Usually when I am in a hotel I am not even tempted to turn on the television. I know what it's like. But last night, after I got home from the opera, I was curious about that monster battle between Real Madrid and Atlético so I turned it on. Either television has gotten worse, or, more likely, my perceptions are keener.
Now let me utter a couple of caveats first: there are some excellent shows on television. I have admired some of the very fine writing and direction ever since I lived in Montréal and watched Homicide: Life on the Street set in a very gritty Baltimore. Then there was Buffy (I even gave a couple of academic papers on the show in England a few years ago) and House MD and now the remarkable Game of Thrones. Sure, I suspect it of being morally bankrupt, but what a remarkable production with some outstanding acting. But these shows are the exception. Most television consists of the horribly dreary and enervating yet constantly kinetic routine of sports, talk, advertising, station announcements, more talk, melodrama, news, weather, more talk, more sports and, god knows, more advertising. This is the television experience.
It is a bit like a poker game. If you are sitting at the table and don't know who the mark is, then you are the mark! If you are sitting in front of the television, which is free and you are wondering who is paying for it, then you are paying for it. Just scanning through the channels last night for fifteen or twenty minutes I was horrified at what is going on. First of all, the constant sparkling graphics and jump cuts short circuit any possibility of rational thought. That, I suspect, is their purpose. Second, what you see and hear seems to be of three varieties: about a third of it is, I suppose, information of some kind. What is the temperature in Budapest? Who won the game? Financial reports and prognostications. Another third is supposed to be amusement: very fit and attractive people dressed like evil clowns posturing in rhythmic ways to a mechanical soundtrack with caterwauling. Yes, that was either a music video or an ad for something. There are also the melodramatic telenovelas as they are called in Latin America. But the last third is the most dangerous and insidious.
These are the shows that are supposedly the most serious, the ones that really inform us, the ones that are a "public service." Take for example one I saw either on CNN or the BBC International, it doesn't matter which. It was a panel discussion about the refugee crisis in Europe. It was a frank and cordial discussion, very civilised, which meant that every single person on the panel had exactly the same views. There is a terrible problem and it stems from the difficult and unsettled domestic conditions in places like Libya and the Sudan and so on. Africa is facing some real challenges and we have to find a way to help them. Another chimed in saying how absurd it was to think that a gunboat or two could be of any help. And so on. We could imagine other discussions about access to bathrooms for transgendered people, how Bernie Sanders might wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton and so on. All sorts of important issues. And in each case, through television (and newspapers, but less blatantly) we are told exactly how and what to think about each issue. There is never any discussion of what the real issues or problems are or what feasible solutions might include. Every crisis is prepackaged to fulfil a certain purpose and generate a certain kind of public opinion. This has been known for decades, of course, but it has gotten worse and worse.
Let's take a non-political example: every time you look at the financial news you see the same thing: projections and prognostications that are often wrong. The financial industry, a lot of which is devoted to offering advice on investments to small and large investors, is always, always telling us what the prospects are for this or that stock or mutual fund or where bond yields are going or what developing countries are likely to see real gains and so on. But Warren Buffett revealed the true state of affairs the other day when he said, quoting very loosely, don't bother with the hedge funds or the mutual funds or the stock advisors or even individual stocks. Just buy index funds or exchange-traded funds in a broad selection of sectors and forget about them. 80% (or so) of these rock n roll fund managers don't beat the market but they charge you big fees anyway. He is absolutely right, of course. But 90% of everything you read and hear about the market and investment is designed to convince you that this is not not true.
Most of what you see and hear on television, when it is not simply entertainment, is wrong, incorrect, a lie. These lies are meant to serve particular purposes, which is to indoctrinate the viewer as to the correct opinions about the world, politics, business and so on. But they are, of course, lies.
The idea that the news media offer anything that is remotely neutral has been untrue for several decades now. When it comes to politics they always have a chosen candidate that they are going to try and drag across the finish line now matter how repulsive he or she is. To pick a Canadian example, you cannot read a single issue of the Globe and Mail without reading how nasty, horrible and awful Stephen Harper (the ex-Prime Minister) was as a person and a politician. And how wonderful, sweet and honest is his replacement Justin Trudeau. Stephen Harper managed the affairs of Canada for over a decade and delivered a strong, healthy economy with no deficit to his successor. Who immediately ran a deficit. And you can be sure that however good or bad Trudeau's administration is, the Globe and Mail will praise him every day and twice on Saturday.
Which brings me to the blogosphere. What is different now is that there is another place you can go to read the news and hear opinions. The blogosphere, while it has sectors representative of all the dysfunction of the mass media, also has vast sectors that express every hue of political and other opinion. You can read specialized discussion of classical music here or libertarian political philosophy over at Samizdata or constitutional law over there or, really, whatever interests you. And you can seek out sites that take what is, from your point of view, a neutral approach or ones as biased as you like. There is no monoculture on the Internet.
Mind you, there are forces to whom this is a horrible situation and they are doing what they can to "fix" it, but so far, no luck. So let's hope this continues.
Whew, sorry for all that, but I just had to share. Now for some music. One of my favorite divertimenti by Mozart. This is the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with the Divertimento in F major, K. 138 written when Mozart was sixteen: