The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder

A major theme of this site is America’s broken connection with reality.  The late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) described this connection as our observation-orientation-decision-action-loop (the OODA loop).   A key component of the OODA loop for western societies is the mainstream media. As is obvious by now, America’s professional media has decayed durign the past few decades.  A large fraction of America (both conservative and liberal) no longer considers it a reliable source of information.  Even worse for the professional media’s survival, technological change has destroyed its business model.

This post gives a few excerpts from Lewis Laptham’s Money and Class in America (1988).  At the end of this post are links to other posts discussing the media.

We prefer the purity of illusions to untidy facts — page 119

… The vast majority of the American people prefer the purity of illusions. The society chooses to believe that he world’s evil doesn’t reside in men but exists, like the air, in the space between them. Like the late Howard Hughes hiding on a roof of a Las Vegas hotel from the armies of invading bacteria, the innocent nation affects a sensibility grown too refined for the world.

The media cateer to the afflication by their incessant dwelling on the fear of disease, crime, foreigners, drugs, toxins, poverty, and death. urgent bulletins about hese seven ddeadly contagions constitute most of what passes for the news.

Journalists are rewarded for their primary social duty — page 126

If the wisdom of the rich consists in what the rich want to hear and think about themselves, it is not surprising that the rich nation confers its richest rewards on those writers who can preserve the illusions of innocence. Like the bureaucrats who formulate government policy, the artisans of the media make elaborate and cosmetic use of euphemism. They have a talent for blurring and softening the meaning of words, for not calling things by their right names, and the best of them can change even the plainest words into face powder.

Rumors of War — page 193

God knows we try hard enough. We send camera crews to the uttermost ends of the earth, decorate the front pages of our newspapers with foreign names and datelines, endow learned journals and research institutions, dispatch our corporate executives to the Aspen Institute for weeks of earnest briefings — mostly to no avail. The American correspondents don’t get sent to the important posts in Moscow, Tel Aviv or London unless their editors already know their agents will confirm the presumptions already in place.

… In one of his books of memoirs, Harrison Salisbury, the foreign correspondent of the New York Times, describes a comparable incident during his tour of duty in Moscow. The editors in New York somehow had become convinced – possibly because of an important rumor overheard at and important dinner party — that the Soviet Union was about to invade Western Europe. They told Salisbury to count the number of tanks and infantry divisions massed on the Polish and Eat German frontiers.

Salisbury, of course, found neither tanks nor infantry divisions for the simple reason that none wer present. Still the editors in New York preferred the truth of their own revelations. It took Salisbury the better part of a month, filing voluminous cables, telegrams, and dispatches, to persuade them to reluctantly abandon their hope of war.

This anecdote could be told today, as in the rumors of the US naval armada sailing to attack Iran.  Both prestigious bloggers and mainstream media reported this as fact.  These posts describe the rise and fall of this story.

  1. More rumors of war: our naval armada has sailed to Iran!, 9 August 2008 — Tracing the origin of these rumors.
  2. Update on the rumored armada sailing to Iran, 13 August 2008 — With updates from Stratfor and Debkafile.
  3. A US naval armada is en route to blockade Iran and start WWIII (the story gets better every day), 14 August 2008 — More details from one of the bloggers who shot this story into cyberspace, and an official US denial.
  4. UPI reports on the multi-national armada sailing to Iran, 15 August 2008
  5. Stop the presses: no naval armada has sailed to blockade Iran!, 20 August 2008


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about America’s mainstream media;

  1. More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran”, 18 March 2008
  2. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  3. Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
  4. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  5. The myth of media pessimism about the economy, 13 June 2008
  6. Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting, 12 August 2008
  7. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  8. “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
  9. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009
  10. The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009

Posts about America’s broken OODA loop:

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. The two tracks of discussion about the Iraq War, never intersecting, 10 November 2007
  3. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter I — the housing bust, 6 December 2007
  4. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  5. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008
  6. What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008
  7. Everything written about the economic crisis overlooks its true nature, 24 February 2009
  8. The housing crisis allows America to look in the mirror. What do we see?, 9 March 2009
  9. Globalization and free trade – wonders of a past era, now enemies of America, 16 March 2009
  10. A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009

Posts with excerpts from the works of Lewis Laptham:

  1. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  2. Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
  3. Observations about America by Lewis Lapham, 8 March 2009
  4. A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009
  5. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009

9 thoughts on “The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder”

  1. Several of your last 10 posts have been among your finest work, FM. If (when?) the situation hits the fan it will not have been for lack of warning.

    Like the current economic crisis, any person of reasonable intelligence who is far enough removed to watch the trends (and not the rumors) can see this one coming from quite a great distance away.

