09.20.2016 01:00 AM

This week’s column: take that, McLuhan and Chomsky

“All media exist,” Marshall McLuhan said, and if anyone knew, it’d be him, “to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”


When the most revered media theorist of all time leaves behind a show-stopper quote like that, it’s pretty hard to discount it.  McLuhan didn’t attempt to dilute his dictum, either: no “I think” or “possibly” or “probably” or other weasel-like circumlocutions are to be found, in that one.  All media, he essentially said, are liars and bullies.  No apology.

McLuhan – a Canadian, no less, a son of a nation renowned for apologies! – was saying that all media are preoccupied with propagating falsehoods and distortions. Conspiracy theorists, on the Left and the Right, will naturally agree.  But was McLuhan right?

No.  Three reasons.

One, anyone has ever laboured in the graveyard of broken dreams (i.e., a newsroom) knows that the media lack all of the essential skills needed to mount an effective conspiracy. When you observe the disorganized journalistic genus up close, it is frankly a miracle that we are able to get a paper out every day.

Two, the media cherish conflict, not consensus.  Disaster, division, disunity: these are the things that make our bells go off. Eyeball any news story, and you will see this to be an immutable truth: we in the media will always seek out one side’s point of view, and then the other side’s – even when there isn’t another side.  We can hardly be accused of pushing a particular “value,” as McLuhan claims we do, when we ceaselessly promote the notion that there is never, ever a consensus on “values.”

Three – and this key, in the Era of Trump and Leitch – to affect public opinion, the mainstream media needs to have an understanding of public opinion. But, increasingly, we don’t.

The reasons for this are myriad. Polling – to which we are hopelessly addicted, like fentanyl – is flawed, and makes many more mistakes than it once did. Also: social media has distorted the aforementioned social consensus that used to exist about was “important.” And, finally, technology has enabled citizens to become their own editors, rendering the likes of Peter Mansbridge completely irrelevant, like totemic relics from a forgotten epoch.

Up here in McLuhan’s homeland, we saw the truth of all these things recently.  Kellie Leitch, a Conservative MP desperate for both attention and her party’s leadership, declared that she would screen immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” (whatever those are).  On cue, and as Leitch clearly hoped, lots of politicians and media folks were apoplectic.  They condemned her and wrote stirring editorials about values (whatever those are).

And then, the Toronto Star – that paragon of all progressive values and Atkinsonian principles, no less – sheepishly released a poll showing that, um, two-thirds of Canadians agreed with Leitch.  Oops!  So much for manufacturing consent.  So much for an omnipotent, all-seeing media, per McLuhan, “investing our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”

Personally, I don’t give a sweet shit about whether two-thirds, or three-thirds, agree with Leitch or not.  Her questionnaire stunt was a naked appeal to latent bigotry, one designed to draw out the very worst in people.  It worked.  Good for her, shame on us.

And anyway: Leitch isn’t alone.  Donald Trump, daily, shatters the notion that there is a popular consensus about anything – or that a media conspiracy is at work.

Because, in the main, we in the media are at work for Donald Trump.  We are.  Every day for a year, without fail, we have meticulously documented every one of Trump’s racist statements – we have reported every one of his many lies, and shown how they are lies – and, every day for a year, Trump has persevered.  He has survived.  He has grown minutely more popular, even.

That is because Trump – like his willing student, Kellie Leitch – understands the media better than the media does.  He understands that, if two guys are onstage, and one says he has the solution to the Middle East, and the other one falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the news that night?  You know the answer. (And the author of that pithy little parable? Roger Ailes, the sex harasser now preparing Trump for the presidential debates.)

The irrelevance of those of us in those media is seen, over and over, in the Trump phenomenon. Our impotence is made clear with every one of his foul utterances – that Mexicans are rapists and murderers, that immigrants should be rounded up and shipped out, that Muslims should be barred from the United States, that women who get abortions should receive jail time, that a wall should be built, that he’d promote the use of torture and that he’d kill the children of his enemies, that soldiers aren’t heroes when they are captured and tortured or killed, that rape on military bases is defensible.

In every one of those instances – and in respect of many, many more – we in the media were astonished, and outraged, and we rained down opprobrium on the Republican presidential nominee.  And, every time, Trump shrugged and carried on.  In some cases, he got even more popular.

Thus, the moral of this media tale: we in the media don’t run anything, as much as we’d like to. We don’t affect public opinion, as much as hope to.  We don’t have the power Marshall McLuhan said we do.

You do – you, the citizen.  And is up to you to banish the likes of Trump and Leitch to the rock-bottoms from which they crawled.

So, go do it. You, not the media, are the real boss.





  1. Steve T says:

    I will defend the media, in that they do bring the statements of people (like Trump) into the light. Absent the media, he could say these horrid things to one audience, and then pretend to be a diplomatic nation-builder to a different audience. The media puts it all on display.

    What we, the citizenry, choose to do with that information is up to us. If we listen to Trump’s venom, and still vote for him, that’s on us – not the media.

