I recently produced a 9-minute documentary on Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign. It draws on an eclectic mix of cultural icons — everything from The Manchurian Candidate to I Love Lucy to Family Guy:
I was happy with the way it turned out, because I think it manages to do two things clearly:
1. Show how entertainment and news have become the same thing now;
2. Illustrate the mechanics and ethics of media smear campaigns.
I ask questions like “Why should we care whether news stories are true or false?” I stress the connection between media literacy and good decision-making. The principles are universal.
The points made in the documentary can be used as building blocks to explore characteristics of modern media, including the Internet. The next obvious question is “Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable?” The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.
Sometimes what is truthful is not palatable, but we need to hear it anyway. Otherwise we may continue to do wrong, thinking we are doing right. When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.
Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.
The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.
— Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.
One fact is that despite the best social planning by seeming experts, some people experience feelings of alienation in the mainstream, so they go forth in search of alternatives. While some people are targeted for smear campaigns due to a simple factor like their ethnicity, others may be targeted because they’ve successfully created livable alternatives.
If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.
There is a dual nature to populism. America is an intensely populist nation, and this populism can be very good in that it tries to make life pleasant and happy for the average person. British writer C.S. Lewis voiced skepticism about any plan to close down all the pubs and force the “lower classes” to listen to classical music. But there’s an opposite extreme which is also troublesome: the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.
In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance. Continue reading