Friday, December 31, 2010

Actually, They Do Make Ignoramuses (Ignorami?) Like They Used To

My friend the ambivalent Obama supporter sent me a link to this article which linked to this blog post by one Larry Kramer -- not the bloated and inflamed asshole famed for his public temper tantrums, but a corporate-media guy with the same name.

The article, by one Alex Wexprin, declares
In a nutshell, Kramer argues that today’s busy media consumer, lacking the time to dig in to issues themselves, instead relies on cognitive shortcuts to familiarize themselves with what the “correct” opinions are, based on their preexisting ideology.
Wexprin quotes Kramer approvingly -- "We are creating a less-informed but more opinionated public" -- while disagreeing with him tangentially.
First: the problem of opinion fragmentation and people going to outlets that reinforce their existing beliefs is hardly a new phenomenon. If the problem has gotten worse over the last few years, it is more likely to be due to the Internet than an ideological shift in TV news. ...

[Second]: most people in this country do not watch cable news.
The trouble is, neither Wexprin nor Kramer provides any evidence that "the problem has gotten worse over the last few years." "In the past," Kramer declares, "many of those people would have spent the time with a more objective outlet, like CNN or the New York Times, done more research of the candidate, and made up their own minds. Now, it’s just faster to have someone do that for you." Calling CNN and the Times "objective" is funny enough, but when did most people do "more research" and "make up their own minds"?

Americans don't seem to me to be any less-informed than they were when I was in high school forty years ago, before the Internet or cable news, but they were very ill-informed then. Almost twenty years ago, just after the first Gulf War, a "study, conducted by the University of Massachusetts' Center for Studies in Communication, found that the more people watched TV during the Gulf crisis, the less they knew about the underlying issues, and the more likely they were to support the war." Fox News didn't exist then, but CNN did, and dutifully misled its audience.

Kramer writes that "In an effort to appear totally unbiased, CNN ridded itself of opinion or emotion." When was this, I wonder? Was it before or after Lou Dobbs quit? Before or after "new CNN chairman Walter Isaacson met with top Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to discuss how to improve relations between the cable news network and conservative Republicans"?

I'm not sure where my peers and their parents went for their misinformation in the 60s, but there was the Reader's Digest, a reliable fount of right-wing propaganda with an enormous circulation, and there were plenty of right-wing radio commentators even before the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. It was as if there was a sewer in which their blatantly racist, hysterically anti-communist material marinated until it was ready to dump into receptive ears. Morris Kominsky's book The Hoaxers: Plain Liars, Fancy Liars, and Damned Liars (Branden Press, 1970) was a debunking of a lot of this stew. The three big broadcast networks varied slightly in their politics, with ABC notoriously the farthest right of the three in the late 60s, but if you wanted accurate information about US foreign policy, business and the economy, or social issues, you didn't rely on them, "objective" though they were supposed to be.

Rereading FAIR's account of the University of Massachusetts study of Gulf War Coverage, though, I find myself wondering.

While most respondents had difficulty answering questions about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, 81 percent of the sample could identify the missile used to shoot down the Iraqi Scuds as the Patriot. That media consumers know facts relating to successful U.S. weapons but not about inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy, the researchers argued, "suggests that the public are not generally ignorant—rather, they are selectively misinformed."
Were media consumers more knowledgeable about the names of US missiles than about the circumstances leading up to the war only because of skewed media coverage, or might it have been partly because such trivia, like the names of professional athletes, their records and their rankings, were what most media consumers considered important, interesting, and therefore memorable? The first Gulf War was notorious for the way it was covered as if it were the Superbowl, but that was also, probably, the best way to sell it, and I can't think of many people I know who were interested in knowing anything else about it.