Bagdikian on the Media’s Corporate Values and Overreliance on Official Sources

I’ve owned Ben Bagdikian‘s  The Media Monopoly for some twenty years, and have only just managed to get around to reading it. The edition I own dates back to 1987; its analysis of the growing monopolies in media ownership and their pernicious effect on political life in the US ring truer than ever before.  As I noted on Facebook this morning, it’s a “depressing read.” That mood is created by our knowledge that the situation now, in 2014, is only qualitatively and quantitatively worse.

Bagdikian’s analysis is comprehensive and his critiques plentiful. Today, I’m going to point you to just one component of his analysis of the worrying reflection of corporate values in American news:

Despite raised standards in journalism, American mainstream news is still heavily weighted in favor of corporate values, sometimes blatantly, but more often subtly in routine conventions widely accepted as “objective.” One is overdependence on official sources of news….[O]veremphasis on news from titled sources of power has occurred at the expense of of reporting “unofficial facts” and circumstances. In a dynamic and changing society, the voices of authority are seldom the first to acknowledge or even to know of new and disturbing developments. Officials can be wrong.

Overreliance on the official view of the world can contribute to social turbulence. Unable to attract serious media attention by conventional methods, unestablished groups have had to adopt melodramatic demonstrations that meet the other media standards of acceptable news–visible drama, conflict, and novelty. If they are sufficiently graphic, the news will report protests, demonstrations, marches, boycotts, and self-starvation in public places (though not always their underlying causes). But in the end, even that fails. Repeated melodrama ceases to be novel and goes unreported. Social malaise or injustice often are not known, by officialdom. Unreported or unpursued, these realities have periodically led to turbulent surprises–such as the social explosions that came after years of officially unacknowledged structural poverty, continuation of racial oppression [race riots in the 1960s], or damage from failed foreign policies [the revolution in Iran].

Over the years, the exaggerated demand for official credentials in the news has given the main body of American news a strong conservative cast….Where there are not genuinely diverse voices in the media the result inevitably is an overemphasis on a picture of the world as seen by the authorities or as the authorities wish it to be.

Bagdikian’s critique certainly puts modern critiques of the blogger into perspective; they remain part of the trend alluded to above.

As I noted in my mini-review of David Coady‘s What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues, (Blackwell, 2012) his work, which offers a spirited defense of bloggers, rumors, and conspiracy theories in Chapters 4 (‘Rumors and Rumor Mongers’), 5 (‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists’) and 6 (‘Blogosphere and Conventional Media’), is:

[U]nified by two closely related themes, the importance of free public channels of communication and dangers of overcredulous deference to formal authority.

Coady thus points out how our politics is impoverished by an epistemic virtue gone wrong: we seek to be conscientious believers but end up believing too little. Bagdikian’s prescient analysis finds adequate philosophical support here.

The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.

The Never-To-Be-Returned-To Perennial Draft

My email client shows eighty-two drafts resident in its capacious folders; my WordPress dashboard shows thirty-seven; and a quick search through various document folders on my desktop machine shows several dozen others. They are monuments and gravestones and white flags of surrender; they are signposts of intention, evidence of procrastination run amok; they are bitter evidence of an old truism, that you don’t know what you think till you see it in writing (and some of these show that I wasn’t thinking very much); they are caustic reminders of how imagination all too often outstrips effort and completion, how writerly ambition outruns ability.

Unfinished emails, some of them intemperate rejoinders to online commentary, personally critical emails, offensive or presumptive correspondence, some of them idle thoughts left half-formed, yet others overtaken by the turn of events; embarrassing reminders of what might have gone wrong had I ever, hastily and recklessly, hit the ‘send’ button; these sit in my mail folders. Very frequently, I sigh with relief at a bullet dodged, and wince at how I might have irreparably damaged a relationship. Here, there are many a drawn and then subsequently holstered gun, put away with its chambers still cold.

On this blog, my unfinished draft count had run as high as eighty; it needed some persistent cleaning up–deletions–to bring the number down. Some are mere notes to myself, with a pointer to something I felt needed response and commentary; yet others bear the mark of an incompletely worked out thought, simply run aground for lack of inspiration or perspiration. And my document folders show that I have started many more academic projects than I have finished. Like the blog posts, I have set out and then given up; the inspirational thought of the evening all too quickly turned into the laughable conceit of the morn; and sometimes, awed and intimidated by the dimensions of the presumptive task, I have let my shoulders droop, battened the hatches, and retreated. 

