Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How We Came to Poison Our Minds

John Snow is a historically important person that you have probably never heard of.

Snow was a Victorian-era physician who was raised up in a world in which everyone believed that disease was caused by miasma or "bad air."

And so, when a cholera epidemic swept through London in 1854, the general consensus was that there was not much to be done about it other than to pray, keep the windows closed, and perhaps burn a few incense cones.

Snow did something different, however: he talked to local residents in his area and mapped out where they lived. If anyone in a family came down with cholera, he put a little dot on a street map.

Soon enough, a pattern became clear -- people coming down sick were heavily concentrated in a certain area. The commonality, Snow suspected, was that they all drew water from a water pump situated on Broad Street.

After explaining his thesis to a local council, Snow was given permission to knock the handle off the water pump, and the cholera epidemic quickly abated. This was, for all practical purposes, the beginning of scientific epidemiology.

Why do I bring this story up?

Simple: America has come down with a new disease, and it is every bit as pernicious and debilitating as cholera.

It is the disease of stupidity and ignorance.

Some people still believe in the miasma theory when it comes to this disease.

No less an authority than Alan Greenspan once talked of "irrational exuberance" in the stock market. Where did it come from, he wondered, his face down in a book, the television off.

Today, with all our jobs exported to China, the rich paying less in taxes than ever before, and the nation perpetually teetering on the edge of war, millions of other Americans are left scratching their head wondering what went wrong.

How did we end up in this mess? Where was the point of infection?

Now I am no John Snow, but I have spent the last 30 years in Washington, D.C. studying stupid.

And I have a theory.

The pump, in this case, is an obscure regulation in an obscure federal agency.

It does not look like much, but like the John Snow's pump handle, it is directly linked to a public utility.

The utility is television and radio, and the pump handle is the Fairness Doctrine.

Eh? The Fairness Doctrine? What the hell am I on about?

Let me explain.

The Fairness Doctrine was a Federal Communications Commission policy, first embraced in 1949, which said that broadcasters had to devote a portion of their daily airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest and present contrasting views on those subjects.

The Fairness Doctrine gave us folks like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid.

In 1987, however, the Reagan Administration ordered the Federal Communications Commission to abolish the Fairness Doctrine because it violated their notion of the First Amendment.

Yes, that's right: The forced teaching of creation science and school prayer did not violate their notion of the First Amendment, but putting "fair and balanced" news on radio and television did. Go figure.

Why was the Fairness Doctrine put in at all?

The clue can be found in the year -- 1949. This was legislation that passed pretty quickly after World War II.

The idea here was a simple one: Propaganda was a disease, and the obvious antidote was to make sure extremist politicians could never colonize the airwaves.

But it was always understood that extremist politicians were not the only threat. After all, free speech has never been free.

Have you ever shelled out money for a full-page ad in a big city daily? Have you ever bought 20 or 30 television spots? Ever purchased drive time radio for a week in five middle-of-the-road stations operating in seven cities? I have, and it ain't cheap!

Newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks are owned by millionaires and billionaires, and the folks who pay the bills tend to be massive corporations whose bottom line is always the bottom line.

You want to know why tobacco, booze, crappy car manufacturers, price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, and incompetent financial service companies have been given such a long and free ride by the media? Simple: look who pays the bills.

To be clear, there are no meetings between the heads of General Motors and CBS in which they plot to sell us crappy gas-guzzlers.

The sad part of this story is that those meetings don't have to occur; everyone understands how it goes. And so the head of CBS is aware, to the penny, how much his company depends on General Motors and pharmaceutical advertising. Beer ads and Merrill Lynch ads are factored into the matrix as well.

On the other side of the coin, the head of GM understands that radio and TV stations need content, and so he and other big business interests in pharmaceutical companies, stock brokerage houses, credit card companies, and agricultural and chemical interests reach out to help fund lawyers, lobbyists, analysts, university chairs, and talking heads from trade associations and think tanks.

These folks are always available for comment and they all appear sensible, even as they slowly move the ball in the direction of their corporate masters.

Against this corporate and political tide once stood a little scrap of paper: the Fairness Doctrine.

All it said was that news had to be fair and balanced.

It did not seem like much in 1987, and so when right-wing ideologues pushed to have it pulled from the rules, it did not seem like a big deal.

First Amendment? Freedom of Speech? Hell yeah! We don't need some scrap of paper limiting what we can say on TV and radio. Fair and balanced? F*ck that!

No one thought too much about how odd it was that the same people who espoused First Amendment reasons to scrap the Fairness Doctrine were the same people who wanted to make it a constitutional crime to burn an American flag made in China in order to protest an unjust war.

And so the Fairness Doctrine was tossed onto the scrap heap of history, and in short order we had Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Fox News and the paid shills at CNBC.

These folks were followed up more by right-wing radio and TV hosts in the form of Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly.

