The Corruption of Media Culture

November 29, 2017

In this morning’s NYTimes, Tom Friedman leads off his column with these words

In a recent MSNBC interview I described President Trump as a “brain-eating disease.”

I did so because his indecent behavior, and nonstop outrageous tweets and actions, force you as a commentator into a terrible choice: either ignore it all and risk normalizing Trump’s excesses or write about him constantly and risk not having the time to learn and report about the big trends now reshaping the world — trends that one day will surprise your readers and leave them asking, “Why didn’t I know this?”

True enough, and/but I fund myself increasingly thinking about how I follow the news: what I read and what I don’t; how I pay attention in a thoughtful and constructive manner to the passage of events. 

One of yesterday’s big stories was the Washington Post’s exposure of a brazen effort by Project Veritas to plant (and presumably later expose) a fake sexual misdeed story about Roy Moore.  There is fake news aplenty, and much of it is deliberately sowed to confuse and confound.  There were also several stories about Trump tweets and slurs [no links].  All in a day’s boiling cauldron.

In the midst of this, I came upon this remarkable fictional portrait of a media mogul.  He’s the central character in Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar (Hogarth, 2016) and clearly is meant to remind us of Roger Ailes, late of Fox News.

Like a puppetmaster who pulls the strings but still has to do the the voices for his puppets, Dunbar was partially, if superciliously, merged with his ideal reader: the person who hates chavs and welfare scroungers and perverts and junkies, but also hates toffs and fat cats and tax dodgers and celebrities, in fact the person who hates everybody, except the other people like him, who hate the things that make him feel fear or envy. Dunbar was the man who placed the wafer on their outstretched tongues, transubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred. As the high priest of this low practice, he had to admit that in his astonishing new circumstances the view from the altar rail was barely distinguishable from blindness.

In the book, St. Aubyn retells the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear, portraying the king now as Dunbar, the CEO of a media empire. Dunbar has just been pushed aside by the scheming of two of his daughters; these are the “astonishing new circumstances” the passage mentions.

“…[T]ransubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred:” that’s the most incisive portrayal of Fox News and its ilk I’ve yet seen.  Truth-telling is no part of the endeavor here. Drawing eyeballs through the manipulation of raw emotion is the core of the effort.  Blindness, indeed, is the consequence.

Strange that it should be in a work of fiction?  Not at all. The best of fiction shows us the truth of the human condition in a deep and different way.

Question: how do we bring truth-telling back into the center of what we watch and read?

[Note: if you’re unfamiliar with the word “chav” here’s a clue.]

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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