On April 11, 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann began in Israel. He was accused of participating in the annihilation of millions of Jews (and others) because of an extreme genetic bias professed and executed by him and his Nazi overmasters. He was guilty. Everyone in the world knew this. He admitted his actions but excused them because he was a soldier following orders. Most of the world saw this man as an aberrant monster accountable for atrocities no normal human being was capable of. Reporters from around the world went to Jerusalem to see this monster squirm.
One of them was the great German philosopher Hannah Arendt, sent to cover the trial by The New Yorker. While most other reporters pandered to the belief that only a fiend could commit such crimes, Arendt saw the defendant as a mid-level, mild-mannered bureaucrat who was an example of what she called the “banality of evil.” With this claim, Arendt indicted the entire civilized world as potential mass murderers.
One reason that the media will not, cannot, address race is that their constituency, like Melville’s Bartleby, would rather not hear about it.
Basically, she was saying that the guilt, as well as the responsibility, rested with us. Whether or not this reporting was true does not matter. What matters is she challenged what everyone else wanted to hear. She went against the grain so that we could, among ourselves, make a gesture toward understanding, if not actually reaching, the truth.
This gesture is what we need to remake our understanding of the world. The media is just a way to deliver a long list of information that exists somewhere in the limbo between truth and fiction. Sometimes we find more truth in fiction because the writer is attempting to expose human nature, human history, or our relation to fate. Sometimes what is purported to be true is not because the interested parties (advertisers, governments, racists, and/or sexists) have needs that are at odds with events as they have unfolded. The media is a tool, like a hammer or a hand grenade; it has its purpose but cannot be relied on without reservation.
Why can’t the media accurately cover race in America? Are you kidding me?
To begin with, there’s this thing about race being defined by color; people calling themselves white (in optics the blending of all colors). As long as the largest self-identified group in America identifies by this color, we can never have a public conversation that approximates truth. It doesn’t matter if this person is man or woman, liberal or conservative, Northern or Southern, Catholic or Buddhist. If the largest audience thinks their race is white, the media has to go along with it or else face the worst fate possible—the changing of the channel.
And so one reason that the media will not, cannot, and may never honestly address race is that their constituency, like Melville’s Bartleby, would rather not . . . hear about it.
Not surprisingly, the next issue that obviates the possibility of the media accurately representing race is the concept of class. It should be of no great shock that the media’s representation of, and the general public’s understanding of, economic class in America is a mashed-up ball of lies.
Just ask anyone, especially those who believe they’re white, what class they are in. Most will say that they are middle-class—in the middle and striving to climb. Barack Obama told us he was trying to help and bolster the middle class. He wasn’t addressing the few but the vast majority of Americans.
When someone tells me they’re middle-class, I give them my personal definition of class division in America. I say that a middle-class person has a portfolio that contains, at the very least, $250,000. So when that individual loses her or his job, life can go on for a year or more with no changes necessary. That jobless individual pays the same mortgage, keeps the kids in the same schools, and even contributes to the same charities. She or he will be job hunting among the peoples of their class, people who identify with each other.
Now . . . when a working-class individual loses their job, they go to the bank account but do not see the same numbers. When a working-class citizen loses her job, there better be a new one in the next two to four weeks or things will change. The mortgage will go unpaid, that’s for sure. And public schools have books, too. That French restaurant she and her spouse frequented will now be a fast-food emporium.
I say these things to people and, if they’re white, they usually get angry. “I am middle-class!” they’ll say. “I make $92,000 a year!”
People of color, as we are called, know better. We come from jeopardy. We are trained to know that the bottom can and will fall out. When I asked my father how he fared during the Great Depression, he said, “Walter, we were so poor we didn’t even know there was a Depression until after it was over.”
Between false impressions of what we are, what we have, and what we deserve, the media cannot, without deep self-criticism, address the audience of America. They will continue to call us middle-class, black, and white. They will continue to treat some with more respect than others, and they will sleep like woolly white lambs confident that tomorrow will be an endless field of grass.
Illustration by Tiffany Baker
How can we make rational choices when almost everything we’re told is generated by those institutions that profit from our ignorance? And how can we fight back when the ballast of this false reporting is the continuation of conflict between races and genders, religions, classes, and lifestyles? What resistance do I have against fast-food poisoning when there might be a terrorist attack any moment? I am beset by pain induced by bad diet, unending labor, uninsured illnesses, and a ragged heart. How can I treat that pain when legal painkillers cost more than illegal ones?
How do I survive when I’m told that my demise is based on the white man, the colored man, the woman who wants but does not deserve my job? How can I go armed when just saying the word “gun” might get me killed? How can I go unarmed when I know that my enemies are legion?
We need to start by understanding the terms of our discontent.
First let’s tackle the word media. This is the main means and mode of the transfer of information, words, ideas, and images that may or may not have a basis in truth. Movies are media, Fox News is media, the latest country and hip-hop recordings are media.
