In traditional analog media, PBS NewsHour wonders – as if newly arrived on the planet Earth – what may be the cause and meaning of a Baltimore uprising? Here on the NewsHour, every occurrence takes us by surprise and is treated in a kind of isolation chamber. Something is happening here, a series of Black people killed by police?! Sudden violence, mayhem. What is that all about? This is our US TV in depth and wide breadth coverage of the news, steering carefully between the Scylla of the liberal rocks and the Charybdis of the neoliberal ones.
Every headline event is a source of wonderment. After surprise, wonder and amazement, we go on to hear both sides of an issue after which we are told that the conversation remains open and will continue in the future, a future in which every conclusion will be balanced by an opposing conclusion, Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress locked in an eternal struggle. We are then free to make a personal choice. We are to add our opinion in a culture where everyone knows everything and each knows it differently.
But what exactly is being balanced here? We are seeking a balance on a ship already tilted heavily to starboard. One side has the mass of the population, the other side the mass of the wealth, rather like the present state of South Africa, where minority White wealth and economic power mocks the democratic power of the masses. In US voter turnout, both sides have run about equal, except, for instance, when Barack Obama was able to draw more of the masses to the polling booth. The populace responded to an election in which a man so melded with popular culture celebrity status that he brought the populace out to vote.
Although the in-depth reporting of PBS seems in search of reasons as to why violence breaks out, any viewing of the “conditions on the ground” in the US at this point should produce reasons galore. There are a myriad of places where what PBS NewsHour calls a “melee” can break out, each one, I am sure, bewildering to a news media grounded on the false and dangerous assumption that a disinterested reporting can emerge in a seriously lopsided society.
Our public broadcasting voice cannot represent the public in any just and logical way because it sustains the imbalances already in place. Like Hillary, it must lean into the wealth minority. It must probe for answers in a way that converts what is transparently clear into a muddle of indecisiveness. This is done by structuring equal presentation of voices on both sides, as if the matter were being treated objectively and rationally, concluding without prejudice to either view and leaving the whole matter for the viewer to personally choose where he or she stands.
Carrying on such balanced discussion of anything in a society already seriously bent in one direction is just a mockery, and at worse, a front behind which the biases of that society can go on as if they were guided by a rational discourse. This front of a media conducting relentless, penetrating interpretation set on revealing lies and bullshit, set on deconstructing edifices of truth, can only always and only be the truth by which the status quo, bent as it is, perseveres. Our mainstream media coverage is either a chaos of mindless venting, a deluge of “information” whose only gatekeeper is Google’s PageRank, the insulated “de-friending” domains of Facebook communication, or the disingenuousness of both balanced and biased reporting. In this way, our communication is in one way or another serving to maintain our inequitable order of things. Our media stand like the Baltimore police as servants of that order, protecting it from exposure, which is what the media are now doing, and from collapse, as what the police are paid to do as they protect and serve.
How to proceed then? We need to get as close to the context out of which all events arise. This is a descriptive enterprise, one that, for instance, PBS NewsHour should provide as a preface, because it possesses the archival memory of the culture – both in the events it has covered and the resources it has tapped. The commentators, however, proceed ab ovo with every story and question as if they themselves have not paid any attention to what they themselves have been reporting for decades. Stories now stand apart, disconnected, without any attempt at disclosing interrelationships. The pieces of the puzzle are at hand, but it is as if each were picked up, looked at and put aside as a mystery to be solved on another occasion, when it is picked up, observed and put aside. Endless deferment. The pieces form no picture. It is this sort of deferring activity that complicates, that muddies the waters of commonsensical observation. And, it suits the corrupted deformation of our democracy because the picture that should be forthcoming, the puzzle not difficult to complete, is denied us.
Our media are either befuddling both events and our understanding, or, as in the case of Fox News, working steadily on the worst devils of our human nature – from racism, bigotry, xenophobia and homophobia, to indifference, hatred, contempt and neglect. Coverage maintaining and protecting our bent society is always accompanied by a full portrait, a thorough contextualizing that is imprinted in our minds in such a complete way that nothing seems to be left out. So before we establish a context within which to consider an event, we need to wipe out the misleading spins. This means that we cannot begin with description of a societal surround, but with dismantling the bogus arrangements already in our heads.
