Whose Denial?

In his column today, Frank Rich correctly points out that America suffers from chronic denial.

One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama’s toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.

Bad news after bad news — the mortgage meltdown, the financial crisis, steroid use in professional baseball, that we went to war in Iraq over imaginary WMDs — are disasters some saw way in advance, Rich writes, yet most Americans were late to notice them and were caught completely off guard. Yes, but …

I’ll put aside the question of how much Frank Rich knew and when he knew it. I propose that Frank Rich and others who spend their lives in national news media leave their newsrooms and spend some time purely as news consumers. Pick some nice “heartland” community at random — maybe Cedar Falls, Iowa, or Talking Rock, Georgia — and live there for a year. Then they should cut off ties to buddies still working in the news biz and get all of their information from the same sources their neighbors use. That, probably, will be mostly radio and television.

I think then they might get a clue why Americans don’t know what’s going on. Mass media truly is a vast wasteland in which one might occasionally stumble upon factual information about substantive issues, but I wouldn’t count on it.

For example: I don’t often watch daytime television, but from what little I have seen it appears daytime cable news currently is obsessed with some child battering or homicide cases, and the few public details of these tragic stories are repeated incessantly. One might occasionally see a headline crawl like “Expert says millions of Americans will lose their homes.” But for the most part, viewers are shown the same little bits of video of the suspects, over and over again, and invited to speculate whether the girlfriend done it.

Remember “bread and circuses”? Well, bread is getting pricey, but we’ve got plenty of circuses.

Nighttime cable has its little windows of sanity (e.g., Rachel Maddow), but for the most part the producers still lack the imagination not to interview Ann Coulter whenever she publishes more of her pathological projections about liberals. And, of course, we still have wingnut talk radio and Faux Nooz, where right-wing shills like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity sit in front of cameras and make shit up.

Most people, busy with the details of their own lives, don’t have the time or resources to separate wheat from chaff. Especially when there’s so little wheat and so much chaff.

23 thoughts on “Whose Denial?

  1. You are absolutely correct. What information is available to the public would take a lot of digging and most parts of the country don’t really have access to the sources – even with the internet. The average person watches TV for their news (or so I am informed) with radio forming an important support to that. TV is snips of information, radio is opinion (with TV following that lead). This has been this way for a long time, but now we lack the real investigative reporting that some reporters once presented. This has to do with the complicity of the news companies, no doubt, and their desire for market share of the entertainment field.
    Circuses, entirely.
    You said it all succinctly, while I am still trying to wake up:)

  2. When my kids were young, and TV was used as a distraction (bad parent alert), we used to joke that we could go to war and not know it.

    One evening when I was preparing to host a homeowner’s association meeting at the local fire hall, one of my officers called to ask how many people I thought might show up that night. I started a run-down of all the people I’d contacted and who had committed to come… He said, “Oooo…kayyyy” and rang off.

    When I got to the fire house, the firemen had the TV on and I then learned that Bush #41 had just attacked Iraq in the first gulf war. In fact, we went to war and I didn’t know it. I had to call home to tell my wife; she still didn’t know. My caller was so stunned at my ignorance he had just gotten off the phone.

    Since then we’ve made a concerted effort to get something approaching Real News every day. But even now, I’ll find something on the ‘net, call home about it, and find that it did not make either the local or national teevee news. If you depend on broadcast media, you are lost in the wilderness.

    Then there’s the willfully stupid among us. I count among these my sister-in-law, who, in the spring of 1972, after spending an entire senior year sitting in Government class, debating current political events, with Watergate swirling around her, didn’t know who Richard M. Nixon was. Willfully stupid.

    On the balance, I think that if the future of America depends on a well-informed electorate, we’re screwed.

  3. I completely agree. I suspect the reason that I am more aware than my neighbors is that I do not have television. I choose my news sources on the internet and watch Democracy Now! (yes, and Rachel Maddow) and various items on LinkTV’s website, have my Google News alerts set to pick up subjects and names I know I will not see in MSM.

    When I visit a friend with TV, I am gobsmacked by the amount of ‘chaff’ and sickening-sweet propaganda delivered. It is no wonder most Americans’ minds are glazed over with something akin to Krispy Kreme donut frosting. People don’t WANT to know; the frosting is yummy, and they don’t care what damage it does to their health. Surely there will be a pill to fix that when the time comes.

  4. It really is bread and circuses, 21st century America style. For a variety of reasons too long to delve into here, most Americans are incurious about the world and credulous about what they’re told. Or they simply refuse to believe anything, and just move through their lives in a consumerist fog. I suspect late empire Rome was much the same way.

    Republicans allowed the media to consolidate to dangerous levels. Jefferson wrote, “information is the lifeblood of Democracy” – and this Democracy is nearly comatose. That, combined with the cutbacks of people doing actual reporting – it’s too expensive – and the death of newspapers – and the sad state of today’s mass media is the result.

    The good news is the internet and blogs – there is a segment of the population that is trying to find the truth, and is willing to takeover where conventional media has given up. While the internet is also many things besides the truth, it’s one of the best places to learn what is really going on, although sadly, it too is ultimately dependent on live reporters doing the actual digging, which are being cutback.

    A weird sense of persistent, regretful schadenfreude hovers over those willing trying to find the truth in late stage Amerca – and that is the sense of being right about something well before your countrymen get it. We knew the WMDs were a lie way before this notion hit critical mass, for example. Global warming? I knew it was real years ago. I wish it wasn’t this way, I wish my country had a functioning media that would not waste its energy on tabloid news, but this is what we’ve got. It makes me feel like I’m a genius at times, but in reality it just means that most people around me have elected to dumb themselves down. That said, and this is really important, this edge helps me stay one or three steps ahead of the masses.

    As for the crowd, I’m reminded of that scene in “The Prisoner”, where Number Six asks for maps of where The Village is located. The shopkeeper studies him briefly, and then replies, “We don’t have any – no demand for that sort of thing”. Cue the slamming prison bars.

  5. Maha,

    You are so right.Here’s my favourite example:

    In Aug. 2001, a few short weeks before 9/11, my family and I were visiting some fellow Canadians, then living in Miami.

    Hubby and I are news junkies, but for five days, we lived in a news wasteland. Our friends did not subscribe to the Miami newspaper, judging it to be a total waste of paper. They had very few cable channels (ditto waste) and relied on the Internet for all their news needs. There main source of news was “The Globe and Mail”, Canada’s national newspaper. It’s not bad, though a tad too conservative for my tastes (I do read it every day though, along with the Toronto Star).

    I guess we were less hooked on the Internet at the time, so we didn’t follow our friends’ lead. Consequently, here is the SUM TOTAL of the news we received from CNN Headline News during the five days we spent at their home. Two news stories were on an endless loop:

    The first story dealt with a 14 year-old boy who had shot his favourite teacher to death on the last day of school and was about to be sentenced. Would he be sentenced as a child or as an adult?

    The second story was about Chandra Levy, the Washington intern who had disappeared from her apartment, never to be seen again. The media suspected that she had been lovers with her boss, politician Gary Condit, and that perhaps he was responsible for her disappearance. Every day, every few minutes, the camera would show Condit getting out of an SUV, smoothing down his tie (which did change every day, thank goodness) and going into some office to be questioned once again.

    During our five-day stay, there was one more story, which lasted about 30 seconds and was only broadcast once: something about Albania, but I can’t remember the details.

    That, ladies and gentlemen, was all the news fit to broadcast in south Florida in August of 2001.

    P.S. I just read today that someone has finally been arrested for the murder of Chandra Levy. It wasn’t Condit, BTW. Just thought you might like to know.

  6. My opinion is that when you go to vote, you should have to answer 5 multiple-choice questions to test your awareness. If you don’t get 3 out of 5 (or better) your vote doesn’t count. I am not talking about anything hard. Know who the governor of your state is, how many Senators your state has in DC, the populationof the US within 50 million.. absolute gimmees designed to weed out the brain-dead voters. Of course, both paries are so fond of their brain-dead voters, my idea stands no chance of adoption.

  7. It doesn’t help that certain elected officials actively undermine the idea of “facts” that it might be possible to know. What’s the point of paying attention, or trying to find the grain of real news amidst the chaff of Headline News, if you have no hope of knowing what is and isn’t true?

    Because it serves the purposes of some of those in power to have people tuned out and in denial, we end up with things like Senator Shelby (R-Alabama) feeding the delusional rumors about Obama’s citizenship, even now that Obama is the President.

    I see it as being bound-up with a generalized attempt over decades by advertisers, television programmers, politicians and others to discourage the average person from relying on their own critical thinking skills and actively examining what is being handed them. It’s easier to sell things if your customers get out of the habit of looking for the ‘catch’, if they have been numbed into passivity, or if they’ve been convinced that they can’t possibly understand what’s going on in Washington.

