Polemical Introduction

In the last few decades, national news organizations have undergone a significant change. Where once they were at least somewhat restrained in the way they treated politicians and public figures, today they seem to have become fierce adversaries of virtually everyone who holds a position of power. In some ways, the change has been positive, giving us a news media that is imbued with an investigative spirit and that digs below the surface of events, instead of taking many of government's contrived announcements at face value. But the change has also turned out to have a dark side, giving us a new culture of scandal and reputation assault that often paralyzes the very institutions the news media is trying to open up.

Many journalists would probably say that these two developments - the emergence of a spirit of investigative reporting and of reputation assault - are inescapably connected to each other. After all, one can't investigate the manipulations of the powerful, without also generating scandal and damaging some reputations along the way. But, despite the fact that there is a connection, there is also an essential difference between these two forms of journalism that many journalists are reluctant to recognize.

Investigative journalism, when it is conducted properly, is about exposing the wrongdoing -- including the secret deals and manipulations -- that hides behind a mask of propriety. It is about the public's right to know what the government is doing in its name, and what others are doing that violates commonly agreed upon perceptions of the moral order of society. The new journalism of reputation assault also tries to strip away a false image of propriety, but it is primarily focused, not on exposing wrongdoing, but on making people look like wrongdoers. It seeks not justice or important truths, but the creation of scandal, and of stories about important figures who have been brought down.

We can distinguish the two types, in part, by their choice of targets. Ethically-based investigative reporting is selective about what it chooses as a target, because its actions are guided by a vision of the public interest. The culture of reputation assault is far more promiscuous in its choice of targets - political or personal scandal, large crimes and small personal failings - almost anything will do when one is merely trying to put the powerful on the defensive and watch them fall.

If there is a similarity between the two, it is partly because, as noted, even much of the best-intended investigative journalism engages in character assassination and focuses some of its attention on making people look bad. But it is also because the journalism of reputation assault mimics and caricatures investigative journalism, to give itself legitimacy.

Ultimately, these two types of journalism offer us a very different vision of the function and role of news. Investigative reporting gives us a vision of the news media as a Fourth Estate, holding the powerful, in and out of government, responsible for their actions. The culture of reputation assault gives us a vision of the news media as a giant super-ego, leveling one accusation after another, while concealing the sadism of its own actions.

But the information savagery of the news media is itself only a part of the larger corruption of media that is now a pervasive characteristic of many nations. This larger realm of corruption is based on the fact that we now live in an age, not merely of information, but of manipulated information, in which images, and words and stories play a growing role as tools of power. It is an age in which the media takes the perception of events and converts it into narratives that are much like fiction, narratives that focus on many of the themes of all storytelling -- danger, evil, suffering, conflict, power, adversity, and victory – in order to evoke strong emotions in audiences. Instead of showing us the unruly world, it gives us a view of things transformed by the techniques of theater, advertising, cinematography, public relations, rhetoric, and fiction, in which staging and packaging profoundly change both events and our view of events.

This contriving of information is now an essential characteristic of our time. Behind it, we find the great manipulators of the age -- the corporations, news and entertainment companies, politicians and publicists -- constructing appearances in an effort to influence what people think. Their manipulations serve a number of essential purposes: they are a form of marketing used to attract audiences and buyers; they are used to create propaganda and used by television journalists and others to achieve personal goals, such as self-aggrandizement.

The savaging of public figures plays an essential role in this larger culture of contrivance because it offers the public hypocrites, villains, and fools who can play a role in exciting stories that will attract an audience. In addition, it is a way to destroy those who are perceived as political and economic opponents. And it makes it possible for many journalists and other public figures to look good on television, since it allows them to be in the dominant position as they go on the offensive against their targets, while they justify their actions by claiming to defend the moral order of society.

Thus, we see tabloid news shows that exaggerate wrongdoing and personal problems to make those they cover look like villains and pathetic characters, in order to give audiences someone to ridicule and hate. We see politicians doing the same thing to their opponents, once again mobilizing public hatred and ridicule, and directing it at specific targets, as a way of winning elections. In so doing, they seek to manipulate the psychodynamics of their audiences, evoking identification and admiration for those depicted as heroes and saints; empathy for those depicted as victims; and anger at wrongdoers. It seems that values, and love and hate have themselves become highly rationalized marketing tools in our new, media-saturated societies.

But the culture of reputation assault that is attached to the mainstream media is, itself, not the worst that is out there. It is being surpassed by an even more virulent strain of information savagery that has the potential to turn public life into a Hobbesian war of degrading images in which everyone is a journalist and public figure and everything is fair game. With the growing role of private investigators, listening devices, miniaturized cameras and the Internet -- and the ability to digitally store what is collected in computers -- all kinds of images and information that are private or discrediting are now starting to be opened to public view. Surveillance images of people in various stages of undress; information on past infractions and personal problems, images of people who just happen to be where live video cameras are recording -- much of the flotsam and jetsam of people’s lives is now starting to be made public, for entertainment, marketing, and revenge, and to achieve political goals. The emerging, sadistic, electronic super-ego of information-gathering and display will go well beyond Big Brother if something isn’t done to protect people’s privacy, recording millions of misdemeanors and faux pas, and turning them into virtual billboards for public enjoyment, as we all become the raw material for a culture of images that is allowing Hate to expand its domain.

