People make a big deal out of media bias these days. Usually what they’re talking about is the so-called “spin” media outlets put on what they’re reporting, interpreting a story in a way that aligns with some preconceived worldview. Like when one channel describes an anti-abortion law as protecting the life of fetuses, while another describes it as attacking women’s reproductive freedoms. Let me go on the record as saying I don’t care about spin, at least not in any serious way. All but the biggest idiots are aware of its presence and choose to watch, read and listen to what they do not because they’re duped or stupid but because they like that particular spin. In other words, they’re just joining the choir with their preferred preacher. If the news they watch is tinting the world rose (or gray), they wear those rose-colored glasses because they like to see those aspects of the world in that way. Like I said, this doesn’t really bother me. What’s far more insidious, and what most people never seem to talk about, is how media outlets define what the subject is in the first place.
We’re all taking sides in the fight between A vs. B, but no one is asking who built the ring. If spin is giving you a set of rose-colored glasses, then defining the subject is grabbing your head and forcing your gaze in a certain direction. If spin preaches to the choir, then defining the subject is determining the topic of the preacher’s sermon. The difference is critical. It’s the difference between filling in a coloring book and making your own painting, the difference between a train and an airplane. It’s the difference between the repeated life and the created life. The world is a vast and complex place. For most of us, media is our primary window to the world beyond firsthand experience. Because our firsthand experiences are so limited relative to the size of the world, defining the subject can radically shape how we see the world. We are what we perceive, and when we let someone else define the landscape of the world in our minds, when we let someone else define the subjects we focus on, think about and care about, we let them define us.
This should be repulsive to anyone who values freedom, be it mental, physical, legal or economical. When people define us they mold us to suit their own purposes. We cannot be free people when we’re letting others define us. Sure, it’s unavoidable to some extent, but not even remotely to the extent most of us let it.
Think about something for a second: why do we talk and think and care and hope and hate and pray about what we do at all? Why do we notice one subject but not another? Why do we focus on one idea, one person, one event over all the billions of others in existence? Why does the water cooler only buzz with what was on TV yesterday? Why are we only donating to the one charity we saw something about on our Facebook feed? Why am I more aware of breast cancer and ALS than malaria and multiple sclerosis? Why do all the loud-mouthed blowhards at workplaces across America all spout opinions about the same subjects at the same time? Why are those same blowhards’ talking points, arguments and reasoning always the same as the other blowhards on their side? Is that the complete universe of possible ideas on the subject? Why are we only voting on stuff that our political leaders give us speeches about or debate during election season? Look, I don’t care if you vote for A or B or throw your vote away on C. What I care about is what’s on the ballot in the first place. I care about voters defining what the issues should be rather than being told what they are. I care about people considering all the worthy causes and donating time and money to what they consider the most important. I care about people spending their time, thought and effort learning about topics that really interest them. I care about all citizens determining what society’s most pressing problems are for themselves.
There are an infinite number of things to talk and think and care about, but somehow all of us are only talking and thinking and caring about the things that have been spoon fed to us. Consider the recent coverage on Ebola in the United States. Why is this a subject worthy of national attention? Sure, it’s a terrible disease and a substantial cause of human suffering, but so are a lot of things. So are a ton of things. Is it really even in the Top 1000 as far as threats faced by Americans? The media likes it because, properly framed, it can scare the hell out of viewers and boost ratings. But why should Americans be concerned about it? Certainly the pain and death it has caused in Africa is a reason for humanitarian concern. But so are white slavery, malaria, world hunger, poverty and predatory lending, but those are hardly being talked about by everyone at the office and inspiring hordes of politicians to make bold empty gestures. And in any case, it’s not like the media presents Ebola as a humanitarian concern. They present it as a threat. A threat to you. But what degree of threat is it really to anyone outside of Africa? Sure, it has a high mortality rate, but it’s not a particularly contagious disease and it’s well contained in most of the world. To date only a handful of people in America have died as a result of it. Compare that to the about 30,000 people who die in car accidents in America every year, a threat that gets zero media coverage on a national level.
