Being an informed media consumer

Start with what Creighton has labeled “The Gell-Mann Effect“.

1a) Whenever you read or hear a news story on something you understand you find it as falling somewhere on the spectrum from completely mistaken and uninformed to, at best, a charming first approximation to the truth with only a few points likely to cause complete misunderstanding in a reader.

1b.) This doesn’t just happen when the reporter tries to speak about your area of expertise but also when he tries to quote you, tell your story, or give an account of an event you were at.

1c ) But then we turn to read a report outside our area of expertise or of an event we weren’t at and we treat it as though it were an immediate apprehension of the thing itself. Every quotation becomes perfectly salient, not out of context, and perfectly descriptive of the speaker’s state of mind. Every agent in the story is accurately described with his/their motives made perfectly clear. Every story is just what an informed reader would focus on to get a well-balanced appraisal of his life and times.

Then, the consequences:

2.) So our normal cognitive state while reading the news is the illusion of objectivity. We habitually relate to the media as though they were im-media-te. We habitually misjudge the value of “unbiased reporting” relative to reporting that is open about its biases and its partiality to one side of the story.

3.) We see the news as it is only when it reports about something we know, even though knowledge about something usually renders the media story superfluous. We see the media as it is only when we don’t need it.

4.) The (national) media does not exist as a noble watchdog of democracy but because we want to have a multi-million person polity and so demand that some story be told about it. A truly human response to a news story should leave us saying “That was a very suggestive account, I wonder what actually happened?” But if we related to all news this way it would be unbearable to read as much news as we do. We need the story to be im-media-te and objective too badly, and this is because we want to live in a megapolis too badly.

5.) And that was always the point of the story:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

The tower needed to reach to the heavens to give us a God’s eye view of our megapolis. We cannot be a people all at once unless we can see our people all at once. We can’t exist as a whole without “making a name for ourselves”, i.e. telling a story about ourselves in grand heroic style as a battle between the noble an wicked gods.

6.) The media is serving a priestly function in the same way that the tower-builders were. I don’t call it a priestly function out of contempt (my life revolves around priestly functions) but as a critique. Does anyone think the media is equal to such a task? Is it obvious that we are better off with pundits than with diviners looking at bird entrails or the ravings of an intoxicated priestess? At least in the latter cases there is an explicit recognition that only God can have a God’s-eye view of things.

7.) The Babel story is a critique of the attempt to attain God’s eye views from technology alone, as though the understanding of time and contingency can be had without religion and prudence. The reporter or pundit will only have something to say when he treats life and work as equal to a genuinely priestly task.

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