Journalism, by definition, is the practice of collecting and editing news for presentation through the media. Before the introduction of newspapers in the early 17th century, the only circulated publications were those issued by official branches of governments which, by nature, could hardly be considered unbiased. The ActaDiurna, for instance, encompassed official written accounts of daily events in ancient Rome. Actuarii—or the reporters of the day—were tasked by the state to collect information to be subsequently posted on a large board for everyone to read. These boards were archived for reference. The news contained anything that might have been of interest to the citizens of Rome. Topics such as war, speeches, or court proceedings were the most popular. Along with births, marriages, divorces, deaths, murders and accidents, the “actuarii” also reported unusual omens or prodigies known as “lususnaturae.” These famous,and allegedly living creatures or inanimate objects were perhaps the predecessors of sensationalist media and although in today’s world they would instantly be classified as hoaxes, in ancient Rome they may have appeared quite real. In fact, these creatures and objects permeated the landscape well past Medieval times and it was not until the seventeenth century that the growing interest in the study of nature actually began to dispel the myth of these lususnaturae. Soon thereafter, the Leviathan, the Scythian Lamb and the Unicorn became official legends. Gradually, deformities and other natural anomalies became either part of the scientific body of knowledge, or circus sideshows.
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it.William R. Hearst
Undoubtedly, the most influential technological development in the history of mankind was the printing press. When goldsmith Johanness Gutenberg reassembled screw presses into a printing system, complete with movable types, he could not have foreseen the tremendous impact that it would have on society and the history of mankind. Born at the outset of an era that gave us indelible milestones in human history, Gutenberg was in exemplary company. Da Vinci, Copernicus, Boccaccio, Newton, Donatello, Columbus, Drake, Magellan, Botticelli, Cortez, Luther, Erasmus, and Vesalius, to name a few of the Renaissance men that changed our history.
For centuries, the question of which was the first published newspaper in history remained a subject of controversy. Some maintained that it was the “Relation allerFürnemmen und gedenckwürdigenHistorie”published in by Johann Carolus of Strasbourg. Others claimed it was the “Avisa,” published in Wolfenbuttel by Lucas Schulte. The dispute between these two newspapers—published in the German Language—was settled in 2005 when it was corroborated that Carolus had started his publication four years (1605) sooner than Schulte (1609).
The first newspaper in the English language was published in Amsterdam in 1625 and soon thereafter, newspapers spread rapidly throughout the neighboring cities and countries. However, it would be sixty five years before the first newspaper was published in North America. As such, in 1690, Benjamin Harris published a one-time edition of the “Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick” in Boston. The publication was quickly suppressed by the Government under the auspices that “…therein contained Reflections of a very high nature: As also sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports, do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that the same be Suppressed and called in…”It would not be until 1704 that the Governor of Boston would allow “The Boston News-Letter” to be published as a continuous paper to be distributed throughout the British colonies. These publications were somewhat one-sided and, naturally, heavily sanctioned. Clearly, the concept of free press remained distant at that time and the only allowable press was that in favor of the Government. Thus, the most powerful tool to reach the population was under control and carefully manipulated.
The media and its target audiences
Throughout history, there have been attempts at conveying messages of interest to the general public. In ancient times, this was referred to as the masses for lack of a better way to segment groups into specific interests. Evidently, all of their early efforts were biased in the sense that they benefited the dominant groups—whether minorities or majorities. There have been brief periods since the dawn of the 19th century when mass media actually provided us with much needed information for the purposes of planning our lives accordingly. Evidently, our culture was not one of total consumption and the massive influx of media specifically designed to affect distribution, perception, politics and socio-economic systems would not make its triumphant entrance until later in that century. The major ideological shift brought about by the 19th century changed the moral, spiritual and political fiber of the Western World. In the process, it also gave birth to the media theory, otherwise known as “the Age of Information.” What we have done with all that information ever since remains a subject of controversy to this day. One thing is certain, we went from a voracious need to be informed, to the sad reality of being manipulated for profit. I am sure we all understand capitalism, but never at the expense of truth. Once the media moguls tasted the blood of the innocent, the race was afoot for what quickly became a landmark in our American publishing industry: yellow journalism.
When Richard Outcault introduced his character Yellow Kid into the comic strip Hogan’s Alley, he never imagined it would be immortalized in a form other than in the satirical supplement published on the first Sunday of each month. When this bald, snaggle-toothed boy with the goofy grin, who wore a yellow nightshirt and spoke in a ragged ghetto argot, became a merchandising monster, he was lured away by the Hearst’ organization…although the rights to the comic strip remained with the competing Pulitzer organization. Both newspapers ran the strip and, therefore, became known as the yellow kid papers. When William Randolph Hearst signed a declaration of war with Joseph Pulitzer, the outcome—as it is often in war—was a free-for-all barrage of sensationalized stories with little or no regard for facts or the truth. This publishing war was quickly coined “yellow journalism.” What other medium can stretch from one end of the spectrum to the other, and yet succeed admirably? Yellow media achieves this with relative ease. It is as irritating as it is irresistible; as imaginative as it is frivolous; and as aggressive as it is self-indulgent. It contains no apparent, social redeeming value and yet, its flaws are often seen as virtues. As it is the case with the erroneously labeled “reality TV,” is not the fault of the publishers, but rather their target audience.
