Mass Media and the Vertigo of Interpretation

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The US media is, unsurprisingly, suffering historically low levels of public trust. Corporate restructuring and conglomeration, ethics scandals, and emergent technologies have all led to decades of tumultuous change in an industry so crucial to democracy, yet just that— an industry. But with the many stumbles and failings of mainstream media institutions and the rise of the internet, a new era of disparate, self-curated media feeds has effectively done away with a cohesive, common narrative of national and global events on which we can base a public discourse. More and more, the reality of our atomized media resembles the anxious vision of theorist Jean Baudrillard, whose prescient analysis of the then-burgeoning modern mediascape anticipated much of this crisis. 

Often derided as pessimistic, Baudrillard regarded the rapidly evolving media with apprehension, using the semiotic concepts of the signifier and signified to illustrate the disruption inevitable in mass media. Because of the imperfect replication and sheer scale of transmission in a globalized world, a crucial disconnect exists between the sign and its referent— an overseas war retains little, if any, of its horror to the disaffected viewer to whom the war has no significance beyond its presence in the media. The distance between the viewer and event, often hundreds and thousands of miles apart, necessitates a dissociation of the information from its source— allowing for any number of perversions and degradations to take place along the way.

This disruption is of course inherent to some extent in all communication media. But the sense of frantic urgency in today’s media seems to suggest we’ve overextended ourselves, while the hysterics and viciousness of our political discourse indicates a degree of social disconnect. Throughout his work, Baudrillard acknowledges his credence to Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” which he calls “the key formula of the era of simulation.” To echo McLuhan’s mantra, the attributes that characterize today’s global mediascape, and specifically those of the internet, have introduced serious complications and distortions to both our socio-political discourse and the global flow of information. We are just now beginning to see the fallout of the inherent flaws of a profit-motivated globe-spanning media complex.

Effectively navigating the labyrinthine political narratives that intersect and often contradict one another feels ever more daunting, causing increasing numbers to rely on the convenient scapegoats of “fake news” and foreign interference to explain the confusion. While these theories cannot and should not be dismissed outright, their ubiquity is cause for concern. As Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and hyperreality typify the media models around which we flesh out realities in a globalized world and prove increasingly relevant, the application of his work feels more and more crucial to effectively analyzing and understanding the implicit hazards of our reliance on global corporations to mediate our politics and worldviews.

Histrionic and Atomized Media

The advent of the internet and the subsequent fragmentation of the media industry has put the marketplace into a state of near constant upheaval. As each outlet struggles for survival among increasing competition, the precariousness of their existence governs their every decision. The bloated industry goads on, and is perhaps now predicated on, a venomous discourse to maintain profitability. This corporate self-interest and disregard for our sociopolitical well-being has heightened tensions for decades, and the implications are just now coming to a head as legacy media powerhouses recognize their death knell in the new market. But in moving away from the dominance and relative cohesion of mid-century news media, the divergence of narratives and subsequent competition has led to profit-minded, unscrupulous marketing tactics and negligent content curation that undermines the media’s democratic function, all while working under the guise of objective and trustworthy messengers. 

The shift to modern news media began with the proliferation of entertainment news following the unprecedented success of 60 Minutes in the late 70’s. The profit-model of dramatized news programming was realized, and as a variety of major acquisitions took place— NBC by General Electric, ABC by Capital Cities Communication, and CBS by business magnate Laurence Tisch— the big three media outlets were prime vehicles with which to pursue this new market. Roone Arledge, then renowned for his success at the helm of ABC Sports, was made president of ABC News in 1977, which had lagged behind its competitors. Under his leadership the company sought to compete with the CBS model of dramatized news that appealed to a wider audience, and over the next few years the success of shows like Nightline and 20/20 made ABC a major player, proving through example that this profitable format was to become the industry norm.

Around the same time these changes were taking hold, Jean Baudrillard published his 1987 work The Ecstasy of Communication, in which he observed that as our media technologies evolved and became embedded in our lives. Information had taken on an almost pornographic quality, which we consume with what he described as a sort of giddy ecstasy:

“Ecstasy is all functions abolished into one dimension, the dimension of communication. All events, all spaces, all memories are abolished in the sole dimension of information.”

A new addiction had taken hold of the Western world— to an ecstasy of toying with information through a kind of pornographic speculation, in which we wonder about its meaning, origin, veracity and potential. And the culture of America was particularly ripe for this sort of shift. This voracious appetite for information struck the American people in a time of crumbling national identity— the post-60’s disillusionment, the failure of Vietnam, and the burgeoning of a new American imperialism. A vacuum of meaning had begun to open, and the consumption-based lifestyle that came to characterize the 80’s was an effective, omnipresent opiate. 

The overwhelming success of the dramatized news formula was predicated on this new fascination. With news media having proven itself a profitable venture, the competition among outlets accelerated the corporatization of the industry. The effects of this corporatization throughout the 80’s and 90’s led to the consolidation of the media industry through a race to acquire smaller outlets and expand market share. Timely government deregulation played a major role as well, most infamously in the form of Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act. While this piece of legislation repeatedly cites market stimulation (affirming throughout its concern for “the public interest”) as its primary reasoning for the relaxation of ownership restrictions, the real world effect was a green light for these rapid acquisitions and mergers. As the industry became dominated by consolidated behemoths, the big money at stake led to profit-motives even more directly steering their trajectories, placing ever more emphasis on the tried and true revenue generators: infotainment-style, dramatized news with wide appeal, particularly among key advertising demographics. 

The fallacy of the Telecommunications Act and profiteering executives is that news media should not be subjected to such market principles as other commodities—  to treat it as such is to undermine its unique role in the democratic process. The encouragement of competition among media corporations in a deregulated market led to the treatment of news as a commodity. Whether this long-term consequence went unconsidered or was simply disregarded in favor of profits is anyone’s guess. This perversion of the industry by capitalist principles has degraded the institutions’ integrity and naturally their reputations as well, clearly evidenced in the public’s current lack of trust. It’s a cycle that began with the deregulation of the 80s and 90s and continues to accelerate in the internet-era mediascape in which greater competition necessitates new sustainability models.

The cycle is self-perpetuating, with players willfully instigating the compulsion for information— from frantic headlines about the next imminent threat to the Pavlovian Fox News Alert chime— all exacerbated by unprecedented connectivity. And in the rabidly competitive and endlessly precarious media industry, understanding and exploiting this compulsion is the key to survival. The media industry traffics in and thrives on the exploitation of highly abstracted, ambiguous signs. A given event, especially a distant or obscured one, is valuable for its malleability. Conjecture and speculation in this sense are infinitely renewable, endlessly capable of capturing the attention of an audience compelled to always know more.

The modern business models of media companies necessitate sensationalism and appeal to our implicit negativity bias in order to stay abreast at the breakneck pace of an industry in which competition is fierce, speed is crucial, and profits are shrinking. In this demand for content fact and opinion are increasingly blurred as analysts and interpreters crowd the spotlight. Short-form explanatory journalism, opinion-based programming and infotainment-style coverage, whether of overseas warzones, home-grown terrorists or any cause for alarm to fuel the 24-hour news cycle, have become the rules that govern the market. This amorally capitalistic approach to commodified news is well encapsulated in former CBS CEO Les Moonves’ take on their coverage of the 2016 election: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” A media industry dominated by for-profit business models, constantly at the whim of advertisers will always be prone to these pitfalls, and so long as our addiction to the media spectacle— to sensational, pornographic information— persists, the media-at-large will not only have financial incentive, but will be existentially required to feed into the cycle. And being that the media is critical to so many aspects of modern life and government, this change has subtle and insidious implications. 

One of the functions of modern media is to provide models of reality around which we can shape our worldview. Baudrillard makes this observation in The Precession of the Simulacra: our models precede our assessment of reality. We rely on media constructs as our immediate referents for our worldview, forming a conception of reality based on accepted models and beliefs. This subjective mapping is the basis of his term hyperreality. When verification of the information presented to you is functionally impossible, if they’re accepted, the models become indistinguishable from the real. With this increased competition in the market, we’re given a vast array of curated content feeds through the multitudes of new-era media outlets. We’re no longer subjected to a singularly coherent hyperreality, to one comparably stable simulacrum presented to us via a few relatively homogenous mainstream cable news networks à la the 1970’s.

The public’s historically low trust in the media over the past decade precipitated this crisis, and we are now dealing with the fallout. A Gallup poll from late August 2019 shows that roughly half of respondents say they do not trust national media, but also reveals that there is a massive difference in perception of several leading news networks between Democrats and Republicans: 69% of Republicans trust Fox News, compared to a mere 30% of Democrats. Conversely, while 79% of Democrats trust ABC, CBS and NBC, only 35% of Republicans agree. The widest gap is unsurprisingly Trump’s favorite punching bag, CNN: just 20% of Republicans trust the network as opposed to 72% of Democrats. The two parties are not just insular in their media choices, but they actively doubt the veracity of what they deem oppositional media. And while these legacy institutions are losing viewership, this is a concerning statistic in that they still represent a majority of the US population’s media, and as the industry continues to fragment, the onus will be placed on the individual to seek out their own media from hundreds of options.

“It is a question here of a completely new species of uncertainty, which results not from the lack of information but from the information itself and even from an excess of information.”

