Big money and big media have coupled to create a ‘Disney World’ of democracy in which TV shows, televised debates, even news coverage is being dumbed down, just as the volume is being turned up. The result is a public certainly more entertained, but less informed and personally involved than they should be, says Marty Kaplan, director of USC’s Norman Lear Center and an entertainment industry veteran. Bill Moyers talks with Kaplan about how taking news out of the journalism box and placing it in the entertainment box is hurting democracy and allowing special interest groups to manipulate the system.
“It’s all about combat. If every political issue is [represented by] combat between two polarized sides, then you get great television because people are throwing food at each other,” Kaplan tells Moyers. “And you have an audience that hasn’t a clue at the end of the story, which is why you’ll hear, ‘Well, we’ll have to leave it there.’”
“The problem is that there’s not that much information out there if you’re an ordinary citizen. You can ferret it out, but it ought not be like that in a democracy,” Kaplan says. “Education and journalism were supposed to, according to our founders, inform our public and make democracy work.”
Bill Moyers: Welcome. How about this: enterprising and intrepid journalism students at Kent State University in Ohio took up our challenge to go to nearby television stations, collect data on the political ads they run and post that information on the Internet. It’s supposed to be public information in the first place.
Kent State Student: We had one simple question for management at each station. Should these records be put on line? Three stations refused to be interviewed.
Bill Moyers: Take a look at the complete Kent State video at our website, BillMoyers.com. We’re counting on other journalism students around the country – and maybe you as well – to follow their example and share the results with us. Meanwhile, on with the show, because as you can see, sometimes the truth reveals itself in the darnedest places. In an old movie, for example – one you saw some years ago, forgot, and then, by chance, happen on it again to discover that times have changed, and movies, too. But certain things never change: they just cost more.
Here’s what I mean: remember Eddie Murphy twenty years ago in The Distinguished Gentleman? That’s the term by which members of Congress address each other, no matter how disreputable their conduct.
Murphy, a con man disguised as a waiter, is about to fleece the host of a swanky party, when he overhears this conversation between a big-time energy executive and a veteran Congressman who wants to retire:
Olaf Andersen in The Distinguished Gentleman: Yeah well, look, Jeff. You can’t retire.
Jeff Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: If I retire this year I get to keep $1.3 million that’s left in my campaign fund. And it’s called the grandfather loophole.
Olaf Andersen in The Distinguished Gentleman: Alright, Jeff. I got it. Come here. There’s a small software company that’s about to go through the roof. Now what you do is buy a few thousand dollars’ worth of stock options. It’s going to bring in a half a million, easy — and that’s just for our winners.
Jeff Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: If you put it like that, I suppose I have a duty to continue my career in public service.
Olaf Andersen in The Distinguished Gentleman: Duty.
Bill Moyers: Fate intervenes, the Congressman dies of a heart attack, and Murphy gets himself elected in his place. At a Washington dinner for freshmen members of Congress, he begins to learn the ropes from the lobbyist Terry Corrigan:
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: Say, could I host a welcome- to-Washington fundraiser for you down at my law firm on K street?
Tommy Jefferson Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: Absolutely!
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: At five hundred dollars a head — you could pick up twenty, twenty-five grand to help you get started.
Tommy Jefferson Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: And how much of that are you going to get?
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: It doesn’t come off the top. Down the road, I’ll bill each of ’em five hundred an hour whenever I take you to lunch.
Tommy Jefferson Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: You know Terry, you and I are going to be so close.
Bill Moyers: Soon, he’s making a beeline for the honey pot.
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: I’d like to do more money for you – but first I’ve gotta get your positions on a few issues. Now where are you on sugar price supports?
Tommy Jefferson Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: Sugar price supports. Where should I be, Terry?
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: It makes no difference to me. If you’re for ’em, I got money for you from my sugar producers in Louisiana and Hawaii. If you’re against ’em, I got money for you from the candy manufacturers.
Tommy Jefferson Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: You pick […]Terry, tell me something — with all this money coming in from both sides, how could anything possibly ever get done?
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: It doesn’t! That’s the genius of the system!
Bill Moyers: Now in the good graces of a powerful committee chairman, he joins the shakedown of a corporate executive who wants a favor from Congress.
