The Goals of the Book

The book that follows has at least four closely related goals. First, as mentioned, it seeks to identify many of the games over image, power, aggression and opposition, and related actions, so the reader will know how to spot these phenomenon in news and other communications. It also tries to reveal the motivations that lie behind these choices, so we can understand why the game of public life is being played the way it is. If this goal is successful, the reader should be able to perceive a news story or interview (or speech or advertisement) and see at least some of the strategies of the players involved. In particular, many of the ways that image or reputation is manipulated, should be transparent to view. Journalists, for their part, should be able to do the same, in relation to their own work and the work of others.

One goal of the book, than, is to understand public rhetoric and image manipulation in news stories; in news events such as interviews, speeches, press releases and platform statements, and in other forms of communication. Here, the concern is with the nature of public communication: what are the participants saying when they say things, and what are they doing? How do groups of people represent themselves and each other, to themselves and each other?

Second, the books tries to demonstrate that the media is enacting behaviors that play a prominent role in all public life in America and in all social life, including the life of societies different from our own. What we see in the media are the characteristics of the human mind and of social and psychological dynamics, applied to one kind of situation. In everyday life, people manifest the same characteristics: they speak and behave in ways that tell stories; they shape image and, in so doing, they engage in various kinds of action; and they are influenced by the actions of other players. In this larger social world of action and interaction, the issues of power and aggression, and cooperation and opposition, and of the credibility of claims to morality, competence and so on, are everywhere. They pervade everyday conversation and constitute many of our thoughts about ourselves, each other, and our surroundings.

Indeed, it is no mere metaphor to say that the image each of us projects is a form of wealth and, like all wealth, it can be protected, attacked or stolen. In everyday life, most of us are predators in the Sam Donaldson style (the old Sam Donaldson), stalking and attacking the image of others, even as we defend our own. Simultaneously, we conspire to protect and enhance the image of other people and, in the secret recesses of the mind, we may hatch self-destructive Gary Hart-style plots to attack the image of those closest to us, namely ourselves.

Thus, we are all traders and thieves in the market of image and credibility, as well as philanthropists, putting down others so we can feel up, engaging in rescue operations in which we deface ourselves to prop up other people, savaging each other in meaningless battles over prestige, and creating mutual admiration societies that allow everyone involved to profit from the deal.

News presents a unique example of these forces because journalists have an institutionalized role judging and attacking the credibility of public figures, who can only survive by virtue of their public image, and because these strange encounters take place on a stage that allows all of society to be in on the game, and that often affects the larger society in important ways.

The goal, than, isn't merely to explain the news, but to present a dynamic model for how we should view human action and interaction, that takes into account the complex interplay of human relationships and motivation. One might say the purpose of the book is to expand on the work of Erving Goffman, the sociologist of face-to-face interaction, who showed us how we all manipulate the image of ourselves and others in ways that profoundly shape social life. But this theory is interested in a realm of interaction and image manipulation that need not be direct or face-to-face at all, since players can act toward each other via the proxy of news stories, through third players, through computer networks, and so on. And it offers a more complex model in which players follow social rules, act in their own perceived self-interest and reenact the fundamental issues of childhood, such as issues of independence and aggression.

This effort expands on and departs from Goffman in other ways. It seeks to provide a detailed model that allows us to "map" the patterns that can be found whenever people directly or indirectly interact. These patterns reveal a set of, often, unconscious and tacitly perceived rules that govern our behavior. Like the rules for putting together sentences, we rely on these, although we rarely reflect on them or symbolize them to ourselves in ways that would allow us to be explicitly aware of what we are doing.

The definition of image that is used differs from Goffman's, as well. Much of Goffman’s work focused on the ceremonial order of face-to-face interaction, the world of "pleases" and "Thank yous" (to oversimplify) in which we project an image of ourselves as moral beings and thereby, smooth over our interactions. This certainly plays a role in the current work. But this work is more concerned with the way we seek to manipulate an image of our more substantive actions in the world: is the president truly acting out of concern for the plight of poor people in his latest initiative; was the regulator competent in the way he did his job; was the priest guilty of breaking his vows. And this work focuses much of its attention on the way others seek to manipulate our image, as well as on the way we try to manipulate our own. All of this can be found in Goffman, as well, but with a different emphasis.

