|Number 525||February 18, 2013|
This Week: How The Media Distorts Reality, Parts II and III
Last week I talked about four systems built into the mass media in this country that I think steer the public consciousness in certain unfortunate ways. I described the first two: The Gawker Syndrome and The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate. This week I'll talk about the other two: The Chicken Little Tendency and The Story-Telling Format.
This issue marks the end of this mini-series... sort of. Next week I'll attempt to draw some even bigger lessons from this series. Lessons about how an intellectual system works, at a very deep level, to shape the thinking of all the people who are part of the system. That idea itself—that there is something called an "intellectual system" that works to indoctrinate all of us—is an idea that's hard to think about. Why is that? That's what we'll talk about next week. See you then.
National Public radio ran a story on February 13 reporting on President Obama's call to raise the minimum wage to $9.00/hour from the current $7.25. NPR told its listeners that House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, has made it clear he would work against minimum-wage legislation. Then they offered the quote that every news outlet in the country (it seems) also dished up. They quoted Boehner as saying:
"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it."
Boehner's statement seems to make sense: If employers have to pay people more, they will hire fewer of them. Right? Wrong.
I reported on this same bit of disinformation back in 2009, in Nygaard Notes #436, in a piece called "Hurting the People Whom You're Trying to Help." The evidence to refute Boehner is still true, and it bears repeating. I'll just offer one quote, among hundreds of possibilities. This is from the press release accompanying the publication of a paper published this month by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, called "Why Does the Minimum Wage Have No Discernible Effect on Employment?" The author is economist John Schmitt, who said:
"This is one of the most studied topics in economics, and the evidence is clear: modest minimum wage increases don't have much impact on employment. An increase to $9.00 per hour would be hugely important for the workers getting it, but the idea that this would lead to less employment is just not supported by the evidence."
If you're curious as to how it could be that higher wages do not mean less employment, the entire 30-page report is available online.
The answers are found on pages 17-23. If you're in a hurry, just read pages 22-23.
(By the way, if you don't think an increase of the minimum wage to $9.00/hour is "modest," consider this: If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since I got my first job, back in 1968, it would now be $10.56 per hour.)
The story of Chicken Little is the ancient story about a chicken being hit on the head by a falling acorn, then organizing a hysterical mob (of geese, turkeys, etc; maybe better to call it a hysterical flock) to address the problem. There are various versions, but in the most common version, the hysterical flock ends up getting eaten by a non-hysterical fox. So the moral of the story usually involves the dangers of getting so worked up about a false problem that we fail to protect ourselves from real problems. Like foxes.
The story tells us something about modern media, as well. Foxes are always trying to eat fowl, so that's not news. But, if the sky is falling... well, now we've got a headline! A stable sky—or a hungry fox—is "normal," after all, and thus is not considered newsworthy. That's partly why it's understandable that the media tend to focus on what's wrong instead of what's right. It's also understandable because it's the job of the media to point out problems. If the sky is falling, it's the media's job to tell us. This watchdog function—what I call The Chicken Little Tendency, or the Squeaky-Wheel Bias—is a big part of why we have media in the first place: to call to our attention to emergencies, unaddressed problems, misconduct, and faulty systems.
But here's the problem with this focus on dramatic, spectacular problems. We get so caught up in them that we end up paying little attention to boring, chronic problems. When something blows up, it's news. But when something erodes little by little, it's not news. There's no "event" to cover, nothing for Chicken Little to get hysterical about.
A great example is Social Security. Even the most casual reader of the news will have come away with the idea that there are some "problems" facing Social Security. Actually, the casual reader will probably have the idea that Social Security is in crisis, or is on the verge of bankruptcy, or has already failed in some way. I debunked this idea in the very first issue of Nygaard Notes, back in 1998, and dozens of times since, so I won't go into it here. (See Nygaard Notes #1, or #463.)
The widespread belief that Social Security is failing is partly the result of a massive, decades-long propaganda campaign aimed at undermining support for the program. It's been effective because it conjures up a very dramatic problem: A multi-trillion-dollar program is "failing," is going "bankrupt, is a "fraud." So the media is drawn to this story like ants to honey, since the media is oriented to report on dramatic problems. And, in the process, the media plays a role in perpetuating a distorted view of reality. It would be extremely surprising, for instance, to see a balancing headline like this: "Social Security Delivered 700 Million Checks Promptly, Accurately, in 2012." Or, "Social Security Overhead Less Than 1 Percent in 2012." (Private annuities average between 5 and 15 percent.) Or, "Social Security Lifted 1.1 Million Children out of Poverty in 2011." (21.4 million people overall.)
It's not that mainstream journalists dislike good news. It's The Chicken Little Tendency: If it's not broken, there's nothing to talk about. If the sky is not falling on our heads (or if Social Security is doing its job efficiently and properly), it won't be in the newspaper. Why would it? That's "normal"—no problem! But there comes to be a problem when, over time, the headlines tell people only about the problems (or imagined problems) with the program. The problem is a focus on problems! The Chicken Little Tendency.
With little or no knowledge of the routine successes over the past 75 years, the Chicken Little reporting in regard to Social Security lodges itself in our brains without much to balance it out. So people begin demanding a "solution" to a problem that doesn't exist, or at least is far less serious than Chicken Little is telling us. And the real problem—the fox of our story—is the economic insecurity that is built into our system. That insecurity is precisely what Social Security was created to address.
