I have a friend named Heath Cerrin Erny who is both really intelligent and distinctly engaging. A physics major as comfortable discussing Gauss’s Law (which he has tattooed on his arm) as he is Aristotle (none of whose work is tattooed anywhere), Heath always keeps our discussions thought provoking. He’s not without humor, either, so generally, we have a nice time hanging out, and our discourse ranges from the intellectual to the inane. (How inane? This is a man who used to freeze fruit in our refrigerator during freshman year solely for the purpose of shattering his assorted apples, oranges and pears in the stairwells of South Quad. Good times.)
A few weeks ago, Heath and I met for dinner, an appointment at which we broke from our standard, varied interaction and spoke almost solely about the nation’s war campaign in the Middle East. While commiserating over our shared distrust of President G-Dub and bemoaning the aborted diplomacy that both led us to a nearly unilateral war and likely threatened all other Axis members, Heath mentioned that he had stopped visiting CNN’s website because it had effectively morphed into www.war.com.
Heath had not turned his back on the United States, signaled his disregard for U.S. troops or condoned Saddam Hussein and his regime – all common accusations hurled by those who adhere to a binary system which makes any dissent un-American, unappreciative and dangerous. Instead, he simply had already become disenchanted by the media’s willing commodification of war and its obfuscation of all other happenings.
Following our evening, one which I had prefaced by watching innumerable explosions, I went home and rapidly joined Heath in his perspective as I watched shows like CNN’s “War in Iraq” and recalled Dan Rather’s almost gleeful prognostication that the military endeavor against Hussein would likely be the most watched television event in history. When news outlets are preoccupied finding the catchiest title for their endless coverage of the war and Dan Rather is recasting the U.S. president as director of programming instead of commander in chief, the American public has some serious problems.
Finding fault in news coverage is nothing new, so I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who believes he’s rightly reinvented the wheel. My point is that watching the war on television provides a window into reality no more legitimate than playing CandyLand.
The sensational, jejune coverage which we can watch at all times – please don’t talk to me about the “embedded” reporters who are taken off air if they actually report and are only allowed their “access” as a means for the military to manage the news sent back to the States – is only a simulacrum of journalism, one that redirects the media’s narrow spotlight from other news and recenters it on skewed, consumption-ready information. Comparing our country’s reporting on the war to that of news services in other nations, like the BBC in allied Britain, exposes that we aren’t receiving a clear picture, one replete with accounts of death and mishaps and misdeeds, the characteristics of war. Even more alarmingly, we also have fewer and fewer prominent sources from which we can retrieve all that we might want to know.
The high preponderance of corporate mergers and synergy is scary given the extent to which media can influence our opinions, a power that is rarely examined with great depth beyond the world of academia. Neglect of the subject owes to the absence from MSNBC’s news ticker of tidbits like, “New study finds that we and our industry peers control you, the uninformed herd.” But college kids have that time to ask for more, and a scrutiny of the media effects literature yields a depressing conclusion.
Most basically, research has conclusively found that news outlets, particularly television programs, have a profound and decisive influence on the American public’s agenda, dictating to them which issues matter and why. The results were subsequently modified, with that power dependent upon the topic, the preexisting level of persuasion among individual, and their respective levels of cognition. An issue like war in a distant place against a people with a mostly alien culture perfectly lends itself to media manipulation, though.
Findings like those are worth bearing in mind as we continue to “patriotically” watch someone else’s cities go up in flames, as we continue to ignore the rest of what’s happening, as we continue to confuse night-vision-cloaked information with bare truth.
Litman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.