Friday, February 22, 2008

Toxic Cynicism & the US Media

I've long had a theory that the road to our current political/social Hell began being paved as part of the aftermath of the Nixon Watergate debacle.

First, I know that there are a lot of people like me (I don't think I was the only one) who's sense of innocence was shattered by the events around Watergate. I couldn't stand Nixon, but it had still never entirely occurred to me that Presidents could be criminals, that the level of cynicism which those men operated with could even exist. One of the worst things that happens when innocence is shattered is that it can turn to bitterness and cynicism. But I think we all would have gotten over that if something else hadn't happed at the same time. And that's what happened in the media.

Unhealthy as a cynical public can be, a cynical media is profoundly dangerous to a nation's intellectual and psychological health. After Watergate, the media's approach to news underwent a profound sea change. Every reporter wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, and instead of searching for truth, the media began searching for lies. A hunt for lies is a very different pursuit than a quest for truth and it bears different results. First off, a hunt for lies leads away from the truth as often as not. Second, a hunt for lies is much more subjective than a hunt for truth and as a result it taints whatever truth it happens to trip over. The third - and perhaps worst - aspect of a cynical media is that the energy of cynicism (especially in a media saturated society like ours) permeates our consciousness. It seeps into our way of looking at the world, into our thinking.

I first became aware of this years ago when I began hearing a nasty little voice in my head. There would be some report in the news about someone donating money or doing something good and the little voice would mutter "hah, I wonder what's in it for him." Now that voice is NOT me - or at least it didn't used to be. And when I heard it muttering and looked for where it came from, I was led right back to the way news was being presented to me.

Added to this is that somewhere along the road, in subtle stages, reporters stopped reporting and began opining. Except for PBS, very little of what is presented to us as news is factual reporting any more. I like to use the following as an example because it pissed me off at the time and because I think it makes the point relatively clearly: After the whole Monica Lewinsky story broke, there was a trivial piece about Clinton attending a prayer breakfast and saying he repented. If we had a healthy news media, THAT would have been the story. He attended the meeting and he said x, y,z. A healthy media would have let us draw our own conclusions. Our media instead, talked at length about whether his advisors had told him to repent, whether he was sincere. Most of our news these days is covered this way. It's so pervasive that I don't think we even notice it. It's cynicism presented as facts. It's skewed truth or flat-out untruth.

This isn't a trivial problem. It's corroding us from the inside out. Cynicism sees no hope. Cynicism says that everyone is a crook, everyone is lying, everyone has an ulterior motive. Angels could descend from the heavens bringing good tidings and our media - and we along with them - would spurn the gift or question it's authenticity. (What's God's angle?) And in the populace, this translates into things like: "Why vote, they're all a bunch of crooks anyway." Alas, that may have become true to some extent, but I wonder which came first, the crookedness or the cynicism that feeds it.

This pervasive semi-conscious cynicism among the public, paves the road for professional, criminal cynics like Bush and Cheney to do their worst. They even use it to their advantage. It's an aspect of the Rove - a true cynic's cynic - strategy. You no longer have to prove scandal, you just have to whisper things into the wind and they stick to the web of half, distorted and un-truth in which citizens of our society are trapped like flies, while criminals like the current administration feed on the corpse of our hope, our prosperity - and the spirit of our nation.

I don't know how we can escape this net, but we had better do something because the spiders that spun the web are eating us and our way of life alive. Maybe it's part of why Obama's voice is resonating so strongly with people right now. I don't know that he's the best choice for president - I think Dennis Kucinich would have been - but perhaps his optimistic passion is waking us out of the torpor of the crippling cynicism in which we have been slumbering for too long. I hope so.

Here's what I know. I want a return to a media that covers all the candidates, that reports news and not opinion. I want a media that is peopled with idealists who are hunting for truth, not lies. And I want my own idealism back. I want my hope back. I want my country back. Hopefully, if we become aware of how cynicism has poisoned our media and our own consciousness, we can begin to take the country back. I hope so.


Jeni said...

Although I do ascribe to many of your points here about the media, I tend to blame the tv media more for the subjectivity of the news so much today. Most of the print media still tends to just post the facts and then leaves people to form opinions, right or wrong, from that. But television -all the analysis that takes place over every event -whether it be a disaster that took place or politics, speeches, etc., I really don't need all that rubbish about "feelings" and "Why did he/she do" or "how did the person feel" type stuff. Reminds me of the tv shows with the courtroom drama and the attorney can't ask certain questions because it would cause the person testifying to "draw a conclusion" and that is to be left to the jury. Well, we -the citizens -should be the "jury" in these things and allowed to read (or hear) "just the facts, Ma'am" (as Joe Friday would have said) and from there be able to draw our own conclusions. P.S. I was never a fan AT ALL of Nixon -going back to his VP days. I used to ask my old boss back in the late 60's (who was a staunch Republican) all the time "Would you buy a used car from that man?"

Raven said...

Hi Jeni,

I agree with you that it's mostly the TV media that does the interpretive reporting... gossiping really. I think the print media has fallen into the "looking for lies" rather than reporting the truth trap, though. Couldn't stand Nixon. I can't understand how anybody voted for him ever. Same with Bush. Baffles me that even one person would cast a vote for either of them. Thanks for your insights. You caught me being careless because I really was thinking mostly of tv media. (I spend way to much time with the tv on.)

Linda Murphy said...

Toxic cynicism is a great descriptor. I would love to see ALL of the candidates covered too. Sigh.

Raven said...

Me too, Snoopmurph. I really hate having my choices pre-selected by people/organizations whose interest they serve. I would much rather have had the option of choosing someone like Kucinich who would serve MY interests. Even if people think he couldn't have won, it would serve us all to have been able to hear what he and Ron Paul and Jon Edwards and others have/had to say.

Dianne said...

one of my favorite comedians, Craig Ferguson, calls it - "speculating on the assumptions"

Jon Stewart did a bit recently where he showed a news clip covering something Bill Clinton said and then he showed a Youtube clip, shot off of someone's cell phone, depicting the exact same moment.

Completely different - the news clip of course had the anchorman droning on about Clinton's tone/demeanor/expression - so of course it colors what you see. The Youtube clip simply had Clinton, his face, his words.

This insidious, subtle poisoning of our ability to see/hear/decide for ourselves is beyond out of control BUT I do think (hope?) more folks are catching on.

Raven - you're like a voice of light in a dark tunnel. Keep on keeping on!

Raven said...

Hi Dianne

Wow, you are good for my ego.

I missed the Jon Stewart you mention, I think... I just love Jon Stewart and Colbert.... Stewart did a skit not long ago that I thought was genius. It was about another pet peeve I have with the media. Someone had asked one of the candidates - Romney, I think - something and the media reported that he had "exploded" or something like that. In truth, he had barely reacted at all. Stewart then interviewed Samantha B on the subject and at every question, she would go "Wow... if your going to over-react like that." This is a terrible description of what I thought was incredibly funny. Sorry.

Thanks for your kind words.

Dianne said...

I remember that sketch Raven, it was hilarious. Samantha B was so over the top.

I couldn't do without Jon and Stephen. I've got about 2 weeks of Stephen on DVR right now, I'm so behind LOL Jon is first in my heart.

Raven said...

I so missed them both during the strike, dianne... My friend "E" - the one who rescued both my cats - apparently dated your man Jon many years ago. Her passion about animals (which IS pretty intense) apparently drove him crazy. Ironically (according to E) he ended up married to a woman who is very involved in animal rescue. Anyway, I know somebody who knows somebody... ain't I cool?