Friday, December 22, 2017

Why real news is, indeed, fake.

I've taken three lengthy Uber trips in the past month. All of the drivers got around to asking what I did for a living. When I replied, “I teach journalism,” two of the three exclaimed, “Ahh, fake news!” It took the third driver a few extra lines of conversation, but she eventually got there too.

For those of us engaged in showing young people how the media are supposed to work, there is no escaping the sturm und drang over fake news. Needless to say, the term has itself acquired a patina of inauthenticity, given its most celebrated user's tendency to invoke it to mean, “This news makes me look bad...ergo it's fake.” (Though I doubt that Trump uses, or even knows, the word ergo.)

In fairness, however, those of us who deal in the foundations of journalism understand that the fake-news meme cannot be dismissed simply as red meat that a pathologically insecure president tosses into his supporters' den with discomfiting regularity. Actually, fakery is endemic to the genre. Consider the famous news-radio slogan, “You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world.”

It's a lie. Genuine news is rooted in anomaly: Man bites dog. It follows that what the news business is really giving us—with its unending parade of crime, corruption, ugliness and general depravity—is unreality.

I wrote the guts of this paragraph for a relatively famous (if I do say so myself) piece for the Los Angeles Times back in 2006, but it has lost none of its relevance. For here, in a minute, I give you your actual world*: Each day, 23,911 out of 23,911 scheduled commercial flights take off and land safely. Almost none of us are murdered, and almost no one who is unarmed, of any race, is killed by a cop. The murder rate in much-maligned Chicago is lower than that of cities where we splurge huge sums to vacation. Roughly 100 percent of collegians survive hazing rituals. The employment rate is above 95 percent, and the average family living in federally defined poverty has a car, air conditioning, two TVs and an Xbox. Plagues do not emerge from third-world caves to blight the landscape. The republic slogs on despite the diverting shenanigans of the figureheads at the top; even the current helmsman hasn't undone us and probably won't. Probably.

This is not some Panglossian delusion. It is day-to-day life for almost everyone. So yes, the nightly news is real. These things did happen. But by every meaningful statistical yardstick, they are margin notes to reality. (Big-time journalists, of course, don't like to see themselves as people who trade in trivia, so they imbue their margin notes with near-apocalyptic resonance.) By definition, then, what you see on the news is a negative image of your world, in both the photographic and tonal senses. It's real, but it conjures a wholly fake impression of life.

The news also comprises extensive reporting on events that are “sort of happening” but whose resolution and meaning are far from certain. We see this in the case of Trump's Russia woes or the hyperventilating coverage of hurricanes that still loll hundreds of miles off-shore. There may be collusion with Russia; or there may not be. If there is, Trump may be impeached; or he may not be. The hurricane may ravage coastal cities...or may fizzle out or miss the mainland altogether (which is usually the case). So why obsessively cover such quasi-events in terms of what might happen...but hasn't, really, yet?

Which begs another question: Of all those margin notes that vie for elevation to media melodrama, which do journalists choose to highlight each day? The answer to that question is governed by a process known as news judgment, wherein media gatekeepers apply their own criteria in deciding what’s vital for the public to know. Though there's often unanimity on the lead stories, various news outlets will have different slants on the composition of the rest of the day’s must-know news. So these events are not only (a) anomalous, but (b) cherry-picked from a large orchard of anomalous stories based on subjective criteria. There is no overstating the importance of this simple truth, for this is where the canonical McLuhanism about media and message comes into play: If it's on the news, we figure it's newsworthy, ipso facto. And yet what was important enough to appear on to MSNBC last night may very have been ignored by Fox. And vice versa.

Even in the case of the top stories, journalists will decide what other facts to drag in to contextualize them. This shaping process (often called narrative) may give the lead story a meaning that isn't inherent in the raw facts. What, after all, is the overarching significance of a single unarmed black man shot by a cop? For that matter, in any given year, what is the significance of a dozen unarmed black men shot by cops? Yes, it could be what epidemiologists call a cluster, indicating that “something is going on.” Or it could be a simple aberration of the laws of chance, into which we've injected extraneous meaning.

Similarly, is every newly discovered contact between a Trump campaign official and someone with a Russian-sounding surname further evidence of collusion—or a distraction whose importance pales by comparison to the economy's steady hum? Is the “campus rape crisis” more about women being exploited, or men being deprived of due process? Is #TakeAKnee another tear in the social fabric...or is it symbolic of the inalienable rights upon which the social fabric depends? The media contextualization will suggest how we're supposed to feel. But that's hardly the same as Ultimate Truth. Would you agree?

Outside of a Hurricane Harvey or a 9/11, you see, only hindsight can tell us when a given piece of news was destined to transcend randomness and move into the realm of enduring consequence. No one can know this as it's happening—no, not even Wolf Blitzer. Even my Uber drivers could tell you that...

* or at least your actual America. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

An open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates.