I have deleted many drafts over the years. Some were too ludicrous to tolerate any longer; why had I ever thought that line of thought was worth pursuing? And some too, were so incomplete, so grotesquely misshapen, that I could not even recognize the thought that had initially germinated it – let alone proceed with it any further.

And so there are the ones that remain. I humor myself, often, with the thought that I will return to them, to move them on, to push them on beyond the proverbial finishing ribbon, to bring them to conclusion and pat myself on the back for having shown persistence and gumption. But some of them will never be completed; I have moved on; I leave them around to tell me where I had gone wrong in the past and where I might again; and for all the various edificatory reasons listed above.

There is uncertainty here aplenty and certainty too, that their count will increase. But that thought is reassuring; for perhaps they will only increase as the completions do. That much is enough for now.

The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.

Tim Kreider and the Problem of Too Many Writers

Tim Kreider has a very familiar sounding complaint in the New York Times. It is familiar because his article follows a well-worn template of talking about the Brave New Bad World of Free Content, and because the Times routinely publishes such Op-Eds. Like most screeds put out by what I have termed ‘the whining artist‘ it is incoherent.

This sentence is the heart of the complaint:

[In] our information economy..“paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.

You’ve heard it before: writers are being asked to write for free; no one values writing any more; writers won’t write any more if they don’t get ‘paid’. And so on. (Musicians often make similar complaints.)

This sentence though, does not inspire confidence that Krieder has the slightest clue of what he is talking about:

I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

I’m guessing a pulmonologist is not in the business of producing intangible material that can be effortlessly copied and distributed at minimal cost. Furthermore, barriers to the market for pulmonologist are high: years of expensive education, apprenticeships etc. It’s a pity Kreider’s parents blew so much money on training him to be a writer; perhaps they didn’t realize that these days just about everyone and anyone thinks they can be a writer. And too many of them act on this belief.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. I too, would like everything, all the time, for free. I realize quickly enough that some things in this modern world are not free and yet others–depending on their relative scarcity–are almost free.

For instance, once I’ve paid my internet subscriber’s monthly fee, I can read unlimited amounts of political opinion; everyone has one, and everyone wants to share it with me. I can also read unlimited amounts of poetry, short stories, essays, and so on. There are, it seems, many, many writers around these days. What is it that makes the writing profession so attractive, that so many writers, according to Kreider, are giving their work away for free?

The answer, I thought, was obvious: for a while, thanks to a very particularly structured industry that grew up around it, writing made money and fame for some writers. These writers are cultural icons, giants who stalk the land. Their lives beguile us; we want to be like them. Their fame and riches made many people forget that they were exceptions, and that most writers still failed to make a living. Even the writing lifestyle began to seem glamorous: all that drinking and hanging out in cafes. And didn’t Arthur Miller hook up with Marilyn Monroe?

Writing seems easy. Why not just pull up a piece of paper and a pen and write? Or a typewriter? Or now, a word-processor? Perhaps if you get lucky, you could be admitted to a ‘writing program’ and tap into all the contacts your professors have with agents, editors and publishers?

Soon you find that many, many others have the same dream. And everyone is scribbling away furiously. So many tools to write with; so many publishing platforms; so many lives and things to write about. There’s too much to read; how will I get readers to notice me in this sea of well-crafted words?

Perhaps by ‘exposure’? Perhaps by using my writing as a ‘loss-leader‘ so that I can secure that paying gig, that big contract, that advance, that book tour, that glossy jacket photo, that writer’s cabin on a remote island? Or if not, perhaps I can get a job teaching writing at a writer’s program that turns out more writers? Or less glamorously, perhaps I could teach writing at a college to incoming freshmen? That way, my writing will have made some money for me. Not directly, but indirectly. And then I can get to hang out in cafes and call myself a writer.

Written content is not scarce; quality written content still is; writers need to get noticed. The situation that Kreider then complains about–content being asked for, and being given away for free, just to get ‘noticed’–is almost inevitable.

It would help if writers would stop thinking of themselves as God’s Gift to Mankind and instead began regarding themselves as just another species of creative ‘producers’ whose ‘content’ is not very scarce, and lends itself to easy distribution and reproduction. Interestingly enough, I don’t read too many Op-Eds by artists saying that people are asking them to make paintings for free; they never had a content industry grow up around them and hence have no reason to not think that things are just as they have always been: most artists don’t make money from their art.

Perhaps the fame and riches of the writers of days gone by was a blip in normal service, and not the norm?

RIP Norman Geras

Norman Geras, prolific blogger and professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester has passed away at the age of 70. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. Norm was best known as a political theorist whose oeuvre included books on Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Richard Rorty. (He also served on the editorial boards of the New Left Review and the Socialist Register.)