Olaf Andersen in The Distinguished Gentleman: Seven figures? I suppose a million dollars isn’t too much to insure against losing $5 billion.
Dick Dodge in The Distinguished Gentleman: Now you talking.
Olad Andersen in The Distinguished Gentleman: But how can I funnel this kind of money to you?
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: If that’s what you want, we can find a loophole. No one will see your fingerprints.
Olaf Andersen in The Distinguished Gentleman: No one will know?
Terry Corrigan in The Distinguished Gentleman: No one will know.
Dick Dodge in The Distinguished Gentleman: Olaf’s just making a contribution as a patriotic citizen. And in return for that, he’s getting…
Tommy Jefferson Johnson in The Distinguished Gentleman: Good government.
Dick Dodge in The Distinguished Gentleman: Exactly. A little access, that’s all.
Bill Moyers: I’ll not remind you of how the movie ends, in case you want to see it for yourself. But I can assure you – the revelations ring as true today as they did then. And no one knows this better than my next guest who wrote The Distinguished Gentlemen.
Marty Kaplan majored in molecular biology at Harvard, got a Ph. D. in literature from Stanford and went to work for U.S. Commissioner of Education Ernest Boyer and then with Vice President Walter Mondale After Washington he joined the Walt Disney Company as a writer/producer on such diverse projects as that Eddie Murphy satire and the Peter Bogdanovich adaptation of Noises Off. After becoming a dean at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, he founded and heads the Norman Lear Center, which studies politics, entertainment, and commerce – and their impact on us. He’s an expert on how big money and big media have coupled to create a Disney World of democracy. Marty, welcome.
Marty Kaplan: Thanks, Bill.
Bill Moyers: You wrote The Distinguished Gentleman 20 years ago. Could you write it today?
Marty Kaplan: Oh God, it still is the same. All you have to do is add a couple of zeros to the amount of money. And the same laws still apply. It is fabulous and miserable at the same time.
Bill Moyers: Was Washington then, and is it now, the biggest con game going?
Marty Kaplan: It is the biggest con game going. And the stakes are enormous. And the effort to regulate them is hopeless, because the very people who are in charge of regulating them are the same people who are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the lobbies that run them.
Bill Moyers: I have it on very good authority that a prominent Washington senator recently told a group of lobbyists in Washington, a room full of lobbyists, that they are the lifeblood of the city. And I thought, “Kaplan has to do a vampire movie now.” Right?
Marty Kaplan: Exactly. The connection between the legislators and the lobbyists is so intimate that it’s not even embarrassing for a senator to say that in front of a room. The culture is so hermetically sealed from the rest of the country that it doesn’t occur to them that there is something deeply outrageous and offensive and corrosive of democracy to admit that the money side of politics and the elected side of politics belong to each other.
Bill Moyers: You wrestle with this, you and your colleagues at the Norman Lear Center, and all the time, on how, on what the system is doing to us. So let me ask you, “How did this happen in America? How did our political system become the problem instead of the answer?”
Marty Kaplan: Part of it is the nexus of media, money, and special interest politics. The citizens have given the airwaves to the station. We own the electromagnetic spectrum and for free we give out licenses to television stations. Those stations, in turn, use that spectrum to get enormous amounts of money from special interests and from members of Congress in order to send these ads back to us to influence us. So we lose it in both ways. The other day, the president of CBS, Les Moonves, was reported by “Bloomberg” to have said “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re … good for CBS.” I mean, there it is. This is a windfall every election season, which seems not to even stop ever, for the broadcast industry. So not only are they raking it in, they’re also creating a toxic environment for civic discourse. People don’t hear about issues. They hear these negative charges, which only turn them off more. The more negative stuff you hear, the less interested you are in going out to vote. And so they’re being turned off, the stations are raking it in, and the people who are chortling all the way to Washington and the bank are the ones who get to keep their hands on the levers of power. So one of the big reasons that things are at the pass they are is that the founders never could have anticipated that a small group of people, a financial enterprise and the technology could create this environment in which facts, truth, accountability, that stuff just isn’t entertaining. So because it’s not entertaining, because the stations think it’s ratings poison, they don’t cover it on the news. BILL MOYERS: They don’t cover the news.
