Media is Not a Monolith

The media.

The dishonest media. The biased media. The liberal media. The conservative media. The unfair media. The evil media.

The media. The media. The media.

How many times have you heard people talk about “the media” in recent years? Probably many times. Probably so many times that you begin to forget what “the media” actually is. Do you know what it is? It probably depends on what type of media you’re consuming.

The problem with blaming “the media” for anything is that the media as a single entity doesn’t exist. Media, however, does exist. Newspaper articles, magazines, TV reports, shows, films, videos, games — all of these things are media. Each fulfills Merriam Webster’s definition of being a “medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression.” Not all of them convey news.

Today our primary source of news is what was once known as the information superhighway — a media landscape so expansive that we can only think of it as a single road, in one direction. Never mind the switch backs, backroads, wrong turns, and dead ends. The internet is where most people now get their “media,” but it is anything other than a straight line. It’s not even a long tail. A web? Well, it is worldwide, but “connected” doesn’t really mean the same thing now as it did in 1997.

Webs, nets, clouds, networks — it’s tempting to think of our media like we think of the internet, because so much of the media we consume comes from one place. But the internet isn’t one place. It’s a jumbled mess of sometimes interrelated, sometimes incidental subjects. Here is your New York Times story on Trump’s ties to Russia. There is your Breitbart hit piece on gay marriage. A Fox News video about violence in Chicago sits alongside a Planned Parenthood sting video going viral. But viral for whom? And did they get the full story? Was that even news we just witnessed, or was it something else? Never mind. Click, scroll, click — on to the next distraction.

Now more than ever it’s important to remember that media is not a monolith. Every day we wend our way through piles of information. Every day we jump from video to news story to work document to short story to meme to movie to game app to real life and back again, hundreds of times. Glowing screens are our companions from waking to sleeping, sometimes even more so than the people we care about and interact with in our daily lives. We do not leave the newspaper behind in the morning, but carry it with us all day. Words and pictures and moving images are available to us any time we reach inside a purse or pocket.

All of this we call media, and it has no single voice. There is no one director or author or idea. Common guiding principles are scarce, and unity of purpose is elusive. We want to think of internet media as we want to think of ourselves — occupiers of a large but tidy house, each room kept according to its purpose. But that is not the house we live in, if we even live in a house at all. Can we call it a house when we can’t even agree that is has rooms?

Modern media is not a monolith; it’s a maze. Like so many hapless Greeks, we stumble about, caught up in the clickbait, redirected at every turn to some video or opinion piece or blog post or forum rant that promises a way out, but only leads us further into the darkest heart of our desires. We know what waits there. Is it truth? No. Something far worse.

And what of King Minos, the one who built the labyrinth — the one who sent us in as a sacrifice? Does he understand the monster he has created? That’s an interesting idea. In fact, write that down. Push it out into the cloud. It’ll only take a few minutes. Whatever comes off the top of your head — just put it out there. We’ll put some ads on it. Make it go viral. Our algorithms will put it right next to a thoroughly researched, three-year study on the same subject. And both will be considered news, because all media is the same, and content is king.

Whether we realize it or not, we are conditioned to believe that all media that agrees with us agrees with each other. Why would someone lie if their blog post confirms what I believe? Surely the Drudge Report wouldn’t lead me astray. Surely Being Liberal wouldn’t bend the truth to fit a narrative. It’s a free internet, and I’m free to choose. I know right from wrong, and so far, I haven’t seen one video or article that hasn’t confirmed it. How could anyone disagree? It’s almost as if other people are being shown a different internet. A different version of the truth. A different reality.

In the maze of media, always remember to look for the common thread — the way out. Theseus unspooled the ball of string for the Athenians, tracing the way out of the labyrinth. Today we call that ball of string the press. No, not Wordpress. The Press. The investigators and reporters and fact checkers that mine fact for truth in this world, our world — a world that many of us would rather not care to live in, for the inconvenient turns it throws in our own narratives.

