Thursday, November 9, 2023

Brain Hacking / the New Dark Age

             The off-year election results make it clear what matters to inspired voters is not the same stuff the media obsesses about. Reproductive rights issues have now influenced another election though the topic is generally shoved out of news agendas by the obsession with candidate polls, a kind of idiot trail to irrelevance.

         James Fallows, an emeritus wisdom, American journalist, academic, and speech writer said last week it seems the media is more interested in predicting next year’s election than paying attention to the news. Amen!

         I’ve written here of my distress that editors and producers are being reckless in their obsession with dubious polls and the attendant horse race of presidential politics. I blame a generational irrationality. News content managers have come up in an age of click bait, social media streams and distraction. 

        There was a time when political journalism sought to examine record, policy ideas, penetrate campaign organizations and test suitability for office. It appears they now wait for the latest poll and then explain seven ways to Sunday who will win 12 months from now. There is no shortage of "experts" from the political industrial complex to help with the spin.

         Tuesday’s election results benefited those who understand most US voters are still livid about the Supreme Court’s extremist decisions, restrictive state legislatures and the rightwing loud mouth lunacy on school boards. Mom’s for Liberty got pummeled by moms with common sense and civility. 

        People are smarter than social media streams and media simplemindedness that is attracted to the loudest shouting match.

        Most of the preliminary coverage missed what was coming, because the media was too busy trying to predict winners, as Fallows observed on Washington Week

        He knows a thing or two having been a national correspondent for the Atlantic, written for the New York Times, New Yorker, was an editor of US News and World Report, authored several books including a National Book Award winner, has been an academic and a presidential speechwriter. 

         Good journalism, the kind that Fallows generation produced still exists, but you have to get past gaffes, a lack of proportionality, and the current propensity for gotcha. 

        The news media, like politics is more performative today. Less journalism occurs at a time when Americans are less well read and educated, know very little if any history, and they were not taught and so do not understand civics. 

        Many, many Americans have plenty of emotion, and a more than an ample supply of demagogues and simpletons both in politics and media. It is also an age of news and information deserts which only permits a further dumbing down. People let social media algorithms, disinformation and radicalization efforts create their reality and manipulate their behavior. It is an age of brainwashing and group think.

        Coverage of the Hamas barbarism and Israel's response and self defense is demonstrative of how far we have descended, how little critical reason is applied and how intellectually bankrupt we have become.

        Here is one tier of a deep and complicated conflict that samples public and media response:


        Criticizing Hamas is not anti Palestinian. 

        Criticizing Netanyahu and his war policy is not anti semitic and not even anti-Israeli. 

        Praising Hamas is anti semitic and is not automatically pro Palestinian.

        Being pro Palestinian is not automatically pro Hamas.

        Being broken hearted by the scenes of death and destruction is not a political position.

        Maybe that is self evident to you and maybe not. But such relatively simple analysis seems lost in most media coverage and certainly on campuses, in cities and social media.Those simple declarative statements above have become fighting words. We are divided, tribal, rancorous, ready to rage and not at all ready to reason.  And that's only the top of it.

        There is complexity, nuance, and detail in ancient adversarial relationships. The involvement of terrorism makes it even more complicated. 

        Yet American screens are filled with hatred and irrationality and very few seem to be interested in anything but expressing angry views, even if they are illegitimate. When they are thrown into the media mix reason has no chance. No one listens.

        War is an ultimate human failing. Warfare is anti human, anti life and irrational.

        I heard an interview today where a Palestinian woman described the ordeal of evacuating a hospital under orders. At no time did the interviewer ask her about the Hamas military operation that was being conducted out of the hospital, nor were there questions about the tunnels below the hospital. A listener who has not read further, heard other sources, or knew of the Hamas tactic of hiding behind civilians would have a takeaway impression that was born out of incomplete knowledge or ignorance, by another name. The interviewer, the media source was at fault for not applying scrutiny, the challenge of a neutral examination, an attempt at objective understanding. Confirm, verify, question.

        I've been to Gaza, the West Bank, into what was Palestinian "territory" and understand the historic anger and the depressed conditions.

