Think yourself reasonably intelligent? Capable of sorting the real from the spun? Think again. A quick quiz:

The New York Times, September 8, 2002, Page A1:
By Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller

The New York Times, July 19, 2014, Page A1:
By Peter Baker, Michael R. Gordon and Mark Mazzetti

Given how the first story played out in real life, which of the following statements best describes your reaction to the second?

  • a) The Russians did it, because… they’re Russians! They’ve been up to no good since Red Dawn
  • b) Michael R. Gordon is reformed and newly credible, having learnt his lessons from the aluminum tubes story which got his former colleague, Judith Miller, err.. former-ed
  • c) The leading newspaper in the ‘free world’ will never be party to starting a major international conflict on false pretenses … (whoops) not again!
  • d) The New York Times would be better served if it changed its masthead-motto from “All the news that’s fit to print” to “American officials say …”

Say you handled this quiz quite well. Are you any closer to the truth of what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17—to what is really happening in Ukraine?

This quiz spotlights a modern dilemma that challenges our intelligence, even our ideas of what intelligence ought to be. Residing in a global village shrunk by instant communication, the way we perceive and respond to most events, people and things beyond our immediate surrounds is shaped by the media. Reality as we know it is mostly mediated. And media, today, is a foaming, frothing sea of competing “truths,” half-truths and outright lies. If you cannot believe the news, who or what can you believe?

“A time in which nothing is what it seems, and everything that appears is not.” —Pedro Susz

If you cannot believe the news, who or what can you believe? Tweet This Quote

Media intelligence, mental judo
Reactions to this dilemma vary from the weary, “well, that’s just the way things are,” to rabid expenditures of energy (and money) in the service of many a “fair and balanced” version, each perfectly neither. I’m interested in the middle-ground, specifically in promoting a campaign of citizen self-defense that involves cultivating something I will dub media intelligence (suggestions for better names welcome).

In a world shaped by efforts to influence us, using methods that are ever-evolving in scope and sophistication, freedom is inconceivable (or meaningless) without some kind of mental judo in the face of a 24-7, cross-platform, multi-device assault on our hearts and minds. Absent media intelligence, I fear not just for our sanities and wellbeing, but for the prospect of active citizenship and democracy in a world that desperately needs more of both.

The medium is the massage.
How else to explain this: the more the media are implicated in the way we sense the world—the way we think and feel about what is said to be happening—the less we think critically about who controls the media, to what ends and how.

The word “propaganda” goes out of style around the same time the practice kicks up another gear under the hood of the modern communications industry—from advertising to public relations to think-tanks and astro-turfing. Coincidence? Or should we beware the Mad Men with their expensive suits and psycho/socio-pathologies?

When a social institution and professional practice widely hailed as a principal line of defense against abuses of power becomes a player itself (or gets played, if you prefer), then what? In the early 1980s, about 50 companies owned over half the USA’s media. Today, fewer than 10 giant multinationals control 90 percent of what Americans (and millions of others) hear, read and watch—on TV, on the radio, over the Internet, and in the little CCTV feed that’s playing over the men’s urinal at the local bar. How did we get here? The answers will not be in the archives of media coverage on this topic, that’s for sure, a few breathless droppings about vertical integration in business sections excepted.

If something isn’t covered by the media, did it happen at all? Tweet This Quote

Conglomerates own film studios, television and radio stations, billboard companies, many newspapers and magazines, and an internet start-up or two… because, well, why not? No one seems to care enough to stop them. If you think this an issue of public interest worthy of democratic debate, too bad. Those who own 90 percent of the podia and the microphones are not so keen on debate, you see. They would rather their lobbyists sort things out with your congress-folk and spare you the oh-so-boring and complicated details of deregulation and spectrum giveaways, freeing more of your time for shopping, jacking off to Jack Bauer torture-porn, or discharging the onerous responsibilities of owning a fantasy sports team.

If something isn’t covered by the media, did it happen at all? This agenda-setting power of the media extends beyond the non-coverage of non-stop media consolidation. Take, for instance, the “nobody-saw-it-coming” consensus about the 2008 financial crisis (shared by Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Democratic and Republican big-shots and all the economics experts and political pundits on all the channels). Besides being demonstrably false, or disprovable by basic research (at the level of 8th-grade homework), this view also neatly fits with the media’s extensive reporting on the shenanigans (financial engineering, pardon me) that precipitated said crisis. Remember those award-winning scoops and exposés? No? Exactly.

The media can do turning-away, and they can also do turning-things-on-their-head. And so we have ‘Adjustable Rate Mortgages’ and ‘Collateralized Debt Obligations’ instead of homeowner-fraud and investor-fraud, respectively, spectacular feats of reframing with significant consequences. They are a big reason why those “too-big-to-fail” received billion-dollar slaps on the financial wrist instead of jail-time. (The latter ending, by the way, is not Utopian at all, only Icelandic.)

The media are not just full of commercials, they are fully commercial Tweet This Quote

Or, take for instance a recent New York Times editorial framing a dispute between China and the U.S. as one between “a Communist empire and a powerful democracy.” That would be a Commie empire with about a dozen naval refueling stations (in places like the Seychelles, Oman and Djibouti) versus a democracy boasting over 700 military bases around the globe, a defense budget far exceeding the military expenditures of all its potential adversaries combined, and a 37 percent voter-participation rate in its most recent national elections (2014). Powerful stuff indeed.