Why? Why do you care about what you do? They’re leading us along like dogs on a leash and we’re wagging our tails and whining for a treat.
The consequences of this sort of thing are substantial. Besides the general dickishness of inflicting emotional pain on people for profit, it has the effect of wasting many different types of resources that could be better spent. Governments, businesses and institutions are wasting money and employees and hampering their normal operations. Politicians will blow government resources on ineffectual measures to appease a frightened populace. Hospitals will needlessly quarantine people or force unnecessary procedures to keep a paranoid public happy. Individuals are wasting their time and effort. We can only do so much. When we focus on some pointless thing like this, we take our attention away from something else we would find more worthy if only we bothered to look. You might spend your time reading tips on preventing Ebola infection or canceling your flight to Cleveland instead of reading about measures to reduce your risk of developing the prostate tumor that killed your grandfather and your uncle.
And inciting fear for ratings is hardly the only insidious way of defining the issue. Think of all the new products you don’t really need but suddenly want after seeing a news article by an “expert” predicting it’s going to be the next big thing anyone who’s anyone has. Think about all the articles, reports and stories subtly (or not so subtly) telling you want you need to wear, how you need to look, what sort of job, hobbies, friends or family life you need in order to not be an unsuccessful, pathetic, unloved “loser.” Why do you care about how you look? There are legitimate reasons, of course. Maybe you want to be stylish. That’s fine. But you should want to be stylish because you want to be stylish and not because America’s top cologne producers planted the suggestion in your head. Or why do you want to get married? Maybe you love your significant other and want to formalize the relationship with pomp and circumstance, a sweet party and some solid tax advantages. That’s fine. But you should want that because you want that and not because Crate & Barrel wants the profits from your wedding registry. Most media is a conspiracy between sellers of consumer goods and sellers of ideas, ideals and ideologies. To the media you are a commodity to be bought and sold. To politicians and pundits you are the wood that burns in the fires of power. To some you are both. As long as they’re defining your world you’re letting them sell you to the highest bidder and your flame is burning bright and clean.
So what’s a girl to do? Abandon all hope? Liquidate your possessions, triumphantly hurl your 52”, flat-screen, 1080p HD LCD TV out the window and go live in a second hand tent by Walden Pond? No. Of course not. Walden Pond is a very popular park with the 9 to 5 crowd nowadays and you’d probably get kicked out at sundown. Just be mindful. Consider the sources of your thoughts, opinions and interpretations. Consider what you’re okay with. Instead of turning on the TV news to hear what the latest things you should care about are, open up an encyclopedia and browse damn it, browse! Browse until you find something that is of interest to you. It’s still an imperfect medium, but so is everything. At least with an encyclopedia you get some meaningful choice. You’re forced to choose your own path, to shine a light on a particular part of the world yourself rather than follow the theatre spotlight you see on the stage of TV. The news is an encyclopedia with 10 entries. Don’t hike a trail through the same existence as everyone else. Blaze your own damn trail. Make knowledge an all you can eat buffet where you pick and choose, not some prison mess hall where you eat what they damn well tell you to.
But maybe you shouldn’t listen to any of this. After all, I was the one who pointed your focus in this direction, wasn’t I? Not you. Do you really care about this stuff or is this idea just a flashing neon sign in the night, stealing your focus like a streetlight to a moth? Maybe you should listen to them. I’m just some silly, pretentious asshole on the Internet, right? What do I know? I don’t have the experts. I don’t have any power or impressive titles. I don’t run any Fortune 500 companies. I don’t give any TED Talks. I’m not a trend setter or a thought leader. I can’t even cancel my goddamn cable. And making a route for your life is difficult. Why not let them show you the way? Why not just go listen to the news, to the politicians, to the sitcoms, to the ad agencies, to the talk radio shows and to all the other voices in our collective head telling us to burn down our souls and pay them for the ashes?
Where I’m pointing.