September 2, 2009

This Onion Clip Is Hilarious; Now Let Me Tell You Why It's Scary

today now.PNG

"This is our future," wrote the linking email.  McLuhan wrote The Medium Is The Message but due to a printing error, it came out Massage.  Proving his point.

Police Still Searching For Missing Productive, Obedient Woman

I got this Onion video as a link in my email, and the subject heading was "this is our future."

Which makes it funny. But the more insightful, and scary, way of looking at the clip is to assume the clip is occurring not in the future, but in the present, now. Then the video isn't a description of the future, but a study on how to manufacture reality.


Imagine that American life is exactly as it looks right this second, but the Chinese bought one or two or nineteen news programs.  (NB: this is not a post about how the Chinese are taking over the world, I have a different point.  Follow with me.)

Say they wanted to influence American culture to become more Chinese, and also convey an impression about the Chinese as hard working, etc. So, they create a news program like this one. Initially, you'd laugh, just as you have already laughed. But over time the program would appear ordinary-- especially if all of the news programs were the same. You would watch this in your non-Chinese house, and slowly, over time, the media images would chip away at your conception of reality until it seemed completely normal that two white people are talking in Chinese-isms, judging a person by their industriousness, etc.

You probably remember the name of the program, but not the name of the missing woman.  See?  A story about Chinese culture makes you consider the merits of Chinese culture.  But a show like this, that is about something else, makes you assume that this is already known to be the way Chinese culture is.

At some point the news version of China would contrast with your own life experience of China, and one would begin to dominate. Oh, you don't have any actual life experience with China except from TV. Hmmm.

How long before you start to accept the value system promoted on the news?  In this case it's industriousness, but I hardly need to tell you it could be anything at all.


Look at the husband in the clip. He is confused by how the anchors are acting. His world is the real world, where very little Is Chinese. Now he's crossed into this other world where everyone is acting like it's perfectly ordinary to be Chinese.

That's what it would look like for the first year or so-- confusion, dissonance. After that, we'd just accept it.

Note well that the two anchors themselves also live in the real world. They are perfectly aware that what they are doing is fake, invented, or even exaggerated. But they don't think they're lying, they just think they're doing their job. They don't appreciate that what they are doing is literally altering reality, permanently, for 300M people.

"How is the world ruled, and how do wars start?" wrote the journalist Karl Kraus.  "Diplomats tell lies to journalists, and then believe what they read."

And onwards down the chain.


Let's pretend the news clip and station were real. I'm sure China itself isn't like this news portrayal of China-- they are creating an impression, a product, and packaging it for American consumption, which, because there are no serious alternatives, would become the default worldview of Americans. The Chinese could make us think whatever they wanted. They could actually not even exist-- but we'd nevertheless believe that these newscasts are representative of typical Chinese life. Even if we went to China and found it completely empty, when we'd returned we'd still doubt ourselves: maybe we saw only a little part of China, surely those reporters have much more experience and information, it's not possible that they could be wrong and no one has noticed...

The image of this China is a product to be consumed. A product doesn't find a market, a product creates a market. Or did I do some market research and learn we needed a critical psychiatry/movie review blog written by a pirate?

In my description of this video, I'm pretending this is an organized effort by "the Chinese" to influence our culture; in other words they have a set plan. Our current media doesn't have such an organized plan. Individuals might use the media to push their own agenda, but the heads of the news programs don't meet in Switzerland to map out a plan of cultural propaganda.

Which makes it worse. Lacking a direction, a goal, means that reality is subject to whim. We used to care about Renee Zellweger and Islamic terrorism. Now we don't.  Did they both disappear?  Never exist?  What?


There's a correlate to this, I'll explain by example: most people don't know anything about China. So this video clip, while funny, also seems kinda accurate-- based on what you've seen from other completely unreliable descriptions of China/Japan (e.g. The Simpsons, youtube clips, etc.) Or it might be dead on accurate, how would would you know?

Your objective baseline would come from... that same media. Ok, not the same program, but the same station, the same biases.

So the odd correlate is this: the media doesn't just tell us information, it educates us. It does what one might have ordinarily assumed a school would do. 

Question: in what grade would a student nowadays learn about, say, the Carter Administration? Asked another way: if an 11th grader today knows anything about the Carter Administration, where would he have learned it?

You're all being home schooled, by the parents of someone else.


First the sign describes reality. Then the sign replaces reality.