Right wing Christians then heaped on in the form of Hugh Hewitt and Bob Grant, followed by a slow trickle of left-wing radio and television voices, in the form of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Al Franken.

And what disappeared?

What disappeared was good old fashioned "just the facts ma'am journalism." There is less and less of that every day.

It turned out that putting blathering idiots on talk radio and TV was pretty cheap as compared to hiring investigative reporters and sending film crews around the world to gather the news.

And so, beginning in 1987, a sea-change occurred in the kind of information that began flowing into our living rooms and cars.

Where once we had rational discourse and a clear presentation of facts, we now had paid apologists for corporate excess whose central message was that greed was good, and that there was nothing wrong with America that another capital gains tax cut could not fix.

What America needed, we were told, was less bank regulation.

National heath care? That was creeping socialism.

Social Security? That was a scam -- the whole system was going to go broke unless we privatized it and put it all into the Stock Market right now.

Energy crisis? Relax about that! Oil was cheaper now that it was 15 years ago, and if they would only allow us to drill in Alaska, we would have oil without meter forever. Let the free market take care of it. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler know what they are doing!

Unions? They are nothing but greedy, lazy workers managed by corrupt labor bosses intent on sucking America dry. You want to help American workers? Here's how you do it: buy more Chinese-made stuff at WalMart. It's about time American workers learned to suck it up and compete head to head with the Chinese. If they can make plastic trash cans for $1 a unit over there, how come we can't? If we buy more stuff from China, American workers and companies will feel the heat and see the light.

And, as time went on, all of this took on the appearance of truth.

This was the new reality.

Fact faded from the mind. The landscape had changed, and now no one remembered what the old landscape looked like.

Our forests were different 100 years ago? Chestnuts trees? What? Who knew?

Tell me about the chestnuts trees grandpa ... and tell me about facts too. What are those?

How did we lose the Chestnut trees? It was a miasma. There is nothing to be done about it other than to bury the dead forest, close the windows and light some incense.

What killed off Walter Cronkite and the steady voice of the evening news? It was a miasma. There is nothing to be done about it other than to bury the old news anchors, close the windows and light some incense.

And what happened to the American economy? Where did it go? It was a miasma. There is nothing to be done about it other than to bury the closed factories, close the windows and light some incense.

The Fairness Doctrine? That old thing? That has nothing to do with the problem. That's about talk.

Talking is not what brought down the American economy. Talking is as harmless as water.

Now drink up, and let's turn on Fox News and see what's new.

They're fair and balanced -- they tell us so right in their ads!


HTTrainer said...

There were once the 5 basic questions in journalism who, why, where, when (and I think) how. Every reporter wrote every story based on answering those questions. I haven't such reporting for years. Everyone has an opinion and no story. Just look at Doonesbury's Roland Hendley, the narcissistic, insecure spoof of today's newsreporters.

Gina said...

It's who, what, why, where, when and how. Take it from a person who has taught college journalism classes.

And yes, we still ask those question. But we're not supposed to be stenographers, reporting "both sides" as of equal weight. Sometimes there aren't two sides: There is just the truth. Part of our job is to make those determinations.

As Russell Baker noted, "fair" journalism doesn't mean reporting on the Holocaust by asking the Nazis for the "other side," their case for what's wrong with Jews.

"Toxic Sludge Is Good for You" is a great book, as Patrick likely knows.

foxstudio said...

And don't forget "News You Can Use", which is a handy way of distracting the peasants away from the fact that there is very little actual news, in the traditional sense, broadcast on tv anymore.

So, for a local Humboldt County newscast (there's still one!), the last time I watched and timed it, there was about two minutes of real, what's happening, local news, a couple of network stories (kind of like how the local newspapers are filled with AP stories) and the bulk was sports and "news you can use" about the latest diets, how to buy a dishwasher, where to go on vacation, etc.

It's been Bread and Circuses for a very long time now and, you're right, there's at least one generation that has no memory of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, blessings be upon him.

Someone did a study some time ago about how the number of pages of international news in newsweeklies like TIME had steadily dropped over the years. It's so much easier to get folks focused on the external enemy when they don't know squat about the rest of the world. "Freedom Fries", my a--.

I was in Mongolia at The Flaming Cliffs (southern Gobi) in Sept. of 2006 to photograph them at sunset. My guide and I plopped down on the ground with our box dinners and the first thing he said was "So, Suasn, what do you think about the war in Iraq?"

I answered to the effect of "Not much", not being sure where this was going to go.

He told me that his brother was in the Mongolian army and was serving in Iraq with the Americans. Uh?

It turned out that the vaunted democracy-rewarding Millenium Fund was being used, at least in Mongolia's case, to more or less "buy" a token number of troops to fight in Mongolia, around 2,000, I think.

So not only are OUR soldiers dying in that stupid war of choice, we've sucked in the Mongolians, of all people, and they've had casualties, too.

