The challenge for supporters of Barack Obama, tonight and after, is to mediate the media’s mediation of reality. Mediating the mediation: in politics that’s called “spin.” Spin is a conceptually sexy, pop-cultural term for influence. It is a method of persuasion. But as the nature of the expression suggests in its physical metaphor, it is superficial, acting on the exterior body rather than the interior being. Spin – like the earth on its axis. Don’t necessarily transform the deep understanding; just grab the body by the arm and turn it in another direction.
In this picture, though, the body is the whole argument, both sides of it – the presentation of it. By the media. In all the now common reference to spin as if it were the weather – just part of politics, like a convention – what is too little acknowledged by the media is that what is really being spun is the media. Reporters and analysts pretend to stand back and in rather blasé fashion cursorily acknowledge the pol spin activity as if they, the journalists, are immune to it and it is really being directed at us, the receivers of mediation.
The media doesn’t get it.
A standard story line of the news media, particularly over the span of the Obama administration, has been the break down in our governance due to extreme partisanship and consequent popular contempt for elected officials by those who elect them. This is one element of the news media’s false equivalency “objectivity.”
“Both sides do it.”
Well, you know, everybody eats, too. Everybody doesn’t eat as much.
The news media is far less observant of its own break down in its own civic role. Even news organizations’ own occasional, self-congratulatory coverage, in apparent self-examination of its own failures, occurs in brief and superficial segments that function as a sop to critics and the challenges of conscience. The same failures are reenacted. The failure of large segments of the journalistic world to adequately understand fundamental concepts of their own profession makes all this unsurprising. Significant numbers of journalists believe objectivity means not attempting to mediate between truth and falsity. Such a notion seriously mistakes any meaningful, coherent definition of objectivity, is – many journalists would no doubt be surprised to recognize – essentially relativistic, and actually makes the journalist uniquely susceptible to – spin. To be the handmaiden of spin is precisely the outcome of believing not that objectivity is the position of truth, but of independence from critical thinking, an empty passivity of mind.
We just report – stenographers, digital recorders, auto-cams rotating back and forth between he said and she said.
Raise the issue of truth with the mentally lazy or inadequate-to-the-task and you will immediately hear of its difficulty. What is the truth, they’ll cry. How can we know the truth?
How can we get up in the morning? First, one leg…. Work at it.
Every opinion is “just an opinion” is the mental state of the untrained mind. All persuasion is not the same. There are good, sound arguments, and there is spin. There is Socrates and there is sophistry.
The major spin to come out of the Vice-Presidential debate is the subject of Joe Biden’s laughter, his smiles and scornful reactions to Paul Ryan – his “rudeness.”
A truth is that there is meaningful consideration to be given to the effect of Biden’s manner. It is not reporting or analysis to ignore human nature, behavior and responsiveness. Biden’s demeanor did displease some who were not simply GOP partisans. But the far greater effrontery of a lie can be masked by a calm, quiet demeanor. The scornful laugh in response is there for all to see, and all that will be seen by those who cannot recognize the lie. Whose task is it, then, to reveal the lie and then consider the lie and the reaction to it as a whole? To weigh them in significance?
What deserves our lasting attention, the superficially apparent rudeness of “disrespectful” facial reactions – should one show respect to a lie? – or the rudeness of bald-faced lying to the people over whom a candidate seeks to exercise power? What is worse – rolling eyes or claiming the employment rate is going up when it is going down? What is worse – hands thrown up to the sky in feigned disbelief or claiming Social Security is threatened with insolvency when it is not? What is worse, the apparent disrespect of behavior purposefully directed at discrediting an argument and its author or a candidacy generally acknowledged since its inception and repeatedly established and acknowledged to be dissembling and dishonest? That the conservative mouthpieces and right wing bloggers have talked about Biden’s behavior for a week was to be expected. That the news media permit that discussion to become the defining characteristic of the event – with Biden’s superior argumentation second – was not a requirement. The news media got spun. And because the media generally accept the world of spin, live within it and on its rotating surface, they do not feel its effect on them.
The mass news media believes it is transparently mediating the delivery of reality to its audience. Increasingly, however, the reality it purports to deliver is the Potemkin village of its own mediation. If the most dishonest campaign ever waged for the Presidency succeeds, it will be in very large part because of the failure of the American journalistic establishment.
The challenge for those who seek to prevent this outcome is to mediate the media’s mediation – to serve as a corrective lens that refocuses everyone’s perception from the process and the game, of politics and journalism, that political reporters love so much, to something a little closer to the truth.