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James Fallows, “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media”

James Fallows has just published an article, “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media,” which I thought was really excellent. I don’t particularly care for his China articles, but Fallows is a veteran in the Western media business. It is a hefty read, but I highly recommend it, in its entirety. His intro below:

Everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel is bemoaning a decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion. But the author, a longtime advocate of these values, takes a journey through the digital-media world and concludes there isn’t any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media—and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future.

It is our opinion too there is a severe lack of “journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion,” when it comes to China reporting in the West. Many readers have repeated this idea that the Western media is not singling out China; they see that general trend on everything. They in fact see the whole media as “unbiased” towards anyone, because in their minds sensationalism (and whatever else) are applied across the board. (It is obviously more than this, and I will pick a non-China, “neutral” example: “Harvard University study catches major U.S. media pants down – systematic reporting of U.S. waterboarding as not torture.” But I really don’t want to delve into this in this post.)

I think it is critically important for people in China to understand how capitalistic media unrestrained on delivering what the public “wants” can manifest itself in something like Gawker. Or Fox News. People actually like for others to “think” for them so that they don’t have to process too much information. As Allen argued here on “Understanding Democracy,” understanding public policy requires investment in large amounts of time and absorbing very complex information. Both are hard to do.

Despite all that, Fallows still concludes with an optimistic view on where things are heading.

The bits I am quoting here will not do justice to his article. Much of the insight is in the details, and so I’ll repeat the recommendation to head over and have a read. You will need the details to draw your own conclusions. Below are his concluding remarks:

It was more striking, then, to hear something similar from Tom Brokaw, who was born in 1940 and was 15 years old when his family first got a TV. “We’re creating a whole new universe,” he told me. “All those planets that are out there, colliding with each other, we don’t know which ones will support life and which will burn up.”

At no stage in the evolution of our press could anyone be sure which approaches would support life, and which would flicker out. Through my own career I have seen enough publications and programs start—and succeed, and fail—to know how hard it is to foresee their course in advance. Therefore I am biased in favor of almost any new project, since it might prove to be the next New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, NPR, or Wired that helps us understand our world. Perhaps we have finally exhausted the viable possibilities for a journalism that offers a useful and accurate perspective. If so, then America’s problems of public life can only grow worse, since we will lack the means to understand and discuss them.

But perhaps this apparently late stage is actually an early stage, in the collective drive and willingness to devise new means of explaining the world and in the individual ability to investigate, weigh, and interpret the ever richer supply of information available to us. Recall the uprisings in Iran and Egypt. Recall the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti. My understanding of technological and political history makes me think it is still early. Also, there is no point in thinking anything else.

In his article, he also interviewed Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard:

But she [Lepore] went on to say that it is hard to demonstrate that today’s media and resulting public discussion are, in their totality, worse than before.

So, perhaps, at the end of the day, those who “wants” to understand matters concerning public policy will be a self-select group who invests enough time to gather information and to be more informed.

Obviously, the presumption Fallows take with his article is that media remains “free” and unregulated. That being the case, profit seeking necessitates the media deliver more what the end consumer wants. More sex. More sensationalism. More conflict. I guess it’s like food; they taste bland without the seasoning. Those humans whose bodies are capable of discarding the harmful stuff and pick out the nutritious parts will ultimately be healthier.

That self-select group in society will wade through media in similar fashion.

But for all the trumped up virtues of democracy and “freedom” of the press, isn’t this a pathetically low expectation of the media?

  1. March 16th, 2011 at 06:42 | #1

    I repost some of my comments before here:


    The electoral voting system is an exercise of moral choice, rationalized as “reason” and progress in humanity, but it is not.

    For example, if “reason” was the actual prevayor of a voting system, then “slavery” would have been abolished long before it was. Every institution of civil rights would have been “reasoned” into existence within reasonable debate, very quickly. But they did not.

    Why? Voters make choices based upon personalized moral value systems, which OFTEN are unreasonable, because the voters have no historical learning for their choices, and no incentive to learn from their own voting choices.

    No. Voters very much hold onto their own moral value systems, and make decisions based upon that. (Hence, slavery was not abolished until MANY years after people of North found slavery unnecessary. And even then, there was a Civil War. And even then, there was still “segregation”.)

    The system of voting, and multiparties, and minority rights, do not foster collective learning. Every issue becomes a MORAL issue, a VALUE issue in politics. There is NO measurement of actual effectiveness of policies.

    For example, a simple 5 year study in the economic impact of slavery could have easily demonstrated that “slavery” was not economically profittable at all, (which was universally acknowledged much later on in US).

    The issue could have been easily reasoned out with HARD economic study, WITHOUT trappings of morality.