Once the bogus mythologies are confronted, a description of the surround out of which these events, whatever they may be, emerges. I am neither naïve nor utopian in my expectations that this can be easily done. Because the charge of “bogus” emerges from all directions, what we face is a battle of spins. We now exist in a post-truth world in which rational and empirical arguments universally persuasive or consensually validated have given way to narratives that yield to no external authority. The expansion of communication made possible by cybertech has expanded this arena of unleashed, contesting narratives. All transmissions now enter a mosh pit of narratives so overwhelming that one must narrow the receptivity band or tune out altogether.
Those whose bandwidth is limited to the Huffington Post or Truthout are not those who receive The Cato Institute and The Heritage Foundation transmissions. If you follow Fox, you do not follow PBS NewsHour. If you heed Rush Limbaugh, you probably do not heed Rachel Maddow. I maintain, however, that if reporting makes a beginning in any platform to contextualize a headline event, no issue will remain as vulnerable as now to madcap spins and canny deceptions. If any reporting, for instance, of the Baltimore uprising would begin with the statistics and demographic details presented in ThinkProgress’ overview of “The Economic Devastation Fueling the Anger in Baltimore,” a more informed context of reception could be created. This is not free-for-all narration, but one fixed by undeniable conditions in the same way that the earth is subject to gravity, the sun prompts photosynthesis and trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.
Rather that fix the objective conditions and demography of an event, PBS NewsHour presents this sort of informative horizon, this vital staging that must be known, as a matter itself to be debated in a balanced way. This manner of reporting clearly indicates that any determinate representation of a background story is itself incendiary, itself a threat to a lopsided order of things, an order that has the power to influence not only by ownership as in Fox, but indirectly as in PBS, which has lived in the shadow of a conservative threat to cancel its funding. This threat to cancel PBS news is, however, unlikely to be enacted, because the objective posturing of that news service preempts and defuses a critique not restrained by presumptions of balance in an already out-of-balanced society.
We have been leaving headline issues hanging in space and asking an audience to provide the background of their choice, a disastrous plan when statistics continue to tell us that Americans rank low in any understanding of history, civics, politics and geography. If offenses become lost pieces, we cannot bring any puzzle to completion. If we are already disposed to living in a fragmented world in which we eagerly await the new fragment and forgo pondering a pattern or a connection to what went before, we are in no position to either recognize the bent nature of our society or do anything about it.
We do not ponder the loss of sustained focus, our cultural ADD, because the remedy to that problem is preempted by the problem itself. The context we need in order to achieve any understanding evaporates. Ironically, we believe we have lost what we have chosen to lose. Perhaps nothing maintains the out-of-balance nature of our society more significantly than a personal choice determination oblivious to an actual existing context that in no way is bound by anyone’s personal choice.
What should proceed after a review of the horizon out of which an event emerges is a presentation of the particulars of the event in reference to the surround out of which these events emerge, namely the hierarchy of values and meanings at play or in residence within the society.
Our society has made victims of the innocent before, victims of unspeakable violence. Black Africans were enslaved without compunction by White Christians because they were inferior to a White humanity. Native Americans were exterminated by White Christians because they, too, had no souls. We have now more than a quarter of a century of reducing the humanity of the so-called Losers, the poor who choose not to work and win, the ungentrified, the threatening homeless, the dropouts, all those who are in public view, walking, hanging out, not living in gated compounds, without private security, the displaced, flawed exiles from a stock portfolio world, the ones we call wretched, but without the understanding and empathy of Frantz Fanon, the ones in public housing, waiting for public transportation, those walking late at night or riding old bicycles or pulling shopping carts, the immigrants. Their vast numbers strike fear in those few living in a privileged, feudal way in a democracy once aspiring to be egalitarian.
People of color are being subjected to a brutality that the rich are not, primarily because they are the victims of class warfare. Racism, the same kind that has been a factor in Obama’s presidency, puts Blacks at the vanguard of a quarter century-long denigration and dismissal of Have Nots and Have Less Each Day, some 80 percent of the US population. The fall of our former “working-class heroes” into a class scheduled for extinction has not been engineered, but has risen axiomatically from our economic system of choice and the insidious social creed of Winners and Losers, of ludicrous beliefs that the unfortunate choose their fate, while the fortunate owe nothing to anyone, least of all to the society that nurtured them. The few fear the many, not because the few are all elitists and racists, but in a similar axiomatic way, in the way someone with possessions eyes warily those without, especially wary when they too take note of how seriously bent US society has become, and how our public interpretation, meaning and understanding are being endlessly deferred.