News of fresh disasters!

How grateful we were to the BBC in the dark days of the war, when every night at 9 o’clock Alvar Lidell would bring us news of fresh disasters.

Dudley Moore et al., “Beyond the Fringe”

News and social media are in my opinion tarsome to an Olympic degree. While there are elements of each which warrant attraction and approval, they have become less a means of communication and more an organ of instrumentality. Like toilet paper the presence and utility of news and social media persists but always at a cost.

The imperatives of news and social media are at first glance the lofty recognition of “freedom of the press” and the value of “social networking”. In spite of those urgent purposes, news and social media are more often than not characterized by stock and base enticement designed to gain profit or adulation. I have no objection to people getting paid or being complimented for what they do but that doesn’t remove the narrower perusal of the quality of their performances.

Even attributing to news and social media the value of communicating worldly information, they are instruments fraught with prejudice, tawdry exhibition and overwhelming advertising. The mechanism of news and social media as a telephone line for moral or political purpose – or as a backwater for instillation of social activism (or any number of exotic wartime exchanges) – is an intriguing and no doubt emerging collateral of technology. Yet while I have a remote interest in such ambitious projects, my daily intake of intelligence is generally seated elsewhere.

The muckrakers were reform-minded journalists in the Progressive Era in the United States (1890s–1920s) who exposed established institutions and leaders as corrupt. They typically had large audiences in popular magazines. The modern term generally references investigative journalism or watchdog journalism; investigative journalists in the US are often informally called “muckrakers”.

In contemporary American usage, the term can refer to journalists or others who “dig deep for the facts” or, when used pejoratively, those who seek to cause scandal. The term is a reference to a character in John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress, “the Man with the Muck-rake”, who rejected salvation to focus on filth. It became popular after President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the character in a 1906 speech; Roosevelt acknowledged that “the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.”

It is however noteworthy “that in yellow journalism the idea was to stir up the public with sensationalism, and thus sell more papers. If, in the process, a social wrong was exposed that the average man could get indignant about, that was fine, but it was not the intent to correct social wrongs as it was with true investigative journalists and muckrakers”.

Yellow journalism and yellow press are American terms for journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate, well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

It is no secret that Fox News enjoys the celebrity of so-called “conservatism” in American society. For those of us who do not enthusiastically embrace Fox News their distinction is sometimes aligned with a fear of liberalism, socialism and welfare which is curiously extended as far as the threat of Marxism and communism. Similarly social media such as TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have earned the labels of insubstantiality.

Twitter is a some-to-many microblogging service, given that the vast majority of tweets are written by a small minority of users.

Meanwhile the commercial success of these media is astounding. Nonetheless the popularity of some in particular is a source of consternation.

Twitter pointed to two of Trump’s tweets made on January 7 as troublesome. One of Trump’s tweet stated “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”, while a second indicated that he would not be attending Biden’s inauguration, which Twitter took together as “likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021, and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so.”

Being the loudest voice in the room has forever been a feature of attraction. However many of the media are associated with the elemental concerns of a limited few. It has become as dangerous – or enlightening – to follow individual media as it is to subscribe to a particular faith. Indeed denominating any one of the news or social media as a religion of sorts is not far removed from the point – “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion”. Bearing in mind the adage that “religion is the opiate of the masses” it is a small compliment to news and social media to attribute to it the identical persuasion.

The opium of the people (or opium of the masses) is a dictum used in reference to religion, derived from the most frequently paraphrased statements of German sociologist and economic theorist Karl Marx: “Religion is the opium of the people.” In context, the statement is part of Marx’s structural-functionalist argument that religion was constructed by people to calm uncertainty over their role in the universe and in society.

This statement was translated from the German original, “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes” and is often rendered as “religion…is the opiate of the masses.” The full sentence from Marx translates (including italics) as: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Naturally not everyone agrees with what Karl Marx says any more than they believe what Donald J. Trump says. The conclusion is that one must be selective about what one reads. If the chosen productions are selected for their entertainment value only there is certainly less risk of absorption of miscalculated information. But if the material is picked off the bedroom side table as a bible there is the distinct possibility of being overcome by its content. Given the popular tendency for what is vulgar and ostentatious news and social media have by design committed themselves to answering that call. It therefore behooves those of us who share that opinion to call it out for what it is.

If the ultimate ambition is developing a wise and happy state of mind, I can think of so many other media by which to do so. Reading each evening about recurring disasters or petty exchanges is not my idea of intellectual or spiritual elevation. I have found that by reading ancient texts written by the great authors of earlier centuries is far more uplifting and substantive. And profitable!