Did any of us regular citizens have any idea that something like this was going on? Not I. Maybe you did, Patrick, because you're in DC and more in touch with what's going on in the government.
The commanding Mongolian general, being interviewed by The Economist, was asked whether he thought that he and his troops would encounter any difficulties in Iraq. He shook his head, smiled and replied, "Oh, no, we've been there before."

foxstudio said...

Uh, that should read..."token number of troops to fight in Iraq,..."

One of the many things I like about the Mongols is their sense of humor, as per the general.

Seahorse said...

My otherwise sainted husband insisted on keeping C-Span's Book TV on tonight during dinner, despite the fact that the speaker was Bill O'Reilly and I was already shouting back at the television. O'Reilly briefly mentioned the Fairness Doctrine, shrugging it off very quickly and wondering aloud why anyone ever brought it up. Exactly as he shrugged off anyone who disagreed with him, dismissively calling them pinheads, as usual. He also distorted a lot, but that was only when his lips were moving. Who needs fairness when you have O'Reilly? Those who are the loudest and most boorish WIN!

One of the most annoying revisions of history for me is the elevation of Ronald Reagan. I never thought of him as the great communicator (his speeches made my skin crawl, as they rang completely hollow to my ear), we won the Cold War by out-spending the Soviets and nearly bankrupting our own country in the process, and a lot of people were hurt.

I'm only sorry we tuned in to ABC World News Tonight too late the see the segment they ran about the AKC. I saw the last few seconds only, but the part I saw was some of the footage from Nightline. I don't know if Patrick and pups made it onto the segment again, but I was glad to see ABC felt the story had legs.


PBurns said...

I found this from Thorstein Veblen of the U. of Chicago, writing in 1915 in "The Theory of Business and Enterprise':

_ _ _ _

"The current periodical press, whether ephemeral or other, is a vehicle for advertisements. This is its raison d'etre as a business proposition and this decides the lines of its management without material qualification. Exceptions to the rule are official and minor propagandist periodicals, and in an uncertain measure, scientific journals. The profits of publication come from the sale of advertising space. The direct returns from sales and subscriptions are now a matter of wholly secondary consequence. Publishers of periodicals, of all grades of transiency, aim to make their product as salable as may be, in order to pass their advertising pages under the eyes of as many readers as may be. The larger the circulation the greater, other things equal, the market value of the advertising space. The highest product of this development is the class of American newspapers called "independent." These in particular -- and they are followed at no great interval by the rest -- edit all items of news comment or gossip with a view to what the news ought to be and what opinions ought to be expressed on passing events.

"The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers and then tell them what they like to believe. By this means he maintains or increases the circulation. His second duty is to see that nothing is said in the news items or editorials which may discountenance any claims or announcements made by his advertisers, discredit their standing or good faith, or expose any weakness or deception in any business venture that is or may become a valuable advertiser. By this means he increases the advertising value of his circulation. The net result is that both the news columns and the editorial columns are commonly meretricious in a high degree.

"Systematic insincerity on the part of the ostensible purveyors of information and leaders of opinion may be deplored by persons who stickle for truth and pin their hopes of social salvation on the spread of accurate information. But the ulterior cultural effect of the insincerity which is in this way required by the business situation, may of course, as well be salutary as the reverse. Indeed the effect is quite as likely to be salutary, if "salutary" be taken to mean favorable to the maintenance of the established order, since the insincerity is guided by a wish to avoid any lesion of the received preconceptions and prejudices. The insincerity of the newspapers and magazines seems on the whole to be of a conservative trend."

L said...

It's not news, it's

Don't get me started on science reporting. Everything they report on food, medicine, children, animals... is pretty much the opposite of what the studies show, if they were any good in the first place.

Robert Ballard said...


jeffrey thurston said...

You remind me of my younger brother who still has a bit of faith and hopes for a change here in this country. Life here is good- great in fact for many of us- but the illusion that we have any kind of real political freedom or an independent press is just that- a sad illusion. From our current Middle East Hijinks to Occupy to Ferguson the bared teeth of our Masters are showing. Reporting during the Vietnam War taught our Masters well- and truth about anything won't be tolerated if it changes status quo. There is a seamlessness between media and our Masters which would make Joseph Goebbels green. He at least had an official government apparatus. Our media volunteers to be the lapdog. Better to watch "Say Yes to the Dress" or " Ice Lake Rebels" than to worry. Better to give up our illusions and just wait like some Roman in 390 AD for the inevitable Fall...

Fall Charmz said...

I am coming back to read this again - whewwwww - what a great post!

"It is the disease of stupidity and ignorance."

I could comment on so many sections right now but I am still soaking in parts - what a simply written and yet potent post! And will the U.S. please wake up...

christine said...

I'm having my 13 year old son read this post --- it's a very good lesson in history. Thanks very much.