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Mirrors & Megaphones

On the bus home Saturday from the company picnic to which I took my son — who said, at two points, "Everybody's happy here!", which is a wonderful thing for a father to hear! — I chatted briefly with a Canadian couple who moved back to Canada after living seven years in the Bay Area, California. The wife had an interesting observation. I will do my best to paraphrase it.

When I moved back to Canada I noticed that the news reflected the values and thoughts of the people who live here. Whether it's the newspaper or TV news, you have the feeling that it shares the point of view of the people who are reading or watching it. I never got that feeling in the States. The news there never reflected the views and attitudes of the people I knew.

I think this is a very interesting and astute observation.

Murkans may consider their media definitely slanted with an agenda, but few consider the media to be an overt propandistic mouthpiece of their government the way, say, Tass was for the USSR. The myth of the fourth estate as a neutral, objective source of journalism still persists.

Or so it seems. Surprisingly, research done in the early 90s indicates that the majority of the public don't believe the media reflects their viewpoint. The study "revealed widespread dissatisfaction with news coverage." According to an important and widely publicized report — Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street — prepared by the Harwood Group for the Kettering Foundation — the majority of Americans

believe there has been "a hostile takeover of politics by special interests and lobbyists (along with negative campaigns and the media)." They care about politics, but they no longer believe they can have a meaningful impact on the political scene. They look upon the avenues for input available to them as "window dressings," not serious attempts to hear what they have to say.

Basically, America's media is lying to them and the people know it. Whether perceived as having a liberal agenda to tear down the beloved cultural institutions of the knuckle-draggers, or pushing the agenda of the corporations that own them, few believe what they're being force-fed to believe. Beyond the eye-candy spectacle of fear-inducing pseudo-news which the media consumer is supposed to transpose to a desire to shop, people sense a disconnect between what they're told to believe and what they know the truth to be.

American media is a megaphone constantly force-feeding their consumers a diet of sugar-coated carrots and sticks: be afraid, don't trust yourself to understand what's going on, be confused so you'll trust our lies, black is white and white is black, go shopping. The fact that the media plays the public like a Hammond Organ to believe what they're told to believe doesn't alter the fact that people know they're being lied to and manipulated.

American media, simply, does not reflect the truth, it does not reflect people's everyday concerns, it does not reflect people's everyday realities. It is a megaphone shouting at them to accept things that people know just ain't so. And, sadly, it's a lot easier for people to just give up and let it roll over them than try to constantly fight against the tide. It's on the same spectrum as the Army's use of aural warfare when they blast disco and Barney tunes to get an enemy to come out of hiding.

Because, after all, studies have shown that people will alter what they know is the truth if they see it conflicts with how others perceive it. People will sooner think their own perception or cognition is faulty than that the larger group is mistaken. Part of the reason for this is that a person's need to feel a sense of belonging is built into us, it is a part of our evolutionary psychology — and people are uncomfortable if they see themselves as an outsider. If everybody says 2+2=5, it takes a rare person to hold fast to their idea of the true truth against an all-encompassing social reality. Orwell understood this all too well when he wrote 1984.

Other relevant studies show that people will sooner believe lies from a well-dressed person assuming the role of an authority, than they will believe the truth delivered from some unshaven slob in a t-shirt. People generally believe appearance over substance because people generally reach their conclusions from an emotional rather than rational basis.

Media managers take advantage of these sociological & psychological truths by wrapping their stories in the guise of neutrality and objectivity, delivered by spokespeople seen as authorities, who then broadcast their twisted take on reality. It's no wonder that people don't trust the media — they sense their reality is not quite what is being reflected back to them by their media.

I seldom read newspapers, and haven't watched TV in many years. The only time I watch TV is when I'm in a hotel or visiting family. The few times I've read Canadian newspapers and magazines, and the few times I've watched Canadian TV, confirmed, for me, the bus-rider's observation that Canadian media reflects the beliefs, attitudes, and opinions of its citizens. I've seen things on Canadian TV I would never see in Murka; in fact, I was so surprised by some of the things I saw — shows that were intelligently and actively critical of policy, for instance; or shows that spent time sympathetically interviewing left-leaning activists and intellectuals — I knew that I had to be in a different country. After seeing such shows as these, and seeing that they were common, I came to the definitive awareness that Canada is definitely not America's 51st state, that it truly is a different country. Canada may have a lot in common with American culture, but it's surface stuff — deep down, the differences are substantive and meaningful.

People may disagree with the media here, and may consider it biased, but it's on a whole different scale than America's. The Canadian media here does indeed reflect people's notions of reality. It functions as a mirror in which a culture can come to understand itself. And if there's one thing Canadians specialize in it's actively trying to understand what their cultural identity is. I love that about Canada. I am so glad I'm here!