The media creates a shadow reality that regular reality must adapt to. When a politician cheats on his wife, then gets on TV and apologizes, no one in their right mind believes that the apology is sincere-- "it's all for TV."

The news media make it sound like the "public demands an apology." But the public doesn't, the news media does-- they need it to fill the time. The apology becomes TV segment; whether the apology was only for the benefit of TV becomes another TV segment; etc. No one believes it, yet there it is, filling up hours of TV news.

But despite the public not wanting this apology, and despite the news media needing it to kill time, this bit of fluff changes reality, it changes the way you think. Consider what would happen if the politician did not apologize on TV. The media would flip out-- "this guy doesn't even apologize!" and you, the ordinary guy, would feel some level of anger, or at least incredulity, at the lack of a fake apology you'd never believe anyway. You've come to expect a fake apology-- not even a real one-- as necessary to the way politics is conducted. So on the one hand cheating signifies we can't trust the guy, but on the other hand a fake apology means... we can?

"But the fake apology is part of the image..." My point exactly. We agree the image is neither real, accurate, nor important; but we've also agreed to limit all of our dialogue and thinking to the image and nothing else.

"But the image can stand in for the substance, it's a proxy." No, this is first grade semiotics. It doesn't represent reality, it becomes reality. If it's a proxy for substance, when do we actually talk about the substance?

The news doesn't just influence our values. It changes the way we think so that certain values become inevitable.


But what about issues that are too complicated for journacation? Then you create a proxy who says, "don't worry, I'll do the thinking for you."

Hence journalists and anchor people who break the fourth wall, become personalities and thus stand-ins for the complex analysis.

(if you don't see a video in this space, download Adobe Flash 10 or click the link below.) 

I Am CNBC: Maria Bartiromo from Broadcasting & Cable on Vimeo.

I have seen these promos hundreds of times, each CNBC reporter has one. I found them eerie, haunting, uncanny and unreal, and I didn't know why I felt this. Now I know.


The first question that any good post-postmodernist (e.g. mercantilist) might want to ask is, why, if they're sitting right there for the filming, do they use a voice over? Why not simply speak the words into the camera? After all, that's what they do all day anyway, right?

The answer is that at that moment, in that promo, that isn't their voice talking to you; it is your mind's voice running through what you "know" about them. It's the kung fu program in the Matrix. They've placed info into my head to use: "She's a smart/trustworthy person..."

So she's a substitute for my own analysis-- I can just adopt hers, because she's like me, trustworthy, etc. Hence the use of TV news lingo ("socialized medicine", "both sides of the abortion debate" etc) by regular people in ordinary conversations. Ok, nothing new there.

But the switch is that she is extending her "legitimacy" to CNBC, not the other way around. CNBC has managed to con you into thinking that they aren't the ones creating and analyzing the news, but that she is-- and you can sure trust her, she worked in a restaurant!  If there was truth in advertising, the producers of CNBC-- not to mention the GE execs who own the station-- should be doing "I Am CNBC" promos. But that would be contrary to the purpose of the videos.    They make her more real so that their existence becomes less real.


The second reason these promos were so eerie to me I only discovered months later:


Gasparino taped the ("I am CNBC") spot, and submitted to another hour or so of extended self-revelation for the Web site, on September 15, the day Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection... Erin Burnett, the luminous mid-morning anchor... taped her spot that day too. All thirty spots were taped between the fifteenth and the eighteenth of September, arguably the most turbulent four days in the history of finance, and thus one of the stranger allocations of newsroom resources in recent media history.

Of course.   But the CJR writer is wrong on one point-- this is exactly the kind of allocation of newsroom resources you'd expect when reality is about to be manufactured.


WTF? I seriously don't buy ... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 12:02 PM | Posted by NiroZ: | Reply

WTF? I seriously don't buy it. Too many appeals to intuition, not enough clinical research.

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Someone on a newsgroup I us... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 12:02 PM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

Someone on a newsgroup I used to hang out in had this Frank Harris quote as his sig: "All the faults of the age come from Christianity and journalism". The longer I live, the more truth I see in it.

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You're a pirate?... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 12:20 PM | Posted by nohope: | Reply

You're a pirate?

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Outstanding article.<... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 12:51 PM | Posted by ATraveller: | Reply

Outstanding article.

However, at least in this country, it is not the journalists who dictate the news - it is the spindoctors and the politicians. The journalists have a tendency to quote these people verbatim, with litterally no recollection of what they wrote last week, and no critical thinking.

