Our Unknowable World 3

What America needs, and is getting, is healthy skepticism.

When our oldest readers were children, the mass media occupied a pedestal of almost unquestioned authority and integrity.  When Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite said on the air that something was so, it simply was, and that was that.

Not so today: any number of polls have shown that trust in major media outlets lies somewhere down around that of Congress, well below used-car salesmen and telemarketers.  The President openly calls journalists liars; the journalists return the compliment.  In saying so, both are largely telling the truth, if not at any other time.

Are we on the bottom end of a slide down from a mythical honest press?  It might seem like it over the course of a modern lifetime, but it's not.  Rather, what we are seeing is the slow process of societal evolution in which the average person increases in sophistication at ferreting out ever-more-elaborate means of deception that work for a while but then don't anymore.

Sell a Million!

Have you ever seen very old advertisements - a newspaper from the 1800s, say, or TV commercials of the 1950s?  It's hard not to chuckle at the ham-fisted sales approach; nobody today would ever be persuaded by these century-old food ads, to say nothing of this ghoulish one for a food grinder.

Yet those long-dead marketing mavens weren't fools.  Salesmen of those bygone days had exactly as much incentive to get their messages right as the "Mad Men" of the 1960s or anyone doing marketing work today: they wanted to get rich by persuading people to part with their hard-earned cash.  As the world moved through the Industrial Revolution into our modern Internet world, there's been a constant flow of new technology offering new ways of shilling for sales.

Every new development brings its charlatans, whether it be email spam or patent-medicine men.  For a while, the novelty is effective: there was once a time when most people had never encountered real medicine at all, so when a fellow with a shiny top hat and brightly-painted wagon trundled down the road proffering a "Miracle Elixir," a fair few solid citizens fell for it.  Within living memory, enough otherwise intelligent people believed that an illiterate and anonymous email might just contain the secret to "1ncrease your manh00d!" as to make sending them out worthwhile.

We've learned: spam mostly doesn't work anymore and snake-oil salesmen no longer ply the rural byways of even the remotest parts of Appalachia.  But it took a few decades for most folks to catch on.  In between, some people made vast fortunes, just as Mr. Zuckerberg did with Facebook and whoever profited from selling shares in Twitter.

The same is true for whoever first develops a new advertising technique to sell real products with; the Google Guys are billionaires because they figured out how to make money peddling online ads to every other business in the world no matter what they sell.  Online ads, like spam, don't really work anymore, but that's OK for the Google Guys, who have moved on into all manner of other businesses to keep their fortunes well-stocked.

And the same is true for the news.  As we discussed in the previous article, early Americans got their news from a wide variety of sources, few if any of which were particularly reliable, and everyone took responsibility for making their own conclusions.

They also bought their goods from neighbors or peddlers who might be less than trustworthy.  An essential skill of every housewife was the discernment to know what was good-quality cloth and fresh meat vs rough rags and near-rotten swill.

Then, in the 1800s, came the first modern branding efforts, modern packaging, and modern promotions.  Canning was invented during the Napoleonic era, allowing food to be readily preserved for long periods of time - but, being sealed inside the can, it was impossible for even the most discerning housewife to judge its quality.  It had to be taken on faith, or trust in the manufacturer, placing great importance on the name on the can, which brought about counterfeiting along with brands.

With improvements in communications like the telegraph, writers and news distributors were also able to establish well-known brands.  Some individual investigatory journalists, like Nellie Bly, became personally famous, but mostly the brands were the newspapers or magazines themselves - the New York World, the Times of London, Harper's Weekly, and the Saturday Evening Post to name a few.


For a time, the editors of these publications defended the value of their brand by at least attempting to report the truth.  Eventually, though, the lust for power got the better of them.  William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, competing with the World, sought out a story that was both sensational and long-lasting.  What better than a war?

Alas, no war was to hand.  That didn't matter to Hearst; he'd gin one up, sending his reporters into Cuba to find stories that could drive America into war with Spain, even when the journalists thought this was ridiculous:

Among Hearst’s employees was the famed illustrator Frederic Remington.  In 1897, Remington became very bored by the lack of anything newsworthy in Cuba and cabled to Hearst, “Everything quiet.  There is no trouble here.  There will be no war.  Wish to return.”  In response to Remington’s message, Hearst reportedly replied, “Please remain.  You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

And that's just what he did, with this famous etching of "Spaniards [Strip-]Search Women On American Steamers."  The plain truth is, this incident never took place.  But the picture looks real enough, and it appeared in a major metropolitan newspaper, so when the U.S.S. Maine blew up in Havana harbor, Americans were primed and ready to make the Spanish pay for their (largely imagined) crimes.  Ergo: Hearst got his war, and newspaper sales went through the roof.

The voters of 1898, like email recipients of 1990, had not yet learned that just because something looks serious doesn't mean it's true.  They still hadn't learned this by 1914 when thousands marched to war for revenge against the Kaiser's barbarisms in Belgium which, once again, were significantly exaggerated beyond the ordinary suffering and violence inherent to a major war.  As contemporary British politician Ramsay MacDonald put it:

Never did we arm our people and ask them to give up their lives for a less good cause than this.

People caught on eventually, and the news media took a more skeptical approach towards extreme accusations.  Unfortunately, that was just in time for the rise of Adolf Hitler whose true deeds and intentions were every bit as extreme as could be imagined.  Having been burned before, most in America didn't believe the ghastly tales emanating from Nazi Germany until too late.

So we see, over the years, there's been a constant pendulum-swing between belief and disbelief.

First, new technology allows new media techniques that seem to provide much more solid and believable evidence of truth - quick telegraph communications, telexed images, color photographs, newsreel recordings, live broadcasts, and today, livestreamed cellphone video.  The ordinary person thinks "seeing is believing" and grants great credibility to reputable-looking sources of news.

Then, the owners of these news sources, drunk with their own power and influence, decide to use that power to shade the news in directions they'd prefer.  This begins by burying stories they don't like, since a story that doesn't appear in the Newspaper of Record is just a rumor.  Then, they use bias depending on who they're interviewing - harsh leading questions to their opponents and softball to their friends.  Eventually, they degrade to out-and-out lies based on completely phony "evidence."

At this point, the American people stop believing them at all, until some new technology appears to provide more definitive proof and the cycle begins again.

Going Up?

We are now at the bottom point in the cycle: the major media have utterly destroyed all their credibility.  People may choose to consume media they agree with, but nobody actually believes them anymore.

What do people believe?  Well, more and more, especially the young, are choosing to get their news from alternative sources on the Internet, where any ordinary person can be an investigative journalist.  Anyone can write a blog; anyone can record events on their cellphone; anyone can evaluate anyone else's evidence and publish their conclusions.

And, of course, anyone can fake anything they like or tell whatever lies they please, and it's almost impossible to prove what's real.

If we had an authoritative, trustworthy, and well-financed organization that could be counted on to accurately report reality, that would be of immense value.  Unfortunately, we don't, and it's hard to imagine how we ever will.

Instead, we've returned to the days of old, where nothing said by anyone has much force beyond that of rumor, and it's irrational to believe anything you hear until you've seen it personally with your own eyes, maybe not even then.  This takes more work by far - but like any other form of work, it leads to strength and independence.

Which is just what America needs.  Maybe we're blessed that we no longer have anyone we can believe, because that forces us to rely on our own selves, our own friends, and our common sense, as Americans once did when they were building the greatest nation on earth.

Just perhaps, by his constant attacks on the lies of the media, President Trump is actually creating an attitude of skepticism and critical thinking, the most important foundation to "Make American Great Again!"

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
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