  —JB, The Masses: Implosion of the Social in Media

The Postmodern Mediascape

In The Ecstasy of Communication, Baudrillard likens the postmodern condition to schizophrenia. The schizophrenic, he says, is not characterized by a loss of touch with reality, but instead by the constant confrontation with many sufficiently convincing realities. The schizophrenic is assailed by indiscriminately viable information— they exist in immediate proximity to the world around them, in constant exposure to a flux of potentialities. This is the defining characteristic of today’s media.

An increasingly atomized mediascape exposes us to an unprecedented variety of models with which we can construct a worldview. And in a landscape dominated by for-profit media, outlets must follow economic incentive and carve a niche for themselves— thus each media model necessarily differs to an extent, and information is sorted accordingly by both the producers and consumers. A 2017 Stanford University study gives credence to this widespread suspicion that ideology “evolves towards the estimated ideologies of the news channels that a consumer watches.” Is it unreasonable to assume the same phenomenon occurs with similarly ideologically slanted internet news sources, of which there are now hundreds? Your preferred media outlet is, for all intents and purposes, ‘the real media.’ Free markets allow the ability to choose, which in this case gives rise to the crucial problem: with a myriad of media-models at their disposal, consumers exercise their choice and are able to meticulously curate their own hyperreality according to the worldview they want to reinforce. 

“Simulation is characterized by a procession of the model, of all models based on the merest fact— the models come first, their circulation, orbital like that of the bomb, constitutes the genuine magnetic field of the event. The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.” 

JB, The Precession of Simulacra

So we are free to choose; to assemble our realities from the disparate pieces of media we deem viable— pieces that are constantly being undermined, reconfigured and further atomized. The impotence of the prevailing media simulation— the narrative of “the news” as a singular cohesive stream of current events— has been revealed. And now that we’re here, it’s unlikely we’ll return to the relative comfort of what was presented and largely accepted as one common, unquestionable narrative around which we could frame a political conversation. So in order to navigate such apparently heterogeneous realities a certain grace and eloquence feels increasingly necessary, especially when it comes to the passionate realm of politics. And what setting better cultivates sober debate than a hyperactive digital medium that self-selects for sensationalism and hysterics?

The Disruption of the Social

You’ve likely heard the running joke that you might be the only real person on the internet— that everyone else could be text generated by some artificial intelligence and you wouldn’t even know it. The concept is absurd of course, and that’s why it’s funny. But the joke is premised on a key observation about the nature of the internet— the recognition of a distantiation unique to this medium. It’s an implicit acknowledgement of the loss of essential human characteristics, the dehumanization, that occurs over online communication.

Even in the less ubiquitous mediascape of his lifetime, Baudrillard was acutely aware of this degradation and its effects on the social. In the 21st century, the deindividuation of the internet-disinhibition effect and the overwhelming speed of our communication facilitates impulsive, emotional rhetoric. In the era of polarizing (largely online) culture wars, the dehumanization becomes palpable. The quasi-anonymous voice, sufficiently divorced from social liability and any considerations that would otherwise give pause, takes on a shameless vitriol. The discourse becomes more careless, more irresponsible, and this becomes the apparent tone as emotionally-charged sentiments ascend above the rest. As a result, our internet hyperrealities which precede and inform our conception of the real are saturated with and dominated by hysterics and venomous rhetoric.

Social media, where our political discourse increasingly takes place, is attractive for its ability to exponentially increase the followings of brands, whether they’re personal, corporate, or the increasingly blurred space between the two. While this is a boon for independent creators to build legitimate audiences without financial barriers, it’s a double edged sword in that this potential for noticeability incentivizes histrionics across the board, particularly in inherently sensitive fields like politics. And in a time when social media stardom is a financially viable endeavor, the impulse for wide scale recognition goes beyond mere attention-seeking— it can launch a career. In a recent Harris Poll survey of kids in the US, UK and China, both Western nations ranked “Youtube Star/Vlogger” as their most desired profession at 29% and 30% respectively (though ranking last in China). Data like this begs the question of what the conversation will look like when a generation aspiring primarily to internet fame becomes a majority demographic. 

Social media has gamified our interactions, incentivizing behavior that has good payoff within the game but might lead to ostracization or the threat of violence in real life. Likewise, the motivating principles behind social-media politics, the inclination toward histrionics and inflammatory rhetoric, crucially differ from those that govern former means of political dialogue. While the characteristics of the medium itself incentivizes histrionics, both soft and hard news media, a distinction which has become all but irrelevant, hawkishly exploit social media clashes for cheap content, which in turn infuses the argument with quasi-legitimacy of journalistic attention. This is the funnel by which the degradation of the social enters the political sphere and further informs our hyperrealities. The engagement of these viral posts is attractive enough to media outlets to warrant their further involvement in sensational, controversy-generating (and therefore revenue-generating) quasi-political theatrics. This is particularly detrimental to our social wellbeing when individuated media models lead us away from commonalities on which to base our conversation. Partisan outlets in this environment often caricaturize ideological opponents, leaving audiences, particularly the insular ones, ill-informed. The Trump presidency has brought this conflict to a head, with both mainstream and alternative media throwing gas on the fire (and a fair amount of gasoline from Trump himself of course). But given the circumstances that gave rise to the modern media crisis, it begs the question of whether it was inevitable, and if Trump was just the first one bold (or reckless) enough to capitalize on it.

