Why does anyone follow the news? I am not referring to people who more or less have to know what is being said about current events. Investors, naturally, want to know about the rumors that can drive markets up or down, and politicians and their advisors have to study the media the way a deer hunter looks for sign. For decades, reading newspapers and checking out websites was part of my daily routine, if only because I was going to write something on the ridiculous lies being told, and, even now that I am free of this stultifying burden, I find myself checking, every day, on what the fools are saying at the Washington Post and National Public Radio.
I was in Rome when I learned that a machete-wielding maniac had attacked the patrons of the Nazareth Restaurant & Deli in Columbus, Ohio. I got the news from the garbled accounts in the mainstream press.
All the official reports insisted that there was no apparent motive for the attack, though some included the information that the restaurant had an Israeli flag in the window. It took me over a day to find articles that mentioned the two principal facts that had been in possession of the authorities from the beginning: The attacker was a Muslim immigrant from Guinea, by way of Somalia, who had a criminal record; and the restaurant proprietor was an Arab Christian immigrant from Israel who had made a point of getting along with Muslims and Jews.
The entire exercise of tracking down the story was a waste of time. I knew the assailant had to be a Muslim, and website comments from Columbus indicated that he was dark-skinned and wearing a distinctive headdress.
By now, most sensible Americans should have realized they cannot believe anything they are told by police chiefs, the FBI, the CIA, or, indeed, virtually anyone given access to the media. Media access, these days, is like the Nobel Peace Prize: It is a badge of dishonor awarded to warmongering liars. If decent Americans have an enemy, it is not some nasty little conspiracy of Freemasons or money-manipulators but the hydra-headed information technocracy of schools, universities, and the media. These are the institutions that have shaped the minds of every generation of the 20th and 21st century, the people who set the agenda and who make sure that no political change (apart from the destructive policies that Bernie Sanders’s followers call “progressive”) can even be discussed.
In The Act of Killing, the 2012 documentary on the mass murderers who are now running Indonesia, the killers speak openly of their deeds. A journalist even admits to rewriting interviews to make people say the opposite of what they had told the press. Naturally, the interview subject was shot immediately. Anyone who has ever watched 60 Minutes or other magazine “news” programs is aware how careful editing can produce the same results. Of course, the victim is not actually shot, but his reputation and career are ruined. It is a mistake to look at the libels and distortions in the media as leftist aberrations: They are just as likely to take place in the Wall Street Journal or on FOX News. The problem is not that Mike Wallace or Chris Wallace or Megyn Kelly or Bill Kristol does not know how to tell the truth. It is not even fair to single out someone like Roger Ailes—the Karl Rove of the media—for blame. The problem lies with the very media they are working in. To blame the hitman or even the local capo when he is only doing what his organization requires of its members is to overlook the reality of media-made America.
Marshall McLuhan, who was a decent scholar before he turned media guru, became famous for saying “the medium is the message.” In a darker moment, he produced a short book The Medium Is the Massage, in which he made the case—I could hardly describe it as an argument—that the media of communication control our perceptions and thoughts. While the title was initially a typesetter’s error, McLuhan latched onto the brilliance of the metaphor. (Had he read, I wonder, Walker Percy’s fine essay on metaphor as mistake?) The very process of representing “facts” in the news media turns reality into fiction, and what is true of news reporting is even more true of the entire political process.
Politics, today, is simply one more form of communication. This is true not only in the obvious sense that elections depend on the ability to dominate the message in the media but in the McLuhanesque sense that politics is a system of exchange and communication in which the unit of currency is not the word or the image but increments of power. We might call them power-ergs. Those increments are a form of currency that is almost always convertible into dollars. So long as political campaigns are conducted on television, radio, newspapers, and the internet, by means of media dollars and media power-ergs, the powerbrokers will continue to control politics.
Party stalwarts are disquieted when outsiders barge into the game and refuse to play by the rules. George Wallace, Ross Perot, and now Donald Trump, by challenging the mediacracy, inspire hope in the disenfranchised working classes, and when those hopes are dashed—as they always are—the only comfort left to us is the knowledge that the only good news is no news.