May 16th, 2008 07:38 EST
The Socialization of News and Imagery
(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 41, Del Marbrook`s podcasts for The Student Operated Press)
One of the reasons I cherish The New York Times is its institutional eye for the easy-to-overlook and profound. The March 27th front page features a story by Brian Stelter called Finding Political News Online, Young Viewers Pass It Along. It may prove to be the most significant story of the first fifty years of the century, and to its credit The Times put it on the front page. The story is about the socialization of news and imagery, not in the political sense, but in the sense that sharing news and imagery has become part of the way we socialize with each other. We like a blog post, a news story, an essay, an image, a poem, a quotation, and next thing you know it`s whizzing around the world to friends and family. What we`re accustomed to calling news is becoming as personal and intimate as a jewel box or a pack of baseball cards.
The socialization of news and imagery means that we have become more eclectic readers and viewers. The Internet has opened veins of information and thought to us, and we are mining it delightedly. We no longer depend on one or two sources, a favorite newspaper or magazine or news show. We are sharing information and ideas the way we share a meal. We are using information, ideas and images for openers, for staying in touch with each other, for greeting each other, and for engaging each other.
It`s true that the Internet has given rise to rumor and hate mills, to the swift boaters and mad-hatter liars. But the ability to communicate has always had a down side. Dogmatists and ideologues have always tried to capture the word, to enslave it to their own purposes. The socialization of news and imagery, to me at least, constitutes a breakout from the tyranny of censors, thought police and bamboozlers. With so many ideas and viewpoints flying around in the ether it becomes that much more difficult to corral us into narrow corridors and herd us into tunnels.
We like to talk about the free press, but it never has been as free as the words imply. Newspapers have always been owned by people with certain ideas and agendas, and while the more enlightened of these owners may have encouraged open discourse and free inquiry, they have always pursued their biases. When the Gutenberg press was developed the church moved quickly to capture it, to put it to the use of its own dogma and hierarchy. Moveable type has never entirely freed itself from the control of the rich and powerful, but the struggle has been heroic. In every generation there have been zamizdat presses, pamphleteers, counterculture celebrants of the word. The underlying motive is always to promote a certain way of seeing things.
But the socialization of information and imagery enabled by the Internet high-jumps this conundrum. And that is why the current presidential election campaign is, like politics itself, notable for what the ambitious are silent about. The pundits are talking about Social Security running dry and about health care bankrupting the nation, and they`re making assumptions that should be challenged and are instead being laid down as foundational truths. For example, Social Security will run dry only if we keep on refusing to tax more than $90,000 of high salaries. And it is very likely health care costs will continue to rise only if we continue to let the foxes "the insurers and providers "into the hen house.
But at least somebody is making a halfhearted and misdirected effort to talk about those issues. Who is talking, on the other hand, about what the wannabe president and Congress will do about the telecommunications giants` effort to pocket the Internet, which was developed with tax money, the people`s money, by bribing Congress into passing a law that would permit them to price access to the Internet according to their liking? Such a law would stifle the people`s Internet. It would hand over a brilliant innovation to profiteers. Worse yet, it would enable the telecommunications giants to censor the Internet as surely as China censors it, to control its content the same way that the newspaper and television industries control content today.
This may well be the issue of the 21st Century, and the politicians are keeping their mouths shut for good reason, because they`re taking money from the telecommunications industry. One of the many debates we`re not having is whether the American future is a stark choice between piratical capitalism and abject government control. Does it really have to be one or the other? Why can`t it be exactly what our forefathers envisioned, a system of checks and balances?
Brian Stelter in his Times story is talking about nothing less than the way human beings all over the world interact with each other. He is talking about human interaction, the kind of thing that plays a role in the evolution of the species, the same way the opposable thumb made the Neanderthal lord of sentient beings. This isn`t small stuff. This is bigger than Iraq, bigger than Social Security. If human beings have seized upon a new way to speak with each other, to share their interests and views, and it is taken away from them, even though they, and not speculative investors, paid for it, then an immense crime against humanity will have taken place, a kind of genocide in fact, because an evolutionary tool will have been taken out of our hands.
If my premise, which undoubtedly will strike many as overdrawn, has a grain of truth in it, then at this juncture we ought to mark the intellectual integrity of The New York Times in writing and publishing a story that may well describe the decline of The Times itself, as we have known it. The Internet is profoundly disturbing to traditional paper-and-ink publishers. Some are embracing it reluctantly and unimaginatively, some are embracing it enthusiastically, but it represents a sea change that can`t be held back, although some segments of the culture, notably the book industry, have waged an impressive rearguard action against it. The view still prevails in the United States, fostered by the neo-con liars who brought us the Iraq war, that we are in the Middle East to bestow upon it the great gift of democracy. Whether the Middle East wants democracy is another matter. And whether it should want it is still another matter. And whether it knows what to do with it is still another matter. But the Internet is making it increasingly difficult for the ideologues to prevent us from seeing the Muslim viewpoint, which is that since before Alexander the Great the West has been trying to conquer the East. For example, we presume the Greeks, whose ideas we have inherited and often mangled, were right and the Persians were wrong. We presume Greek individualism was superior to Persian collectivism. But from the Muslim viewpoint our soldiers in Iraq, indeed our soldiers anywhere on Muslim soil, are Crusaders and their intent is to desecrate Islam and deny Muslims their right to decide their own way of life.