    Sadly, it’s also a recipe for societal disaster.

    (Maha, I like the preview. Very nice. You should also know that it was just because of you that I finally broke down and set myself up with a gravatar. This is a place where it matters to me how I ‘look’. 🙂 )

  8. “Incurious” is an excellent description of the average American’s mind. I know far too many people who do vote, but couldn’t get even 2 out of 5 basic political questions right if their vote depended on it. But when it comes to nonsense like the so-called “octo-mom,” they’re all ears. (Now, if a harried working mom found some way to grow six additional arms, thus becoming an actual superhero called “OctoMom,” that would be newsworthy, imo.)

    I really love the suggestion that pundits and anchordroids go live in some small American burg for a year, on a diet of nothing but the MSM. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich would have the gumption to try such a thing, but, ironically, she wouldn’t need to.

  9. CabinInTheWoods said, “When I visit a friend with TV, I am gobsmacked by the amount of ‘chaff’ and sickening-sweet propaganda delivered.

    My local NBC affiliate runs “news” from 4:00pm to 6:00pm every day. Each half-hour is a rerun of the previous one, with a few updates. These are broken into four 6-minute segments, a lot of which is chewed up by teasers of what’s coming up in the next segment, and anchor-to-anchor banter (especially with the weather guy; you have to be very good at cheerful banter if you want to be a weather guy). Oh, and sports – same deal there.

    I think the actual “hard” news content in those two hours is probably 20 minutes.

    I get a lot more information on what’s happening in America by watching BBC News America after Rachel. Very little repeat, in-depth reporting as necessary, and while they get schmaltzy at times, it’s generally good and useful stuff. At least as compared with our useless corporate newz.

  10. This may be OT– or not– but what the hey. I was reading a book at the laundromat this morning, and came across this paragraph:

    That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions[,] people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them.

    I read that, and then sat for a long time listening to the washing machines whirr, and thinking: Our president wrote that. Our president wrote that!

    We now have a president who looks people in the eye, and listens to them. Who is in the habit of reflecting on the experiences that made other people who they are. He wonders about other people, and thinks about them. Hell, it’s exciting just that he thinks. He knows the difference between small talk, sketchy biographies, and received opinions. He knows everyone has received opinions. And he knows how to begin to change the subject.

    Reading Dreams from My Father, I can’t help but see how high Obama is setting the bar for the MSM. Those poor bastards; the SOTU speech is Tuesday night, and they’re hopelessly out of shape. There could be an awful lot of sprained anchordroids, come Wednesday morning.

  11. I agree with all the previous points. Just as an additional comment, I have recently discovered a new show on CNN with the brilliant Fareed Zakaria. Its on Sunday’s at 1 and 5 Eastern Time and he actually has intellegent conversations with his guests. Today for instance he talked to a Cricket player/Political activist in Pakistan, then several economist who had quite interesting things to say and finally a segment about Secretary Clinton’s trip to Asia. All three segments were informative and interesting.


    That said it is rough watching television here just becuase of all the commercials that instruct you to buy gadgets! I bet Fareed really only gets 42 minutes of programing due to the excessive commercials.

  12. I’m with “Cabin in the Woods.” I killed my TV right after the 2000 election, fed to the teeth with faux news. But here’s where I get nastier than “Cabin.” This TV fare wouldn’t survive without subscriptions to cable or sat TV or without ypurchase of the goods and services advertised. Until we really rebel, and I mean all of us who care about this — until we really turn it off and refuse to support their advertisers — it’s not going to get any better.

    But then we also ought to make sure Frank Rich reads what Maha has to say. An email will go off to Rich at the Times now with Maha’s words — probably not the first or last!.

  13. “I propose that Frank Rich and others who spend their lives in national news media leave their newsrooms and spend some time purely as news consumers.”

    Frank Rich is a columnist who used to be the Times theatre critic; before that he was a film critic; I seriously doubt he’s ever spent much time in a news room; he’s never been a reporter. You probably want to pick an actual reporter for an example of someone who spends time in newsrooms.

  14. Ditto, all. DITTO!
    I can’t even turn the TV news channels on after the election. All of the Ken and Barbie dolls on the news shows. They know nothing, but they opine away.
    Actual knowledge is no qualifier to getting a job. It’s how cute you are (male of female), or how entertaining or outragous your opinion’s are. That’s what matters.
    Look at the turd from CNBC, Santelli. Personally, I’d like to see the SOB toothless, without health care, begging in the street’s.
    He may have money, but as far as his soul is concerned, he is the true loser.