The marvelous characteristic of sensationalism is the fact that it triggers two major reactions in people: fear and anxiety. At times, it combines the two and leads to other physical problems. Unlike other reactions to fear—such as the autonomic response to noises in the dark, physical attack, animals, insects, etc.—sensationalism causes a gradual stressful stimulus of the brain that usually leads to anxiety. A mild distorted perception of reality that although not quite as serious as a pseudo-hallucination, it remains closely related to the bogeyman effect. Whether you call it “cuco,” “hombre de la bolsa,” “Abu RiglMaslukha,” “le croque-mitaine,” “Der schwarze Mann,” or “Dokebi,” it is the international mysterious figure that some folks use to scare their children into behaving. In adulthood, our sensory cortex replaced this tad bit of folklore with what appears to be the truth in reporting and assimilates the information that ultimately will come to rest somewhere between the Hippocampus and the Amygdala for a while before being deposited into the infamous Hypothalamus of our brain. The same part that activates “fight or flight” responses. Clearly, we will not get up from our chair and neither run nor attack anyone as a response to the news…nor should we. But in a roundabout way, our brain acts the part while trying to control the rest of the motor functions. Essentially, it replaces the physical activity (fight or run away) with similar amounts of internal anxiety. In extreme cases, the rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare our bodies to get away from perceived danger can be overwhelming…even as you sit in your chair in front of the TV. Yellow journalism was specifically designed to create this type of reaction and it has succeeded admirably since its introduction early in the 20th century.
The Freedom of the Press Conundrum
American journalist A. J. Liebling stated that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” He did not miss it by much. In fact, today’s media is a mixture of illusions and deception design to shield contemporary reality and instead feed us corporate agendas. Frankly, I am surprised we have not reached the pinnacle of “reality media” as a means to rival that other popular cash cow that permeates our airwaves. But we are not that far. As it should be expected, the media is controlled by a conglomerate of highly profitable enterprises with enormous influence on the American way of life (from shopping to politics). It’s somewhat of a plutocracy. Every single member of the broadcast media is owned by a larger corporation (example: General Electric owns NBC; The Walt Disney Co owns ABC; AOL-Time Warner owns CNN; Viacom owns CBS; and The News Corporation Ltd owns Fox) and these corporations have interlocking Board members (such as Allied Signal, American Express, Anheuser-Busch, Bank America, Kellogg, and Philip Morris, to name a few) who help them manipulate the media to the benefit of their controlling interests. The same applies to print media where even the corporations that own broadcast media are part of the print media Boards (such as General Electric). So, how truthful is the media? As truthful as they want to be and when they deem it necessary for the purpose of their own agendas. For instance, will these plutocrats allow themselves to crucify cigarettes, food additives, or the potential pitfalls of alcohol consumption? Not in a million years. The only time they would is when special interest groups push hard enough to force them to report. As Americans, we hold capitalism sacred. That is why we live here. That is what most of us signed up for at the outset. However, unbiased reporting should be endemic to freedom of the press. It is not THAT you are free to print whatever you wish, as much as it is that you SHOULD be unbiased about printing or broadcasting the truth. In the case of the media, there should be a socially redeeming value. The truth works well for most of us.
The media as a political numbing tool
While riding this plutocratic train, the same corporations sway political perception as required by their stockholders. Evidently, since they are the only game in town, we have little choice but to read whatever they print or broadcast. As such, the political battle lines between the two controlling parties in our nation, drawn nearly a century ago, are deeply entrenched in sensationalism. Therefore, whatever is being reported, should be taken with a grain of salt (for those who are not quite clear on the significance of this phrase, it comes from the Latin “cum granosalis”, and it is often used to show that intelligence and personal judgment are needed.) We already know that the views are going to be either conservative or liberal. The only component missing would be which side you choose to believe, even partially. Frankly, the orchestrated efforts to sell something to the taxpayers through the media are so successful, that even emerging grassroots movements such as the Tea Party are packaged and delivered to the people as “a bunch of crazies trying to play politics.” True, some of the representatives that the movement has selected may sound a bit out of touch with Washington politics, but that is just a matter of learning the game. We can hardly argue with their quest for limited federal government; individual freedoms; personal responsibility; free markets; and returning political power to the states and the people. Those are historical platforms from where our founding fathers launched this country of ours and if we took a minute to look back, the place has gotten progressively worse in the past three decades. In my humble opinion, unless we revert to the genesis of our foundation as a nation, we may end up forgoing the Republic altogether. In lieu of what? God only knows. The truth is that the media has managed to create a show out of electing representatives. In fact, the entire process has turned into a farcical play in several acts. One that takes us from comedy to satire, from satire to tragedy and from tragedy to history…all carefully packaged and delivered to us now in full three-dimensional splendor, sponsored by some of your favorite tooth paste, shampoo or oil companies. And the candidates presented to us as a remedy to all our maladies are no better than the illness. When your candidate has to raise enough money for television ads so that he/she can expose the weaknesses of their opponents, particularly during a recession, then we are most certainly throwing our money at the wrong cause. Perhaps we like it that way. Or perhaps we are numbed by it. If radical changes came as a result of these “fundraisers,” it would be great. But as Led Zeppelin told us in the mid-70s, “the song remains the same.”
