Mulling: “The Media”

My posting has slowed quite a bit. Big changes at work are one reason. The start of a terrifying online game of Diplomacy is another. Also, in my rush to try to find a strategy to save Austria-Hungary from her nearly-historically-correct total destruction, I discovered my unread copy of Kissinger’s Diplomacy and then started reading that. Suddenly my  RSS feeds are clogging and my compulsions won’t let me click “read all” without at least skimming them. Filter failure. Decision paralysis.

What else. I wrote a guest post for newish group blog “Sweet Talk“, bridging some topics I brought up over here with a thread of discussion that was developing over there (that thread: in reverse order). I expect to write quite a few more posts there in short order- as I’m writing this, today is an uneventful “build” phase in the Diplomacy match. There’s some really interesting threads at Sweet Talk and the posts are rapid-fire and structured, altogether a very different tempo from my sprawling collection of scribbles here.

I.

“The Media” is a complicated abstraction that is often thrown around without much thought, like the Market or the Government. They are spoken of as singular, centralized agents but are better understood as complex, evolving ecosystems.

There is an ever-increasing distrust in many of the classic public institutions of mid-20th century life. The newscaster, the politician, the priest, the scientist, and other public figures suffer from record-low levels of confidence. “The Media” seems to suffer from a broad consensus in its own shittyness, though. It’s odd. Even individual news shows will take time to shake their heads at the collective Media. Nobody really seems to defend it.

Caricatures: The liberal critique of the Media might revolved around the corporate use of sensationalism to drive viewers (instead of, say, a more paternalistic role as Truth Tellers). The “conservative” critique of the Media these days portrays it as more-or-less an institutionalized conspiracy, where the various media companies are the paternalists that the Left wishes for, effectively. I’ll use Moldbug because his rhetoric is at least fun:

And the [Left] is the party of the educational organs, at whose head is the press and universities. This is our 20th-century version of the established church. Here at UR, we sometimes call it the Cathedral – although it is essential to note that, unlike an ordinary organization, it has no central administrator. No, this will not make it easier to deal with.

There are several believable theories why trust is so low. One reason is that there is simply more transparency, and that people don’t like seeing the gritty machinery of power.

Another is that national media has forced dissimilar communities to become entangled- in the past, a northern states’ conservative senator might still be “to the left” of a southern states’ liberal senator, but increasingly the acceptable political range has shrunk considerably. There are fewer and fewer liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, because attention and moneyed interests from outside of a given state are forcing hundreds of different district Overton Windows into one shoddy “national Overton Window” for particular policy interests. The parties are weaker than ever compared to these moneyed interests: in the past, Party leadership had more control of the purse strings than today, where hotshot Senators can command more money and attention than party leadership sometimes can.

I think that the Chris Hayes explanation is a satisfying addition to this salad of excuses. Journalists are openly very comfortable with other elites- political, entertainment, etc. Their insider-ness benefits them (which is why they strive for it) but also potentially compromises them and increases the social distance between them and their constituencies. In other situations this kind of behavior might describe a “Washington insider” who might be “out of touch” and has [this one is huge in some communities] “forgotten where he came from.”

 

II. Comedians in News

In Shakespearean logic, at least, the Fool is able to use his play-behavior to speak truths that no one else is secure enough to admit. Initially, Fools were actual mentally disabled folk whom the wealthy would take in as pets; Eerily, the relationship became a role that totally sane, mentally fit folk might opt to do- the tradition was maintained that the Fool could not take responsibility for his actions.

There are various reasons why the “news”-style comedy show style has done so well. “Outsider” status, the personal appeal of humor, less squeamishness about taking a position, and constant new ammunition all must help.

Jon Oliver:

As a comedian, Oliver says, his job is to remain an outsider.

[…]

As a comedian you should not be in rooms where the people you’re making fun of also are, because you’ll realize, at the end of the day, they’re just people. You can’t risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack. My solution to that is not to curve my jokes — it’s to not put myself in the same room as the consequences of those jokes. …

A comedian is supposed to be an outsider. He’s supposed to be outside looking in. I don’t want to be at parties in D.C. with politicians. Comedians shouldn’t be there. If you feel comfortable in a room like that, there’s a big problem. That’s what is so concerning when you see journalists so comfortable around politicians — that’s a red flag.


III. Media/Conduits

This is old news now, but:

Mike Hudack — who, importantly, is Director of Product at Facebook — has a little rant about the state of the media and his view that we at Vox.com have failed to cure what ails it:

“And we come to Ezra Klein. The great Ezra Klein of Wapo and msnbc. The man who, while a partisan, does not try to keep his own set of facts. He founded Vox. Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of interacting with screens from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.

And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is “How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever.” Which is better than “you can’t clean your jeans by freezing them.”

The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by “What microsoft doesn’t get about tablets” and “Is ’17 People’ really the best West Wing episode?”

It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

Media-shaming is sillier when its easier to see how the incentive structure of a medium actually works. The actual aggregate consumer’s behavior is clear. (Look at this lovely URL, btw: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/news-kim-kardashian-kanye-west-benghazi/372906/). It is easy to believe, within my social bubble for instance, that Game of Thrones, Louie, and Mad Men are watched by nearly everyone when that is incredibly far from the truth. Social media can create incredible echo chambers, but they are also especially measurable from the outside. The rules of the conduit (Facebook itself) generates the dynamics we can roughly measure (aggregate Facebook user behavior), which drives the problem that we’re experiencing (wherein shallow, easily-digestible content that hits the right nerves are massively rewarded; sites that need more traffic learn what works; Upworthy is founded).

Different media allow for different rules of expression, different incentive structures, etc. Twitter’s character restraints and atemporal affordances makes it easier for bots and corporate accounts to imitate people by cheap tricks; Twitter is still an arbitrary-sounding idea on its face, but it allows for unique forms of interaction all its own.

 

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