Truth Shall Make Us Free

April 24, 1997|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- "Media," the word as we use it now, was created by advertising men in the 1920s. I don't much like it or most of its refinements and manifestations, words like "the product," "data," "platform," "niche," "brand name," "market research" and "profit center."

That said, the worst thing that ever-expanding "media" did to me and my ilk -- and to my nation, too -- was to merge news and entertainment, blending fact and fiction and making news into just another subset of entertainment. This is Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's magazine, in his introduction to a new edition of Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media":

"The world that McLuhan describes has taken shape during my lifetime, and within the span of my own experience. I can remember that as recently as 1960 it was still possible to make distinctions between the several forms of what then were known as `the lively arts.' The audiences recognized the differences between journalism, literature, politics and the movies. . . . But then the lines between fact and fiction blurred, became as irrelevant as they were difficult to distinguish. The lively arts fused into the amalgam of forms known as the Media. News was entertainment and entertainment was news."

The McLuhan book, by the way, is worth rereading, 30 years after its original publication. Among the things McLuhan understood, though he sometimes had trouble expressing them, were these: Television's presentation of news is not just the bad news; the good news is the commercials. Buy this or try that and you get the job, get the money and get the girl -- all endings are happy, or at least pleasurable. He thought sports would replace politics as the national spectacle, and so it has -- the Super Bowl replaced the political conventions as the national gathering place.

Now we have what might be called spin-off news or news spin-offs. "Entertainment Tonight," Pat Robertson, the confession shows and semi-tough and semi-truthful radio guys. Many of them have learned to attach themselves to the credibility of older-fashioned journalism -- such as it is. Jim Bellows, one of the better newspaper editors of his time, redesigned a failing "Entertainment Tonight" years ago on this principle: If entertainment marketing looks like news, walks like news and quacks like news, it must be news -- and viewers will think it is what it is pretending to be: news.

We have learned or will learn to see the difference between the real and the mock again, I'm sure. Human beings are more complicated and flexible than the new miracles of technology. But some of us are lost in confusion for a time.

One example: If you are a parent, you're aware that there is an enormous amount of drinking and sexual violence on college campuses these days. If you talk to students about that, they become defensive and say that we, the ancients, had our fun and now want to cut off theirs. Listening to that for a while, you realize that their picture of our lives comes from a movie, one movie, "Animal House."

Technology is a neutral but irresistible force. Technology doesn't care. It is just a tool that can do many things, good and evil. Newer telephone technology and television were important in the death of communism. The Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled in Paris, used tape cassettes in the mosques to make a revolution in Iran. Internet communication may be the key to making one in Serbia. These things come and go, rise and fall, sweeping kings and scribes and all before them -- before they lose out to something else.

Many, many smart people thought print journalism would lose out to network and affiliate television news. But that did not happen. Newspapers and magazines, whatever their problems, are less confused and perhaps less vulnerable now than TV news. It is probably better to be old, and know it, than to be caught in the middle between old and new, and not know which way to go.

That middle is no place to be, a sloppy swamp of nonfiction and fiction, truth and lies, smelling of decay. Perhaps that confusion of ethics only means television is just our mirror rather than a window to the world. People seem to lie more these days, or perhaps they just lie more in public.

Politicians lie. Some of them skillfully breathe life into the old courthouse joke: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" . . . "Yes, yes I do. Which one do you want?" The military lies, witness the Persian Gulf war. The White House lies, witness the false evidence produced by the U.S.A. in the case of Flight 007, the Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets.

And the media lie and deceive, particularly in not being willing to admit the reality that even the best of journalism rarely gets the whole truth. Quoting the president: "Perhaps an editor might divide his paper into four chapters: "First, Truths; 2nd, Probabilities; 3rd, Possibilities; 4th, Lies." That was President Thomas Jefferson, not William Jefferson Clinton.

We should stick to the first chapter. Back to the basics of being persistent and consistent, a little obnoxious in exposing again and again what is not true and real. Be common scolds. Be annoying and self-righteous. It is, as they say, a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. The truth may or may not make us free, but it will keep us working in a world under the data siege of newer and newer, faster and faster technologies.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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