Focusing on "What's Wrong"
The Chicken Little Tendency is not unique to media; it's a part of our culture. We can see it at work in our medical system, which has long had a focus on pathology instead of wellness. One of the results of this focus on "what's wrong" rather than on "what's right" has been to overvalue the treatment of illness and undervalue the preservation of health. As Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona medical school puts it, "We don't have a healthcare system in the U.S., we have a disease-management system." And the problem with that is illustrated by a story on breast cancer that came out just last week.
A major federal study by the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee was released on February 12th. The study examined the state of breast cancer research in the U.S. Here are a few words from the executive summary:
"Historically, investments in breast cancer research have focused primarily on diagnosis and cure. . . The Committee notes that, at most, 10 to 11 percent of breast cancer research projects . . . focus on environmental health." And, since "finding ways to identify and mitigate the environmental causes of the disease has not been a priority," the Committee adds, "there are remarkably few examples of advances in the area of breast cancer prevention."
But what does this have to do with media? Most people's experiences of breast cancer is either personal, or based on anecdotes in the media about people who have breast cancer. And the main concern of people who have cancer is to get rid of it, which involves "diagnosis and cure." So, in an attempt bring about a happy ending to these tragic stories that always get our, and the media's, attention, we focus on looking for cures. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for looking for cures—my partner was treated for breast cancer a few years ago! But we are neglecting the bigger systems that give rise to cancer. And that's because the workings of a toxic system, one that erodes our health gradually, is not a dramatic "event," and thus does not often attract the attention of the media. That's the danger of The Chicken Little Tendency.
But I hear some of you saying: Wait a minute! If the media has such a focus on problems, why don't we hear more about the REALLY BIG problems? Like climate change, inequality, the erosion of our democratic systems, and the ongoing class war? Good question! A part of the answer lies in the media's reliance on anecdotes to convey the news, which I call The Story-Telling Format. Read on...
The job of the mass media is to convey information to a general audience. Since a general audience, by definition, is composed mostly of non-experts, the media necessarily has another job, which is to help that audience understand the meaning of the information being conveyed. For better or worse, one of the preferred ways of endowing a story with meaning in contemporary media is through use of the anecdote. That is, by telling stories.
Many reporters, in fact, will tell you that their job is to tell stories. They will say that they need to put a face to abstract statistics, or a name to a general problem, so that people will be better able to understand the larger story they are reporting, or the pattern that they are highlighting. So an anecdote about how John Johnson lost his wife to cancer is far more likely to open a story about cancer than news of the latest study of the cancer-causing chemicals produced by coal-fired power plants. Statistics be damned—let's hear about John Johnson's poor wife! That's not a bad thing; it does seem like a news story somehow becomes more real if we can put a face to it. But an over-reliance on anecdotes presents a number of problems.
The most obvious problem arises when an anecdote inadvertently becomes the story. We forget that anecdotes represent only themselves. For many of us it remains true that "seeing is believing," even if it's also true that what we see represents the larger reality in only a tiny percentage of cases.
When I was in an airport last month I saw a brief news clip on the airport TV, which showed a man subduing what appeared to be a burglar by holding him at gunpoint until the police arrived. There was no attempt to indicate whether this sort of "success" happens often, or if this was the only time in history that it did happen. (If it was the only time, we're lucky they got the video of it! Wait... How did they get the video of it?)
All that we know—those of us who saw the clip, that is—is what happened on that one occasion. In fact we only know some small part of what happened. For all we know the typical result in that situation would be a tragic death or serious injury. But the pictures certainly stick in the mind, as this one has become stuck in my mind. And the next time a viewer of that segment hears the argument that "an armed citizenry keeps our neighborhoods safer," that video story will form a part of their mental superstructure, and likely will make the argument more plausible: "I saw it in action!"
Part of the reason that this is a problem is that many of us have a tendency to think inductively. That is, we construct our theories about how the world works by generalizing from our experience. And that doesn't always work so well, especially when a big part of our "experience" is selected for us by the media. That's why it's helpful to sometimes start with a theory, or a "larger picture," because it can help us to make sense of our experience.
Individuals vs Systems
Perhaps the greatest problem with The Story-Telling Format is that it reinforces an individualistic interpretation of social phenomena. That is, the kinds of stories that tend to appear in the media reinforce the idea that things happen because of the efforts of heroic, or otherwise special, individuals, as opposed to happening because various forces develop over time, forces that have their roots in complex and varied phenomena. Seeing the video of the gun-owner subduing a burglar, for instance, reinforces the idea that the security of our homes comes from Good Guys (with guns) stopping the Bad Guys. Very individualistic.
Another way of imagining what it is that keeps our homes secure would be the idea that there is a taboo in the culture against property crimes and violations of our homes that comes from a widely-shared belief in the basic fairness of the social order. In this way of thinking, the assumption is that most people (not all: there will always be sociopaths) think it's "wrong" to break into someone's house and steal things, and this inhibition only breaks down when the social order breaks down. Such a social, or institutional, analysis is not easily conveyed using The Story-Telling Format, which relies on Heroes and Villains for its narrative form.
A difference in understanding as to the causes of crime necessarily leads to different solutions. The individualistic ideology that is unconsciously reinforced by use of story-telling thus has political implications of which we should be aware.
The Gawker Syndrome. The Grabbing Eyeballs Mandate. The Chicken Little Tendency. The Story-Telling Format. I've explained how each of these media sub-systems has the effect of distorting reality. In the next Nygaard Notes I'll talk about how these subsystems combine into the one big system that we call The Media. In the process I hope to illustrate how the media system both reflects and reinforces the interests of an even larger system—the overall doctrinal system—that in turn shapes our intellectual culture in ways that form a serious obstacle to real social change.