Marty Kaplan: They don’t cover politics and government in the sense of issues. They’re happy, occasionally to cover horse race and scandal and personality and crime and that aspect of politics. But if you look at a typical half hour of news, local news, because local news is one of the most important sources of news for Americans about campaigns. A lot—
Bill Moyers: You and your colleagues have done a lot of research on local news.
Marty Kaplan: Yes, we’ve been studying it now since 1998. And each year it gets more depressing and it’s hard to believe. We, not long ago, did a study of the Los Angeles media market. We looked at every station airing news and every news broadcast they aired round the clock. And we put together a composite half hour of news. And if you ask, “How much in that half hour was about transportation, education law enforcement, ordinances, tax policy?” everything involving locals, from city to county. The answer is, in a half hour, 22 seconds.
Bill Moyers: Twenty-two seconds devoted to what one would think are the serious issues of democracy, right?
Marty Kaplan: Yes. Whereas, in fact, there are three minutes about crime, and two and a half minutes about the ugliest dog contest, and two minutes about entertainment. There’s plenty of room for stuff that the stations believe will keep people from changing the dial.
Bill Moyers: What is the irony to me is that these very same stations that are giving 22 seconds out of a half hour to serious news, are raking— and not covering politics, are raking in money from the ads that the politicians and their contributors are spending on those same papers.
Marty Kaplan: Yes, they’re earning hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars from the ads that they are being paid to run. And not even risking running a minute of news, which might actually check on the accuracy of an ad. Truth watches, they’re almost invisible now.
Bill Moyers: So they will tell you, however, that they’re in the entertainment business. That they’re in the business to amuse the public, to entertain the public. And if they do these serious stories about the schools or about the highways or about this or that, the public tunes out. That the clicks begin to register as—
Marty Kaplan: It’s one of the great lies about broadcasting now. There are consultants who go all around the country and they tell the general managers and the news directors, “It is only at your peril that you cover this stuff.” But one of the things that we do is, the Lear Center gives out the Walter Cronkite award for excellence in television political journalism every two years. And we get amazing entries from all over the country of stations large and small of reporters under these horrendous odds doing brilliant pieces and series of pieces, which prove that you can not only do these pieces on a limited budget, but you can still be the market leader.
Bill Moyers: What do they say when you say, “But look, you have this public franchise. You’ve been given this hotdog stand in your neighborhood to sell all the hotdogs you want to. In return, we’d just like more attention to serious issues and to take politics seriously.” What do they say?
Marty Kaplan: Well, some of them say, “You’re right. We’re going to do it. And hold us accountable.” That’s the miracle. The Hearst chain of television stations, for example, has won the Cronkite Award over and over, because they’ve risen to the challenge. If you have management and ownership from top down, saying to all their stations, “Okay, you are required to run news stories about campaigns. You have to run five minutes a night for the last 30 days of a campaign. And we’re going to judge you.” If their management and ownership says, “You have to do it,” they do it. And they can do an amazing job of it. The problem is that management like that is few and far between.
Bill Moyers: So what is driving it?
Marty Kaplan: Well, what’s really driving it, if you think of this as a symptom and not a cause, I think what’s really driving it is the absolute demonization of any kind of idea of public interest as embodied by government. And at the same time, a kind of corporate triumphalism, in which the corporations, the oligarchs, the plutocrats, running this country want to hold onto absolute power absolutely. And it’s an irritant to them to have the accountability that news once used to play.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean by that? News challenges their assumptions, challenges their power?
Marty Kaplan: It used to be that the news programs that aired, believe it or not, had news on them. They had investigative stories.
But then somewhere in the 1980s, when 60 Minutes started making a profit, CBS put the news division inside the entertainment division. And then everyone followed suit. So ever since then, news has been a branch of entertainment and, infotainment, at best.
But there was a time in which the press, the print press, news on television and radio were speaking truth to power, people paid attention, and it made a difference. The— I don’t think the Watergate trials would have happened, the Senate hearings, had there not been the kind of commitment from the news to cover the news rather than cutting away to Aruba and a kidnapping.
Bill Moyers: What is the basic consequence of taking the news out of the journalism box and putting it over into the entertainment box?