A man standing on a soapbox venting his ideas is not media, but if a video camera records that man, we have the uncooked ingredients of a medium. If an editor takes this raw footage and turns it into a diatribe against this or that and some producer decides that the resulting piece will attract viewers then, and only then, does the man on his soapbox become a potential media event. What appears on the screen, in the magazine, or over the internet may have nothing to do with the man’s intentions but it is still the media, it is still information.
So we see that media alone is simply a tool to capture and keep the attention of a broad audience that is unlikely to be able to decide, empirically, if what they have witnessed has any relation to truth or even its original intentions.
The second term that seems solid, but is indeed slippery, is news. We buy papers, turn on the TV, log into Facebook, and listen to the radio on the way to a job we’d probably like to blow off. We’re bombarded with news from questionable sources day and night, 24/7, brought to you by . . . whomever.
The problem with the news is the root of the word itself: new. We wake up in the morning and wonder what’s new today. Traffic jams and Trump tweeting about no longer wanting short people in the Navy. They talk to us about Syria and Justin Bieber, the cost of gas and why Muslims are our enemies. As a rule these news stories are little more than headlines; any depth to them is lost on the cutting-room floor.
There’s nothing new. Christians and Muslims have been warring for nearly a thousand years. Laws have been flouted, misapplied, and forced down the throats of working women and men since before there was any record of wrongdoing. There’s nothing new. In the United States, so-called black men have been shot down every single day by scared so-called white men for well over four centuries. War, love, crime, derring-do, births, deaths, and innovation are part and parcel of humanity. These things aren’t new; they are not news. This is the same old shit. Suffering, poverty, hatred, and theft may wear different hats but the heads beneath those bonnets are the same.
Every once in a while, there’s a new disease or a cure for a new disease, but even then these viruses and bacteria have eons-long histories and therefore are the same old bugs with new hats, too.
Promulgating the idea of something new is the attempt by the media to engage, enrage, frighten, or relieve fright in the hearts of the people. If it’s new we have to know it, now. Our short attention span is captivated by the man on the soapbox who seems to be saying that he wants us all dead. And to glean this important rant, to know it we have to wade through the commercial first. News is the bait, cornflakes are the hook, and that’s pretty much it.
The third, and possibly most important, term we have to try and unravel is the concept of truth. Like all creatures, great and small, we believe in our senses and perceptions, instincts and memories. With experience we learn to question what we’re told and what we perceive but most of us would rather believe in simple truths, especially when they make us feel better about ourselves and our chances in this chancy world.
There’s a story behind every story and there’s not enough time for even the simplest event to be fleshed out completely.
The media and newscasters say they are bringing us objective reportage—the truth. A black man was shot down today, a missile was launched last night, we are citizens of the greatest country in the world. They show us proofs that seem unassailable: pictures, testimonies, charts and diagrams, and so many numbers that we have to relent.
I remember one Fourth of July, I was watching a local newscast. The friendly news anchor seemed to be looking me in the eye, but I knew, from personal experience, that he was actually looking at a monitor, reading the report that the producers needed him to tell me. He was reading/saying many things, but one struck me. He said that the price of gas was going up because of a military upheaval in Iraq. There was some kind of battle going on that affected global oil prices. I remember the moment so clearly because he sounded not only sincere but also matter-of-fact. “There’s a war. Prices go up during a war. We have to live with that,” he seemed to be saying.
I believe that he believed he was telling me the truth. I understood he didn’t have the leisure to consider the words he was parroting. Maybe, probably he didn’t even have the time to wonder why gas prices had gone up last July and also the July before that—and the one before that, too. He had to worry about makeup and moving to the space across the way to give the weather report in front of a blank green screen.
He was telling the truth as far he was concerned and I, and thousands of others, wanted to believe that truth because that meant we could believe in the news report, the oil companies, the US Army, and the patriotism exhibited by our fellow Americans bravely spending an extra 18¢ per gallon on one of the busiest holidays of the year—exhibiting our courage and patriotism.
The truth is a slippery eel.
The objective aspect of the media uses what it calls news to make its mark on us. It shows us wars and fires, dead bodies and first responders, cute dogs and children with cancer; the raw materials of humanity and the world we seem to be at war with. Rather than straightforward facts, the words and images we receive through the news are better seen as riddles, brainteasers, mysteries. There’s a story behind every story and there’s not enough time for even the simplest event to be fleshed out completely in the four-minute slot on TV or even the four-page article in the back pages of The New York Times.
We, individual human beings, will never know it all; that’s too much to expect. It is good enough to question what we are told as a matter of course; to say to ourselves, “I wonder what the rest of the story is. I wonder why the media wants me to see these assertions presented as fact. I wonder if my enemy knows something that neither I nor this monitor-reading hack is aware of.”
At this point, we are prepared to begin to tackle the truth, the truths, and both their mortal necessity and impossibility.
