Thursday, December 09, 2004

Lashing out at the media

Big Brother is watching you, and you are watching Big Brother. That is because, according to Robert Kaplan, Big Brother is the media. In an essay titled “The Media and Medievalism”, in Policy Review, he writes:

As this is an age in which we are bombarded by messages that tell us what to buy and what to think, when one dissects the real elements of power — who has it and, more important during a time of rapid change, who increasingly has it — one is left to conclude bleakly: Ours is not an age of democracy, or an age of terrorism, but an age of mass media, without which the current strain of terrorism would be toothless in any case.

Terrorism would be toothless without the media? I was rather befuddled at that. Rather than explain that bit, Kaplan goes on to explain why the media is so powerful. “[T]he media have authentic political power – terrifically magnified by technology – without the bureaucratic accountability that often accompanies it, so that they are never culpable for what they advocate,” he says. “Presidents, even if voters ignore their blunders, are at least responsible to history; journalists rarely are. This freedom is key to their irresponsible power.”

Later, Kaplan writes, “If what used to be known as the Communist International has any rough contemporary equivalent, it is the global media.”

This is not an unusual strain of thought. In the left, particularly, the media (like “corporations”) is often characterised in this manner, as if it were one entity that spoke with one voice. But that is not the case. In the Communist International, power was centralised, but the voice of the media is dispersed and decentralised, and getting more so by the day. Sources of information have grown, audiences have been fragmented, and the media speaks in a myriad different voices. And even when one particular voice is louder than the other, as happened recently when most of the mainstream publications in the USA endorsed John Kerry, people don’t necessarily listen.

Kaplan goes off on various tangents in his piece, many of them arguable. At one point he writes, “Our preoccupation with promoting democracy is slightly misplaced. Freer, more historically liberal societies are emerging anyway. Even in the Middle East, the new generation of leaders will not have the luxury to rule as autocratically as the passing one.” By which he means, I presume, that had the US not invaded Iraq, a freer, more historically liberal society would emerge anyway, and Saddam and his psychopathic progeny would "not have the luxury to rule as autocratically"? Fat chance.

But who’ll listen to me? I’m only a journalist.

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