It's a brave new world.

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We've always been at war wi... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 1:47 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

We've always been at war with Eastasia

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"Our current media doesn't ... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 1:57 PM | Posted by Jane: | Reply

"Our current media doesn't have such an organized plan... Which makes it worse."

Orwell would disagree. Possibly on both points. [We have always been at war with Eastasia. I'm sure of it.]

This blog keeps getting better. Avast!

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First the sign describe... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 2:27 PM | Posted by George: | Reply

First the sign describes reality. Then the sign replaces reality.

It's a trap! "Reality" itself is a sign, an abstracted model of the world that we perceive through our senses. The sign referenced above doesn't replace the "reality" model, but the purveyors of the sign do want it to *alter* the "reality" model in a way beneficial to them.

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There is no way the guy who... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 3:07 PM | Posted by Speculator: | Reply

There is no way the guy who wrote (here) "you are all being home schooled by the parents of someone else" is the same guy who wrote, "George Bush hates black people. Especially delicious Iraqis." "Alone" my ass.

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I like how you just throw o... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 3:33 PM | Posted by mark: | Reply

I like how you just throw out that you're a pirate without any explanation. Why so mysterious, Lastpsych?

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Maria Bartimoro also missed... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 3:52 PM | Posted by David Johnson: | Reply

Maria Bartimoro also missed sharing how unbelievable ignorant and attitudinal about her ignorance she happens to be. Here's a current clip showing her "triumphantly" asking Rep. Anthony Weiner (45 years of age) why he doesn't have medicare. When he mentions his age (as in "I don't qualify, age-wise, for medicare you dumb twit), she laughs derisively. In her little, uninformed mind, she thinks she's scored a point, because she doesn't get it- medicare is for "regular" folks 65 and older.

Here's her clip in all it's stupidity:

Now if ANYONE ever needed a voice over, it'd be folks just like her. Death panels anyone?

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If you read the District 9 ... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 4:13 PM | Posted, in reply to nohope's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

If you read the District 9 article, there is a huge Pirate Bay graphic. Right after he talks about downloading it ...

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I dunno, maybe it's because... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 6:46 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

I dunno, maybe it's because I like to chat with Chinese people on Omegle, but I just thought that Onion clip was mean to Chinese people.

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But does anyone really rely... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 9:16 PM | Posted by Nick: | Reply

But does anyone really rely on only one source of information for their information? Obviously 'people who don't really care about the news' might glance at an issue that doesn't affect them from only one source & take that as their 'starting point' for understanding a topic. But for anything that did affect their lives, do people really take one (initially inauthentic-seeming) source as credible without further analysis?
I'm not completely doubting the premise, because it's plausible some people could do that. But it seems likely that if a minority of people did, they'd be aware that they were in the minority (& therefore potentially wrong/misinformed) or if ever a majority did, that those opinions would be very weakly held.
But if you're correct, then this is a big issue - is there a way to establish the likelyhood of a 'news monopoly'? It seems impossible in this global age, but if you can suggest a credible scenario I'd be fascinated to hear it. But I do think (hope?) that the 'free market' of rss feeds, global news sources & other vested interests would provide context to 'drown out' any such propaganda transposed onto us.

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As usual, I am completely t... (Below threshold)

September 2, 2009 11:03 PM | Posted by Rudd-O: | Reply

As usual, I am completely taken aback by the level of rationality and in-depth analysis that you do here. Alone, don't ever leave us the fuck alone without your insight. You are one of the very scant few that gets to say what we can't say:

Go on. I wish I had a personal friend like you. I'd learn so much.

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Sounds like a pretty clear ... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 8:53 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Sounds like a pretty clear description of how Fox News works, frankly: rile people up about a 'liberal-intellectual conspiracy,' appealing to target audiences who probably don't know many liberals or intellectuals. Create a pseudo-reality of what 'liberal intellectuals' are like, then ask people to fight for an alternate agenda because of a threat that doesn't really exist. Set up similar concepts of 'the poor' vs. 'the hardworking, middle-class American' to go along with your argument. Repeat until political change that suits your corporation happens.

@Nick: Yes, many people don't know that they SHOULD look for additional sources, much less HOW to look for them. Case in point: I had an argument recently with a friend of mine about Obama's upcoming message to schools. She was terrified because Fox News told her that the government's lesson plans suggested that kids should write a letter about how they would support Obama. She NEVER considered just looking for the letter sent to the public schools or for the lesson plans online at the government website. She didn't do a simple Google search to see if she could find out any additional information. Instead, she called the school, screamed at the staff, and told them she wouldn't let her kid come to school on Tuesday. Now she's marked herself as a lunatic for the rest of her kids' tenure at that elementary school, just because she didn't think to check on what she'd been told.