Marty Kaplan: People are left on their own to fend for themselves. And the problem is that there’s not that much information out there, if you’re an ordinary citizen, that comes to you. You can ferret it out. But it oughtn’t be like that in a democracy. Education and journalism were supposed to, according to our founders, inform our public and to make democracy work.
You can’t do it unless we’re smart. And so the consequence is that we’re not smart. And you can see it in one study after another. Some Americans think that climate change is a hoax cooked up by scientists, that there’s no consensus about it. This kind of view could not survive in a news environment, which said, “This is true and that’s false.” Instead we have an environment in which you have special interest groups manipulating their way onto shows and playing the system, gaming the notion that he said she said is basically the way in which politics is now covered.
It’s all about combat. If every political issue is the combat between two polarized sides, then you get great television because people are throwing food at each other. And you have an audience that hasn’t a clue, at the end of the story, which is why you’ll hear, “Well, we’ll have to leave it there.” Well, thank you very much. Leave it there.
Bill Moyers: You have talked and written about “the straightjacket of objectivity.” Right? What is that?
Marty Kaplan: Well, the problem with telling the truth is that in this postmodern world, there’s not supposed to be something as truth anymore. So all you can do if you are a journalist is to say, “Some people say.” Maybe you can report a poll. Maybe you can quote somebody. But objectivity is only this phony notion of balance, rather than fact-checking.
There are some gallant and valiant efforts, like PolitiFact and Flackcheck.org that are trying to hold ads and news reports accountable. But by and large, that’s not what you’re getting. Instead the real straightjacket is entertainment. That’s what all these sources are being forced to be. Walter Lippmann in the 1920s had a concept called “spectator democracy” in which he said that the public was a herd that needed steering by the elites. Now he thought that people just didn’t have the capacity to understand all these complicated issues and had to delegate it to experts of various kinds.
But since then, the notion of spectator democracy has, I think, extended to include the need to divert the country from the master narrative, which is the influence and importance and imperviousness to accountability of large corporations and the increasing impotence of the public through its agency, the government, to do anything about it. So the more diversion and the more entertainment, the less news, the less you focus on that story, the better off it is.
Bill Moyers: Are you saying that the people who run this political media business, the people who fund it, want to divert the public’s attention from their economic power? Is that what you’re saying?
Marty Kaplan: Yes.
Let us fight about you know, whether this circus or that circus is better than each other, but please don’t focus on the big change which has happened in this country, which is the absolute triumph of these large, unaccountable corporations.
This is about as dismal and effective a conspiracy, out in plain sight, as there possibly could be. So I don’t say that this is going to be solved or taken care of. What I do say is the first step toward it is at least acknowledging how toxic the situation has become.
Bill Moyers: But isn’t it possible that a lot of people prefer the entertainment side of politics and even the news, because they have seen what you have just described. That they see the problems. They write on my website and say, “Look, you know, you’re describing this. You’re investigating that. But tell me what I can do. What can I do? I do something and nothing happens.” And so people just say, “Enough’s enough.” And they go their merry way.
Marty Kaplan: Well, merry is the word. Self-medication is probably a decent thing to do, when you’re that depressed about what’s going on. If only every once in a while, you get some headline for some demonstration you’re in, or maybe you defeat somebody. Look at Wisconsin, for example. There’s a reason for hope. Citizens came out and have made a difference. They are recalling the governor. They have terrified a state legislature, which has acted not in their interest. So citizen activism is showing signs of making a difference. And you can see it in Ohio. You can see a bit of it in Arizona. These things are not completely hopeless. And—
Bill Moyers: So how did it happen, given what you say about who controls the spigots of information and the money going into the— into the media process? How did that happen?
Marty Kaplan: The public, by turning out in vast numbers and not giving up, forced the media to pay attention to them. And as long as the media reflects a view of yourself in which you’re impotent, there’s no reason to go out and try. But as soon as the mirror that the media provides says, “Wait a minute, all these people are doing something.” That has what they call a network effect. More creates more. And finally it becomes a force in politics that even the Koch brothers funding the governor of Wisconsin can’t completely suffocate.
Bill Moyers: You watched the Republican primaries, right?