In providing this model, the book also tries to describe action and interaction as going on amid the basic conditions of human existence, in which profoundly narcissistic and yet, profoundly moral creatures, namely ourselves, live together and are driven to seek association in a world of limitations. It is from this matrix of narcissism, association, an ethical sense, and a life full of limitations, that we create the moral orders used to judge individual conduct and control behavior. One of the keys to understanding human action is discovering how all these motives and actions are integrated in actual behavior, by agents who, consciously and unconsciously, are trying to advance their own self-interest, however hallucinatory some of their perceptions of their own self-interest may, at times, be.

In addition, the book has a third motive – it seeks to be a force, however small, for reforms in public life, this being one of the kinds of action it is engaged in. By exposing some of the rules of the game, it seeks to create circumstances in which people will react a little less automatically; It seeks to make the game look less mysterious and less enticing, and to make the attacks, the scapegoating and jockeying for position that define so much media coverage and politicking, a little less intellectually and morally reputable than they are today.

This goal has a certain amount in common with the goals of psychoanalysis, which seeks to identify neurotic patterns of behavior, understand the motivations behind them and help bring about change, in part by bringing the behavior under greater conscious control or, at least, under more mature adult control. Of course, here, what will ultimately be necessary for true reform to take place is a social process, in which the players in this game are provided rewards and punishments by society and their peers, to change their methods.

Toward this goal of reform, the book offers a vision of a more ethical journalism, staffed by journalists who enter the social network they cover without becoming enmeshed in it, and tell the truth of events as clearly as possible, without succumbing to the threats and temptations produced both by their own emotions and by other players. It similarly offers a vision of a fairer and more humane form of political rhetoric, which will certainly be ignored.

And finally, it seeks to contribute to the progressive enlargement of freedom, in general, that is possible whenever we learn more about the motives and nature of our actions.

Much of the book sprang from my perceptions as a newspaper journalist and a person, of the flaws and ethical failures of the system I was a part of. I have frequently found myself outraged at the callous and sadistic way I have seen people treated. The minute the news media begins targeting a public figure, my own sense of identification immediately goes out to the public figure, even when it is someone who I might not otherwise have a sense of commonality with.

It sprang from those perceptions but expanded into a larger theory about social interaction and human nature. And in recent years, it has become part of a larger theory of how our public culture, from news to situation comedies to the new arena of connected computers, expresses our values and motives, and is manipulated to achieve various ends.This book is thus, now, one element of a larger theory of culture and society, and of what some academic theoreticians refer to as representation.

In essence, there are two visions at work here and, although they are complimentary, each exerts a kind of gravitational pull. First, there is a vision articulated by the sociologist Jonathan Turner of a sociology that aspires to be a science through the construction of models that synthesize apparently disparate theories and points of view. Second, there is the vision of the German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas, articulated in his early book, Knowledge and Human Interests, of a critical social science that seeks the enlargement of freedom and the emancipation of humanity from its numerous forms of enslavement. Like that book, this one is impressed with psychoanalysis as an example of such a social science. Psychoanalysis aspires to precisely and scientifically describe the elements of human motivation (despite its numerous failings in this area,) in order to set people free from motives they refuse to know they have.

As I discovered, and as the reader will discover, as we study motivation and interaction, we are constantly drawn from one of these visions to the other. It is the empiricism, precise description and modeling, synthesis of views, and efforts at verification that allow our work to move beyond social philosophy. But, at the same time, when we examine human behavior, we inevitably find ourselves in a world of deception, manipulation, verbal violence and the callous use of power, as well as of honesty, tact, fairness, kindness and equality. In the end, much of what makes this interesting and important is the fact that it violates or upholds an inherent ethical sense we have about what is right and good. We thus find ourselves involved in what we observe, as ethical beings, all the more so because what is described applies to all of us, since we are all potential predators and prey, and recipients and dispensers of benevolence; and we are all, even if we fail to acknowledge it to ourselves, potential reformers who can alter the human condition for the better.

But enough with introductions. On with the news.

* * * * * *

* I. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1962).

** Just as people can enhance, defend or attack the image of elements of the world other than people, so they can take some other actions toward other elements of the world, as well. For example, a politician who creates a negative characterization of a political philosophy can be said to be trying to discredit that philosophy to harm it. Of course, one way or another, even these kinds of actions are taken with reference to people.

Footnotes to Turner, Habermas, Goffman and Lyotard will be added.


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