Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Mediocracy

The DSK affair has forced me to take a fresh look at how changes in the technology of news reporting have influenced the practice of democracy. The fourth estate, which Tocqueville thought to be an essential bulwark of democracy owing to its ability to "implant the same idea in many minds at once," has become something of a monster. The "idea" that it implants is often a lurid one, which appeals to our most perverse imagination and worst instincts, yet we cannot avert our eyes.

The cable news networks are the worst offenders. My experience yesterday on CNBC, a network I never watch, was revelatory. Forced to sit in the studio for an hour while awaiting my few minutes of air time, I was treated to inanity after inanity, as reporters, who knew little more about the breaking news than their viewers, dutifully filled their air time with vapid speculations. When my own turn came, I had little to no opportunity to develop the slightest argument about the way in which the French presidential campaign had been affected by criminal charges in a foreign land--a historically unprecedented situation, as far as I know. As usual, the subject I had been asked by the producer to discuss--how sex scandals are handled in the US and France--was ignored by anchor people spouting nonsense about how "the French hate us" and DSK's impending elevation to the status of "folk hero" by the libertine Gauls.

Of course, when one lends oneself to this circus, one shouldn't be surprised at being turned into a prostitute (except that of course I wasn't paid for my degrading service). The only honorable course is to refuse such invitations in the future, and yet I accept, again and again, despite having made resolutions not to in the past, in the hope that what little knowledge I possess might actually be passed on to viewers interested in hearing it. But the very format of these "news/opinion shows" is designed to prevent thoughtful dialogue: there is no discussion whatsoever between guests and anchors (who are often separated by thousands of miles) before the cameras roll, so there is no opportunity to map out a coherent outline for discussion or even an informative set of topics. The "guest expert" is merely a body recruited to lend an aura of authority to the incessant yammering of the "news." And yet this instrument actually does shape public opinion by saturating the atmosphere with unvetted, unfiltered, unedited "infotainment." Its audience is far larger than that of any "serious" journal of opinion.

The whole business is a scandalous waste of time and money. There's nothing quite comparable to American cable news in France, and so much the better. But even the "legitimate" media are guilty of this reductio ad absurdum of their institutional role. "Who will educate the educator?" Marx asked. The question remains as pertinent as ever, now that vast numbers of people are "educated" by "media" that impede rather than facilitate the flow of information and ideas.


Anonymous said...

I agree, Art, but I liked your relevant interventions on the two times I watched you, even if Sciolino was really rude the last time - to think she is writing about how she is striving to learn good French manners ! Couper la parole is something even small kids here are taught not to do !


Anonymous said...

I agree about Ms Sciolino. She once said to Charlie Rose that Mr Sarkozy was "extremely vulgar" and that "he did'nt let (her) finish (her) sentences" during an interview. Maybe SHE should learn "politesse" instead of writing chicklitt about France. Even Danielle Steel could do better.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

In defense of Sciolino, there was a satellite delay between France and the US, and she may not have heard the cues in a timely manner. And there seemed to be some problem with her headset. I have done a bunch of these remote hookups, and CNBC's operation was the most chaotic I have encountered. So it may not have been her fault.

FrédéricLN said...

Well, better luck next time… I think that TINA.

From DC said...

I think you're right about Elaine Sciolino, Art: listening to the exchange, I initially thought she was interrupting, but it became very clear that there was a lag in transmission--very common in long-distance hookups. Anyway, thanks for your reflections here on the blog, but please don't imagine that you sounded inane on screen. The questions were silly and superficial, and I wish you'd had a chance to respond in greater depth. Is NPR any better?