In photography and video production, noise can be added to an image to increase the graininess, usually in an attempt to give digital footage more depth and texture. When deployed subtly and skillfully, this technique can make a shot appear more “filmic” (as the film school kids say), but it can also end up looking like someone playing with the filters on Windows Movie Maker.
Regardless of the ultimate success of the technique, noise represents an effort to make something seem more authentic, while obscuring its true nature. The same effect takes place in our national media on a daily basis, except instead of obscuring the digital origin of an image in favor of something more analog, the talking heads obscure the inconvenient complexity of reality in favor of a more easily packaged simplification.
Recent examples abound. A couple of weeks ago, Chris Matthews had David Axelrod and Steve Schmidt (the dueling campaign generals of 2008) for one of those overdone “Democratic strategist and Republican strategist toss word salad at each other while the host throws feces at the camera” spots.
Under discussion was Ted Cruz, Republican Senator out of Texas, and his crusade to defund Obamacare, along with his willingness to let the current congressional game of chicken end in a government shutdown. This is actually really heady stuff, and deals with how exactly federal money is appropriated and spent, and the arcane esoterica of where power is held in the nation’s capital.
But instead of discussing the issues at hand, the segment devolved into a semantics debate about whether the word “terrorist” was an appropriate way to describe Senator Cruz. Matthews insisted that his use of the modified “political” before the T-word made it kosher, while both Schmidt and Axelrod expressed discomfort “out of respect for the victims of violent terrorists.”
Glad we got that cleared up.
Last week, another host on MSNBC—that much-vaunted progressive answer to Fox News—turned an genuine opportunity to inform the public on some complex realities into a weird badgering session that prevented the possibility of anything constructive coming out of the segment.
Lawrence O’Donnell, real-life doppleganger to The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy (portrayed by Jeff Daniels), had Julia Ioffe on his show to discuss the Russian asylum of Edward Snowden and what it meant for Russian/American relations. Instead of letting Ioffe speak—she is a native Russian speaker and lived in Moscow for three years reporting for The New Yorker—O’Donnell spent the entire time ranting about Vladimir Putin’s evil hegemony over Snowden’s “every breath.”
For the record, Ioffe had some pretty interesting points to make, which she later posted on The New Republic’s website, including a reality check on how absolute one’s power can possibly be in “the Russian Federation, a vast and often inhospitable landmass that spans 10 time zones.” She also takes issue with the idea that Putin is “a chess player,” calling him a “knee-jerk, short-sighted little tyrant,” and saying he “does not orchestrate, he reacts.”
This is all very relevant to both the Strange Case of Mr. Snowden as well as the frustrating subject of Russian/American relations over the past couple of years, and would have been worthwhile information to share with the MSNBC viewership. By the same token, the professional insight of Axelrod and Schmidt would have been valuable to anyone trying to wrap their minds around the political games being played in D.C.
Instead, we get O’Donnell doing his best impression of a guy playing a guy not-so-loosely based on himself, and Matthews leading a (completely uninformative) elementary-school level discussion on how everybody feels about the word terrorist.
None of this is an accident, though it’s not really as sinister as it may appear on the surface. Lazy and greedy would probably be the more accurate descriptor. To go back to our earlier comparison, people add noise to an image because they feel the original version isn’t appealing or interesting enough. In the same way, our media adds noise (whether it’s “conservative” noise in the case of Fox News or “progressive” noise in the case of MSNBC) because they don’t think they can sell the unsexy complexity of the real world to the American public.
They might even be correct in that assumption, but as long as they insist on selling us cartoon villains instead of flesh-and-blood world leaders, and substituting hyperbole and semantics for legitimate discussion, we’ll never find out what John Q. Public would do with a more sophisticated understanding of the world.
And unfortunately, since John Q. Public doesn’t seem especially interested in demanding any increase in the sophistication of information offered by the media, we can expect a continued deluge of bite-sized, candy-coated morsels of bullshit, conveniently flavored to our personal political preference.