I have just finished reading the self-indulgent exercise in question-begging that ran in the Atlantic under the tantalizing heading, "The First White President." Tautology from a-z. And you don't see it, do you? You can't see it. So blurred are the paranoiac lenses through which you regard American life that you see only in caricature; distorted allegory. You inhabit a grim world of dog whistles and racial code, implicit bias and all manner of invisible slights or slanders. You basically imply that Donald Trump won because the mass of white Americans, when at home, strut around in Klan garb, secretly fantasizing about the perfect tall oak from which to lynch their black coworkers. (I may be overstating for effect, but your piece is only slightly less scurrilous and disgusting in its characterizations.) In fact, Trump won because of the phenomenon your piece epitomizes: Good, hard-working people are sick of being labeled racists, misogynists, deplorables; sick of being told they're “angry because they're losing their power.” They're angry because of the ceaseless repetition of that trope. The Trump vote was a counter-punch from decent Americans who resent being scapegoatedAmericans (overwhelmingly) without malice in their hearts who tired of being called ugly names for doing nothing more sinister than living their daily lives and/or, at worst, voicing an impolitic point of view now and then. They reject the notion that the accident of having been born white constitutes a sinful privilege for which they're obliged to apologize* (even as they're being laid off from their jobs or having their homes foreclosed, perhaps). And speaking of privilege, they bristle at the suggestion that someone who commits a violent crime or otherwise fails at life should enjoy the privilege of invoking his great-great-grandfather's infelicitous circumstances as a defense. Many of these decent folks never accepted excuses from their children and will be damned if they'll accept them from grown men and women. That is not bigotry, sir, but rather a philosophy of self-sufficiency/personal responsibility...a philosophy that happens to be embraced/espoused by any number of prominent blacks...who are also called ugly names for their trouble. (See under Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Larry Elder, Morgan Freeman and many others.)

So those voters began thinking tribally, the one identifying characteristic of the tribe being not whiteness per se but disgust with the blanket recriminations spewed into America nightly by CNN's punditry panels. And their disgust was such that they flocked to a dismal excuse for a man like Donald Trump, who, for all his personal and political shortcomings, defended them against gratuitous attack.

"The word racism is like ketchup...It can be put on anything..." Thomas Sowell
And by the way, what of the 93% of blacks who voted for Obama? (As did I, FYI.) Did they do so because they found his views on NAFTA energizing? Or was something a bit more superficialepidermalin play? 

You have become a sesquipedalian Sharpton, the quintessence of race-baiting, and Literary America enables you. If you keep it up you'll help re-elect the man, God help us all. Please talk to someone outside your bubble of hurt and projected rage. If you won't do it for me, do it for Samori's sake. You are poisoning the mind of your boy, who came into this world as an innocent and did not need to be steeped in your reductivist racial nihilism. Give him a chance to find his own way in life without making him wear the mantle of the victim that he neither was nor ever was meant to be. Damn it, man. Stop this.

* or pay reparations, as you've also argued.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monday, October 09, 2017

Self-esteem takes another hit.

This is a very nice piece on the phenomenon, and not just because yours truly is quoted extensively. The writer, New York's Jesse Singal, did his homework.

Makes you wonder: How long before we fully escape the damage wreaked on American society by the simple, deceptively appealing idea "you're special!"?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fatal presidency?

Some of you may recall the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case: Womanizing Green Beret kills his wife and young daughters at Fort Bragg on a rainy night in February, 1970. Murdered the wife in an instantaneous explosion of rage, then deliberately slaughtered his daughters in concocting a cover story about Manson-like intruders. The late, marvelous writer Joe McGinniss wrote a book, Fatal Vision, that became a true-crime classic (as well as the inspiration for my own book, Deadly Blessing, which, like Joe's book, became a TV movie amid the period's true-crime mania; my film was called Bed of Lies). I've been re-reading Fatal Vision. It focuses a lot on the psychic malady of pathological narcissism and the threat posed for those in the narcissist's orbit. As I read along I am struck by how many of the characteristics apply to Donald Trump. The parallels are astonishing. Now we're all in Trump's orbit, and all subject to the threat. Incidentally, widening the lens, we have spawned several generations of potential Trumps by fanning the flames of narcissism via the self-esteem movement, helicopter parenting, "never give up your dreams" and related cultural phenomena. 

But I digress. So Hillary's prophesy has come to pass: "a man you can bait with a tweet" has got "the nuclear codes," and he's playing out his psychological disarray on the global stage. As we've seen, he is so emotionally fragile that he cannot let himself be seen as fragile, even for a moment, and will go to any lengths to quell his sense of inadequacy if pushed. (A classic symptom of the malaise.) This whole Korea business was inevitable, and if the nation survives it intact, it won't be the last time. Trump will see to that, unless he is removed from power somehow. 

I am complicit here: one of the citizens comedian Bill Maher excoriates on every show. I did not vote. I thought Trump a buffoon but simply could not bring myself to press the Hillary buttonand as most of you know, I despised the media for going in the tank for Hillary. So I and my millions of like-minded fellow non-voters let this happen. I hope this is a lesson to the Dems in 2020, if the nation still exists and is habitable. Though I would not make the same mistake again, I'm sure there are countless Americans who aren't going to get behind an awful, unappetizing candidate simply because she's considered a form of royalty and it's "her time." How I wish Joe Biden had run.