“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.