A rich, so-called white man might wonder why a poor, so-called black woman doesn’t send her kids somewhere where they are removed from crime and moral decay. The man doesn’t understand the woman’s political and economic limitations. This unspoken, maybe even unarticulated, criticism shows us that one man’s meat is another woman’s poison. Often we are faced with a set of values that only apply in certain situations. And so these partial truths might be at odds when we are so far removed from each other in experience that a world of possibilities is occluded from our sight.
And there we have the raw materials for the construction of a bridge between ignorance and something a little less uninformed. We see that the media itself is just a list of words and images brought to us by people who don’t want our understanding as much as they do our money. We have the news that is not new and often constructed as bait to make the sales more likely. And then we have the mirage of truth that calls to us like sirens on the rocks.
Rather than passive receptors accepting media images and news stories, we have to become thinkers who want the truth while knowing it will forever be illusive. A dead white woman slaughtered by the cops she called, a shackled black man who ran and was killed by a shot in the back, and an olive-skinned Arab, raised in Scandinavia, who strapped a bomb to his chest—now unrecognizable in the aftermath of hatred. We have to understand all of these deaths, the responses to these deaths, and (like Hannah Arendt) we must become philosophers seeking the deeper meaning rather than the comfortable opinions used by one side or the other to control our actions.
The business, institution, practice of, and blindness to reporting on race in the United States is, in the words of The Trump, “Fake News.” It is a sad moment in the history of free speech and the Fourth Estate when such crude words from a watered-down real estate mogul should ring as true as the Liberty Bell.
How far have we fallen when the only shreds of truth we are fed come from unsolicited smartphones across social media platforms that are closer to playground tall tales than any attempt at understanding our world. Yet the undoing of the press does not originate in the Oval Office.
The press, like much of America, has slowly given in to addiction; in this case the news media is strung out on money and its attendant institutions.
We saw it with O. J. Simpson from the moment he traveled down the freeway trying to escape the Eye of Scandal up until the judgment that divided a nation over the jury’s decision that race had blinded justice—as it had been doing for more than four centuries.
We see it with the new administration when daily, imbecilic tweets capture the imagination of a nation; a nation poisoned by fast food, unemployed by machines and international capitalism, undereducated via tax reform, and incited to blame one another based upon pigmentation, gender, national origin, and religion.
What we see is not news, never news. It’s what the Romans called Bread and Circuses. Throw a bunch of drugged-up, hapless slaves into an arena, arm them with tridents, nets, and clubs, and then give your citizens a crust of bread and a stone seat to watch the turmoil unfold.
None of these scenarios is news. They are moments of entertainment masquerading as information; they’re Trumped up issues designed to bring out bloodthirstiness on all sides; they are the lulls between the commercials that make us hungry, horny, happy, and in a hurry to spend money we’ll have to borrow from the bank.
How do we cure a system so totally putrefied, rotten to the core and wallowing like a six-hundred-pound pig in shit?
The business, institution, practice of, and blindness to reporting on race in the United States is, in the words of The Trump, “Fake News.”
I remember quite clearly the day my suspicions began. I had been asked by a friend campaigning for a candidate for the Senate to donate $2,000. It was a specific request from a good friend and I agreed. A month later that friend called me and asked if I could make it to the lunch on Friday.
“What lunch?” I asked.
“The 25 people I got to donate will have lunch with the candidate on Friday,” he replied.
And we did. We asked questions, made our opinions known. We had access well beyond the casting of a ballot. I wondered what kind of influence I might have for $100,000, 10 times that. It dawned on me for the first time that money made a difference on the holy ground of my most sacred right.
That’s a problem; a big problem. A real problem. My vote should be sacrosanct; not greater or lesser than any other citizen in the political arena.
But if I can buy political influence then what can big corporations demand when they don’t like the news reported or when the news isn’t spicy enough to sell their products? The problem is that our political systems, our media, country, and our freedoms are under the control of the wealthy and that, in turn, the wealthy have no choice but to use what power they have to turn a profit regardless of the effect on the denizens that populate this world.
The power of wealth doesn’t care about color. It doesn’t discern between black and white, brown and red and yellow. The corporate world is not really in the business of red states or blue ones. They cannot concern themselves with gender, age, talent, gang affiliation, or war. They use these tools to make money and retain control. In the end if a black woman makes money they use her against her sisters. If two million souls languishing in overpopulated prisons raise the stock-market share—then languish they shall. And if the media decides to take a stand, it better make sure that there’s more money to be made elsewhere.
We the people own the airwaves. It should be our first action to demand that every commercial station have a commercial-free news section and that the reporters, anchors, investigators, researchers, writers, and producers represent as wide a swath as possible of the different peoples of this country.
This last ask is a hard one. We need people who are committed to the attempt to represent truth and the point of view that has brought them to this position. Today we should be telling the powers that be that we are tired of the economic system they’re using to placate, subdue, and replace our rights. We may not get the whole truth but we can get a helluva lot closer.
TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Tiffany Baker