Nov. 4, 2009

The Idiot Monster and the News

Part 2 of a Three-Part Series
Part 1: The Politico Paradox -- Feeding the Media We Hate
Part 3: Free Speech vs. Right Speech (Coming soon)

By Douglas McGill

The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- That our news media is busted will come as no surprise to consumers of vanishing newspapers, shoutfest TV "news shows" and the unchecked political soapbox called the Internet.

But the devolution of our news media has now reached a point that is in some ways so extreme, and with the stakes for democracy so high, it seems useful to take stock.

Larger and larger swaths of the news media now embrace sensation and celebrity, harshly partisan rhetoric and gossip, rumors and lies to beat the competition and grab market share.


Trusted sources of information are fading into irrelevance as we race into a new golden age for anarchists, demagogues and online pamphleteers.

The Web, to be sure, puts masses of indisputably proven facts at our disposal. Yet millions of people remain stubbornly faithful to discredited nonsense, conspiracy theories and urban legends.

Sometimes it’s not the content but simply the overwhelming bulk of news being delivered every minute to our fingertips (our dazed mindtips!) that grates. We can sicken on a sheer surplus of words, including well-intentioned ones.

The Abyss

Artists and writers saw the dangers of a dysfunctional mass media and news media long ago. But they also saw something else, which was a deep misunderstanding of the mass media itself.

They’ve often used metaphors depicting an idiot monster that’s simply too big and shape-shifting for logic and reason to spot.

For George Saunders the dysfunctional news media is “The Brain Dead Megaphone;” for John Cheever “The Enormous Radio;” for Jonathan Schell “The Uncertain Leviathan;” for Jeffrey Scheuer “The Sound Bite Society;” for Larry Beinhart “The Fog of Facts;” for Tony Schwartz “The Second God;” and for the jazzy word artist and media critic John Durham Peter’s it’s simply “The Abyss.”

But literary metaphors aside, what clear definitions and categories can we rely upon now that our news media is failing so badly in its mission to inform democratic society, and to model modes of conversation that create community and hasten social healing?

Gossipy Tidbits

Take three recent examples:

  • Two highly-skilled, well-respected Washington Post political reporters start an online web site devoted to covering inside-the-beltway news. Instead of raising the level of online journalism the web site,, largely sinks to the blogosphere’s standards, touting stories about the sartorial habits of presidential candidates, hyping gossipy tidbits, and relying heavily on unnamed operatives, aides, and “sources close to the administration.”
  • If any two facts of current and critical public importance qualify as being indisputably proven, they are the safety (if not the absolute efficacy) of the H1N1 vaccine, and where President Obama was born. Yet despite widespread dissemination of the facts and figures establishing both of these facts, millions of people believe that the H1N1 vaccine is deadly, and that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore is unqualified to be the U.S. president.
  • The host of a popular TV “public affairs” show, ranting about the U.S. president, douses an actor with liquid from a fake gasoline can and lights a match while shouting bug-eyed: “President Obama, why don’t you just set us on fire?” Later five teenage boys in Florida pour rubbing alcohol on another boy and light him on fire. No definitive link is made connecting the one incident to the other, yet what does your gut say? How is what this host performed on TV different from a cross burning carried out in a front yard?

Free speech doctrine, that cornerstone of our constitution and our journalism, says it’s our solemn and patriotic duty to suck it up, to grit our teeth and stomach whatever garbage comes along to safeguard everyone’s freedom.

But what happens when the news media itself — by distorting facts and dividing community — becomes a potential threat to public health, national safety, and to the very workings of democracy?

What's our best response then?


A promising answer to that question is taking shape today in the work of a new breed of brain scientists who are studying the influence of emotions, instincts and other innate human traits on human reasoning and moral decision-making.

That’s significant because so many of our assumptions about how the news media works in a democracy are based on the premise of rational actors, i.e. the assumption that citizens act on the news primarily in a rational manner by sorting fact from fiction, weighing certain facts against other ones, and so on.

But what if reason is not the main cognitive mode by which citizens read, watch and act on the news? This possibility was flagged by the journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann in the 1920s and has been a theme of media criticism ever since.

And it’s mostly led to the depressing solution, embraced by Lippmann and many others, that basically journalism must act like propaganda, by distilling complex ideas into digestible symbols that manipulate more than inform.

That doesn’t sound like democracy. Yet until recently, no more promising answer has been found on which both producers and consumers of the news could depend.

Emotion and Reason

Now, though, such an answer is taking shape in the work of these scientists who are objectively demonstrating how the true source of human wisdom is not pure reason, as in the Enlightenment view. Rather, it is rooted in an organic mind-body process in which genetics and morality, brain structure and subjective feeling, reason and emotion are enmeshed every moment in a never-ending dance.

Using technological devices capable of measuring the brain at incomparably closer levels than before, these scientists are demonstrating how decision-making and moral actions are not primarily the product of reasoning, but rather are largely emotion-based and hard-wired into the human genome.

The developmental psychologist Jonathan Haidt can predict if a person is liberal or conservative based on a few inherent and measurable personality traits such as “openness to new experience.”

The psychologist Drew Westen has proven how neuronal networks that stimulate strong emotions are expertly activated by political wordsmiths on the left and right. The cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman uses MRI techniques to show how human brains change in predictable ways when  their owners, across cultures, are persuaded by arguments in text and video form.

