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The Medium is the Instigator

When I wrote about my approach to journalism, and why it seems to be broken in our society, I didn’t expect the volume of messages I received back from members of the Inside Information community.  The idea that we are being harmed by today’s journalistic norms clearly struck a nerve.

Of course, the feedback (as it always does) triggered a lot of thinking and wondering in my poor brain.  And as I started to look deeper into why we’re having so much trouble getting straight reporting and clear descriptions of what’s actually going on, I realized that there are other forces at work, stressors which have pulled and tugged my profession into a distorted version of its original intention and vision.

Back in the 1960s, I read several books by Marshall McLuhan, who had been an astute literary critic (you should read his pieces on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake), who turned his considerable intelligence to the advent, in short order, of radio and television to our media ecosystem.  In a nutshell, he said that the content of any form media is surprisingly less relevant than its nature; that is, the way that different media presents themselves to our senses has more to do with their impact on our brains and our society than what actual messages are being presented through them.

For centuries, media meant mostly the printed word.  The printed word dramatically changed society during the Renaissance by making different thoughts and ideas more widely available to the public.  McLuhan argued, persuasively, that the print media was participative; that we tend to engage with it as we read.  It is, in his words, a ‘hot’ medium.

The societal outcome of the hot medium of printed books and pamphlets was widespread questioning of (primarily) religious dogma, the Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment philosophers and a lot of passionate religious warfare that raged, off and on, for centuries.  Print was nothing to be trifled with.

McLuhan spent more space in his writings on radio, which became globally popular in the 1920s and early 1930s.  It’s hard to comprehend now, but radio back then was used to broadcast fiery speeches to much broader audiences than could attend in person, and brought news (which could be manipulated into propaganda) to a broader audience of people who either couldn’t or didn’t read.  

McLuhan believed that the radio medium, as it was used then, was essentially tribal, and was even more participative (if that’s the right word) than print.  Hot, but in a different way; where print encouraged independent thinking and exposed people to new exciting (blasphemous) ideas, radio encouraged people to connect together along nationalistic lines, and also politically within the nation.  (You can think of the hippie movement as a tribal outcome of radio turning to broadcasting rock & roll music.)

In his analysis, radio carried the tribal drumbeats of fascist dictators inciting entire populations in Germany, Italy and Spain, with the result being a world war that was surprisingly popular among the inflamed masses who believed their tribe should rule over others, and that their ruler was a champion and savior of the tribe.

Television?  McLuhan said that TV was a passive ‘cool’ medium; that it (my word, not his) tended to tranquilize its audiences, and exert an essentially calming effect regardless of content.  TV viewing was the ultimate passive activity, and later research in the advertising world showed that the images on-screen actually bypassed the cognitive brain entirely, creating an aura of unreflective contentment.  (Anybody who has witnessed a ‘couch potato’ staring at the screen can see this in action.)  

McLuhan pointed out the fact the world became much more peaceful, overall, during the 1950s and 1960s, and where there was warfare (Vietnam was not exactly peaceful in those days) the conflict had been initiated by military technocrats and was actually opposed by the (not inflamed) population.

So what’s the point of all this?  If Marshall McLuhan was right, what would he have said about the advent of social media and the internet in general?  Putting my McLuhan hat on (no, it doesn’t fit comfortably) I would surmise that we have a different kind of ‘hot’ medium working through our cultural central nervous system today.  There’s a self-reinforcing power to citizens deciding what to believe and confining their attention to data and content that confirms those beliefs—which has become visibly polarizing and herding.  

McLuhan might have called it ‘groupthink’ on a broad scale.  Social media, (and cable TV as well, where the news channels seem to function much like radio did back in the day) seems to encourage a different kind of tribalism, which isn’t broadly nationalistic, but instead allows people to select what they believe, even if those things are not, plainly, factually true.  (Q-anon is a great example.)

Journalism was, of course, completely unprepared for a world where the audience feels free to choose its own reality, where big segments of the potential readership can simply block out those writers and outlets which are brave enough to disagree with their assumptions about the world.

The new business model, which makes financial sense for the new medium, is to pick one of the broadest segments and consciously reinforce their consensus.  Objectivity becomes a hindrance to getting attention; objectivity and a rigorous devotion to facts will inevitably upset one group, and then an objective report on a different set of facts will upset another, because truth and reality are not what the polarized audience wants to hear or is willing to consume.  If your revenue model relies on getting attention, then objective journalism can be the worst of all possible strategies in this new medium environment.

McLuhan never actually said ‘the medium is the message,’ but that phrase, often attributed to him, pretty well summarizes how he explained the impact of new forms of media on our collective consciousness and society.  But what I think is new, this time around, is that the content creators—journalists among them—are now deliberately creating message packaging that reinforces that selective groupthink.  You could fairly compare it to throwing gasoline on the fire.  Or having a roomful of ‘yes men/women’ contribute their enthusiastic agreement with whatever the CEO happens to be muttering.

Normally, when somebody outlines the nature of a societal challenge, he or she would propose a solution.  I don’t have one.  But I can’t believe that the evolution of media will stop here.  I suspect that eventually, newer forms of social media like TikTok and, more promisingly, more advanced forms of virtual reality, will once again inject a ‘cool’ media element into our social fabric.  Increasingly realistic video games may be adding some ‘cool’ as well.  One of my novels proposes that eventually, virtual reality will replace movies; people will pay for immersion into an entire life inside the programmed circuitry, and come out with another lifespan of experience and, potentially, wisdom.

I can (must) imagine that the political hysteria of the moment, mass shootings and awkward Thanksgiving conversations might eventually give way to a calmer social dynamic, perhaps even a return to print, an ancient participative medium that now seems a bit cooler than when it was introduced in the early Renaissance.  Maybe, if that future day ever comes, the journalists who have given in to the temptations of catering rather than informing will be marginalized, even ostracized, finally viewed as what I think they objectively have become: click whores and shills.  

Or is that too much to hope for?