I chanced upon Norm’s blog after he and I had a short online exchange in response to a minor quasi-theological debate triggered by Yoram HazonyI had written a post responding to  a piece by Hazony in the New York Times; so did Norm. Corey Robin sent me  Norman’s post, and I emailed or tweeted him, pointing him to mine.

On Norm’s blog, I found out that besides writing on politics, he also wrote on cricket. (As I blog on cricket too, and consider myself a pretty serious fan, I was immediately hooked.) In particular, Norm maintained a section titled ‘Memories of Cricket: a series of recollections of incidents, notable and not so notable, in the history of cricket, with each personal recounting supplemented by descriptions of the same event from books in Norm’s voluminous collection. Shortly thereafter, Norm asked me if I would contribute a memory of my own to the collection. I agreed, and contributed one of an event I had heard and read about for years before I ever saw it on video: David Hookes’ five fours off Tony Grieg in the Centenary Test. As a token of his appreciation, Norm offered to send me signed copies of his two books on the 1997 and 2001 Ashes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and am glad they sit on my shelves.

I never met Norm and so, did not know him personally, but did have some email contact with him, and felt like I had established a rapport of sorts. I knew there were some political differences between us. (For instance, our opinions on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and perhaps some of the claims of the Euston Manifesto.) But he always seemed to me to be infected with a deep concern for many of the same political ends that I was sympathetic to. He just had a different conception of the actions required to achieve them. Where I found myself disagreeing with him, I still found his arguments carefully constructed and often quite persuasive.

Because I found his writings thoughtful and provocative it was inevitable that I would respond to him on this blog. I did so a little while ago, with a post on the differences he had with Glenn Greenwald and Terry Eagleton on the question of whether the ‘explanation’ of a heinous act constitutes a ‘justification’ or an apologia of sorts for it. Writing it helped clarify my thoughts on an often  vexing topic.

In his last days, Norm, perhaps sensing the end was near, was on a tear on his blog. If you’ve never looked through its archives, you really should.

RIP Norm. I hardly knew you, but I’m glad we made contact, even if only for a little while.

Dispatches from the Daddy Front – I

My first two days of full-time, stay-at-home fatherhood have been interesting. My wife headed back to work on Monday, her maternity leave over, and I took over, armed with a page of notes–written by my wife–detailing what my daughter’s schedule was to look like; its most important components were, obviously, her nap and feeding times. (The exact times vary from day-to-day; it’s the intervals that are crucial.)

Monday was not a good first day. I was slightly hungover from a Sunday birthday party in New Jersey; my daughter’s nap schedule had been disturbed by our attendance at the party; her sleep on Sunday night was interrupted by our late return by car; the day was hot and humid. So, nothing quite went to plan on Monday. My daughter did not sleep well during the day; her naps were shorter than usual, and she woke up with no sign of her customary wakeful cheeriness. As I dealt with the sticky heat, my grumbling head and stomach, a cluttered, messy apartment, and an unhappy, fussy baby that did not take kindly to being set down for even short periods, I felt myself slowly unravel. I had planned to clean our apartment and do laundry, but nothing got done. Music, blogging, feed times, and a couple of episodes of Arrested Development provided momentary succour but full-scale relief was only forthcoming in the evening, when I handed our baby back to her mother, and went to work out.

Tuesday went much better for my daughter woke up cheerful, inquisitive and engaged after a long first nap.  I realized after she had taken her second nap that I was not utilizing these nap times properly; I should have done some reading or writing, but instead spent most of the time aimlessly grazing on the ‘Net. Later in the afternoon things turned for the worse. My daughter became progressively fussier–an eventuality I had been warned about by my wife–and needed increasing amounts of attention as the evening drew near. She did take a third nap, a short one, which provided both her and myself some relief before her mother returned from work.  Later, my wife and I went out for dinner with some good friends; our kind neighbor and friend downstairs agreed to carry out some high-tech babysitting i.e., via wireless video monitor.  It was our first ‘date’ since last year.

Unsurprisingly, these two days have resulted in my gaining added respect for my wife’s babycare skills: even though I was on paternity leave over the past few months, she was still the primary caretaker all that time. I’ve also realized, rather quickly, that if I want to get any reading and writing done, I’m going to have to be extraordinarily efficient during her nap periods. Even that won’t be enough for serious writing so daycare looms, an expensive and unsatisfying option, but one that seems unavoidable.

Parenting was never going to be a bowl of cherries.

Note: In case you were wondering, I’m writing this post during my daughter’s first nap today; blogging will be easier than academic writing when it comes to writing in these compressed segments of time.