    Cue “Sympathy for the Devil…”

  15. I get my news from a wide vatiety of sources. I believe in the line “Hans und Franz” used in the old Saturday night Live Show ” hear me today und believe me tomorrow!” that’s a great line. watch and listen, use a bit of critical thinking, throw out the tribal instincts, ignore anything “biblical” in regards to prophesy and current events, and you can pretty much sort the wheat fron the chaff.If something is too rediculous to be true, its a hose job.
    Here’s a simple anology; dogs and cats are more popular as pets than monitor lizards because they ARE better pets, don’t buy a monitor lizard, its a simple thing.
    I usually rise around 5AM, get some coffee, and head for the ‘net. When my day is done, I go back on line after dinner, then tune into “Tweety” unless my wife wins the toss, in which case it is “Two and a half men” until Keith comes on at 8. (My wife had a bit of a crush on Keith until she saw his belly) By the time Ms. Maddow is on, I’m ready to turn in.
    The guy I really admired was George Carlin, pretty much the same take on politics, religion, and guys named “Todd” as I have….

  16. PW – You suggested a boycott of the TV sponsors of the MSM news. You euthanized your TV, so you may not be aware how the list of suspect would read: oil & natural gas, coal, drug companies, banks, investment companies, insurance companies. The only way to avoid all the advertised products is to die. Even that won’t work once a major mortuary signs on to CNN.

    But the idea is sound. A list of quality TV is much shorter as is the list of advertisers who could be thanked for their sponsorship of quality programming. This is worthy of discussion by the major bloggers to see if we can drive up the viewership and appreciate the sponsors where there is evidence of critical thinking.

  17. Ever feel like that person in the movie who is the only one who has seen the aliens and can’t convince anyone else that they are real?

    Self-absorption leads to that kind of denial. There is a basic alienation from the circumstances that affect us. It all seems so far off and complicated that most would rather someone else deal with it.

    With that sad state of affairs only something that reaches out and touches the majority people will awaken Americans from the stupor.

    CBS and newspapers are having financial problems. Maybe the only way for things to improve is for new media to rise from the ashes of the old. But instability causes opportunities, particularly for those who have accumulated vast amounts of wealth.

    We’ll see but I see few signs of hope. The entire LA 11:00 news consisted of mind-numbing images of a slow speed car chase accompanied by dull uneventful narrative…the kinds of drugs required to keep us in our stupor.

  18. As I was listening to one of the Sunday morning talking heads program yesterday morning, I was struck by a conversation amongst the pundits about what words and phrases would best describe the economy and a possible nationalization of insolvent banks. The topic, in my opinion, was actually about how to best obsfuscate the reality of the ongoing collapse for the program’s viewers. I pointed this out to my husband who agreed suggested that the practice of concealing truth behind carefully chosen words stems from the practice of the political parties of politicizing and sensationalizing anything the other side says. Fear of having one’s messages twisted leads to obfuscation and actually prevents the public from understanding what is actually going on. Little wonder that the public is not facing reality – no one is doing any more than giving them a little peek at what is actually happening.

  19. ..the practice of concealing truth behind carefully chosen words stems from the practice of the political parties of politicizing and sensationalizing anything the other side says.

    How Orwellian.

  20. An interesting tidbit to consider as well.

    When daytime news consists of a lot of reports of horrible crimes, it also damages the spirit of the populace. They start seeing the world as a much more dangerous place. This is also something being pushed by conservatives – pro-gun conservatives, pro-police-power conservatives, and, of course, pro-GWOT conservatives.

    I strongly suspect that the more the meme of the dangerous world spreads, the less people care about those who get ground up in the wheels of the machine.

    (e.g., I’ve long suspected, and wish I had the historical/anthropological chops to research, that the harsher the society, the more brutal the punishments society finds acceptable. But with TV, we don’t need an unduly harsh world to make people think the world is harsh.)

  21. LHW, Cigarettes and automobiles kill far more Americans than any “Terrist” could hope to.
    What you wrote is not a “tidbit”, but rather, the key.When you have the population afraid, they’re easier to control. amd when they think about how dangerous the world is, they will readily accept searches and detention, and will cheer when “suspects” are mistreated or killed by the authorities and the military.

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