Marty Kaplan: Yes.
Bill Moyers: What did you see?
Marty Kaplan: I saw the most amazing effort to brand the entities that sponsored the debates.
Announcer #1: This is the ABC news.
Announcer #2: This is the NBC news.
Marty Kaplan: I mean, every big network and every brand was out in order to sell their brand to the public. The content of the debate was almost laughable.
Bill Moyers: Entertaining.
Marty Kaplan: Yes.
Bill Moyers: But it’s fun.
Marty Kaplan: Yes—
Bill Moyers: You against fun?
Marty Kaplan: I’m for Herman Cain.
Herman Cain: This economy is on life support, that’s why my 999 plan is a bold solution.
Michele Bachmann: When you take the 999 plan and turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details.
Marty Kaplan: I’m for Michele Bachmann as entertainers. But American politics shouldn’t only be a reality show. And that’s what it’s become.
Bill Moyers: But aren’t we suckers for melodrama? Don’t we like the soap opera up and down, in and out quality of the political race today?
Marty Kaplan: We are programmed to love stories. That is in our genes. Our wiring says that when you say, “Once upon a time,” I am hooked. When you show me conflict between two people, I want to know who’s going to win. That’s how it’s always been. And it happens that politics is now the substance and television is now the medium in which to bedazzle us, to enthrall us, which means enslave us just as it has been all through human history.
Bill Moyers: What struck me in those Republican debates is that they’d get into 15 to 20, maybe 30 minutes of an exchange, and then the moderator would say, “Hold it right there. We’ll be back after a commercial.”
Brian Williams: We have to go to a break. When we come back we’ll talk foreclosure, we’ll talk about foreign policy.
Bill Moyers: I kept thinking of the great debates between Lincoln and Douglass, “Wait a moment, Mr. Lincoln, before you take up the issue of slavery, we have a commercial for you.” They have taken over the process, in that regard. You can’t play unless you play on their turf, which is governed by the rules of commerce.
Marty Kaplan: The League of Women Voters doesn’t have a chance any more—
Bill Moyers: They used to be the sponsors of the presidential debates.
Marty Kaplan: Exactly. Instead, the purpose of these debates is in order to have commercials. The suspense and coming back, those are devices deployed, in order to have people watch what happens in between. These are moneymaking propositions. They give bragging rights for those that get high ratings. They have nothing to do with the content.
Because if they did have to do with the content, then the moderators would have to spend all their time saying, “I can’t believe you just said that. That is so wrong. How can you say that?” Instead they say, “Well, Governor Perry, what do you think of what Congressman Bachmann just said?” That’s what happens. That’s what passes for journalism. And that’s what gets us to watch the ads for soap.
Bill Moyers: What you’re saying is that the political square is now a commercial enterprise, owned and operated for the benefit of the brand, CNN, Fox, all of those, right?
Marty Kaplan: That’s correct.
Bill Moyers: How did it happen? How did we sell what belonged to everyone?
Marty Kaplan: By believing that what is, is what always has been and what should be. The notion that what goes on is actually made by people, changes through time, represents the deployment of political power. That notion has gone away. We think it’s always been this way. People now watching these CNN and Fox. They think this is how it works. They don’t have a sense of history. The amnesia, which has been cultivated by journalism, by entertainment in this country, helps prevent people from saying, “Wait a minute, that’s the wrong path to be on.”
Bill Moyers: Amnesia, forgetfulness? You say that they’re cultivating forgetfulness?
Marty Kaplan: Absolutely.
Bill Moyers: Deliberately?
Marty Kaplan: Look at the way in which it— the march toward war in Iran, if that’s what’s going to happen, is being—
Bill Moyers: Or slithering toward war.
Marty Kaplan: Well, it— when we get there we may feel as though the serpent bit us, no matter how we got to that point. But Iran should be covered through the prism of what happened in Iraq. All of the neoconservatives and right-wingers, who called for us to go into Iraq because of W.M.D.’s and because Saddam was bad. There is a history there. That history is within living memory of a lot of grownups in this country.
And unless people are willing to do the hard work of presenting the history and holding people accountable for the past, we will be condemned as it’s been said, to repeat it first in tragedy and then in farce.
