Wednesday, February 28, 2007

PBS Frontline Series: "News Wars"

I highly recommend the Frontline series on the transformations occurring in US news gathering organizations. It can be found here.

The segment last night discussed the decline of hard news reporting and the accompanying decline in the fortunes of the former big three network broadcast news organizations. Interviews with Dan Rather and Tom Bettag (former executive news producer) discuss the impact of bottom-line considerations on news gathering capabilities:

Announcer: Then is the 80's with Reagan-era deregulation, there was a series of corporate takeovers. Capital Cities bought ABC. General Electric bought NBC. And Larry Tisch of the Loews Corporation took over CBS.

Bettag: And Tisch looked at a very fat CBS and said "I'll bet that I can cut 33% of this organization out and deliver a product that is 90% as good. And if I can do that, I can make Wall Street incredibly happy, I can make my investors happy and that's what business is about.

Announcer: In 1987 Tisch ordered the biggest budget cuts in the history of CBS News.

Reporter: This period in the '80's where you have deregulation, you have an experienced money man, Larry Tisch, comes in and cuts CBS News down to size. Cuts you down.

Rather: I think the biggest difficulty was, and he said this in my presence once, he said, "Dan, your problem is you don't understand business. You're a good reporter. I'm glad you're with us, but you don't understand business." Well, the difficulty was Larry Tisch did understand business, but he didn't understand this business.

Bettag: When Larry Tisch left CBS it was not the same news organization by a lot that was there when he came.

Announcer: The once top rated CBS Evening News fell to third place and has, for the most part, stayed there.

Tisch could see immediate monetary value in the CBS brand, but he couldn't see the value over time and for the rest of the organization of maintenance of the brand itself.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Televised

In an opinion column published in the February 4th edition of the Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher invokes the theories of Marshall McLuhan in a discussion of our military failures in the war on terrorism:

“Mr. McLuhan, who came to prominence in the 1960s and died in 1980, was one of the first to understand how radically the electronic media stood to change culture and society. His best-known aphorism – "The medium is the message" – encapsulated his most important insight: that what is said matters less than how it is said. The information environment we live in shapes our thought processes in ways we only dimly perceive.

Cultures shaped by the printed word prized logic, reason and dispassion. But a global culture conditioned by television – which is to say, by the power of sound and image – to process information a certain way, Mr. McLuhan taught, will revert to pre-modern modes of thought. It will be more emotional, more tribal, less trusting of traditional authority and more inclined to privilege individual judgment. And it will have more political and religious extremism.”

Dreher goes on to state that we are losing the war on terror because it is an information war, not a military one:

“Some at the State Department understand the dire situation we're in. Strategist David Kilcullen explained in The New Yorker that the global war on terror is 'fundamentally an information fight. The enemy gets that, and we don't yet get that. And I think that's why we're losing.’ Terrorists, he said, blow up Humvees more for the sake of the video. The images are distributed on the Internet, where they spread virally and are used to win supporters and donations. ‘Perception truly now is reality, and our enemies know it," said Steve Fondocaro, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq. ‘We have to fight on the information battlefield.’ "

It may be true that the Bush administration have been amateurs in terms of managing international opinion, but maybe that was never their goal. Up until the last election, they have been masters at managing American public opinion, and perhaps, in their minds, that is all that matters. As long as they could control domestic public opinion, get Republicans elected and suppress significant criticism, it didn't really matter what the various overseas publics thought. And remember, their election successes nationally have been at just above the 50% level.

Bush's recent PR problems domestically have been the result of the manifest failure of his policies in Iraq. This points to a problem not really touched in Dreher's article. Control of just 51% of public opinion (or less if there is a significant third party candidate) provides complete control of the assets and weaponry of the only global superpower. This imperial president has been remarkably effective in hobbling the "checks and balances" capabilities of the other two branches of government. With some neocons seriously discussing the use of nuclear weaponry in their war on terror, this becomes a truly frightening situation.

By bringing a true Media Ecology perspective to public debate do we merely provide another tool to the current administration's propaganda machine? Do we really want them to be more effective in information warfare in pursuit of their imperialistic goals in the Middle East?

Does Media Ecology have a public voice? What is our message, and by which media do we disseminate it? Do we have a nationally recognized spokesperson or a PR operation that could address these issues effectively within the sound bite forums of televised debate? If McLuhan was right, it is the nature of public consciousness to be numb to the effects of the current media. How do we break through this barrier to engage in the type of discussion merely hinted at in Dreher's column?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Media Ecology Poet Laureate

I notice that Camille Paglia has returned to blogging on Salon and so I thought I would post a message I sent to the Media Ecology listserve concerning the need for a Media Ecology Poet Laureate, and the greater need that I be that person:

I have received some inquiries as to whether the Media Ecology Association needs a Poet Laureate. More specifically, the messages seems to ask whether the Media Ecology Association needs me as their Poet Laureate. The question has been raised as to whether the publication of only one masterpiece qualifies one for such a position.

I would like to point out that "The Very Model of a Media Ecologist" is not my sole masterpiece. In fact, I understand that Camille Paglia is considering a sequel to her best selling book of poetry criticism, to be titled "Break, Blow, Burn - A New Hope," that would focus exclusively on my unpublished body of work.

Among the unpublished masterpieces to be considered are:

Ode to the Medium of a Grecian Urn

(In which I contemplate the relationship between the figures on the outside of the urn with the ground grain on the inside. This figure/ground dichotomy leads me to conclude that, to the ancient Greek, the content of the urn was of more importance than the urn itself. In fact, all Grecian urns have been shown using x-ray technology to have the words "su ejpaggeliva autou" underneath the erotic or Homeric or homoerotic etchings, which translates roughly as "your ad here.")

Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- Burma Shave.

Lacan and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still,
and all of western literature lies helpless at his feet.

IM to His Coy Mistress

Hd we bt wrld enuff, & IM,
This cynss, ldy, wre n crm.

The Vast Wasteland

May Sweeps are the cruelest month,
breeding Idol clones out of the dead land.
I had not thought death had uncouched so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man's eyes fixed on the screen before his feet.

In a more popular vein:

Don't Think Twice, It's Derrida

It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don't matter any how.

Also included will be my continuation and completion of John Milton's planned tetrology, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained with:

Paradise Enhanced

Satan decides that serving in Heaven isn't such a bad deal after all.

Paradise Reversed

Unintended consequences occur when Satan develops time shares in heaven for souls who would not normally be able to get in. Complications ensue when Hitler and Mussolini move in next door.

Media Ecology Shakespearian Series:

Is This a Daguerre I see before me?

To Be or Not to Be: It depends on your abstraction level

It can be seen that I take my role as Media Ecology Poet Laureate seriously, especially considering the rate of pay.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Fundamental Religion as a Return to Orality

(Updated below)

Fundamentalists are an example, under secondary orality, of an instance when a literate tradition succumbs to an electronic influence. As an organized religion, fundamentalists present a paradox. They wish to interpret "literally" the recorded residue of oral culture storytelling. But in doing so, they betray the influence of a pre-literate and/or secondary orality world view. Lévi-Strauss noted that a difference in world views between pre-literate and literate cultures is a difference between a synchronic or a diachronic view of existence.

For a pre-literate culture, there is no real history. There is the "before" time and the "now." Time is not a line, it is a circle, with the current people in its center. When ask to explain the existence of a ritual, an animal species or a belief, pre-literate peoples will describe a before time when an ancestor brought about a change to the way things have been ever since. That is a synchronic world view.

Writing and printing allow for concise record keeping, create archives, provide artifacts from times other than our own and therefore encourage the view that time is linear, with a past, present and future. There is a history, a logical sequence of events, and a realization that certain documented causes have led to certain discernable effects. Things that exist now have evolved over time, perhaps a very long time, and have been subject to historical and natural influences. This is a diachronic world view.

In our electronic culture the speed of transmission encourages a return to a synchronic world view. When fundamentalists tell us the world is only as old as the Bible says, approximately 6000 years, they are attempting to bend history to a synchronic viewpoint. Archeological evidence is not important. The scientific demonstration of the mechanism of evolution over millions of years is only a "theory." By denying historical evidence, fundamentalists are attempting to redefine time as circular, with themselves at its center.

That is why fundamentalists appear to be more tolerant of other religions. The distinction they draw is between a synchronic and a diachronic world view, and not between the any particular religious doctrines


The following critique was posted concerning the above discussion:

I think you are entirely wrong on this point. The conflict is between two diachronic viewpoints, one that dates creation 6000 years, and one that pushes it back into the billions. It is the very existence of a diachronic worldview that makes this disagreement possible. That one side is based on scientific fact as it appears in print media, and the other on religious fact as it appears in the book of Genesis, is besides the point. both groups have a historical view. From a synchronic perspective, the moment of creation exists outside of historical time, it's a sacred time that all times connect to rather than a profane time (as per Eliade), and therefore the profane counting of years just would not matter. That's why fundamentalism is a literate phenomenon. Oral cultures are homeostatic and flexible, not rigidly adhering to a fixed text.

Point taken. I think a good case could be made that fundamentalists have abandoned a diachronic, historical perspective in favor of a faith-based synchronic one. There is an old "Beyond the Fringe" skit where a group of unlikely characters gather on a mountaintop to witness the end of the world. They chant "Now is the End. Perish the World!" and nothing happens. As they're leaving one of them says, "Same time tomorrow? One's of these days we'll get it right."

Even though the stories of the Bible can be placed in historical time, adherence to the Bible as a historical chronology effectively removes fundamentalists from historical time and places them in sacred time. The Bible discusses a creation and delineates the descent of mankind from Adam and Eve. Some fundamentalists would claim that within the Bible is the prediction of the "Rapture" and the end of times. This is not history as I understand it, and therefore does not represent a diachronic viewpoint.

Lévi-Strauss states:

"I have suggested elsewhere that the clumsy distinction between 'peoples without history' and others could with advantage be replace by a distinction between what for convenience I called 'cold' and 'hot' societies: the former seeking, by the institutions they give themselves, to annul the possible effects of historical factors on their equilibrium and continuity in a quasi-automatic fashion; the latter resolutely internalizing the historical process and making it the moving power of their development.


It is tedious as well as useless, in this connection, to amass arguments to prove that all societies are in history and change: that this is so is patent. But in getting embroiled in a superfluous demonstration, there is a risk of overlooking the fact that human societies react to this common condition in very different fashions. Some accept it, with good or ill grace, and its consequences (to themselves and other societies) assume immense proportions through their attention to it. Others (which we call primitive for this reason) want to deny it and try, with a dexterity which we underestimate, to make the states of their development which they consider 'prior' as permanent as possible." (The Savage Mind, 1966, pp. 233-234)

What I find fascinating in all this is whether we, being ourselves in a transition period between literacy and secondary orality, can draw parallels between pre-literate societies (where there was no possibility of literate influences) and post-literate societies (where literate influences can be assumed). Can the definitions and characterizations Claude Lévi-Strauss assigned to the "savage" mind (what we would call "oral" or "pre-literate") provide guidance to the nature of this transition? Is the "secondary orality" mind "savage" or not?