McLuhan Revisited: The Distracted and Overwhelmed News Consumer?

In 1964, when media analyst and philosopher Marshall McLuhan formulated his now famous maxim the medium is the message, the newspaper was the dominant source for news and information. Television was the newcomer in a world of print journalism, and a perfect ‘cool medium’ for ‘hot’ news stories. Being a cool medium, TV could not compete with print journalism in terms of the depth and breadth of its reporting.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan remarks on the changes observed in the reading habits of children since the rise of the popularity of television in the early ‘60‘s: “Since TV, children regardless of eye condition [hold their gaze] an average of about 6-8 inches from the printed page. Our children are striving to carry over to the printed page the all-involving sensory mandate of the TV image.”

This ‘all-involving sensory mandate’ has indeed become the standard for the modern consumer of the news, as our experience of the world becomes more and more mediated by often overlapping digital technologies. The fact that children search the printed page for anything other than text seems mysterious and somehow unexplainable. Perhaps this is a symptom of something larger, something that is in fact shaping the way the modern news consumer approaches all news media.


Where were you when…?

An associated Press dispatch quoted by McLuhan from January of 1963 reads: ‘Press Blamed For Success: Kennedy Manages News Boldly, Cynically, Subtly…’ McLuhan explains that the speed of electronic information, as it appears in the medium of television, exempts it from the need to represent a definite viewpoint. In the print form, it is necessary not only to show, but to ‘delegate, represent and explain.’ In the print medium, an opinion is generally stated as such. This is not always so in electronic forms of media. The ‘in-your-face’ nature of the televised news report, the speed and brevity of sound bytes and the accompanying images, ads and streaming information (especially in the cable news format), ‘abdicate’ the reporter from the necessity of placing their ‘story’ into any type of context. This has proven to be extremely problematic for consumers of the media as they try to parse fact from opinion.

Most media analysts, including Thomas De Zengotita whose book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It, see the Kennedy assassination as the beginning of a great change in the way that people viewed the news. Before that momentous event most people got their news from the print medium; afterward there was a general shift to television as the news medium of choice. The news coverage of the Kennedy assassination began a new cultural trend that essentially personalized the news media. People began to relate personal stories of where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the President’s assassination. People now felt that they were personally involved with the news. De Zengotita writes: “Everyone became a participant and eye-witness to the events on the world stage, past and present. And that’s why people spontaneously told their stories about what they were doing during the Kennedy assassination no matter where they were when it actually happened.”

The major event of the present generation was the 911 terrorist attack. We all feel as though we were personally involved with this disaster, as though we were there and were all personally affected. This kind of national trauma has made the feeling that the national news is part of our personal experience even more acute and pervasive.


Governing by Tweet

Today there is more distrust of the news media than ever before. Fueled by an activist White House and the vitriolic presidential campaign of Donald Trump, an adversarial relationship has developed between the news media and politicians, and the general public seems to be coming down on the side of the politicians. Unabashedly biased news coverage from cable news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, as well as radio and new media political pundits, have further complicated the matter of trustworthiness in the eyes of the average news consumer, creating an atmosphere of great distrust in all forms of media that is finding its ultimate expression at the ballot box.

In the past, officials in the White House and in the Capital sought the attention of the news media to bring their messages to the public. In 1963, McLuhan remarked that the trend governing the Kennedy White House was ‘…a government by media leaks.’ Today, we have a White House that is essentially governing by Tweets. Superficially, there may be some similarity in intent, but in the execution there are some radically divergent consequences for the traditional news media.

In a televised CSPAN forum that originally aired on January 30, 2017, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer expressed his feelings that the media, and especially CNN, were being exceptionally biased and hostile toward the Trump administration. He said that they were taking a general undertone of negativity when reporting on the Trump administration. The roundtable forum went on to discuss whether or not the Trump White House even needed the news media to get its ideas out to the public. While reporters and media analysts still believe that political leaders need the traditional news media to get their ideas out to the public, the rise in alt-journalism sources like Info Wars and Breitbart, and the strongly conservative radio talk shows, have made it at least feasible that a White House could shape public opinion without any support of the mainstream media.

The popularity of alternative news sources, and the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories, would not be possible without the emergence of social media as a shaper of political opinion around the world. In the alternate universe of Twitter and Facebook, public opinion is measured in the form of likes, shares and retweets. Internet memes that are often inaccurate, hateful and obscene, shape the opinions of news consumers who are often using social media while engaging in several other simultaneous activities. Just as media immersion beginning in the 1960’s began to give the public the erroneous notion that they were eyewitnesses of historic events and therefore personal participants in the news stories that they viewed, immersion in misinformation, opinion based cable journalism and memes have given many consumers the impression that they are somehow knowledgeable independent agents of political and social change.


The Medium Really Is the Message

In the CSPAN forum that aired January 30th, former Press Secretary Fleischer cited statistics that seemed to show a majority of Americans to be dissatisfied with the news media. He cited the seemingly adversarial attitude of the news media to Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and the Trump White House as the cause of this dissatisfaction. Reporters throughout the industry, however, are painting a different picture.

Since the Trump White House started dealing in what Kellyanne Conway famously called ‘alternative facts’, the mainstream press has scrutinized every word that has come out of the Trump White House. Writers from major news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have published detailed stories about the apparent confusion reigning in the Trump White House. At one time, stories like these would have caused major problems for a sitting president. But not today.

Alternative news sources, social media and opinion based news coverage have changed the way the average news consumer interfaces with the news. A recent Pew Center study found that 81% of Americans surveyed get at least some of their news information from web based and mobile sources, with 57% preferring TV news sources including opinion-based cable news outlets. The same study, however, showed that those who did prefer to read their news have started doing so online more than in print, and often from mobile apps. Online news stories are generally less thorough and more likely to fall into the category of ‘fake news’ than print journalism.

The state of the modern news consumer could be said to be one of distraction and overwhelmment. As Saul Bellow famously wrote, “There is simply too much to think about.” Rather than scouring the media for Truth, the average distracted and overwhelmed news consumers find themselves seeking out news sources that confirm their own convictions, or in some cases their suspicions. As more and more people continue consulting opinion-based journalism and so-called ‘fake news’ outlets continue to surge in popularity, the inevitable result will be an inescapable sense of political polarization and confusion.

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