Media and Public Opinion

Everything is based on perception. In turn, perception is shaped by the senses. What is impressed upon a person’s senses shapes their ideas. According to the empirical tradition within Western philosophy and science, people do not inherently carry ideas. This view stands in stark contrast to the idealist philosophical tradition that largely began with Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Empiricists argue that ideas are derived from what is impressed upon a person’s senses. How effective impressions are in shaping one’s ideas is contingent upon the “force” and “vivacity” of the impressions, as suggested by David Hume.

Because ideas are not something innate, they are subject to fluctuation and change. Beliefs are also shaped by ideas, and in turn ideas are shaped by what is impressed upon a person’s senses. Thus, both beliefs and ideas are subject to change, depending on what is impressed upon the individual’s senses. As David Hume wrote in “A Treatise of Human Nature”: “’Tis difficult for the mind, when actuated by any passion, to confine itself to that passion alone, without any change or variation. Human nature is too inconstant to admit of any such regularity. Changeableness is essential to it.” Hume’s epistemological views stand in contrast to those of “a priorists” such as Descartes, who argued that education is the means by which innate ideas are brought out. Hume’s epistemological views also differ from those of Kant, who argued that reason is a combination of innate ideas and sensory experience.

In the American thought tradition, John Dewey echoed Hume’s empiricist line by arguing that the senses are a “mysterious conduit through which information is conducted from the external world into the mind; they are spoken of as gateways and avenues of knowledge.” Dewey echoed Hume even further by stating: “Judgment is employed in the perception; otherwise the perception is mere sensory excitation or else a recognition of the result of a priori judgement, as in the case of familiar objects.” Judgment and thus opinion translate into not only a decision on certain circumstances and facts that are impressed upon an individual’s senses, but these things are also the result of an inborn ability to interpret circumstances and facts, as suggested by Dewey. There are thus good judges and bad judges of circumstances and facts. Judgment and opinion thus equate to an art that perhaps very few individuals possess.

Within a broader social context, the question of whether the elites or the public are better judges of world affairs was the subject of the famous “Lippmann-Dewey Debate” of the 1920’s in the United States. Along with Walter Lippmann, Dewey played an important role in shaping the debate around whether the information emanating from the media and journalists was better processed by the elites or by the masses in American society. Dewey was of the opinion that the public was capable of not only understanding world affairs as conveyed by the media and journalists, but also the public was capable of inferring proper judgments and opinions about the global issues being discussed by the media and journalists.

Lippmann, on the other hand, believed that ordinary citizens could not process and understand all the information about world affairs that is conveyed through the media and journalists. Thus, Lippmann argued that decision-making on world affairs should ultimately rest with elite administrators and decision-makers. Lippmann’s view dominated the discourse regarding media and public opinion in the United States for a very long time. Arguably, what was central to the “Lippmann-Dewey Debate” was the notion that media and journalism play a fundamental role in determining the nature of American democracy. Media and journalists are not merely inanimate conveyors of information. Rather, the media and journalists are important actors in the course of the overall evolution of American democracy.

            As Hunter S. Thompson once insinuated, journalism and politics are intertwined, given that journalism is a tool that can be used to affect political situations that bear down on one’s environment. In addition to getting straight to the point, straightforward journalism often prompts much-needed change in a country’s customs and laws. In a nutshell, democracy and the will of the people hinges on both freedom of speech and the quality of education and information the public receives and digests. As Walter Lippmann wrote, the media and journalists are supposed to be “protecting for the public interest that which all the special interests in the world are most anxious to corrupt.” Plato argued that individuals are subordinated to the social whole, and one’s education and knowledge determines what one can contribute to the social whole. Thus, the media and journalists are both educators and “chief socializers” of the broader public. In fact, the mainstream media is the main source of information regarding world affairs for perhaps the majority of Americans.

            But by design, education and socialization in modern-day America intends on creating what Daniel Markovits called a “Meritocracy Trap” which in turn fosters a “master class” on one hand, and a servant class on the other hand through an emphasis on specialization rather than generalization, and the media undoubtedly plays a role in the crystallization of this class division through “infotainment.” As a result, public opinion and social media often act as alternatives to the narratives and information being put out by mainstream media.

