Being in the middle of massive communications changes I almost feel guilty. When I began my time as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadcasting was the dominant medium. Digital changes were coming out of the laboratories and the FCC welcomed their arrival and championed their early days—more choice was the mantra.
More choice became clear; a stream became a river and then we got a flood. But before thinking about the consequences of the information flood, recall Marshal McLuhan’s (Canadian philosopher whose work is among the cornerstones of media study) famous epigram:
“The medium is the message”. McLuhan meant that “the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”
Medium and content fused. At the most elementary level, if a close friend (medium) writes a personal letter we are more likely to believe its content. Okay, stay with me as I weave my way to something more intuitive.
Back in the day, broadcasting (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS) had already been weakened by new cable channels and one-to-one communication (the Internet) was about to hasten their slide. Of course, the Internet, with its direct marketing style and robotic algorithms, now seems the way things always were and to a large segment of the population that is correct. But, the entire population, young, old and everybody in-between need to be on guard, understanding the negative consequences.
I recently read an entertaining reflection by the writer Jonah Goldberg which sharpens the reality of the Internet. He noted, “Years ago, I did a TV hit with a prominent Democratic comms guy who’d recently gone into the private sector as a “new media” consultant. As we walked out of the studio afterward, he told me a story. His firm had recently met with the CEO and a dozen other top executives of a very large corporation to discuss an internet strategy for his brick and mortar company. The internet, then still powered by a massive network of hamster wheels, was a newish and exciting thing as opposed to what is today: an acceptable answer to the question, “Why is everyone miserable?”
“Anyway, at the end of the meeting, during the chit-chat portion, the CEO said something like, “Hey, I have a question for you guys. What’s with all the penis enlargement ads on the internet? I mean, every site I go to seems to be running ads for this stuff. You’d think the Washington Post could get classier advertisers.”
“Everyone in the room—or at least everyone in the room who understood how cookies and programmatic advertising work—looked at their feet. No one wanted to explain to him that he was getting ads based on his search activity.”
Broadcasting had been everybody’s source and while surveys told media executives about the audience demographics, they knew nothing about the individual’s, shall we say, particularities or peculiarities.
As Jonah Goldberg noted about broadcasters, “They didn’t really know who was listening, watching, or reading, but they had good reason to believe it was Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, poor, middle class, and wealthy. In other words, they couldn’t play favorites too egregiously without losing money. This created both an editorial and business incentive to play things fairly straight for fear of alienating the audience or the advertisers. As Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
The Internet, the medium, is here to stay. But how much faith should we put in the medium and its messages? Since often we get messages from those we trust (friends and family), do we extend this trust too far? What about links they send to us? Do we unwittingly extend trust to those who see us as prey?
We live in a world where we argue about what is true; is the Internet a medium of truth? As you puzzle through the question, be absolutely certain that our answer is not academic—evil exists in words and images as well as deeds. We are in a war, a world of divide and conquer. A world that Russia and China occupy with sophisticated tools of propaganda dressed up to sound American and play on our emotions.
All of which causes me to wonder whether voters can objectively select and discipline the politicians. Can we put our assumptions aside long enough to find out what is being said by others, to others or do we care? Is there anybody out there in media land smart enough and bold enough to attract a news audience of dissimilar people?
I remember watching the first episode of Lonesome Dove in 1985 and going to the office the following morning to find that everybody was watching it. And with apologies to ABC’s David Brinkley, so too were most watching Walter Cronkite’s CBS evening news show. Cronkite ended his nightly show with: “And that’s the way it is.” I have no memory of Cronkite’s declaration setting off vicious public debates about what is real or fake.
What I do know is that we are being manipulated. This is not conservative or liberal, it is the truth. Is it possible for us to guard against the “symbiotic” relationship McLuhan’s observation foretold? Is it possible for us to be skeptical of everything we receive, even from people we know? I hope so because our Republic depends on it.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.