  2. Aongasha says:

    Watching the Ottawa Press Gallery in action I’d disagree about diversity. All chase the same story and report it day in and day out. Examples; Leitch and Trudeau’s shirt (or lack thereof) Tell me a major outlet that didn’t report on these ad nauseum?
    As fof US MSM, their anti-Trump tirades made him the candidate and since they are too blind to see it may give him the presidency.
    Kind of what happened here in Canada with the usual suspects. Helped Harper to almost a decade of power, despite his ignoring them. Made CPC fund-raising champs.
    Ya can’t fix the willfully stupid, especially if they have an agenda.

  3. Etienne says:

    Perhaps McLuhan was referring to the fact that the media is disseminating values by way of it’s formatting. Is that “the medium is the message”? I’m not sure I ever fully grasped what he meant by that.

    The media doesn’t need to mount conspiracy theories to disseminate values and perceptions. Giving column space to climate change naysayers (on the principle that both sides should be heard) or publishing volumes of details about perpetrators of mass shootings (on the principle that the public deserves to know) gives credence to cooks and fame to fanatics. That’s perception altering and value giving. And let’s not ignore that some widely read/viewed media do tip toe around conspiracies giving them credence. Lots of media “report” the he-said-she-said without filter or context, allowing conspiracy-like messages to get to audience. Isn’t that why dog whistle politics works?

    And on Trump, you’re talking about the media as if it was only the established large content producers. There’s plenty of media (some large and many small or social) that is doing the opposite (downplaying his racist comments, excusing his gaffes, justifying his positions).

  4. Robbie Armstrong says:

    Western media is a for profit enterprise, even state run outlets run advertising of some sort. You make quite the leap from “artificial perceptions and arbitrary values” to bullies and liars. Nice try, but an ineffective one. Essentially, MM is saying that media does not provide the kind of authenticity that validates a media consumer’s argument; and it certainly does not set forth a set of absolute non-negotiable values, especially when editorial content is a determined by subjective biases and political assessments of how to frame reality.

    There is a reason why Alex Jones of Infowars.com made it into a Hillary speech. Why feed a perceived troll unless they are perceived as a genuine threat? This election, more than most, pits the media monks and their handwritten manuscripts against the pamphlets and the printing press accessible to mere the commoners. Trump is no more or no less a liar than HRC. I attended his rally to gain context and evaluate his message. Can most of the readers here say the same?

  5. Maps Onburt says:

    I think you are misunderstanding what McLuhan meant… he didn’t mean that the MSM was omnipotent or even competent, just that it is ALWAYS biased. On that score, he’s right. Even TVO and PBS are pushing a perspective. It’s human nature. If you look at the Ottawa Press Gallery, it’s pretty obvious that they are all thinking pretty collectively – VERY little difference in their opinions. They are pushing an agenda and throw out or ridicule anyone who differs from that. With the exception of Fox in the US, they are all pushing hard for the progressive side and have for decades. It’s immaterial as to whether or not they are any good at it… the fact is that they are trying.

    I think it’s impossible to have a fully unbiased news network which is why I like to go to a broad spectrum of sources (including this excellent site) to gather information to make MY decision on what the facts are. I do however think that news sources should be open about their biases and stop reporting opinion as fact. The second they do that, they should lose the title journalist (and the protections that entails) become columnists. Unfortunately there is no journalistic conduct board like Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, etc have. Some “profession”.

  6. dave constable says:

    McLuhan, eh!

    On another occasion, McLuhan observed that television was taking the place of the daily newspaper comic strips, in that the topic of casual conversation was not Dick Tracy’s two way radio on his wrist watch, but the really big stars who were on Ed Sullivan Show. What people thought and said about both those topics varied. But those were the topics. The media still tells us which topics to pay attention to. Our responses vary, but we are on the media generated topics, and not on other topics. If 90% of coverage is on one topic, it is likely to be the topic most of the public is thinking and talking about. Once talking about it, we try to figure out how it applies to our daily lives. A bombing in a Western city is much talked about and the implications much considered; a bombing anywhere else is not worth spending media time on, and is not much talked about

    McLuhan also said that the function of art is to train our perceptions and judgment. In a way, media generally does this: shows us what to pay attention to, and how to value what we perceive. Our media does a good job of getting us to see villains when our leaders have decided to attack someone or other. It is easier for us to gossip about and consider what wretched human beings the media presented villains are, than to delve in to the complexities of geo political motives for what we do. For examples, Noriega, Hussein, Milosovic, Gaddafi, Putin have been successfully presented and judged as such wretches that we are justified in using military violence on their peoples.

    I think the media has done a pretty good job of telling us what our rulers want us to pay attention to.

    On another of your points, when I retired, about a year or two later, I had a job as reporter for a local paper. I covered city hall and municipal economy and politics. I was paid little, but, I liked what I was doing. A plus was that I, an old fart, got to sit and work with young reporters in other local media. I found those 20+ recent grads worked long hours, got low pay, and caught on to issues quickly. But, as you say, they were full time and they had so much on their schedules day after day, they seemed to be barely keeping up with their deadlines.
    I also agree that ‘conflict’ sells more advertising…although, I suggest that the media presents conflict, rather than reporting/explanation a bit much.

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