Following Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, the Republicans delivered the customary rebuttal, this year, featuring Senator Marco Rubio as their spokesperson. Then came the now infamous water bottle moment, washing away not only Rubio’s thirst and whatever substantive remarks he made, but possibly notions of his fitness to seek higher office in 2016. Mind you, I’m not a Republican, nor a Democrat either, having voted the Green Party last November. I do, however, have a sense of fair play and I found the media’s persistent, even gleeful replay of a human moment thoroughly annoying and partisan.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I prefer avoiding the mass media altogether, since it frequently seems to thrive on the negative and sensational to the point of hinting at animosity, or an underbelly of petty meanness analogous to an undercurrent of daily life manifesting itself in the personality that enjoys another’s fall, the venom of daily gossip with fondness for spilling confidences, speculation, insinuation, ridicule and invasion of privacy or creeping over every fence and peering into every window. Its dynamics, whether public or private, are worth exploring, since they have a human origin. The media likewise strays when it embraces advocacy journalism driven by concealed biases or panders to special interest groups or omits asking the right questions.
Like many of you, Karen and I have recently caught-up with Downton Abbey, TV’s highbrow soap opera that has hooked millions in Britain and America (second in viewers to this year’s Superbowl). Weaving its spell through subtle intra-episode suspense played out in a facsimile of Edwardian elegance contesting with working class aspirations, its characters, all of them, major or minor, are remarkably chiseled into a sharpened relief, foregrounding their composite individuality, and avoiding stereotype. As with Shakespere’s Iago, insinuation rather than outright deed works its scourge among some of them. Thomas and O’Brien come to mind as primary instigators, motivated by malice, fomenting innuendo.
As such, they’re not strikingly different from an errant press. Appropriately, one of Downton Abbey’s other candidates for “dishonorable mention” is Sir Richard Carlisle, hard-ball, newspaper mogul who thrives on scandalizing adversaries, influence peddling, and unbridled intimidation. He decides what makes or doesn’t make news, as his personal needs dictate. We are not far from how real media works to manipulate opinion or affirm its biases or cast its critics into disrepute.
While I fervently believe in a free press, devotee that I am of John Stuart Mill (On Liberty), I’ve become wiser with the vintage of my years as to its capabilities for abuse as in outing a CIA operative and endangering intelligence sources in adversary nations; or of unbalanced reporting, whether by design or neglect; or of slanting the news through connotative nuance; or of a more sinister modus operandi of interpretive journalism pursuing an a priori agenda of prejudices.
I wish I had time and space to write more fully on the press, both as to its assets and liabilities; but suffice it to say, there lies a latent psychology underlying its behavior, since it’s so human in its making. Putting ourselves on the alert, we diminish its power to manipulate us.