        I sat in Jericho with former combatants, Arabs and Jews.

        I've been to a Kibbutz and spent time with man named Uzi, whose parents were original settlers of Israel. He remembers being a boy and having to lay flat on the floor as his home was shelled by enemies in the evening. 

        I met with diplomats from the Palestinian Authority and their counterparts from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. These men had spent years working on sharing roads, moving produce from one zone to another, easing border crossings, protecting water supplies, trying to manage the daily tasks of commerce and agriculture. They thought that by making business together they would not make war.

        I spent days with a Nobel Peace nominee, a Palestinian Christian who was an Israeli citizen. He build schools and a peace institute where Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jew, Druze and Christian children lived and studied together.


        Leaders with agendas can wreck and stifle constructive progress. Zealots are dangerous leaders no matter how they pray.

        All of this is to say, what we seen on our screens is horrible, human failure, violence that is evil. War is hell. It has human allies. 

       What we see on screens from America is so often imprecise, without context, so brutally mis-understood and unquestioned. And too we see the way people far away from the hellish reality of Gaza and Israel shout slogans, carry banners, injure and harm other humans, invoke deep hatred and because of what?

        Ignorance, lack of knowledge, stupidity led actions are on a holiday feast in America. Intolerance, hatred, narrow-mindedness, zealotry are on the rampage. They are fed by politicians, media failures, and by people who do not think or do not reason. 

        There is a reason they are called ancient hatreds, but there was a time when journalists and analysts tried to lance the ignorance, or at least lend understanding. Now media exacerbates at worse, or wastes opportunity to bring light.

        I've used the example of the Gaza incursion response to terrorism. But modern political media shows itself to be frequently incompetent on a far less grievous though important matter, American presidential politics, where in their mind the campaign is never over.

        Rather than obsession with irrelevant political polls, that change weekly, and inside the beltway gossip, more time could be devoted to examination of policy options, deep dives into the complexity of the conflicts, the culture war, the threat of a government that cannot compromise, what to do about two set's of "truth", why has a political industrial complex turned our electoral system into a business? 

        Too often media, and it is particularly so these days and with a younger media cadre, is complicit because they are being "played" by a political industry that has learned how to manipulate and spin. Sometimes the old dogs in a news organization had the best sense of things. They'd been around.

        After nearly a half century of chasing deadlines and news I think a dose of old fashioned ethic, skepticism and standards are much needed. Cheers to the old boys and old girls who straddled the world's news from the end of a world war, through a cold war, got beaten and hosed and had dogs turned on them as they covered the struggle for civil rights, who's coverage of Asian wars shook the moorings and exposed the deceit, who investigated a corrupt presidency, challenged government foibles, tested candidates, exposed scandal, and took seriously the idea of being a watchdog of the public's right to know. 

        Edward R. Murrow, father of modern broadcast journalism said something about television that can be applied to all screens, phones and pads included and to the content we consume.


            "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."

        See you down the trail.  



  1. Tom, I think this your best post of all that I have the pleasure of reading over the years. Great thoughts and reasoning. Dean

  2. I share your frustration on all points. So often the "news" in incomplete, inaccurate, biased, too simplified, and popularized. Our world is complex. Nuance is important.
    Thank you for this post.

  3. Great post, Tom. Thank you.
    I've been disappointed in the coverage of the conflict in Gaza; the 'authorities' on either side being interviewed had essentially the same thing to say. When questioned about the murders in Israel, the Hamas spokesperson says "Look what they are doing to us in Gaza", when questioned about the death of civilians in Gaza, the Israel spokesperson says "Look what they did to us in Israel". Neither side takes any responsibility for their actions.

  4. Your blog serves as a reminder that learning can be a joyous and enriching experience.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment.

  5. So true, Tom! It’s disheartening and I can only hope a revival of past norms, standards and relevance can see the light of day again. In general, people today are caught up in and only interested in the superfluous media crap that comes across their feeds. No wonder that the populace votes against their own interests!!! Unbelievable!!! -Garry C