    Unfortunately, also like the economic crisis, the effects are not predictable and there is relatively little we individuals can do except to prepare ourselves and attempt to alert a nation that really doesn’t want to hear about it.

    I imagine that the response to the political crisis will be similar to the response to the economic crisis; officials and people who should know better trading away their credibility and other people’s resources to buy time in the hope that things will eventually fix themselves. While this is inevitably true, the cure can be far worse than the disease if the doctor tries to avoid dealing with it.

  2. This general theme is discussed in Joe Bageant’s recent essay “Escape from the Zombie Food Court“, posted at his website (named after his book) Deer Hunting With Jesus, 3 April 2009 — Excerpt:

    We suffer under a mass national hallucination. Americans, regardless of income or social position, now live in a culture entirely perceived inside a self-referential media hologram of a nation and world that does not exist….

    Cultural myth production is an enormous industry in America. It is very similar to the national projects of pyramid-building in Egypt, or cathedral-building in medieval Europe. And in our obsession with violence and punishment, two characteristics of a consensual police state reality, we are certainly similar to prison camp building in Stalinist Russia. Actually, we’re pretty good in that department too. Consider that one fourth of all the incarcerated people on earth are in U.S. prisons — U.S. citizens imprisoned by their own government.

    In any case, the media culture’s production of martyrs, good guys and bad guys, fallen heroes and concept outlaws, is not just big corporate business. It is the armature of our cultural behavior. It tells us who to fear (Middle Eastern terrorists, Mr. Chavez in Venezuela, and foreign made pharmaceuticals), who to scorn (again the same candidates, along with Brittney Spears for her lousy child rearing skills). Our daily news is the modern version of Roman coliseum shows. Elections are personality combat, chariot races, not examinations of solutions being offered. None are offered.

  3. FM, I second Pluto’s praise. While never less than sterling, your recent efforts have risen above an already high standard.


    Given the already-advanced deterioration of the mainstream media, it is well past time to consider how to by-pass the problem. Look into your crystal ball, Fabius, what do you see replacing the old MSM as a conduit for information about the world, now that many of us have already rejected or are rejecting the old-line newspapers, network TV news, weekly news magazines, and the like? Obviously the internet and sites such as your own, but what else?

    As disgusted with major newspapers and magazines as I am, I still mourne the decline of once-great newspapers like the Chicago Tibune and NY Times. I learned to read partly on these and other publications, and still love the act of reading newsprint or a good book.

    Blogs have done in many cases an outstanding job of citizen reporting and analysis, but so far I know of none that can afford the expense of large investigative staffs for domestic news stories and investigation, or setting up and running a bureau in some foreign capital or war zone.
    Michael Yon has done an admireable job, IMO, of being a one-man war reporting resource, self-funded via his readership, from his books and so on. But that is not the same as having the resources of a major news organzation.

    We used to have a functioning fourth estate in America, one that took seriously its mission of serving as the “watchdog” for the public interest and our republic. On a more prosaic level, the need for unbiased information about the world is as great as ever, not only internationally and nationally, but locally. Who – and what – will replace them? Who will dig for the news, and how will it be delivered?

    I for one won’t trust some centralized “ministry of truth” or propaganda organ – an American version of Pravda or the like.

    Maybe underground newspapers will make a comeback, as in the dark days of the early 1940s in occupied Europe. One never knows.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Most of the analysis about the media biz makes no sense to me. Technology has opened the markets. The effect is similar to rapid cheap transportation’s effects on your great-grandparents’ general store: it created overcapacity. Most local outlets are uncompetitive, and there are far far too many national and global major media firms. Time will thin the herd.

    The media are mostly distribution outlets for the wire services (major newspapers also play in this game). The internet means that the wireservices no longer need their current customers. This means re-defining their customer base and to ring-fence their output — either by linking it to advertisements or protecting access. Since a whole level of costs have been eliminated, the economics for the few survivors should be adequate. Smaller pie for the industry, but far fewer feeding off it.

    Note that this is a global game. The Financial Times and Der Spiegel can sell to advertisers targeting Chicago consumers. Advertisers with global brand names will be natural markets.

    Nobody covers local civic news effectively, outside a few major cities. Anything that bleeds gets its 60 seconds of fame, but I wonder if there is a real business here. Perhaps some sort of community nonprofits will form to cover local news. Partly hobbyists earning a pittance but having fun, with adverts and donations covering costs. These will be great networking centers, and might weild substantial local influence.

    These locals might become de facto “farm teams” (recruitment and training apparatus) for the surviving major media. Bloggers might become marginally paid reporters, analysts, and pundits for the media (trading their work for fame and exposure). That is, the major media might use locals and bloggers to enhance their reach and lower costs.

  4. Good site for accessing international and local newspapers:

    The internet has fractured the MSM market. FM might prove right in that after a while they will figure it all out, there will be consolidation, and then a few giants will serve up the pie again whilst local fare is marginalised and gradually dies out, just like corner stores, family farms and suchlike.

    On the other hand, this fracturing process could proceed into the political/cultural arena; the momentum towards increased centralisation might take a breather for a while (unlikely but possible) in which case local stuff will be making a come back on many fronts.

    I really liked that excerpt about the journalist sent to investigate the Russian troop displacements and how those who sent him had a very hard time disabusing themselves of mistaken perception. Belief trumps fact every time. This is exactly the territory in which the power of narrative lies. Fiction is far more compelling than truth, indeed there is no such thing as ‘objective truth’ outside the cognitive/cultural/fictive layers of meaning and intention with which we address everything.

    Does the MSM have the power to keep providing widely held national narrative, that is the question. For now, it is mainly television that holds sway. But more and more people distrust it, and their standards have been going down steadily and inexorably to the point where they just don’t put on a convincing show any more which is why their ratings have plummeted.

    Interesting times.

  5. How bad is it? It’s so bad that vast numbers of us now get our news from “The Daily Show”. So many that “The Daily Show” is now attracting attention from the ruling elites, as being worth influencing. A major chill ran down my spine as I watched Jim Cramer squirm in a real live honest to God hot seat in front of John Stewart playing High Inquisitor. So, just to recap, a cable comedy show becomes a potent news outlet by doing send up skits of fake reportage which reveal how hilariously dysfunctional our “credible” news media are. This show becomes so influential, our real and truly powerful elites commandeer the show and its host, using it to discredit a financial pundit, who foolishly told some truth about what’s really going on, on Wall Street. The show archive is gone down the memory hole. I can’t find it to link to anywhere, only spin about the show from CNN and similar ilk.

  6. bc, I’m still trying to figure out from your comment what your take on the Daily Show / Jim Cramer incident is? I watched all the proceedings including the exchanges leading up to the interview, and it certainly seemed that the Daily Show was taking the financial elites and their lapdog cheerleaders at CNBC to task for their relentlessly upbeat, obsequious and conveniently incomplete reporting. You know, the stuff that helped Wall Street play casino night with Granny’s retirement fund, neatly contrasted with the video of Cramer’s “off-the-air” explanation of the joys of market manipulation (it’s no secret that the stock market is like horse-racing: a fixed, insider’s game where the rubes finance the machinations of the real players, but just because some marks aren’t wise to a con doesn’t make it right). It wasn’t Cramer’s candid admission in private he was being grilled for, it was his lack of such candor in his public persona.

    In general, I’ve found Stewart & his writers to be one of the few voices in the MSM to consistently point out when the emperor is naked — well-ensconced in the great tradition of using comedy to get away with social criticism, from medieval court jesters to Lenny Bruce & George Carlin.

    Am I missing something? Which elites have co-opted the Daily Show (which admittedly is at least partially co-opted by virtue of it’s existence in a corporate, ad-sponsored milleu)?

  7. We both saw Cramer bowing and scraping before the Emperor. My take on it is:

    It sent a message to financial media personalities. Don’t do what this guy is doing, laughing at the powers that be, especially bankers. I think Cramer’s big mistake was pointing out that TARP was thievery. John Stewart’s brother is high level Goldman Sachs.

    Does humiliating a dweeb like Cramer in a deadly serious set piece really build ratings for a comedy show?
    FM reminder: Cramer’s show is on CNBC. CNBC is separate division from NBC News. Both are parts of NBC Universal.

  8. I don’t have TV, but I do remember seeing a clip of Stewart’s ‘you are hurting America’ interview with Crossfire, which soon thereafter shut down. Whether he has been co-opted by his brother’s ilk or not, he has landed some real blows which could not have been delivered except by someone doing comedy, something which also came up in that interview, namely that the CNN hosts were comparing his coverage to their own. He rightly called that absurd, but then the subtext was staring us all in the face: as far as the ‘serious’ news guys are concerned, it really all is infotainment and clearly he was doing better than they in the news section and therefore not different. Hilarious and telling that in terms of news, Comedy Central beat out CNN!

    My favorite years ago when it was new was Naked News {see Wikipedia’s entry or their website}. Totally ridiculous on many levels but then again: contrasting the ghastly, inhuman content in most news stories – they were using the standard feeds – with a young human body provided a rather shocking contrast, a ‘naked truth’ as it were.

    They will recover, but only after there is established a more totalitarian lock on the ‘monopoly capitalist’ state.

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