Yet, the true aim of education is to enable the lifelong mental and spiritual growth of the individual, not the subjugation of the individual to a particular social class. Lifelong education – which in turn enables lifelong mental and spiritual growth – is known to the Germans as Bildüng and is thus encapsulated by a single word in the German language. If the media and journalists do not provide information that enables the mental and spiritual growth of the broader public – which is the true aim of education and socialization – and instead the media acts as the main progenitor of anxiety and cognitive dissonance, then perhaps the aims and motives of the media and journalists are questionable and suspect.

From the outset, the media and journalists can take one of three routes. For one, the media and journalists can opt to singly espouse the interests of the elite and dumb down the public. Second, the media and journalists can singly espouse the interests of regular people and educate them in an enlightening and objective manner on world affairs. Or, the media and journalists can balance elite and popular interests. It is the third route, namely, the balancing of elite and popular interests, which can perhaps sustain American democracy in the long run. How the mainstream media decides to connect with the broader American public will perhaps be shaped by two novel factors shaping the media landscape virtually everywhere.

Dan Pfeiffer, who was Barack Obama’s White House Communications Director, pointed out that the rise of “Fake News,” misinformation, and toxicity on one hand, along with the fragmentation of the media landscape due to social media and the internet on the other hand, means that no single individual or group can monopolize the output of narratives and information as was done in the run-up to the disastrous 2003 Iraq War, which in turn discredited and delegitimized the mainstream media. Iraq was essentially the neutral buffer between Israel and the West on one hand, and Iran, Russia, and China on the other hand. With the dismantling of Iraq by the United States, the tide – or the ‘balance of power’ – is slowly turning in favor of Iran, Russia, and China in international politics and relations, but not fully as of yet.

In a nutshell, many people are searching for quality journalism and the truth, and they now know they cannot get it from America’s mainstream media. While claiming to challenge the powers that be, many outlets in the mainstream media are in cahoots with these aforementioned powers as evinced by the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Thus, the global media landscape is becoming “democratic” in the truest sense of the word, despite the downside of toxicity and misinformation that comes with this form of democratization. These alternative sources of information which stand in contrast to the mainstream media are also chipping away at people’s hardened assumptions, beliefs, and stereotypes about the world, which in turn causes a certain degree of confusion and social upheaval, given that many people do not have the knowledge required for wielding beliefs and opinions in a confident manner. Whereas the mainstream media constantly projects “doom and gloom,” alternative sources around the world are trying to shape an objective outlook that is durable and can withstand the vicissitudes of change and time by combing through high-quality information from high-quality sources.

But there are perhaps deeper causes or sources for the rise of toxicity, misinformation, and social upheaval in the public sphere of the 21st century that are often overlooked, given that toxicity and misinformation have been an integral part of the media culture as evinced by the advent of “muckraking,” “yellow journalism,” and the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. There are essentially two schools of thought as to what is causing the erosion of democratic norms and thus the social turmoil in a number of societies around the globe, including the United States. For one, there is the idea that rapid changes in technology and the internet are blurring reality, causing economic displacement, and thus spurring social turmoil. Also, there are those who attribute social turmoil to a severe disconnect between the political class and regular people in many societies.

There is truth to both arguments, but perhaps there is more credence attached to the latter argument and school of thought which pertains to the class divide between the political class and the people. Eventually, “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) and technology may become an independent force which supersedes the class divide in shaping our global reality. At the moment, however, AI and technology are being used as instruments to exacerbate the social gap between a corrupt bureaucracy and corrupt political class on one hand, and regular people on the other hand.

As a species, we have not yet reached that stage of economic and social evolution whereby AI and technology determine social reality. For now, the priority should be bridging the gap between the political class and regular people through clear-eyed measures such as the establishment of a social safety net for regular people, which would set the foundation for broader reforms. One must ask why the bureaucracy and the political class consisting primarily of Congress get juicy lifelong benefits paid for by the taxpayer while the taxpayer and regular working-class people have to fend for themselves. By addressing this question, we can perhaps mitigate widespread anxiety and cognitive dissonance, which in turn would mitigate the toxicity that exists in the public sphere. What are seemingly complex problems actually come with simple solutions.

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