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Sunday, January 09, 2011

No Light, White Heat -- The Media Shirks its Duty to Illuminate

Filament glows hotThere's a reason why incandescent bulbs are less efficient than compact fluorescents. We all know that energy can't be created or destroyed. So, when a bulb emits light, it's really just a sort of energy converter -- electrical energy is turned into light energy. But an incandescent bulb wastes more of that energy as heat. If you've ever tried to change a bulb that just blew, you know this. It's hot. If you could find some way to inhibit that bulb from converting energy into heat, that bulb would burn brighter.

I bring this up not as an environmental message, but as an expression of pure physics. When a device uses energy to produce another form of energy, some of the power is going to be lost. So the energy put into producing another type of energy is not equal to the energy that is the product. In the lightbulb, this means that the production of heat reduces the energy available for illumination.

This is a metaphor for our media environment. Energy is wasted in copious amounts. Even in our 24/7 news climate, no single news outlet is capable of supplying limitless amounts of information. The output is constrained and the energy it takes to create that output is, by necessity, limited. It's the job of the media to illuminate, but -- like the bulb -- a lot of that energy is wasted. The news media exists to cast light, but a lot of the energy that goes into it is wasted by generating heat.

After Jared Loughner fired into a small crowd in Tuscon, nearly killing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there's been a lot of examination of the words of personalities. But not a lot of attention has been given to the media in general. What we see when we look at the wider media is a lot of heat, but very little light. Alarmingly large percentages of people now believe things that are provably untrue and lies told by "pundits," "strategists," and "analysts" regularly go unchallenged by blow-dried mannequins posing as journalists. Worse, large segments of time are wasted by giving shows to proven liars. During prime time, too many cable networks go dark in an informative sense -- all heat, no light.

And all this wasted energy creates unnecessary byproducts. Ignorance and anger are rampant in our society, largely because of the pollution caused by this inefficient information-delivering system we have no choice but to call our "news media." This isn't limited to TV, by the way, take a spin through rightwing online media and you learn that the real victim in yesterday's shooting -- which killed six and wounded thirteen -- is Sarah Palin.

Yes, a lot of people on the left jumped to the conclusion that Palin's rhetoric was responsible. But this was not an irrational conclusion and it still remains to be seen whether or not it contributed. Palin had drawn a literal crosshairs over Giffords' district and her Palin-approved opponent ran a fundraiser that consisted of firing an M16 to "get on target" and "remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." In 2008, the Secret Service specifically credited Sarah Palin's rhetoric with a dramatic increase in death threats against then-candidate Barack Obama, prompting Michelle Obama to ask, "Why would they try to make people hate us?" McCain-Palin rallies took on a lynch mob atmosphere, with shouts of "terrorist!" and "kill him!"

So yes, it was totally unreasonable to conclude that Sarah Palin was capable of whipping someone up into a murderous frenzy. Please inform us as to where we can send flowers and condolences to the real victim, Sarah Palin.

But it was the media who took all this heat and narrowed it, like a magnifying glass focusing the sun on an ant. Everything Palin says is repeated verbatim -- usually without noting that it's all either BS or just stupidity -- and echoed throughout the land. In a saner climate, Palin would be on her sixteenth minute of fame, a future Jeopardy question. But she's incendiary and divisive, which means more eyes on more screens as the 2008 presidential campaign is never allowed to actually end with a clear victor, but is contested over and over and over, every day, every hour, unceasingly. More heat, less light.

If Jared Loughner was motivated only by madness (and the existence of a possible second suspect casts doubt even on this), then America was lucky in an extremely backhanded way. Unless things change, the crime everyone had feared had happened will be the crime that inevitably does happen. We only need look at Byron Williams, whose planned shooting spree at the Tides Foundation was inspired by Glenn Beck's insane conspiracy theorizing. Williams was thwarted only by his own incompetence. For his part, Beck provided only heat and no light.

What if we could have a political atmosphere where being caught in a lie was a scandal? What if we could operate in a system that valued fact over spin and data over opinion -- or one that didn't treat predictions by partisan pundits as fact? Would we then leap to the conclusion that a criminal was inspired by the words of a demagogue? I don't see how we could, because I don't see how people like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin could possibly survive as political entities -- demagogues would be operating at an immense handicap in a truth-based media climate.

It's one thing to lose energy through heat, but it's another to try to lose energy through heat. Maybe the media should just focus on providing light and leave the heat generation to the voters. We can get passionate about things all on our lonesome, thank you. Just illuminate and leave the rest up to us.

It'd be a lot more efficient use of the media's energy.


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