I'm going to be writing a series of posts that are loosely connected to show, I hope, the subtle ways in which seemingly unrelated events and trends in our society combine in destructive ways. I believe that to truly move forward as a society, we need thinkers, citizens, and leaders who can see this interconnectedness. Any of these posts will be accessible from the following table:
Table of Contents
- The Smallness of our Extremism
- The Power of the Gatekeepers
- Blockbusters and Gatekeepers
- On the Importance of Literature and the Humanities
- Back to Dunning-Kruger
The Power of the Gatekeepers
The media, or more properly, the companies that own the media, function as Gatekeepers in our society. In many ways, they decide the issues that are presented to us, discussed, bandied about. It's a complicated relationship, as there are ways in which the media is simply chasing market share, and that if people are tired, say, of hearing about Ross Perot, Ross Perot will fade from our national dialogue. But while we as information-consumers also exercise significant responsibility, the Gatekeepers of our major media outlets have far more influence in what facts are presented to us, who gets coverage, how long any particular issue stays in the limelight, and the overall tone of coverage.
The power of Gatekeepers is illustrated in this Chronicle article:
Even when not wielding his blue pencil, Stalin's editorial zeal was all-consuming. He excised people—indeed whole peoples—out of the manuscript of worldly existence, had them vanished from photographs and lexicons, changed their words and the meanings of their words, edited conversations as they happened, backing his interlocutors into more desirable (to him) formulations. "The Poles have been visiting here," he told the former Comintern chief Georgi Dimitrov in 1948. "I ask them: What do you think of Dimitrov's statement? They say: A good thing. And I tell them that it isn't a good thing. Then they reply that they, too, think it isn't a good thing."
All editors, wrote the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, "show a common bias: ... what the editor would prefer is preferable." Being an author is well and good, and Stalin wrote several books—the word "author" does after all share a root with the word "authority"—but he knew that editing was a higher power. Naimark argues that editing is as much a part of Stalinist ideology as anything he said or wrote. This insight warrants amplification. Under Stalinism, anyone could speak or write, but since Stalin was the supreme gatekeeper of the censorship hierarchy and the gulag system, the power to edit was power itself.
I want to offer a couple of illustrations of how the tone our Gatekeepers set can warp issues that are in the national spotlight. Probably the easiest to digest, since I mentioned it in my last post, is how the media covers taxation. Imagine how public perception and discourse would change if every time an article or broadcast mentioned the dispute over, say, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, it also mentioned that the top personal tax rate in the 1950's was 91%, and that many corporations pay a corporate tax rate of 0% due to loopholes and company-specific exemptions. How many people have ever heard a media outlet point out that, in addition to being unpatriotic, large companies that pay very low corporate tax rates make it harder for small businesses, who pay rates 20-30% higher, to survive and prosper?
Another issue that the media slants with the tone of it's coverage is illegal immigration. I don't want to get into whether or not they should be granted amnesty for breaking our immigration laws, but I do want to affirm that I think breaking the law is a serious matter that requires some sort of punishment. But there are segments of our society that castigate immigrants as the root of many evils, and the media does more to encourage this perception than to correct it. In my experience, illegal immigrants are hard workers who often willing to do jobs that Americans won't, like picking strawberries as described in this CBS report. They often put up with conditions which would outrage American workers. And many times companies specifically seek them out, hire them illegally, and treat them poorly to keep costs down. I know in many communities in the wider New York City metro area there are street corners where immigrants gather where you can go, point to a couple young men, and have them climb in your truck and do whatever work you have for them for a day's (cash) pay. Imagine how perceptions might change if every time immigrants are portrayed as leeches on our social safety net who steal jobs from American workers, it is also mentioned that many of the jobs they take are jobs no Americans are willing to do, or jobs in which American bosses are specifically exploiting them to keep the prices the rest of us pay down.
To me the most powerful way Gatekeepers manipulate our society has to do with third-part politicians. I'd say the typical attitude I encounter when I discuss politicians with people I know is that they're all crooks, and we ought to throw the lot of them out. Yet these same people are always dismayed at the concept of actually voting for a third-party candidate, you know, of actually throwing them all out. The media absolutely encourages this view that voting for a third-party candidate is throwing your vote away. In truth, if every person who didn't vote, voted for a third party candidate, that candidate would win. In a landslide. As an example, in 2012, roughly 66 million people voted for President Obama and roughly 61 million people voted for Mitt Romney. The leading third party got over 1 million votes. Meanwhile, 93 million eligible citizens did not cast ballots.
The power to throw the bums out is in our hands, but due to a large degree to the way we've been trained to think by the Gatekeepers, we just never use it. That is the power of the Gatekeepers. Media companies that donate millions and millions of dollars to the two major political parties lead us to think that we have to vote for one of those two parties. I wonder why.