Saturday, February 20, 2016

Mass Media Constitute One Big Selfie?

Update: on Feb 27, 2016, I posted this book review, minus the hyperlinks, to Amazon. The next day I received the following reply via email: 

Your review could not be posted. Thanks for submitting a customer review on Amazon. Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form. While we appreciate your time and comments, reviews must adhere to the following guidelines:  

No specifics were given regarding my violation of the guidelines. After reading the guidelines, my best guess is that, because my review included the word, "turd," Amazon’s filterbot flagged the review as obscene or somehow otherwise objectionable. 

So I removed the offending syllable and re-posted the review. I changed the phrase, "turd duly polished" to "spin duly spun" -- not sure if that makes sense, if spin can be spun, but it's no less coherent than much of what circumvents the filters and gets posted. In any case, I hoped that that might do it. 

Well, spinning the turd did no good. The next day, March 3, I got another rejection email from Amazon, a duplicate of the original. The revised review still violated some undisclosed aspect of Amazon's Customer Review Creation Guidelines. Amazon provides zero guidance as to what precisely violated what in those guidelines, so I am (as are, I suppose, other reviewers in the same boat) left guessing as to how to remedy the situation. 

Having said that, I have to wonder if the sentiments I expressed in the review were the real cause of the censorship.  Here's what I attempted to post:

The author of The Influencing Machine, Brooke Gladstone, works for National Public Radio (NPR), which means that she is linked financially to the patronage of grant-bequeathing foundations, those social-engineering tools wielded by the wealthy, who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, which explains why the author of this psy-op artifact (which is delivered in dumbed-down comic book format for easy digestion by the semi-literate) is so intent on defending and rationalizing and justifying things as they are, on leaving an ostensible well enough alone.

The book is a transparent apologia for mainstream media and the media’s version of journalism (namely, the parroting of pronouncements of politicians and bureaucrats and their agents). But anyone who dives into today's online alt media with a mind toward objectivity (an elusive thing that the author seems to think is forever out of reach) will find plenty of primary documentation and reasoned analysis and skilled presentation of political, economic and cultural occurrences—and outright plots—that the mainstream media and its government cohorts would rather keep from public view. And the curious delver into alt media also will find plenty of garbage. And so one has to keep one’s wits about one. But underscoring such a practical approach is no part of this author’s agenda. Her mission is to provide cover for the powers that be.

Dear friends, when you imbibe mass media you are not gazing into a mirror, as author Gladstone contends. You are internalizing an image of the world and a set of concerns manufactured by the wealthy for the purpose of maintaining a certain socioeconomic distance between themselves and you. They are the guys who, in effect, employ this author, and they are interested in nurturing, so as to maintain, class distinctions.

The book kicks off with a familiar bromide, namely that if you suspect an organized malfeasance lurking, then you're mentally ill. This is the takeaway implied by the story of Natalija A. a turn-of-the-(20th)-century psychiatric patient who happened to be deaf and mute and is said to have written about a machine that used some kind of broadcast signal to influence her thoughts and behaviors. If you suspect that mass media constitute such an influencing machine, then you're not just a reasonably observant person. No. You are damaged goods and psychological kin of Natalija and in need of psychiatric attention. You fail to understand that when you amuse yourself with media you are absorbing your own neuroses projected outward, creating a tightening gyre that you have no business complaining about. Your suspicions about someone else writing the script and zooming the camera can be swept aside with a broad brushstroke of watered-down psychobabble.

So advances the argument of this book, in effect.

By the way, Natalija's psychotherapist,Victor Tausk, the man who popularized her concept of an “influencing machine” as a syndrome of mental illness, was so mentally stable himself that he ended his life by simultaneously hanging and shooting himself. So we probably should believe that his bizarre reports about the tormented, challenged woman are trustworthy.

Aside from its usefulness as an insult to media critics, however, the influencing "machine" metaphor also is useful for the purposes of the author in that it manages perceptions, and the metaphor makes the mission of the book clear from the outset. If the influencing entity is a mere machine, even an imaginary one, then how can we point a finger at human agents, such as the corporate/foundation chieftains who program and steer that machine, when there’s a bad outcome?  What's implied in the book is that human agents outside of the media audience are absent from the social-engineering equation, and so no culpability is to be had for bad outcomes. How convenient for the media industry and its defenders. Isn’t it curious at least that the book was not titled, “The Myth of the Influencing Machine”?

So, the underlying message here is that everything is hunky-dory in the land of popular mass media, and if you don’t buy that then you’re nutty. After all, the media just reflect us, the imbibers, the audience. Unlike Narcissus, however, who fell in love with his reflection, we fear ourselves as reflected in media, according to the author.  So the conspiracy theorists are right: the media contribute to society's chronic jitters; the media fan the flames of suspicion, suggest impending disasters.  The author’s escape clause is her contention that we’re not ingesting content engineered to unsettle and undermine, but only our own neuroses, delivered to us by the mirrors of media. In other contexts this is known as blaming the victim.

Of course—I’ll say it again—no culpability can land at the feet of the owners of the media, because they just drift around inside their offices like atoms of inert gas. It's us, the viewers and listeners, who cast a reflection of ourselves that the media empires merely bring into focus. (In the book "journalism" and "media" seem to be conjoined twins, interchangeable even, a handy equivocation.)

The author trots out a mainstream defense team to run interference, lest anyone wander from the authorized path: author Nicholas Carr, communications theorist Neil Postman, author Douglas Adams, transhumanist Ray Kurzweil and the ever engaging Cass Sunstein, with an obligatory tip of the hat to Marshall McLuhan.  These guys really know what’s going on and are eager to make sure that everyone internalizes the (politically) correct understanding of what’s up. Thanks, guys.

In a thinly disguised jab at alt media, Gladstone cautions against the dangers of the “echo chamber” effect, in which people consistently turn to a small set of sources for information, which sources themselves tend to cite and reflect one another. You, dear reader, decide for yourself whether the mainstream authorities she assembles constitute their own version of an echo chamber.

The author cautions that “media are beset by biases” (the media or journalism? Well, I guess precision of thought is out the window in the 21st Century).  F’rinstance, there’s the “commercial bias,” which means that reportage has to be about new stuff, because, “We crave novelty.”   There’s also “status quo bias,” which means the exact opposite, namely that we prefer that things “stay the same.” How these biases duke it out in the newsroom is anybody’s guess.

Outright errors in news reportage?  Not a problem.  The author suggests that we news consumers should “chalk up most inaccuracies to sloppiness. Let's at least assume that usually reporters don’t know for sure that their facts are wrong.”  Golly, could you set the bar for journalistic professionalism any lower?  & You know what you do when you assume.

As Gladstone explains, “journalism has entered a new era of openness, all in the interest of building trust with news consumers.” (Really?) With the turd duly polished, the author minimizes whatever shortcomings cannot be denied with a sigh and a reminder that, alas, it's always been that way.  (Really?)  So much the worse for journalism.  No wonder it belongs in a museum.