State-Sanctioned Schizophrenia

Mass media is inextricable from a democracy whose influence spans the globe. McLuhan’s definition of media as “the extensions of ourselves” is particularly apt in this sense: political participation beyond one’s immediate locale requires media to observe politics-at-large. But the actual functioning of this relationship is predicated on institutional trust— a lack of which was cited by Oxford Dictionaries’ president Casper Grathwohl in naming “post-truth” their 2016 word of the year. One might cynically view this as a concession that global media’s Achilles’ heel— its inability to make solidly ‘verifiable’ claims— had made its way into the cultural consciousness. 

“Immense energies are deployed to hold this simulacrum at bay, to avoid the brutal desimulation that would confront us in the face of the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning.” 

JB, Implosion of Meaning in the Media

Donald Trump has been wildly successful in harnessing the latent energies that had been released in this upheaval of the media. His specific brand of populism is largely founded on this usurpation of the mainstream narrative— he is an outsider. He is capitalizing on the lack of cohesion that this media atomization has dredged up, which he styles himself as bypassing via his quasi stream of consciousness Twitter presence. Likewise, Trump’s constant insistence on the falsity of the “fake and disgusting news” has in effect given state-sanctioned credence to this schizophrenic attitude toward the media. But fake news has become more than a harmless colloquialism, more than Trump’s rallying cry. The term is employed by those all across the political spectrum. From cries of Russian tampering to political biases, many Americans even say that accurate stories portraying politicians in a negative light always (28%) or sometimes (51%) constitutes fake news. The danger of these claims is that they’re nearly impossible to refute because of the enormous abstraction that takes place over global media. In a confusing deluge of narratives and information, such a convenient, all-encompassing scapegoat is naturally appealing, and to some degree must be deployed in order to separate the wheat from the chaff and develop a coherent worldview.

“It is the secret of a discourse that is no longer simply ambiguous, as political discourses can be, but that conveys the impossibility of a determined discursive position. And this logic is neither that of one party nor of another. It traverses all discourses without them wanting it to” 

JB, The Precession of Simulacra

With the declining credibility of the state and various arms of the media, long-standing institutions are regarded with scrutiny, exacerbated in no small part by watershed events of recent years. The media’s complicity in the 2003 invasion of Iraq has become common knowledge, and is often recalled as a key justification for the atmosphere of increasingly relentless public scrutiny. With the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal we’ve entered a world where near-omnipotent tech-giants could conceivably execute the political projects of the highest bidder, casting doubt on the electoral process itself. Regardless of the level of influence one believes CA had in the 2016 election, the true significance of the scandal is the mass acceptance that such political power could now be plausibly wielded by a private corporation. And with the mass of scandals dredged up through the concerted efforts of Wikileaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, doubts about institutional integrity are only further validated. Even the ludicrous death of Jeffrey Epstein lends a new kind of veracity to narratives that would previously be written off as absurd and relegated to the realm of conspiracy— just look at Qanon. Similarly, the ominous development of deepfakes rightfully raises concern about the hazards such evolving technologies will create among hostile and insular audiences. The prospect of a truly disparate discourse in which we can no longer agree on any common narrative doesn’t seem too outlandish, and may have already arrived.

“Information devours its own contents … [it] dissolves meaning and the social into a sort of nebulous state leading not to a surfeit of innovation but to the very contrary, to total entropy” 

JB, The Implosion of Meaning in the Media

Our present is growing eerily similar to Baudrillard’s grim future. A media that can provide valuable, trusted information is necessary if we are committed to democratic governance, but seems increasingly unrealistic as the forces of capitalism, corruption, and unprecedented technologies constantly undermine this process. While the optimist might be inclined to view this destabilization as necessary growing pains of a technological democracy— obstacles which, once overcome, will refine our political system— the reality is that there is no clear or easy solution. These problems arise from the freedom of information, but the alternative, attempting to further control information, is dubious at best and totalitarian at worst. Confronting the issue must begin with a widespread acknowledgement of the nature of the predicament. Baudrillard’s prescient theoretical work proves increasingly relevant in our analysis as his anticipated trajectory of the media seems to play out before us. Though infamously pessimistic, there is a strain of affirmative vitality in his persistent vigilance within what continues to prove to be a flawed system. This perseverance, if anything, should inspire our approach to further understand and adapt to our circumstances. 

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