Monday, November 23, 2015

Really? Can That Be True?

The Independent of London published a story today explaining how Margaret Thatcher was actually a liberal. Really? I said. Then I read the article. Not really.

Actually it said, or seemed to say, that Margaret Thatcher was liberal toward arch-conservatives, tolerant of her own race and class, openhanded and generous with the very rich, and permissive with capitalists who found corrupt practices useful and government regulation a nuisance. She was not a liberal. It was just a tease. "We dare you to read this article." It was a provocation.

That is the point. Not honesty. Not truth. Not fact or provable logic. It’s all about provocation.

My wife summarized it in one word: CLICKBAIT.

News media are starved for validation, for numbers that will justify their ad rate, just as we are starved for the validation of “likes” on Facebook. That validation is the volume of clicks. The reader may exit the page dumber than he was going in. He may stop partway through and throw his laptop across the room in disgust. No matter. The website already scored the click. Clicks are drawn by provocation. “Come see the bearded lady” who is really a man in a dress. “Come read about this outrage.” This is the most popular because one provocation arrives with sidebars about other provocations, some of them less about issues that they are about sexual titillation.


It doesn’t matter if they are wrong or lying or depraved or monstrous or sociopathic or psychopathic, they drive the key numbers that justify media ad revenue. Sarah Palin, the dumbest of them all (who last week said Jesus would fight for Second Amendment rights, which caused me to ring a little bell on the revenue justifier for whichever site reported it) is the ur-clickbait candidate.

We are growing stupid because of this––because journalism is supposed to inform. It’s supposed to make us smarter, to inform our judgments. Instead it is turning us into 300 million rats in a giant advertising experiment.

We are entering a second and more voluble age of yellow journalism. (I expect soon to read some editorial demanding war with Spain) with the national conversation corrupted and whipsawed for profit. It’s not just a dumbing down, it’s a brutalizing process. Donald Trump eggs on some of his followers beating up a black man one second and the next he’s lying that thousands of Muslims cheered when the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11. Really? Is that true? “Some say…” is the FoxNews standard.

I used to have a friend who constantly said “Really?” about stuff we were kidding about. We would drop some preposterous falsehood into the conversation and she’d say “Really?” and we would all laugh at her. (We were brutes. This was years ago.) This is now the business model of journalism. The spokesmodels for this are Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rick "Oops" Perry and Victoria Jackson. The beneficiaries are the monied backers who want a large gullible electorate to give them power.

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