Monday, July 09, 2007

This Week's Theme: The Great Unraveling

Our Schizophrenic Media

This week's theme is The Great Unraveling,
in which I present the case that our descent into another Great Depression is close at hand and that the forces behind that descent can no longer be hindered, much less stopped.

And lest you think that doom-and-gloomers have all the fun, this will be followed by a look at the Great Awakening which will take root in the depths of the despair and conflict which will be our lot during the worst of the Great Unraveling.

"The Great Awakening" has spiritual antecedents in American history, but I employ it in a larger context; though a spiritual renewal is undoubtedly part of the context, religious and spiritual do not share the same meanings. For instance, a gargantuan mega-church that cost millions to build is undoubtedly religious, but its spiritual value remains questionable--and indeed, may become more questionable as poverty and distress become ever more widespread.

Let's start with the media, and specifically the print media. Few people expect much of television, radio or Internet-generated news; virtually all the "news" in these media flows from the print media. The headlines in the morning paper generate the "news" on TV; "breaking news" consists of "if it bleeds, it leads" crime and disaster coverage (throw another Christian to the lions, Centurion! The mob, I mean audience, is getting restless!)

Thus the only media with any reputation for in-depth investigation is the print media. TV news makes some laughably inept attempts at "investigating" local issues like drivers education and the like, but let's state the obvious: if the nation depended on local or broadcast television and Yahoo! headlines for its analysis and investigative reporting, our descent to Third World status would already be complete.

Alas, all is not well in Print-Media-Land. Beseiged by Google (Engulf and Devour While We Try Not To Look Too Noticeably Evil) and the explosion of Web and alternative media "channels," its bread-and-butter classified ad revenue gutted by Craigslist, the print media has taken a one-two punch to its glass jaw: declining readership and declining ad revenues.

This has created a double-bind which has in turn spawned a Media Scizophrenia. Double-bind is a term coined by Gregory Bateson, British/American anthropologist, social scientist and general purpose intellectual (Here is his wikipedia entry).

A double-bind is a cousin of Catch-22: a contradictory message or injunction which cannot be resolved. In some families, such impossible-to-fulfill injunctions can lead confused children into schizophrenia. The concept/mechanism can also be at work on a society-wide basis; for instance, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24) versus the message that one's value as a human being rests entirely on who has the most toys, the best botox treatments, etc.

One of the best (short) books on how this works is Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing, psychiatrist and author of The Divided Self and an unreadable but still interesting parsing of Sartre's Critique De La Raison Dialectique, Reason & Violence.

(OK, enough of indulging the aging philosophy major.)

Bottom line: here's the double-bind for the print media: to keep our advertisers, we must lie, but to keep our readers, we must report the truth.

The double-bind is especially visible in real estate coverage. Every shred of good news is duly reported on the front page ("Housing starts rise by .006%," "Prices still Rising in London and Boise") while troubling news ("house sales plummet by 36%") is buried inside, and generally accompanied with happy-happy cheerleading ("This is the bottom, for sure, absolutely guaranteed 100%," said spokesman Lying Whipsnade).

On a larger scale, this pattern is visible on most front pages. In my own hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle (which just laid off 25% of its editorial staff), the front page has been stripped of important news in favor of "dumbed down" fluff coverage of topics such as "Chocolate is good for you" (huge photo dominated front page above the fold) and the All-Star Game (overpaid steroid-pumped athletes with absolutely no loyalty to any community gather to go through the motions of a game).

Is this the most important news of a nation at war, a nation with a multitude of critical challenges, and a nation teetering on the edge of financial ruin? Chocolate and baseball? Please, spare me the lectures on the stunning importance of "America's game." I attended a San Francisco Giants game a few year ago, and was appalled by the outrageous expense involved. A plastic cup of beer was $7.50 (not even a pint, more like 8 ounces) and a handful of peanuts cost $6 (or was it $10?). Then there was the public transport tickets (or parking, take your pick) and the insanely expensive ticket itself for mediocre seats.

Since when did seeing a routine baseball game require $60 (six first-run movies, 24 DVD rentals, 3 books) to show up and have a tiny beer and a handful of peanuts in lousy seats? Of course $100 will barely get you in the gate for an NFL game.

Rather than glorify this excess, the newspaper should have questioned just how positive this money-driven mania is for the city and the nation. Ah, but the game will bring millions in revenues to the city, and that's the name of the "real game."

In fairness, the paper did run an excellent article questioning the value of publicly subsidized mega-costly stadiums in the Sunday edition: Are stadiums worth the high price? This piece raises the questions which should have been raised on page one. But at least the underlying issues were addressed: should citizens pay for $500 million stadiums so private teams can profit from citizens' misplaced "civic pride" and largesse?

Here we have the double-bind: they can't tell the truth lest they lose their revenue base, but they have to offer some occasional reporting to justify their existence/keep some readers.

Can a nation teetering on the precipice be well-served by a schizophrenic press? Yes, there are still reliable sources of information and analysis (Bloomberg, et. al.), but how healthy can the nation be when the bulk of its media is at best schizophrenic and at worst, already catatonic?

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