Bill Moyers: Here’s something I wrestle with and a lot of journalists wrestle with it. That I’d like for you to address. We sometimes bend ourselves into euphemistic pretzels in order not to call a spade a spade or a lie a lie. For example, when Rick Santorum’s opponents took his words out of context to make him say something he clearly had not intended to say.
Narrator: On the economy, Rick Santorum says:
Rick Santorum: I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be.
Bill Moyers: I didn’t hear any prestige journalist speak up and say, “You know, that’s a lie.”
Marty Kaplan: No, what you heard instead was, isn’t that something? What a deft maneuver. What a great political thing that they have done. How shrewd it was to change the focus. How merciless toward their opponents this move has been. There is admiration for playing the game brilliantly. No one is appalled. No one is shocked anymore. No one is able to say, wait a minute, that’s not true. That’s inappropriate. That’s wrong.
‘Cause if a reporter does do that, they’re completely playing into the hands of the candidate, as we saw over and over in the Republican debate. George Stephanopoulos asks a question about contraception and the candidates come down on him like a ton of bricks.
Mitt Romney: I don’t know whether the state has the right to ban contraception. No state wants to. I mean the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do, that no state wants to do, and asking me whether they can do it or not is kind of a silly thing I think.
Marty Kaplan: “How dare you do this? That’s just the liberal media.” They have this trope of the liberal media, which they use in order to demonize anybody who is willing to enforce standards of accuracy.
Bill Moyers: You once proposed that political ads be accompanied by a disclaimer. And it was this disclaimer, quote, “The scary music, photo shopped pictures, and misleading sound bites in this ad are tricks intended to manipulate you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Voting for this candidate is unlikely to improve how awful things are.” When I read that, I thought, “Fat chance.”
Marty Kaplan: Yeah, fat chance. But at least we’re talking about it. At least front and center is the notion that these ads are so powerful, because they are mini movies. They are dazzling dramas. They are full of conflict and story. We love paying attention to that stuff. We are suckered into them.
BIill Moyers: Do you think these ads make us stupid?
Marty Kaplan: We start stupid. The brain is wired to be entertained. We don’t pay attention to the words. We pay attention to the pictures and the drama and the story. If it’s pretty, if it’s exciting, if it’s violent, if it’s fast, that’s where we are. So the fact that these mini dramas are being used to get us to vote for one person or another is just like what we all learned propaganda was used for and thought we learned our lessons from in World War II. They are propaganda. And propaganda is irresistible. If it were resistible, people wouldn’t do it.
Bill Moyers: It’s why people smoke. It’s why they go to war often.
Marty Kaplan: Exactly. And that’s why even in the case of cigarettes, there is now an effort to add pictures to the packs. Because those warnings don’t quite do it You’ve got to see an image of what your lungs look like, in order to make you not reach for it.
Bill Moyers: And it’s why when you see a pharmaceutical company promoting a drug, the picture’s lovely even though the words are horrifying.
Pharmaceutical Commercial #1: Common side effects are dizziness, sleepiness, weight gain.
Pharmaceutical Commercial #2: Severe liver problems, some fatal, were reported.
Pharmaceutical Commercial #3: Shortness of breath, swelling of your tongue or throat may occur, and in rare cases may be fatal.
Marty Kaplan: Imagine after seeing that saying to your doctor, “You want to write me a script for that? I think it’ll be good for me.” And the reason is because what we’re seeing is this lovely story. Somebody was sad and now they’re happy.
Bill Moyers: Don’t you think most people are now jaundiced about these ads? They know it’s a con?
Marty Kaplan: People say they know it’s a con, just as they say that they are not being swayed by the ads for products that they see on television. If that were true, there would not be a multibillion dollar advertising industry. If that stuff didn’t work, that would not be on the air. So no matter what we say, no matter how clever we are, we are susceptible to it. “24,” that TV series, is a favorite example of mine. When—
Bill Moyers: The series about C.I.A.—
Marty Kaplan: It was a rogue C.I.A. agent played by Kiefer Sutherland. And often the storyline would turn on his using torture because some terrible thing was about to happen. And even though it was against the rules, he knew that that was something you had to do. You had to overrule the handbook at moments like this. And then he would get the information from the suspect.