Given the evolving direction of events, it seems reasonable to suggest that public life in America is suffering from a kind of collective psychopathology. The system is stuck. It keeps reenacting a drama based on timeless themes of power, vulnerability, deception, sin, and disgrace, and it constantly allows the simple, the immediate and the spectacular to crowd out the complex and less evident. It would turn us all into participants in a culture based on humiliation in which discrediting information is seen as a weapon, to be used sadistically or with cold-blooded instrumentality, to achieve our ends.

This book is an effort to determine how we can evolve in a more constructive direction, so there is less of a focus on making people look bad, and more interest in telling the public truths it needs to know. After all, there is also much that is of value in the news media -- or at least some parts of the news media -- including the independence, investigative spirit and fairness it often manifests, despite frequent lapses; including its little-recognized ability to evoke empathy in audiences, particularly for those who suffer, and its ability to help us see events in their totality, so we can appreciate the pattern and meaning of things. Indeed, as most people recognize, the news media is essential to freedom. If it were silenced, it would be only a short time before we ceased to look like a democracy (even a partial democracy), and before corruption and the abuse of position destroyed our public institutions.

There are, obviously, also national news organizations and many local newspapers that refrain from many of the worst excesses of this culture. Unfortunately, many of these organizations are immersed in denial and deniability. They refuse to focus on the excesses of the rest of the media in their own news stories, simply defining most of the media's abuses as not being news. And they then cover the impact of all reputation carnage in second-order stories, so that much of news coverage ends up being driven from below.

In effect, theirs is a sin of omission, rather than commission. And it is the greatest sin a journalist can be guilty of, other than lying: they are failing to tell their audience the story. They certainly know what the story is. As alluded to earlier, it is about the way America is being turned into a new kind of virtual oligarchy in which corporations, political groups, and the news and entertainment media routinely use their power to manipulate the government and the culture, to achieve their ends. Money is an essential tool of this corruption, but so is media, since those who control communications control much of what people know about the larger world. So all manipulate media in their own ways, by buying it, by slanting news stories, by staging events, and so on.

In effect, than, today, much of power is media. It is about the effort to mesmerize people into believing your own version of "unreality." The media manipulators are not themselves taken in by these charades, at least often they are not. Like the inventors of simulated worlds that entrap people in illusions, which are so often depicted in science fiction, they remain outside the illusion, while they work to draw as many people inside it as they can.

Audiences aren’t entirely taken in, either, of course. Some of us are, and many of us are taken in somewhat or some of the time. But many of us also react emotionally as if the falsehoods we are fed are true, even when we know we are being manipulated.

Can this system be reformed? There are certainly precedents that suggest that at least some reform is possible. The loss of favor of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, for example, suggests that public opinion can take a decisive turn when things go too far.

Unfortunately, given the forces that have a stake in the existing system, and given the reactions of the audience, we probably won't see significant changes for the better any time soon. But we still have to try to bring about change. If the media can’t be reformed, it would seem that we are doomed to repeat a spectacle in which the humiliation of the powerful – and, ultimately, of everyone else -- has become an end in itself.

Addendum: Hate Becomes a Commodity

One of the plagues of human history has been the belief that there are people and groups of people who don't share the same moral status and rights as everyone else. These individuals and groups are society's scapegoats. Traditionally, they have been subjected to symbolic violence, in which they have been depicted in words and images in degrading ways. Beyond that, they have often been subjected to physical violence, as well, depending on the society and the scapegoats in question.

The list of scapegoats who have been forced into these roles is legion. They are the innocent and the guilty; the mad and the sane. They are Jews, blacks, Christians, pagans, heretics of all sorts, the disabled and deformed; political critics and criminals, saints and scientists, et al.

Today, we see a new variation on this endless historical game of dehumanization and degradation. Now, we have a political system and media that gain much of their profit and power by turning public figures into scapegoats, arousing the emotions of anger, ridicule and disdain in audiences and voters. The most obvious members of this new group of scapegoats are the Dan Quayles, and Tammy Faye Bakkers, who have characteristics that, in the eyes of many, lend themselves to this kind of treatment. But beyond them, there is, in this system, now, incessant pressure to generate scapegoats -- to invent fools and villains for the public to mock and hate, so as to win political contests, make money and receive public acclaim. Republicans do it to Democrats; Democrats to Republicans; the television news media to anyone they can, although they obviously have their favorite targets.

Under the cover of a court-decision that says public figures have less protection than other people, when it comes to privacy, slander and libel, America's media system is now in the business of inventing scapegoats who have fewer rights than the rest of us. The right to not be smeared, worldwide; the right to not have one's suffering turned into a sadistic circus; the right to not be bombarded by insulting questions -- these and other rights we assume belong to ourselves, fall by the wayside. To gather the information and images they need to create their stories, the perpetrators of this system violate a second set of rights as well -- rights to not have one's privacy invaded; to not be followed, pressed in on, surrounded, and turned into prey.

With the emergence of a worldwide media culture, this is now a global phenomenon. And information that can be used to damage people and put them in the scapegoat category (or further into the scapegoat category) has now, incredibly, become a product and a form of wealth. With the proliferation of media and the Internet, which is turning millions of people into journalists of a sort, and into something much like a public figures, and with the growing use of surveillance technologies and computer files, this system now threatens to become a feature of everyday life..

We are developing a global media system in which Hate is becoming a commodity. What is new about this system isn't that it manipulates the emotions of its audience to achieve its ends. Rather, it is the scale and pervasiveness and sophistication with which it does so, based on high-tech tools of communications and image manipulation. As a result, we are all being drawn into a worldwide virtual gladiator game in which the stakes are all too real for the victims and for everyone who has to live and be brought up in an environment that encourages many of humanity's worst instincts.

Back to Image and Action