Modern Western societies are commonly called industrial or democratic societies. They might just as well be named mass-communication societies, for the average citizen is supposed to be informed about what goes on in and around the city whose welfare and leadership he is supposed to assume. As the medium through which comes the data about which he is supposed to form an opinion, the press holds a key position in the functioning of these societies.
Thus it is no wonder there are many to condemn it for wielding a power of its own, as the embodiment of a new kind of spiritual power as dangerous to the freedom of the citizens as the Church’s was formerly believed to be. For others, journalists are the new white knights of our societies: eager to defend the widows and the orphans, the poor and the oppressed—the new demigods of our godless societies.
I would like to deflate the myth, and suggest this is pouring over their heads too much honor or too much indignity, and that they appear to lord over the people only to the extent they are enslaved to those they seem to lead.
To set the record straight, I think one should be reminded of a very simple, very coarse, but actual fact: The press at large is basically nothing but a business, an industry producing those peculiar consumer goods called news and opinions just as a dairy farm produces cottage cheese and yogurt. As happens in any industry, the yield being proportionate to the number of items sold, as the marginal cost of each of them diminishes with the number produced, mass production is of the essence of all means of information and expression of opinion, then aptly and commonly referred to as mass media. When trying to evaluate the role and the influence of the press, one must bear in mind that Chronicles has little to do with the New York Times.
But then, even though news or opinions are sold by the media’s operators as consumer goods, they are confronted with an unusual difficulty: The goods have to be sold at a stupendous rate.
Around the year 1650 in Boston a gentleman decided to publish a periodical whose heading warned, “This bulletin will be sold every other week, unless the amount of worthy news makes it reasonable for it to be published more often.” It is obvious the press as we know it was not yet born.
In this light it is readily apparent that the requirements of this particular trade make it mandatory for its product to comply with definite specifications, as strict as they come, and rather paradoxical at first sight.
Indeed, the first requirement is to be an essentially nondescript product, one that has no definite content. Soap is supposed to wash, a piece of news is supposed to inform about whatever is new, but precisely what deserves to be qualified as new? Once the editor realizes that it is impossible to publish information worthy of publication each and every day, it logically follows that whoever sets himself to filling 40 pages is left with only one choice: to publish absolutely anything, so that there will be at least a little bit of news, particularly what may arouse emotion that caters to a potential consumer. If you want to sell glue to the largest number, you sell an absolutely worthless, but all-purpose, glue.
Which does not mean one cannot find, in the mass of information thus provided, some item that may be deemed worthy of attention. But this is just happenstance, a side effect of a product manufactured by the media: The equalization of all news is the generating principle of this particular mass-production industry. Publish or perish, anything is worth publishing: Such is the first iron law of journalism—not avowed, but no less adamant. Of course there are events—a tsunami, a revolution—that may take precedence over others, but this is only because such spectacular dramas usually attract a greater number of potential customers. Moreover, not only does this precedence last only as long as there are new developments, but such events are never considered of such overwhelming importance that no room is left for what the marginal consumer may also be interested in. (It is not because rap is a more popular genre that record makers stop recording classical music.) The apparently more significant must never obliterate the crucial commercial importance of the futile. Which can be translated in journalistic parlance as “Citizens have a right to know.”
In other words, journalism is a noise-producing machine whose survival depends on the public being convinced they must listen to senseless noise, or convinced unwittingly of some sort of Heraclitean philosophy: There is no point in trying to determine what is, since everything is everlasting change. After all, a daily is just what it says, a day by day description of whatever has not happened the day before. To put it in more modern terms, the world heralded by the media is a world “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
One may wonder at this point why the mass media are still seen as reflecting reality. The answer I think is as simple as it is obvious. There are two kinds of facts. First, those the customers concerned can actually verify: If Mr. Smith’s dog was run over on Main Street yesterday, the media are careful to report just that, so long as they happen to witness it. Then there are the facts that only a few customers can verify, in which case, for the media to report the facts as the truth, it suffices for them all to say the same thing. It is seldom noted that, whereas all newspapers are after a scoop, the only worthwhile scoop is the one that is eventually published later by all of them. Whenever a fact can no longer be witnessed by the greatest number, it is not because it is a fact that all the media report it; it is because they all report it that it becomes a fact. Remember the yarn about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?
The same conclusion applies to the second type of goods produced and sold by journalism: opinions.
Considering once more that the mass media only sell opinions they believe will sell, I think it possible to prove that the diversity of these opinions is definitely more limited than it usually seems, to such an extent that all the media end up professing only one and the same.
I am aware there is a considerable variety of organs of the press, considerable differences between the opinions they profess, and particularly between their political leanings. But I only want to point out what I consider to be another unwritten law: The more clear-cut and uncompromising the opinions they express, the more limited their distribution. In other words the mass media, strictly speaking, cannot afford to be partisan, and when confronted with a real issue they will sort of mechanically tend to adopt the median stand, the so-called moderate one. One should not be mistaken about what is so often hailed as the poise and reasonableness of the influential mass media: They make a virtue of a commercial necessity, and moderation is just a word they use to hide their fuzziness and unwillingness to sound unpalatable to the widest clientele. To put it simply, the less they think and the more wishy-washy their ideas, the more they sell.
Which is not to say they do not convey—not out of a conscious choice but rather as an irresistible propensity imposed by their trade—a definite ideology.