Media, with a capital M, gives us many different worlds. Fictional worlds, with alternative facts. And it would be a lie to say that we don’t sometimes think that we live in them instead of the one our bodies wake up in every day. How to know we are in that world and not one of the myriad others spun in our imaginations? Look less to the capital M and more to the capital P.

People may forget that the Press began as a subjective form of media. The first newspapers appeared in the 17th century in Europe and were largely written from a subjective, often humorous point of view, many times in the voice of one person, or a number of “characters”. These papers catered to particular audiences, but as audiences grew and the world became more connected, there also grew the need for something less playful and more comprehensive. When a sentient species develops the means to wipe itself clean from existence, the need for factual, unbiased knowledge becomes critical.

Perhaps not surprisingly, newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal grew up alongside the development of the scientific method. As scientists developed a codified, objective way of observing and recording natural phenomena, writers and editors introduced the concept of fact-checking, editorial voice, and comprehensive reporting. Journalism, in its most ideal form, is a net hung low in the current of human folly. It denies our alternative realities for the cold, hard truth of The World — a voluntary check on the persistent human desire to distort. Like both the scientific method and democracy itself, journalism may be, after millennia of barbarism, violence, and existential lies, one of the most profoundly noble and selfless ideas humankind has ever produced.

Of course the less noble “characters” never stopped publishing either. What was once easily dismissed as “tabloids” has been subsumed into the maelstrom of internet media. Today, any outlet can call itself news, gleefully denouncing the “gatekeepers,” the old guard news of the dishonest, untrustworthy, and corrupt “mainstream media.” Inevitably, the opposite is true. Outlets like Breitbart and Washington Times and Reddit and 4chan and your uncle’s favorite conspiracy theory blog have no fact checkers or journalistic rules to abide by. Tributaries only ever flow in and out of the main stream. They rely on its currents for sustenance.

Water cuts a way through the wilderness. Often not in straight lines, but a way nonetheless. And once there is a way, there is a reason why all streams flow toward it. It’s easy to lie. People lie every day, in big and small ways. It’s much harder not to. The Mississippi and the Nile and the Amazon of the press world didn’t start a blog and become themselves the next day. It took millions of hours of advancements and setbacks before they became the main stream. That’s why the mainstream exists. Life, like nature, is osmosis. Progress is as easy as a river cutting through rock, and just as inevitable. All of our foibles, misreadings and mistakes flow into one, and the truth comes out in the watershed.

And just as we must protect our watersheds, so must we protect our Press. If The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are mainstream, that is because they have done the work to preserve the truth. They’ve stumbled along the way. They make mistakes to this day. Yes, there is sometimes bias. News is, after all, reported by human beings, with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us. But in their freedom, they choose, by a sense of duty and forthrightness, the most factually based version of reality that humans can approximate. Can they be criticized? Absolutely. Is a free press the enemy of a free people? Hardly.

We the people create the world of media we trudge our way through every day. It’s up to us to know the forest from the trees, the paper from the medium. Breitbart has a right to exist, but its slanderous, post-factual perspective cannot be considered news. If you believe otherwise, try walking into outerspace. You may find that facts actually do mean something, no matter what you choose to believe.

But that is, in the daily diet of media we consume, the choice all of us ultimately make: whether to fall prey to the capital M, or seek diligently the capital P, even as the M seeps in all around us. Algorithms may show us what we want to see, but they may not reveal what we need to know. In this, the time of MEDIA in all caps, we must be smart and discerning about what that actually means. The laws of the universe are immutable. Our opinions are not. It is our duty, A duty borne out of our will alone, to seek truth. What a noble idea, and never more necessary.

*Incidentally, what you’ve just read is an opinion essay, not news. Be careful. Something like this may appear in your various feeds as an approximati0n of news. This is the voice of a concerned individual, not a journalist with years of meticulous and vetted research to back up his findings. Still, I hope it offers some insight into your daily intake of truth. Be vigilant. Be responsible. Be smart.