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The time necessary to come ... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 10:43 AM | Posted by Basil Valentine: | Reply

The time necessary to come up with informed analyses is precious. The news offers to do it for free, so you let it. When something really matters, you might dig a little deeper (notice the play the wingnut fringe gets on either the economy or health care?), but there's just no incentive to care. Business as usual is OK, more or less. Forget first-grade economics; it's first year economics that matter here.

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@Basil: I think that's nons... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 10:53 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

@Basil: I think that's nonsense. It's never taken less time to come up with informed analyses; we have easy access to a multitude of sources right from our living room. But every media outlet on the planet tells us that our time is too valuable to spend looking things up--largely so we don't take the time to inform ourselves in ways they don't wish.

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Wow, that's sad.... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 11:02 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Nick: | Reply

Wow, that's sad.

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Oh God, I'm so glad this wa... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 11:59 AM | Posted by KayleighKins: | Reply

Oh God, I'm so glad this wasn't an entire article about how the Chinese are out to get us. I am very glad I read past that paragraph. Go the both of us.

Obviously the media is full of propaganda. When I went to China though, I did find the people to be surprisingly aware of how ridiculous and supressive their laws are ("We have elections too, but they are fake." "You have to have a permit to have a dog, but everyone just walks them at night").

In this way, I think American's and Chinese are on equal footing, propaganda-wise ("Fox says it is fair and balanced, but everyone knows they frequently bash the liberal party. I don't care though, I hate liberals." "I know CNN covered Micheal Jackson's death more than the fighting in Iran, but they really respected Micheal and he was so important to so many people.")

It seems very eerie to me to hear average people argue in America. It is either based on "what God said," so it would be rude to offer up any other argument as you are in risk of "not respecting their religious beliefs," or it entirely based on hearsay, celeb gossip, blatant doublethink and party loyalty.

It exhausts me, I really just try to stay out of it and keep my tv turned to bad sitcom police mysteries and hgtv. Which of course is just a plus to the whole system, don't you think?

@8:53 You nailed it on the head.

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@8:53. Sounds like a pretty... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 12:19 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

@8:53. Sounds like a pretty clear description of how Fox News AND National Public Radio works. Funny how many FOX viewers deny its bias, AND funny how many NPR listeners deny its bias. Viewers/listeners of both readily accept that the other is biased, but simply cannot/willnot acknoweledge that "their" source is just saying anything to get advertisers or your donation. Keep feeding people what easily fits into their understanding of things, so they won't change the station. Sit back, relax, and enjoy feeling right about things.

Both Fox and NPR dangle fresh meat above their fan bases. If you don't regularly notice the bias of a news source, it's probably because you've ingested enough of it to acquire its world view. This is why regular Fox and NPR fans cannot see their respective biases.

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I read Richard Hofstadter a... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 1:18 PM | Posted by paula: | Reply

I read Richard Hofstadter and Susan Jacoby's books on Americans love of stupidity and christianity- leading to a new reality and this idiotic war. Also, shock doctrine about the hyper capitalistic philosophy of the bush admin. Etc. I try to stay central in my views- not to left or right. Accept some evolution, that never gets home schooled- two steps forward one step back.

I have also been in situations that end up on the news- and holy shit is the info wrong, spun, or liken to a bad research study handing you stats that leave out that 50% percent of people loosing weight just gave birth- some dropping of the ball weirdness.
But, I think with you and the internet- people go get all kinds of other views and come to a more BALANCED view- like for real. So, keep it up and maybe we can stop overpopulation, idiocracy as the future, and Chinese mind control.

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Just out of curiosity, coul... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 1:43 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by David Johnson: | Reply

Just out of curiosity, could you name the equivalent to Glen Beck on NPR? And just out of further curiosity, are you suggesting that the factual coverage of the "death panels story" is the same at both networks, just differing in the slant of the provable lies about said story?

I don't watch either regularly or exclusively, but after a cursory review of both "news" channels, I really cannot see that your position holds any water.

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@12:19 (from 8:53)... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2009 2:38 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

@12:19 (from 8:53)

Oh, yes. I don't deny that the left-wing news sources have bias, too! I just see/hear them less often.