefits from the trivialization of the news?
The paradox of the Information Age is that information has become so commonplace it is meaningless.  We have become immunized from its bite.

In an earlier age, before the Industrial Revolution, when the great democracies of America and France were being born, information was power.

It was feared.  It was adored.  It carried with it the promise of great transformation.
The Founding Fathers recognized the power of ideas and facts.  They granted information and speech special status.  They exempted these things from the inexorable laws of economics as enunciated by Adam Smith.  They removed information from the sweep of the “invisible hand.”
Why would a group of dedicated capitalists do such a counterintuitive thing?
Because information was not a commodity, like tea or animal pelts.  It was the INVISIBLE ETHER OF DEMOCRACY.
This is how the notion of the Fourth Estate came into existence.  The press was the great disseminator of information.  Democracy required the informed consent of the governed.  “Informed” implied “information.”
The Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians accepted this notion.  It’s why we have the Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  It’s why we have a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution.  It’s why we developed a democratic republic, “if we can keep it.”
Newspapers and pamphlets proliferated in early America.  Every town had at least one.  Every fledgling party had one.
Before the age of media consolidation, ideas mattered, at least to the Caucasian property owners who enjoyed that early franchise.
We have greatly expanded that franchise.  Now every adult citizen can vote, yet under half bother to do so.  WHY?
A democracy that believed its own hype should embrace the notion of mandatory voting, and provide minor sanctions for non-participation.  The goal should be to raise the voting percentage over 90%.  The drivers license fees might be doubled, or cable television access suspended, for those who chose not to comply.  Nothing criminal, just a small civil penalty.
Who would win elections then?  How would the parties frame their platforms differently?
Why does nobody advocate this?  Why is the governing elite of America afraid of the near universal exercise of the franchise?
Why do the media not live up to their historic function and ask questions like these?

It’s not because the media have become too corporate.  It’s because the media have fallen from their state of grace.  They used to be exempt from the requirement of showing a profit.  They performed a vital public service. They encouraged the informed consent of the electorate.
Even after the media became corporate and comglomerate, they continued to inhabit the high ground of the Fourth Estate.  I can remember when Walter Cronkite or William S. Paley would go before the CBS shareholders and proudly defend the unprofitability of the news.  Even after consolidation, broadcasting licenses were premised on such public service contributions.
What has happened?
For one thing, the nature of the media has changed.  Print morphed into radio, radio morphed into television, and television morphed into the Internet.
The change from radio to TV was especially critical.  TV is the greatest device for selling commodities ever invented.  But there was a ghost in that selling machine.
The lurking spectral ghost was our old friend, the Invisible Hand.  Selling commodities should have made TV so profitable that it could easily underwrite the news division.
This required men and women of good will who had faith in our democratic system.  At some point, these people were replaced, gradually, by technocratic managers and bean counters who, like piranhas in a tank of tropical fish, consumed all the competition.
The exemption of the Fourth Estate slowly eroded, and the defenders of the old system got so wealthy they abandoned the crusading principles that attracted them to journalism in the first place.
Could I make this argument to Bill O’Reilly, or even to embedded Ted Koppel, without being shouted down in the first instance, or euphemized away in the second?  I doubt it.
Those of you who agree with me are the true conservatives, the real traditionalists.
Those who breathlessly communicate the latest government spin are the new totalitarians, the American Bolsheviks.
Our country has already betrayed its anti-imperialist beginnings at least twice in my lifetime – in Vietnam and in Iraq.  For charity’s sake, I’ll overlook Grenada and Panama, Chile and Colombia, Libya and East Timor.
What can we do about all this?  What specific objectives should we focus upon this weekend, and in ongoing future efforts?
Allow me to make six specific suggestions.
We invent and enable a means to counteract, in real time or nearly so, the distortions and narrow points of view that the mainstream media offer us in the names of fairness and balance.  And we develop a clever marketing plan to spread this counter-programming far and wide.

We take advantage of burgeoning consumer digital technology by establishing a central clearinghouse for all non-professional media.  Example: a UN aid worker in the Sudan shoots some handheld digital video proving genocide.  He or she should be able to upload this to a central server from any Internet Café, and by so doing, would waive all ownership rights.  This video would then be available to anyone willing to pay a nominal public access download fee.

We establish a popular think tank to seek alternatives to war (which is obsolete in this age of suicide bomber terror). Democracy is one export that, by its very nature, cannot be coercively implemented.  It is, instead, an inevitable consequence of fairly-distributed affluence.

We find a way to encourage cross-platform comparisons.  For example, why have the aggregate European Union countries, which possess an economy and technology level comparable to the USA’s, chosen such a different developmental path?  What can these two great economies learn from one another?

We insist that ideas like these, and their historical antecedents, be taught to our young people in participatory ways.  Every mature adult system and institution that we set up should have an educational counterpart that invites the up-and-coming generation to further refine our ideas, the ones they shall inherit.

We create a global planet watch that does for environmental understanding what our digital clearinghouse does for human rights.
If we are to become the media, if we seek to replace the cheerleaders of distortion with visionaries of proportion, if we choose to create a better world for all by persuasion and not by coercion, we should learn from those who have turned the marketing of products into a science and similarly market our ideas to an eager world.
This entails promoting positive programs and challenging the darker assumptions about human nature that propel our opposition accurately and with good humor.
Remember the neutrino?  Even though we cannot sense its presence, it affects the cosmic balance of the universe.  The way we conceive and enable our media has the same potential to affect the quality of our lives, and those that will come hereafter, on the fragile planet that is our communal home.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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