All organs of opinion must present their opinion as true—otherwise what is the use of promoting them? But at the same time there is no journalist who can afford to condone the idea that he tells the absolute truth: The very justification for an organ of press to profess an opinion is that there are no objective standards of truth that would allow the average citizen to formulate the only interesting one, which is the true one. In other words, a press of opinion only exists as long as it is generally agreed there is no objective truth about anything, so that a sort of forum is necessary for all to confront their particular opinions. That this is the democratic idea in a nutshell is obvious. But what is equally obvious but never explicitly stated is that there would be no democracy, and no mass media, if it were acknowledged that some opinions are true and some are false: If there is any true opinion, a press of opinion is irrelevant, and if it is relevant, it implies there exists no such thing as a truth. In other words, again wittingly or not, the mass media are both a product and a school of relativism. And as there are no civilizations without dogmas uniting men, relativism spells the doom of European civilization: The mass media are among the most efficient gravediggers of the West. This is no marginal role.
Nevertheless, such a conclusion raises an obvious question: Why do the mass media still massively sell news or opinions that are either so anecdotic as to be meaningless or on the contrary so encompassing as to be unverifiable?
To put in a few words what would merit volumes, I think modern Western societies have replaced traditional Christianity with its exact opposite: the individual cult of oneself. The basic principle that underlies their fabric, and is particularly obvious in democratic ideology, is that there is no truth, no nature, no norm, no God but the ones that please the individual: The more modern a society, the more subjectivity reigns supreme; the more it is only made of perfect and solitary wholes, to speak like Rousseau.
But then why is it that such subjectivism does not induce indifference to the outside world and to others? Paradoxically enough, but only at first glance, this is indeed precisely what happens: I think the fact the media only allow us by accident to understand what is really going on—and are basically just everlasting noisemakers—is the very proof that the average consumer of the mass media does not listen to the noise they make to take stock of the outside world, and even less to develop his philosophy of everyday life and current events.
The only reason for him to take an interest in such noise must then be that he subjectively needs the noise, and subjectively enjoys it.
Why the need? To put it again in an almost outrageous nutshell, I believe this need arises from the incapacity of a creature immersed in himself actually to make sense of his own life. He is a lost soul in a consumerist world that offers no lasting satisfaction. Modern man, most of the time, is unwittingly in constant need of distraction, of a world where everything and nothing is, at will, worthy of attention, which is like an ever-replenishing cornucopia of surprises, emotions, shocks—ideally a sort of never-ending, universal amusement park.
And then, correspondingly, the only reason for such a man to enjoy hearing about the outside world is that it is somehow commensurate with his own nature, a world with which he is instantly familiar, whose inhabitants are neighbors whose cat is sick, cheap conventional heroes or thugs, ordinary people displaying their ordinary lives on TV shows, and solicitous weather forecasters warning of heavy rains, a world which requires no thought and where there are no right or wrong opinions, only ones he may easily adopt. In a word, a world that has an immediate meaning for his subjectivity. No wonder the media are so saturated with pathos, always after anything that may arouse pity: One feels pity when one sees the other suffering from an evil he knows he is not immune to—pity is seeing oneself in the other.
In other words, it is not because the media provide him with an insight into the outside world that the modern Westerner is addicted to the media; it is because they allow him to become immersed in himself, and to live content with himself.
Which is why one must judge with extreme caution the usual indictment of the media—that they have the power literally to inform at leisure the people’s minds and wills, and use their power to some unmentionable purpose.
To what extent are the media guilty of disinforming the public? Disinformation is a new word for an age-old practice, as old as war between men: When two wills are at odds and neither is willing to compromise, one either uses open violence to force the other to yield or tries to feed the enemy with lies that will induce his surrender. Is the press able to make the people do or think what it wants them to do or think?
I believe the indictment is too simplistic. As I have tried to suggest, the press is merely the reflection of a public mind shaped by modernity—i.e., by the implicit conviction that every man is a world unto himself. To be exposed to the media means not so much to be impregnated by some definite ideology as to be incapable of escaping the narrow world of one’s affectivity—i.e., to be incapable of thinking. It is to know the world as a jellyfish knows it, as a senseless succession of disjointed sensations, some pleasant, others painful (the only difference from the jellyfish being a capacity to complain whenever pain is experienced). But if the reason why people buy their newspapers is that they expect to hear from them what they want to hear, journalists only lead inasmuch as they stoop to their audience. Just try to convince the people that the best political regime is monarchy!
On the other hand the same logic is the very reason why the mass media may at times appear on the contrary as born-again Pygmalions. The reason seems to me to be very simply that there are many things too remote from the subjective world of most people for them to realize their private universe will be concerned. Beyond the narrow confines of his private, subjective world, outside of what may immediately disturb or amuse him, modern man retains no real interest in what happens. So, not out of passion, but out of indifference, and again provided it has no immediate impact on his day-to-day life, the average modern man may rather easily be persuaded of certain “facts” or to condone certain policies. The average citizen will consent to his government, and to some government men, waging war in the Middle East—though this is only useful to some hidden vested interests—as long as he doesn’t realize the long-term implications for him of waging that war. Etc.
Which shows where the real power of the media lies: They are most powerful when they can take the public unawares, which of course often happens, because it is their nature to prevent the public from thinking. Is this not disinformation at its best? Sun Tzu would surely have thought so, because he thought there could not be more perfect disinformation than that promoted by its own victims.