The problem is that torture doesn’t work. Not only is it illegal and immoral, it doesn’t produce the kind of information we want. But the cadets at West Point, who are watching “24,” decided, involuntarily, “Well, that’s how it works.” So that even though their textbooks, even though their teachers in class were telling them, “Torture’s wrong and it doesn’t work.” Even though that was happening, they were absorbing the lesson of this melodrama on television.
And it was so scary to the military brass that the dean of West Point had to go to Hollywood and plead with the shows not to do it. To tell them, “You have the power. You have a power that is beyond what you understand. And with that power comes responsibility. So please understand you can work black magic on our troops. Don’t do that.”
Bill Moyers: You wrote a fascinating piece a number of years ago in a book called What Orwell Didn’t Know, a collection of essays by people like yourself. And if I remember correctly, you said— you predicted in there that the internet opened new possibilities for democracy by creating new networks of information gathering and information sharing. Do you still think that?
Marty Kaplan: I do. The problem is that the internet is at best the Wild West, in which that kind of information competes with other stuff in this great bazaar. I mean, at this booth over here, you get some important investigative journalism. At that booth over there, you get Charlie Bit My Finger or whatever the YouTube hit of the month happens to be. And they’re all on equal footing.
And it’s up to the public, the herd, in some cases, to make stuff popular or not. I’m glad, at least, that this tool has brought diversity and ordinary people’s voices into the mix. Look at something like Kony 2012. Whatever the problems that there might be with that, it did prove that the public can rally around an idea and make an idea famous.
Bill Moyers: But the internet is also awash with contaminated, unsubstantiated toxins that if you just take them into your system will mislead you too.
Marty Kaplan: Yes, and every once in a while I feel a need to go on a media fast. Because the stuff is so toxic that if you pay attention to it, it has to be harming you.
Bill Moyers: You’ve done that recently.
Marty Kaplan: I have indeed.
Bill Moyers: What did you do?
Marty Kaplan: I went to the high desert. And I spent a week paying no attention to television or to the internet or to the newspaper. And I didn’t have a political conversation.
Bill Moyers: You were on detox?
Marty Kaplan: I was on a media fast. And by the end, I felt great. The challenge was taking that wisdom of the mountaintop back into the valley of the shadow, which is where we all dwell.
Bill Moyers: But you had to come back.
Marty Kaplan: I did indeed.
Bill Moyers: And what happened when you came back and there it all was waiting for you?
Marty Kaplan: It was being exposed to a poison and I wanted to numb myself the moment that I was exposed to it. It’s hard.
Bill Moyers: How much bad information is too much, Marty? When does it start transforming our brain and our body politic?
Marty Kaplan: I think we’re there now. I think there is so much misinformation out there that on issue after issue, we have opinions but not facts. And we despair of ever being able to get to the bottom of it and despair of ever having a decision being based on what is accurate, true, and useful, rather than who has the most money to put up enough ads in order to sway the public debate.
Bill Moyers: You made a very important speech not long ago at a media conference in Barcelona. And you tried and did draw the distinction between— you said the battle of the future is between big data and big democracy. In layman’s language, what is that?
Marty Kaplan: Big data, the age of big data that we’re supposed to be in, refers to the way in which, as we go on the internet, as we do all these media activities, watching television, which are at the center of our lives, we’re leaving a trail behind. We’re giving bits of ourselves up. And that set of bits is being collected and mined relentlessly.
So every time we buy a product or send an e-mail or vote how many stars to a restaurant, all this stuff creates a profile that companies buy and sell to each other. And that stuff is being used currently not only to market to us, to target ads toward us, but it’s also being used to profile us. There’s something called “web lining.” Which is similar to what used to be called “red lining.” The— that phenomenon, which is now illegal, in which people who were discriminated against because of the neighborhoods they live in. Right now—
Bill Moyers: Banks drew a red line around impoverished neighborhoods that they would not then serve.
Marty Kaplan: Exactly. And so today imagine if you were to permit a private detective to follow you as you went to your drug store and bought a medication to help you with depression or as you made a phone call to a bankruptcy lawyer, because you needed one. Imagine if that kind of information could be put together and used against you to decide that you’re a bad credit risk or that maybe your insurance company should turn you down, because you suffer from this problem.