To go with the agenda-setting and framing, there is plain distraction. It is not easy to attend to important issues amidst 3000 plus reminders a day that the point of life is to buy something. The media are not just full of commercials, they are fully commercial. They are run as businesses and often cite the commercial logic of “ratings above all else” in their defense against accusations of bias, excess and egregious ethical lapses. “We’re only giving people what they want,” goes the refrain.

The market decides what the media will cover Tweet This Quote

The market decides what the media will cover, in other words, but the market also assumes homo economicus—intelligent minds making rational choices based on complete knowledge of all available options. As if the agenda-setting power of media-ownership did not constrain supply in alignment with the “enlightened self-interest” of the providers of channels and content. “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only for those who own one,” noted media critic A. J. Liebling. And as if 500 plus channels of hi-definition entertainment were not streaming through multiple screens, backed by $2 trillion in global advertising annually, precisely to ensure homo economicus we are not. So much for assumptions.

The market influence on media also mangles people’s ideas of what journalism should be. It warps a largely investigative mission—crucial to democratic transparency and accountability—into one of sucking-up for access. The latter parrots what the powerful say they do while the former digs into what they are actually doing.

What we recognized as simply lying fifty years ago, we now accept blithely as spin Tweet This Quote

Even more problematic is what we have come to expect and are willing to accept from the media. What we recognized as simply lying fifty years ago, we now accept blithely as spin—an industry unto itself, complete with careers and curricula to help some of us make a less-than-honest living. And the rest of us? We rail against Fox News or MSNBC, or tune both out as the main-stream media (MSM), preferring instead the ironic chic of a John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, the online snark of a Gawker, or the enticements of Vice.

I prefer Mark Twain myself: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” Accordingly, a strange and most crucial question for our turbulent times: can we read the news and still be informed?

Surviving progress—the need for media ecology
History shows that a number of major civilizations (Sumer, Rome, Maya) collapsed under the weight of their own success. Their ideas of progress and innovation were bedazzling in the short-term and ruinous in the long, one blinding them to the other before it was too late. Ronald Wright—who wrote the book on societal collapse based on his Massey lectures across Canada in 2004—calls this phenomenon a “progress trap,” and suggests that we might be in one right now. He also offers up this:

The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.

Will new media solve our media dilemma? Despite all the talk of aggregators and algorithms, I’m not holding my breath. By the way, ever wonder why a lot of these shiny, new techno-news products and services are free to you, the user? It is because you are not the user in their business models. You are the product.

The distance between clever and wise is not a matter of technology, it is a matter of worldview. Tweet This Quote

The distance between clever and wise is not a matter of technology, it is a matter of worldview. You can use complicated instrumentation to measure if playing violent video games makes teenagers more violent, or you can ask some simple questions about how a media diet of cop-shows, “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” newscasts, color-coded terror alerts or “join the Marines, get free college” commercials affects people’s sense of the world. George Gerbner, a professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, did the latter, and testified before Congress in 1981:

The most general and prevalent association with television viewing is a heightened sense of living in a “mean world” of violence and danger. Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures… They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television.

Think replacing network TV with Netflix is going to change that? The future of media will not be about paywalls and freemium models. In fact, the future of media won’t even be about the media, it will be about us. And whether we shift from being consumers of media to being citizens. Whether we go from being mere eyeballs in a media economy defined for us, to being participants in the reimagining of media as an ecology of ideas, as a conduit for collective intelligence to guide how people and communities understand the world and act to take their place in it. If we are the stories we tell ourselves we are, the future of humanity might hinge more on the media than on (any other) technology.

Mediology—the people’s side of media savvy
To be “media-savvy” these days mostly means to be skilled in the use of media to propagandize. Democracy, to be substantive, in an information age needs a different kind of media-savvy, the ability to think critically about the role of media in our lives. Can such a thing be cultivated? What would a curriculum for a people’s mediology—a systematic study of media connected to daily life—look like?

A picture of a high-school aged kid's costume for Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

A picture of a high-school aged kid’s costume for Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

I have been developing one version of such a curriculum, and would love to share an outline with you for feedback. But perhaps before that, I owe you a bit more by way of introduction. Where am I coming from? Why all this “unreasonableness” about media? In a few weeks, in this same space, I hope to post a brief history of thought-control that answers both those questions. And a few weeks after that: a rough draft of a course/program aimed at empowering and training people and communities to, among other things, dissect media ownership and influence, analyze the effects of consolidation and corporatization, practice active skepticism daily and participate in media-creation.

I know I’m far from alone in both my fascination and anxiety vis-à-vis the media. I look forward to hearing from you. What do you make of this fuss I’m making about mediology and media-smarts? Do weighty things like citizenship, democracy and freedom really depend on it? Do you buy the premise that we live in mostly mediated worlds? Do you know others working on this issue? Would you like to get involved? All talk back welcome and pre-appreciated.

Manoj Fenelon

Author Manoj Fenelon

Manoj Fenelon is a First Mover Fellow at the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society program, working to build cross-sector, multi-stakeholder consensus in favor of integrated water stewardship. He is also an intrapreneur at a Fortune 50 company, and to borrow the words of its CEO, an “internal activist,” advocating for the peaceful coexistence of profit-motives with social utility. He teaches introductory systems thinking and strategic design at the Pratt Institute, and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, and is a contributor to the just released book, Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond. He is also a frequent speaker at foresight and trends conferences. Manoj is Indian by birth, a New Yorker by residence, and a Nomad in spirit.

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