The Dumb Beast

My mentor Howard Bloom teaches that there is a uniform pattern to behaviors, and they extend from the lowest to the highest level of species and that they really aren’t conscious, even though they seem like it.

That’s why I agree with the direction of Chris Lydon‘s latest post, but I’m unwilling to impute consciousness to the lurching media beast as he does:

Big Media came out of its cave to beat Dean over the head with Kerry, and that that this is a Problem.  This was not critical journalism at work, this was an industrial offensive from a declining sector of the information and intelligence business, a corporatized, overconcentrated, underventilated giant that feels itself threatened.  The newsmag headlines, the network cliches about “anger,” the emptiness of the “electability” standard (which newsmags giveth and taketh away, without ever having to show evidence) and that completely mindless, truly Goebbels-esque repetition of the scream tape–all the manipulated frenzy of the last three weeks smacked of a fiercely anti-democratic bullying that I find personally, professionally and publicly offensive.  I confess some naivete here. 

I am surprised the old devils tried it; I am surprised that they got away with it.

I’m making a fine distinction here, and don’t want to harp on it, but it may be useful to see the difference between purpose and outcome. I don’t perceive any conspiracy or even intention by the media to “get” my man Howard Dean or to suppress the Internet’s grand promise.

Just as we don’t need to believe in a watchmaker designing life forms to appreciate how biology has evolved unconsciously (well, some of us), neither do we need to impute purpose to the outcomes which the media produces. Understanding the biological basis of memes is useful, especially when you remember that the man who coined the term, Richard Dawkins, is a geneticist. So I don’t detect a grand conspiracy behind most actions of the Meme Machine.

Jay Rosen seems to say to me that the individuals in the press are like any knowledge worker, generating words and insinuations mostly to serve their career needs and ambitions. Writers and talking heads and editors and publishers are playing to their individual boss first and to their audience second. That’s just survival of the fittest, in a culture where attention is the gold standard of power and possibility.

In the universal battle for attention,

  • The catchiest memes win
  • The most prolific producers of catchy memes win
  • Outlets employing the most prolific producers of catchy memes win

I’m no Jay Rosen, but I’m confident in that universality of behavior in all fields, including the press.

But something must happen when you get tenure. Otherwise how can we explain Wolf Blitzer and Tim Russert? Might a cynical agenda be on the mind of the real king-makers?

The Tim Russert Problem

My inclination to avoid labeling the press as malevolent is harder to justify in the case of Tim Russert. This morning on Meet the Press, he challenged Howard Dean:

When I was in Iowa, I read a letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register, which caught my attention. And this is what it says: “Now I know how Howard Dean gets his exercise while he’s on the campaign trail. He drops to his knees to beg Washington insiders to endorse him, and then he jumps up to insult them. I’m guessing he does about 20 repetitions of that a day.”.

Russert was reading from one of 53 letters the Register published on Jan. 18 – presumably of 2,000 or so letters over the six weeks prior to the caucus. By what archery is Russert able to retrieve that writer’s cynicism out of so many?

But it gets better. If you Google the letter writer’s name, Jim Bootz, the 3rd item returned reveals Bootz’ day job: Minnesota State Director of . . . wait for it! . . . the John Kerry campaign!

You wouldn’t make this stuff up.

FWIW, Bootz’ planted letter immediately followed this one:

It’s time for a Vermonter in the White House. Someone who will return America to the values that our forebears institutionalized as they created one country united by common interests and beliefs. As a Vermont resident of 35 years, married to a fifth-generation Vermonter whose family was cared for by Dr. Howard Dean, I’ve been thinking about what those core values are and how I have seen Dean live them out as governor. The most important value we New Englanders hold dear is integrity. When I was head of a small Vermont school, my 7th-grade students asked Governor Dean questions like, “Have you ever told a lie?” He answered honestly and thoughtfully (yes, he has told lies). Over the years I have come to trust Dean’s word and his judgment. If he is elected president, he will bring the values of rural Vermont – and of the heartland of America – to the most important elected office in these United States.
Harry Chaucer
Castleton, Vt.

But perhaps Mr. Chaucer’s a plant also. Google says he’s the chair of the Education Department at Castleton State College. Maybe he’s as biased as Kerry’s patsy, you never know. Surely Russert is doing his best to separate the wheat from the chaff for those of us who depend on his objectivity.

Or maybe Howard Dean never should have said that he wanted to break up the media.

2:13:14 AM    

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