That kind of information, that kind of digital profiling is something which is emerging as a huge industry. And unless there are controls on it and constraints, as they have to some degree in Europe but not nearly enough even there, we are about to kiss goodbye our ownership of our privacy and also even the ownership financially of our information. We are the people who make Facebook and Twitter worth the billions of dollars that they’re worth, because we are giving up our information to them, which they are then selling and raising capital around.
Bill Moyers: But in a libertarian era, what are the restraints and constraints against that? Where are they going to come from?
Marty Kaplan: Well, right now, the constraints in this country are voluntary. The Obama White House not long ago issued a digital code of conduct, which included privacy. In which they asked companies and companies did step up to it to say, “We’re not going to track people if they don’t want to be tracked.” And other such efforts to get people in control.
But what we do know, the record of just the past couple of months, is that company after company was doing stuff to us that’s astonishing, that we didn’t know about. The ways in which the apps that you use on your smartphones were vacuuming up information about you, your address book and all your pictures.
Stuff that you had no idea you had consented to, which in fact usually you had not, suddenly was all owned by other people, as well. You have not given permission, but that essential part of you is now not yours. That’s the name of the game now. This is baked into the business model of data mining, which is at the heart of so much of the digital economy.
Bill Moyers: But that’s big data. You talked about big democracy.
Marty Kaplan: So at the same time as our data is being mined, there is this movement to protect people using technology to give them the power to say, “I’m not going to opt into this stuff.” We’re still at the beginning of this industry. And there has to be rules of the road. And part of those rules include my attention rights. My rights to control my identity, my privacy, and my ownership of information.”
Bill Moyers: In your speech in Barcelona, you pointed to two simultaneous covers of TIME Magazine appearing the same week. One for the editions in Europe, Asia, and South Pacific, and it was about the crisis in Europe. The other, which appeared in the American edition, featured a cover about animal friendships. You use these two covers to illustrate the difference between what you call “push journalism” and “pull journalism.” What’s the difference?
Marty Kaplan: Push journalism is the old days, which seem no longer to apply in the era of the internet, in which an editor, a gatekeeper, says, “Here’s the package which you need to know.” All of that is ancient history now.
Instead, now, it’s all driven by what the consumer is pulling. And if the consumer says, “I want ice cream all the time.” And whether that ice cream is Lindsay Lohan, or the latest crime story, that’s what’s delivered. And as long as it’s being pulled, that’s what is being provided. So it’s quite possible that in the U.S., the calculation was made that the crisis in Europe and the head of Italy would not be a cover that one could use. But that pet friendships would be the sort of thing that would fly off the newsstand.
Bill Moyers: So the reader is determining what we get from the publication?
Marty Kaplan: On a minute by minute basis, stories that the reader’s interested in immediately go to the top of the home page. There are actually pieces of software that give editorial prominence to stuff that people by voting with their clickers have said is of interest to them. No one is there to intervene and say, “Wait a minute, that story is just too trivial to occupy more than this small spot below the fold.” Instead, the audience’s demand is what drives the placement and the importance of journalistic content.
Bill Moyers: So George Orwell anticipated a state as big brother, hovering over us, watching us, keeping us under surveillance, taking care of our needs as long as we repaid them with utter loyalty. Aldous Huxley anticipated a Brave New World in which we were amusing ourselves to death. Who’s proving the most successful prophet? Huxley or Orwell?
Marty Kaplan: Well, I think Huxley is probably right, as Neil Postman said in—
Bill Moyers: The sociologist, yes.
Marty Kaplan: —in Amusing Ourselves to Death. That there’s no business but show business. And we are all equally guilty, because it’s such fun to be entertained. So you don’t need big brother, because we already have big entertainment.
Bill Moyers: And the consequences of that?
Marty Kaplan: That we are as in Brave New World, always in some kind of stupor. We have continual partial attention to everything and tight critical attention on nothing.
Bill Moyers: Shall we go to the high desert?
Marty Kaplan: I’m ready if you are.
Bill Moyers: Marty Kaplan, thank you for being with me.
Marty Kaplan: Thank you, Bill.