Ethical Guidelines

In terms of the news media, the promise of this new research is to make us more aware, as both producers and consumers of media, of what is actually transpiring in our minds and bodies when we make and consume the news, and act thereupon.

As a result of this research, a substantially new model will replace the “rational actor” model because reason, we are finding out, is not as pure as we thought it was. As we learn more about the real picture, which is based more on genetics and emotions than the old one, we’ll become more able to use it to our advantage.

In other words, these new findings highlight the need for a new decision-making template in democracies. They make clear the need, especially, for new ethical guidelines by which both individuals and society at large can make decisions that are rational and moral.

In the past, moral decision-making has generally meant recourse to an analytical framework such as those offered by Aristotle’s “virtue ethics,” Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” or John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number.”

Intricate Dance

Besides being too complex and bookish for popular adoption, these ethical answer-machines all work mechanically: complex real-world conditions in, tidy morality out.

But what if, as the new neuroscientists are saying, morality works more like a subtle and intricate dance than a crank-turned machine?

What if the great swirl of emotions plays the primary role in moral decision-making? That’s where a new ethical approach is needed when it comes to the realm of the news media, for both producers and consumers. I can suggest one.

It’s not new, actually, but its application to modern-day conditions certainly would be. It’s the “Right Speech” ethic of the 5th century BC spiritual teacher and moral teacher Siddhartha Guatama, popularly known as the Buddha.


The Right Speech doctrine has much to commend it for application to our mass media and news media issues, I think.

Perhaps its very first qualification is how seamlessly it complements the findings of the new neuroscientists. As the Buddha himself preached not a religion but rather a practical psychology – centering on a meditation practice designed to reveal to each person the true workings of their own minds – Right Speech totally complements any scientific approach.

By the same token, its lack of political origin likewise commends Right Speech to contemporary application as, theoretically at least, its political neutrality would allow it to sidestep the distraction of political debates. The Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ethical systems – of Kant, Mill, Rawls, etc. – can’t avoid those problems as our present free speech tradition, which largely guides ethical decision-making in the news media, is thoroughly grounded in political liberalism.

But what exactly is the Right Speech ethic? What does it say is “right speech”?

You could write down the Right Speech ethic on a matchbook cover.

Boiled down, it defines ethical speech in four ways, each way having a positive and a negative phrasing. The positive way defines the qualities that each speech act ideally will have; with the negative way defining types of speech to avoid.

Right Speech

The best-known Right Speech formulation offers four types of speech to avoid including speech that is 1) lying, 2) divisive, 3) hurtful, or 4) idle. Phrased positively, ethical speech is thus 1) true, 2) healing, 3) gentle, and 4) useful.

The timeliness of ethical speech is also greatly stressed. The Buddha many times reminded his monks that if delivered at the wrong moment even an absolutely true and useful statement can be divisive and hurtful. In addition, the intention behind every speech act is always determinative. Thus, a lie spoken with a genuine intention to heal, and in the genuine belief that it would cause the least amount of harm in a given situation, would be acceptable in the Right Speech code.

That’s about it. Beyond this core, though, exists a rich literature of parables, stories and commentaries on Right Speech that clarifies its meaning, describes its relation to underlying Buddhist psychology, and provides countless examples of skillful and unskillful daily life applications of the Right Speech ethic in personal, family, governmental and even political settings (6th century BCE Indian politics, that is).

At least three notable traits of the news media today also suggest the ready adaptability of the Right Speech ethic to contemporary conditions.

Speech Consumption

First is how the Internet has empowered millions of people to become not only consumers but also producers of news via personal blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, cell phone photography, etc. Their dispatches may on most days be read or viewed by only a handful, but on other days they may get the attention of millions. More people than ever, ordinary citizens as well as news professionals thus need today to seriously consider issues of journalism ethics.

Second, any adequate speech ethic today must be equally adaptable to consumers of public speech, as well as its producers. There is increasing understanding that language, like food, is absorbed with both potential benefits and potentially serious harm ensuing to its consumers. Therefore, an ethic of speech consumption, similar perhaps to diets and nutrition regimes for food, is needed and which the Right Speech ethic provides.

Third, of all the challenges presented by today’s dysfunctional news media, the most serious perhaps are the deep social divisions that it creates, exacerbates and sustains. The increasing partisanship and rancorous tone of the national public dialog calls out for a speech ethic that explicitly addresses that problem and offers ready avenues for redress, which the Buddhist Right Speech ethic does.

Free Speech vs. Right Speech

How much would newspapers, TV news shows and the blogosphere be transformed if only these four injunctions – to avoid lies, harsh speech, divisive and idle speech — were honored? And if the urge to go to press or to air was  delayed until to the moment of maximum helpfulness and healing?

It’s perhaps a useful thought experiment, anyway.

Here’s another one, from a short discourse the Buddha used to remind his followers that words, so seemingly weightless and ephemeral, can actually be lethal:

 "Every person who is born
  is born with an axe in his mouth.
  A fool who uses abusive language
  cuts himself and others with that axe. "

One huge obstacle, though, blocks Right Speech from being widely adopted as an ethical touchstone in western democracies and their news medias.

That is the idea that “Right Speech” and “Free Speech” are in conflict.

Next week, I’ll explain why they’re not.

Copyright @ 2009 The McGill Report