May 12th, 2006

Browncoat party

Media and Mindsets

kenshi asked my opinion of Conventional Media (Network TV, newspapers, etc.) and wartime coverage.

I have a totally unoriginal opinion of the current mainstream media: They're hopeless for learning about the real issues in this war.

That has nothing to do with the technology. Newsreels did a good job of conveying the importance of WWII and television could do just as well today. The problem is the mindset of the people working there.

Everybody has to have some mental filters. You can't function if everything you see and hear gets the same importance. The problem comes when you filter out too much. As Lileks puts it, When your world view is made up entirely of round holes, your mind is a lathe that can turn everything into a cylinder. I'm not immune to it. I once spent a whole job interview putting most of the job description into the "sounds boring, what else?" bucket and went home realizing I had no idea what they'd want me to do.

Journalism school graduates come out with some really strong filters. The details have been widely discussed: US Government bad, Republicans bad, official victim groups good. If this was just a bias it wouldn't be as bad. The problem comes from how they decide what makes the headlines. We pay them to filter this stuff for us, after all. I'm a news junkie but I couldn't handle getting a stream of everything that happens everywhere and still have the rest of my life. It's what they filter out that's the problem.

Hamas leader proclaiming his intention of driving the Jews into the sea? Filtered out--that's just rhetorical posturing, armed struggles are driven by economics. Bush's UN speech wrapping up with a vow to create democracies to transform the middle east? Filtered out--that's just trying to gift-wrap realpolitick. Schools and newspapers opening in Iraq? Filtered out--if it doesn't bleed it doesn't lead. (Hating Bush aggravates the problem, but it'd still be there if we had someone else as president)

The cure for bad mental filters is usually a big event which shows the filter is based on a bad assumption. This doesn't always work. If someone's in a big social group where everyone shares the same filter they all reinforce each other. A tight enough group can screen out any new data. This is why cults keep their members tightly grouped and isolated from other people.

The "Main Stream Media" workers aren't a cult but they do live in places with lots of people sharing the same filters. The major TV and television centers are in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, etc., places which vote overwhelmingly for one side in every national election. Since they're providing the content of the news and entertainment streams they don't get alternate views dropped into their living rooms the way people in conservative parts of the country do. So there's a lot of reinforcement for their filters.

Some of the people in the Big Media cities changed their minds in response to a big event--9/11. But they're enough of an exception that they'll call themselves "crypto-conservatives" and hide their opinions from their co-workers and neighbors. The overwhelming majority seem to be plugging along as they were, having dismissed 9/11 as a one-shot event not likely to be repeated soon if ever.

What worries me the most is signs I see of increasing homogeneity in those enclaves. Some writers I admire--David Brin, Spider Robinson, and Martin Van Creveld--have gone from being independent voices with a different take on events to strict adherent of liberal doctrine, sometimes casting loose from reality to dramatically display their fidelity to their side. I've seen this among conservatives, as when Thomas Sowell castigated John McCain in 2000. It feels like that's worse among liberals right now, but if I believe if the elections had gone the other way the liberals would be more relaxed and tolerant of heretics while conservatives tried to enforce unanimity. Either way it scares the hell out of me. That's a trend that will drive the middle out of American politics until it's impossible to have a political solution to our problems.
Politics is just a name for the way we get things done... without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he has received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody's head bashed in. That's politics.

- Robert A. Heinlein, Podkayne of Mars
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