    In fact, morality doesn’t have to be in any issues at all. Simple reasoning would illustrate that it’s pointless to treat other human beings as inferior, it only heightens tension and social chaos.

    (Hence, even in the 2000 years of Chinese imperial rule, slavery was pretty much outlawed very early on. You don’t need a multiparty to tell you that.)

    Is there an advantage to a One party system? Perhaps, in that there might be more collective learning, more reasoning, and less moral judgment.

    Morality is a currency of politics in a multiparty electoral system. Voters vote on issues AND candidates based upon moral appeal. Candidates and Parties campaign on moral appeal. The entire system is flooded with morality that one see no point in reasoning any thing. (Hence, “legislate morality” in US? YES, of course.)

    A one party multi-faction system with minimal elections is perhaps less prone to the effects of morality, because the system can reason the policies’ effects, try them out, and test the effectiveness, without JUSTIFYING the morality behind it to the populous.

    Explaining MORALITY is pointless. One can’t possibly do it reasonably to the satisfaction of the populous.

    Just imagine trying to explain the IMMORALITY or the IRRATIONALITY of slavery to a slave owner in 1800 US. You won’t succeed.

    The Founding Fathers failed to convince their own to get rid of slavery. Then you know how difficult that argument was, or how difficult to change the moral mindset of a populous.

    *Yet, it is necessary often that a government must make policies that people will not have the moral mindset to prepare for.

    The “1 child” policy in China, came to mind. Not only were many non-Chinese against such an idea, it was very much against the mindset of most Chinese at the time it was implemented. It was against the MORAL value of most humans to control reproduction.

    Yet, now looking back, it looks more and more correct. If China had not implemented that policy, China would not have possibly controlled its population growth today, and it would still be mired in poverty today.

    How did China do it? The leaders saw a rational policy that needed to be DONE, and did it after some discussion.

    The explanation given at the time was entirely rational, not moral at all. The government simply said, we have too many people in China, and if we keep going, we are all going to be poor, and many of us will starve.

    And they shut out the morality discussions as backward and ignorant, and ignored all outside criticisms.

    *Now, India sees a need to implement the same policy to control its population growth. Yet, it can’t, because it’s running up against the WALL of MORALITY of its voters.

    (See the difference)?

    I caution that the One party system could have irrational leaders who also make decisions based upon morality. And that would be perhaps WORSE than a multi-party system that make morality decisions.

    But I think in China, where education and respect for education is culturally ingrained, such morality leaders will not last long. The Chinese populous eager for educated and rational (and stable) leaders more than passionate popular leaders.

    The foundation of Chinese culture based upon Confucian philosophy formed around a core belief that no government can last without virtuous rational educated leaders, who practice selfless restraint, and lead the people by teaching of reason and history.

    *Morality should be formed from policy effectiveness in a society, and not the other way around.

  2. March 16th, 2011 at 06:51 | #2

    The Western media, unfortunately, also trade in the currency of Morality, in their journalistic advocacy.

    They rarely use only reasoning. When journalists do REASON rather than emotively argue, they are seen as not passionate enough, and they do not generate much reading.

    Hence, the media further echo the IRRATIONAL moral debates in Western politics, and boil every thing down to simple emotional slogans.

    I mean, seriously, is it that difficult for people to understand the simple logic that if they don’t pay teachers well, their kids will be taught by idiots??

    *So, when MORALITY is the dominant currency of Western politics and media, the media can hardly lament the loss of rational debate in journalism. It is entirely expected, because the whole system is NOT design to trade in rationality.

    Morality is the alcohol of politics. It feels great when you drink it every now and then, but soon enough you are addicted to it, and you might die from over binge drinking.

    Nothing wrong for individuals to have moral principles, but it’s ridiculous to run a government based upon it.

  3. r v
    March 16th, 2011 at 07:16 | #3

    One can also clearly see the predominance of MORALITY in Western politics, when US and Europe constantly harp their “values” now.

    Indeed, the “values” they harp is not much a “value” in constant, but a fluctuating system of moral back-forth.

    It is easily influenced by baser instincts of xenophobia and paranoia, and easily bribed by money and influence from the rich and the powerful.

    If they could make the poor and the middle class believe that the Rich are “creating jobs” with their tax cuts, the system of MORALITY has no bedrock of “values”.

    *Let us not forget, the frail system of “MORALITY” can be easily corrupted by vocal minority voices bent on taking power. The likes of Hitler do not come arguing with reasons. They come armed with their shared “values” with the People, so that they could justify anything under the sun with their “values”.

  4. March 16th, 2011 at 11:37 | #4

    Many great points, raventhorn2000.

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