Hanging Dirty Laundry

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In her Rappler.com piece, Chay Hofileña writes that media has the responsibility to “connect the dots.”  Hofileña claims that the journalist, in the quest to arrive at the truth, develops some form of expertise on the matter; that a journalist’s role, facing a “lethargic public, too tired or lazy to do the math, or simply apathetic,” is to rouse and mobilize the masses.  That, as “shapers of informed public discourse, if not facilitators of discussion and debate in the name of truth,” the ultimate check of the media is that “informed public exposed to a marketplace of ideas” would “be in the best position to judge whether what is being fed them is hogwash or scraps.”

Not to be disrespectful or anything, but let’s turn that argument on its head.  What if the public is fed hogwash or scraps?  If the symptoms of public discourse include lethargy, fatigue, laziness, and desensitization, wouldn’t those characteristics be a consequence of what is presented to them by the media?  Isn’t the situation, for that matter, symptomatic and characteristic of the quality of information we have, courtesy of the media?

Enlightening a befuddled public is, indeed, the task of journalism, or for that matter, citizen journalism. Yet we must also remember that (ideally) the formation of opinion – public opinion, at that – occurs after the news, when the remains of the day settle. In other words, public opinion is shaped by the facts fed to the public.

True, the media’s role is beyond the presentation of facts. But connecting the dots matters only if those dots are plotted in the right place by news desks, presenters, anchors, producers, and reporters. The quality of news and information, as it seems, suffers under the sheer quantity of items produced. To paraphrase Lazarsfeld, this proverbial flood of information doesn’t necessarily make us “informed” or “knowledgeable,” but being inundated with so much information has the unintended consequence of making us apathetic to it. It stops, rather unfortunately, at being informed. Add to that the quality of information available from media, and… well, you get the picture. But knowing is half the battle, and in a society where there’s so much information and so little time, half the battle is enough. Lazarsfeld termed it in a most compelling way: “narcotizing dysfunction.”

This sets an interesting position for media going beyond setting information, but setting agenda. Because media sets it so, opinion will be so; ultimately rendering public opinion as a function of media and media alone because the truth is the business of the media. The play on power, at that, is never neutral, just as is the truth that is represented by some approximation. That makes Hofileña’s claim for journalism as more than just a claim of responsibilities, but a claim of how much power media – as an institution and as an apparatus of very public talk – really has.

To invoke C. Wright Mills, the media can – as illustrated in the Rappler.com essay – function as a power elite: it is an intricate network of small connections and groups that share and talk about decisions with a far-reaching consequence beyond national borders. In saying that the media are “shapers” of public opinion, Hofileña goes beyond investigation and reporting in a timely and prompt manner as a function of journalism. Rather, she underscores the inequality of information: that, as it seems, in a society characterized by delivering the most amount of information in the shortest amount of time, only the journalist – the institution and the apparatus of public talk – has the monopoly on truth.

This is not, of course, an attack on journalists and journalism and the good done by Rappler.com. It is, though, that sullen reflection on the state of public discourse in a so-called “Age of Information,” where the condition is never “democratic,” and the inundation of information a public perceived as “passive” (by journalists, of all people) is never emancipatory. Does this underscore the need for quality reporting from the media and insightful analysis from commentators? Not necessarily. The game isn’t played on information, but the use of it.

As the role of media shifts, apparently, to check on the government more, the consumers of media must check on the media more. That while we tout comments and feedback and citizen journalism as a great check-and-balance for the status quo, the challenge is more than to fulfill those means. Yes, but the need is more than that: the quality of the information available to us must make us think more than the need for us to feel. And thinking – and acting – on the information available to us is the best way to do so. That while Chay Hofileña would probably appropriate the search for truth as the business of journalism, acting on the truth is the business of citizenship.

The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

– Jon Stewart, October 30, 2010

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