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Friday, August 24, 2007

Sifting history - part 1

In an effort to save some of my older posts from Cabal that seem to have disappeared from the available archive I am going to post them here.
This post is a reflection on my annoyance with sound-bites in the media; for context it should be remembered that I was living in the States at the time:

Soundbites -are we or the media idiots? - first posted to Cabal on 12/5/2004

JD's recent entry "Only Mildly Coherent Ramblings" got me to thinking. Specifically when the comments that followed started discussing the use of the term 'unilateral' in reference to the US-led coalition's war in Iraq. The Democrats use this word to describe the fact that the US has the vast majority of forces in place and that the war was initiated in defiance of the UN. True enough but the use of 'unilateral' is just plain wrong - other countries supported the US and sent both troops and logistical support making it far from a unilateral action. Are the Dems trying to make us forget that other countries supported the US? Possibly, I suppose, but I think it is a strategy that is doomed to failure unless they believe that the vast majority of the population of the US has the intelligence of a deranged squirrel. Perhaps in my naiveté I think that they use this term as a shorthand to get their message across, but its still wrong.

So why use it? I think the answer is simple: the politicians and media in America (and also in other parts of the world) think that people will only respond to sound bites. They have to keep their ramblings as short as possible for the thought to stay in the average American's head. It has become a pervasive part of our culture with politicians making statements with only a tenuous link to the truth not just because they are politicians and they lie anyway, but because they feel they have to reduce their argument into as small a phrase as possible. And if it bends the truth, or has to be qualified in some way later, then it is all to the greater good.

Perhaps the reliance on sound bites is an indicator of how the media and politicians really think of us. Perhaps they really do believe that on the whole we are stupid and cannot hold a complex thought in our heads. That can be the only explanation for the rise of sound bites and the accompanying, intrinsic spin. So where does the fault lie? Which came first the chicken or the egg? Did we all become so dumb that we cannot handle the truth except in bite-sized, easily digestible packages? Or has something else spurred this cultural development? Is it the politicians knowing that if we understood the whole argument then many of us would never vote again and would instead find that deserted island we keep dreaming about? Is it the media? Have they created a climate where a politician is scared to speak his/her mind fully in case it is cherry picked to create 'news'?

Or is it something else? Perhaps there is something else in our culture that truly has reduced our attention span and made it so that we need the media to help us think rather than hearing the facts and then making our own minds up. Maybe we are all deranged squirrels, but what could have caused it? Maybe the incessant interruptions of our news feeds (and entertainment) with adverts that have conditioned us to get a message in 30 seconds or less. Maybe now we (and our children) have the attention spans of fruit flies. Perhaps the politicians are scared to speak for too long in case the advert break interrupts them and have adjusted accordingly. Maybe it all goes back further than I think, but is there a way to reverse this trend? Also, could it be that we are in a feedback loop? The politicians think we can only handle a simple thought and so use sound bites. They look at the fact that they are forced to use sound bites and figure that the people must be dumb. Consequently their opinion of us also decreases and they think they can really say anything they want without being called on it too vigorously - and this appears to be true, they claim that they are being misunderstood, or that they misspoke. How are we supposed to be able to tell whether this is true or not? We have to take it at face value and so the politicians keep doing it until they tell such a whopper that they can no longer defend it, but by then how much damage might be done?

I think that it is time that politicians of all stripes put aside the sound bites and spin and started telling us the whole truth. Let us have honest debate rather than 'gotcha's'. Instead of pandering to a perceived notion of what America can understand and deal with, let us raise the bar and treat the people with some respect for a change. Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer that people can be a lot dumber than we give them credit for but that is no excuse to treat them as such, else how will standards rise?

Oh and by the way, I think the Whitehouse should sack Scott McClellan. I haven't seen a press secretary who looked so dishonest when speaking. I have the impression that whenever he opens his mouth he is lying. That may not be the case but boy it sure looks that way.

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to be completely inconsistent in my views depending on controlling factors such as: amount of work, caffeine, alcohol or even the weather :)

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