It is a well-known fact that most nations have labored intensively to emulate our trends. In spite of the perception—implied or state–that the “ugly American” does not know how or what to eat or drink (much less dress appropriately) the world continues to imitate our trends and styles. They want to dress like us, talk like us, act like us, and even think like us. Whatever is being manufactured elsewhere, it has to be sold to a large consumer base in order to make a profit. Ours is the largest in history. The one item that we neither manufacture nor produce, but rather exploit marvelously is the media. And this trend has also carried its allure from the domestic exploitation for personal gain to the global market…much for the same reasons. The one component that other countries add to the mix is blatantly open corruption. Essentially, not only the material being reported is yellow and sensationalist, but it is dominated by corruption. A double-whammy that preys on people far more ignorant and innocent than us and at a much higher price. The trend started by Hearst and Pulitzer is now commonplace in most other countries. Worse, the level of these publications rivals and often surpasses Supermarket tabloids in America. While on the subject, given the latest upswing of yellow journalism in our country, we ought to finally label the Enquirer, Star, Weekly World News and Sun as bona-fide newspapers. I see very little difference between the impact that any of these tabloids intend to deliver versus that of the Post or the Times.
The only time in recent memory where our networks reached—or I should write, came close to—unanimous broadcast consensus was during the tragic events of 9/11. Ever since, reporting of our global efforts to prevent similar events from happening “on our home soil” have been largely portrayed in the form of a perpetual bashing of one Administration or the redeeming values of the next. In reality, the struggle against terrorism is, and will continue to be, a generational issue that no Administration (regardless of how trendy an election may be) could claim. First and foremost, it would be divisive and un-American to do so. The efforts being carried out currently—and whatever the outcome—are the result of decades-long processes and procedures (including trial and error) the end of which is nowhere in sight. The massive amount of intelligence, analysis, and processing that is required to properly tackle the task at hand involves hundreds of thousands of Americans and Allies working around the clock to solve problems that we may not even be aware exist and may well be extremely close to home. These dedicated civil servants could not care less which party takes credit for the few, publicly-disclosed (a huge mistake) operatives. What they do care about is success…not even victory, mind you. Victory has no place in modern day terrorist warfare. It is down to the level of success that we achieve to protect our people and prevent future similar incidents. Terrorists make Hitler seem like a worthy adversary. At the very least, in WWII we could identify our enemy…and we were ONE nation, not the ruling political party. We believed in ourselves. Citizens as well as soldiers had made the conscious, individual commitment to the team effort and we rallied behind our Commanders in Chief because the cause was evident. Neither FDR nor Truman ever taunted the intelligence of citizens with thespian-like speeches because Victory was in the hearts of the American people, not in the words of the politicians. But today, the yellow media capitalizes on that heartfelt energy that characterized the American people since time immemorial and feverishly labors to divide us into two dominating political fronts…at the expense of the truth.
The way forward
There is more than enough evidence to support the sad reality that the media has taken control of most of our senses. The political machine in our country capitalizes on this modern mean of disseminating information and creates illusions that tend to become realities through branding. Effectively, we elect representatives into the highest offices on appearances and appeal, rather than on platforms. Where once we were able to instill in our children a sense of selective analysis as a logical path to reach the truth of the matter, we are now forced to dig parental trenches and put up strong arguments as a means to debunk sensationalism and media frenzy. In today’s rapid-firing neurological imagery products are audio-visually introduced into our senses at incredible speeds and with such colorful appeal that we instantly forget that once they were produced in our own country by our own people. The thought process that could lead us to economic recovery and self-sufficiency no longer enters our reasoning. Instead, we are told and retold that widgets are manufactured overseas at much lower wages which, in turn, allows us to consume them at home at a cheaper prices. In the meantime, our historical landmarks of the technological revolution are becoming dust in the wind. We now “import” cars from Detroit as a fad…and we like the conceptualization of becoming a would-be foreign manufacturer in our own land. A state of Michigan that once was the source of American pride. And as we ride this roller coaster of music, images and sounds being fed to us by the media giants, we start believing that reality shows actually are real; that our turning over our Republic to China is perfectly logical since they are the only ones lending us money; that all issues can be resolved by inflating our Government to impossible proportions; that health reform must be forced upon us and that our States must be forced into submission for the sake of the greater good. It is perhaps too late for us to open our eyes because they are intently focused on the 52” monitor that “we just got for Christmas”…or perhaps the media has reached a saturation point where their reality no longer makes sense and it will cancel itself so that we may start thinking clearly.