Muslims ask why we should be so het up about their religious ideas, their preference for mullahs and imams over senators and governors, when Israel`s theocratic inclinations seem not to interest us at all, nor do the theocratic tendencies of our own Christian right seem to concern us. How can we be genuine in our stated desire to bring the Middle East a better way of life when we are so demonstrably blind? I`m not arguing for the validity of this view; I`m characterizing what I observe to be a widely held Muslim view. My concern is to point out that the Internet is making it increasingly difficult for our ideologues to conceal this Muslim view from the rest of us. The Internet might even make it possible for us to fathom that moderates in Israel and the Muslim world have the same difficulty we have in the United States keeping a well-organized, angry and blinkered right wing from becoming the tail that wags the dog.
It has always been the case that while the generality of the species has pursued such interests as poetry, art and music, ideologues concerned with power and money have worked to control the means of communication, whether it was the calligraphers, the Gutenberg press, newspapers, radio, television, films, or, now, the Internet. In other words, while most of us were trying to live our lives as best we could others were grabbing the means to control our thought. Nothing has changed, except the small possibility that the cat may now be out of the bag. It just might be possible that enough of the world`s citizens have enjoyed the privilege and pleasure of the Internet to rise up to prevent our elected and appointed lackeys from handing it over to money-grubbers who will inevitably censor it.
But to believe they will censor it you have to believe that the press is already censored, a case I have been trying to make. We think of censors as bearded bad guys, not the business establishment that has been glorified by our entrepreneurial culture. But our entrepreneurial culture has interests as distinct as the medieval church`s. When people get ideas that offend the entrepreneurs and try to stand in the way of all they think they`re entitled to, they do not hesitate to censor either content or the way content is presented. Most entrepreneurial censorship is exercised by omission. But censorship may also take the form of presenting information in a half light as half truths, as is the case in most reportage of Social Security or health care. Or it may take the form of misnomer, such as referring to the Lou Dobbs News Hour on CNN when it is in fact a not-too-artful blend of strongly held opinion in which news is set up as a bogey against which to inveigh. Nothing wrong with this, as long as it isn`t your sole source of news.
It seemed to me serendipitous that the day The Times editors started the Stelter story just above the fold they started another story next to it and just under the fold called Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison, by Jody Rosen. What I like about this juxtaposition "it could not have been whimsical on the part of The Times editors "is that it shows how history is and must be continually rewritten, revisited and reconsidered. And there is no better way to do this than the Internet, simply because it offers access to such a wealth of divergent ideas the minute they are expressed. We are still re-examining the life of Alexander the Great. Some regard him as an alcoholic tyrant. Others, like myself, regard him as an extraordinary but tragically flawed visionary. Readers of the Victorian era didn`t have as many studies of Alexander as we do, and we don`t have as many as readers a hundred years from now will have. But until now it has taken a relatively long time for us to become aware of such diverse ways of looking at history. Now we are trading dribs and drabs of history in the making, and no one knows how this will affect the making of history. But we have probably arrived at a consensus that it will change the way history is made.
Jody Rosen tells us that when Thomas Edison in 1877 scratchily recorded Mary Had a Little Lamb it wasn`t the first recording ever made, as we have long supposed. She tells us that American scholars in France have discovered that a ten-second recording of Au Clair de la Lune, a folk song, was made on April 9, 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War. You can be sure that the Stelter and Rosen stories are whooshing around the web to many more people than buy The New York Times every day. You can be sure that commentary is being added "new essays, new insights and even images. In other words, the world`s citizenry is taking part in the journalistic process, and the process has become an integral part of the way we socialize. We have said that information and imagery are being exponentially transmitted around the world, but we have concentrated for the most part on words. The fact is that the significance of a technology like YouTube, for example, is that watching someone speak changes the way we receive the words that are being spoken. It`s one thing to read what Stelter and Rosen have written, but it`s quite another thing to watch them say it. When we watch them speak we study their micro-expressions, the way police study people they are questioning. We look for what poker players call tells, signs of sincerity, honesty, intent, or signs of dishonesty and disingenousness. We decide whether we like the speaker or not. There is as obvious a downside to this as there is an upside. If I`m reading a great poem but you don`t like my face, my poem suffers. But you might have read the poem on your own and liked it. It`s just as true that my face might persuade you that a bad poem is a good poem, the way dishonest politicians often trick us.
Back in he 1950s and 1960s most paper and ink newspapers used pictures to break up type so that stories wouldn`t appear like rows of tombstones. Photographers hated this mentality because it demeaned their work, which they knew could stand on its own merits and not merely as decoration for typography. By the end of the 1960s newspapers had broken away from this habit. They had learned that images have their own stories to tell. The Internet has renewed this discussion, because now we have easy access to still images and moving images, and we can provide either kind all by ourselves, without relying on official news organizations. In other words, we`re no longer the mere subjects and readers of news; we`re the generators of news, the perpetuators, and the distributors. And in this function we have found for ourselves, as Brian Stelter has shown us, a new dynamic for interacting with each other. There is a certain irony in his perceptive story having appeared in a paper-and-ink venue, but even before the newspaper hit the streets his story was undoubtedly traveling the ether in e-mails and stirring up discussion. This isn`t just history in the making, its making history.